Arrowsmith (Review)

Labels: Great Works


Sinclair Lewis, 1925
pp. 480

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
November 2010

Sinclair Lewis is best known for Babbitt, a novel that earned him a fortune and inspired a new word in the English language: "babbitt"—someone entirely conventional, self-satisfied, and materialistic.

But it was Arrowsmith that earned Lewis the Pulitizer Prize. Though written in plain, unadorned prose (Lewis is no great sytlist), it's an ambitious story—a near-epic that traces the development of a young doctor bursting with idealism. And like all epic heroes, ours falls prey to despair and temptation, occasionally veering off into the wilderness.

We follow Martin Arrowsmith from medical school through various incarnations (country doctor, public health official, medical researcher) each time exposing the commercialism and corrupt values of medicine. It's all about money—making it, keeping it.

Lewis has an eye for the absurd. His characters, often types, are wonderfully drawn. Here's professor Roscoe Geake as he leaves teaching to take a high-paying corporate job: the title of his farewell address—"The Art and Science of Furnishing the Doctor's Office.

But, gentlemen...! Have your potted palms and handsome necessary a part of [every practical physician's] working equipment as a sterilizer...and think of the color-schemes you can evolve...! Rich golden or red cushions, in a Morris chair enameled in the purest white! A floor-covering of white enamel, with just a border of delicate rose...[and] expensive magazines, with art covers, lying on a white table! Gentlemen, there is the idea of imaginative salesmanship which I wish to leave with you; there is the gospel which I hope to spread

Martin is a handsome fellow, some call him "romantic," and women come and go. But his great love, Leora, is the one who understands and encourages his pursuit of pure medicine—she must be one of the most delightful female characters ever written (though women in Lewis's story are helpmates, never equals). Yet in the end, like all epic heroes, Martin must find his own way—and seek his own truth.

Arrowsmith is a terrific story. Book clubs will enjoy talking about the strengths and foibles of Martin Arrowsmith, as well as the practice of medicine—how much has changed over the previous 100 years...and how much remains the same.

See our Reading Guide for Arrowsmith.


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