Arrowsmith, a 1925 satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis, offers readers a lens into the ethical, professional, and personal dilemmas in a medical career during the 1920s
Human beings will never experience the precise moment when they fall asleep. The transition is seamless, elusive. Before anyone can realize, he or she enters the realm of dreams. A similar process occurs when a reader consumes literature—without conscious recognition, one can slip into a story.
As a reader, I know that not all books have this ability. This is exactly why I was skeptical when, three years ago, my mentor and former English teacher handed me a plain-looking, seemingly cryptic book and said, “If you’re going into medicine…you better read this!” That book was none other than Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis. Despite my initial doubt, I could never imagine how pivotal the novel would be to my understanding of medicine.
Arrowsmith, a 1925 satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis, offers readers a lens into the ethical, professional, and personal dilemmas in a medical career during the 1920s. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1926 and famously refuting the honor, Lewis explores the imperfections of the medical world without hesitation nor fear. The often generalized illustriousness of medical careers is broken down in Arrowsmith, as the reader follows the idealistic protagonist Dr. Martin Arrowsmith as he moves into the echelons of medicine, research, and bacteriology (a blooming discipline at the time).
Intense, squabbling emotions of Arrowsmith
Perhaps the most striking property that the novel showcases is its medley of intense, squabbling emotions. Martin’s unyielding desire to emulate his mentor Dr. Gottlieb, his obsessiveness, his heartfelt commitment to helping patients, and his personal love for his wife, who serves as his sole anchor, all weave together seamlessly. Lewis does a fantastic job in presenting the real-life pressures of medical careers through satirical measures. Martin’s constant anxiety and devastation upon releasing his research later than a rival scientist mirrors the true competitive nature of publications in academia as well as mocks the human quest for glory. Martin’s struggle to maintain his health as he spends hours, turned to whole days, in his lab for the sake of his career. His love and passion for Leora, his first wife, strained by his inability to be by her side. In every direction Lewis captures a rich flurry of thoughts and emotions while also mimicking Dr. Arrowsmith’s
Sinclair Lewis reveals the veracity of a true scientist, modeled by Dr. Martin Arrowsmith, while labeling the life of a scientist as a “religion” in and of itself, rather than a simple lifestyle. Yet like any “religion,” there lies faults alongside ideals, hysteria alongside morality.
The experiences revolving around unethical research and treatments, irresponsible medical practice, and the constant contact with Death leaves both Martin and the reader dizzy and overwhelmed. Often times in the novel, Lewis combines irony and metaphor, creating literary interplays that make Martin’s journey all the more striking. Perhaps the most notable scene being the painful death of Leora, who unknowingly contracts the bubonic plague in an attempt to connect to her husband. Martin, helpless and unable to save her, must deal with loss and guilt while readers realize that even as a doctor, he could not conquer mortality.
As a student hoping to enter the medical field one day, I found the implications found inside Arrowsmith to be crucial reality strikes. However, all readers will find that Arrowsmith forces them to question the true nature of medicine, which has always been a largely human-based field. More so than other professions, medicine can be judged solely by its “positive” results—money, fame, intellectualism, a model lifestyle. Lewis struck down these walls of false impressions. Lewis masterfully manipulated complex issues such as compulsion, integrity, and glory while exploring broad themes like self-isolation, tragedy, and identity based on achievement. The synergy between these elements compels readers to progress through the novel, anxious for more.
Arrowsmith is undoubtedly an iconic piece of science writing. Lewis’ social commentary not only reveals the problems plaguing the medical sphere of the 1920s but also holds important truths in modern day. Though Sinclair Lewis creates profound layers of meaning, at the core of the novel lies a familiar concept: humane ideals corrupted by human nature. Even within the medical profession, dedicated to healing and recovery, there exists darkness and tragedy due to human flaws. What is most important is that we are aware of this reality. As Dr. Howard Markel, a History of Medicine professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in his article for PBS, “Perhaps “Dr. Lewis” might help restore some health to the ailing, and yet miraculous, enterprise we call American medicine.”