The theme of Arrowsmith is devotion to work as typified by Martin’s absorption in pure science.The plot of Arrowsmith, though somewhat rambling, is the best organized of all the Lewis novels. S. N. Grebstein, in Sinclair Lewis (1962), comments that the book’s narrative component is superior to that of Main Street and Babbitt because the story moves beyond conflicts and centers upon the doctor’s war with death. “This grappling with the universal is a rare thing in his [Lewis’] work,” according to Professor Grebstein, and “Arrowsmith demonstrates more of Lewis the philosopher than any other novel.”Arrowsmith is divided into forty chapters, each subdivided into shorter sections headed by roman numerals. The book is therefore well adapted for “pick-up” reading since each short unit is complete in itself, at the same time advancing the action and illuminating the background of the novel as a whole. In structure, the book contains eight principal episodes:
1. Martin’s training as a physician-scientist and his marriage to Leora (Chapters I–XI)
2. His experiences as a country doctor in Wheatsylvania (Chapters XII–XXVIII)
3. The years in Nautilus (Chapters XIX–XXIV)
4. Experience in Rouncefield Clinic (Chapter XXV)
5. With McGurk Institute, in New York (Chapters XXVI–XXX)
6. The West Indian adventure (Chapters XXXI–XXXV)
7. Return to New York and marriage to Joyce (Chapters XXXVI–XXXIX)
8. Decision to join Wickett in Vermont (Chapter XL)

Each major episode is almost a complete story in itself although linked to the whole by the growth and development of the central character. Other characters are important as their lives are intertwined with his. Suspense is maintained throughout the novel, but the ending is rather a letdown after the excitement of the fight against disease in the West Indies.


The story is told in the third person, the central figure being Martin Arrowsmith, though Gottlieb occasionally takes the center of the stage. The narrative moves for the most part in a straight line chronologically, with few flashbacks but many changes of scene. The characters are the most lifelike that Lewis ever created, especially Martin, Gottlieb, and Leora. The Nobel Prize was awarded because Lewis was “significantly and typically American in his vision, humor, and creation of typical characters.” Sometimes the humor of Arrowsmith is off-beat, like the macabre pranks played by the medical students on their classmates and others.

Most of the characters introduced early in the book reappear or are at least referred to years later, lending unity to the plot. Examples are the members of Digamma Pi, the Tozers, and Pickerbaugh. Character development and growth are apparent especially in Arrowsmith and Wickett, whose traits are deepened and emphasized with the passing years. In like manner, Clawson and Hinkley degenerate as they grow more mature. There is little change in Leora or Gottlieb. Romantic love is subordinated to quest for truth. Various social strata are introduced and satirized, from the shoddy farm and village characters of Wheatsylvania to the Rolls-Royce set of New York City. Singled out for special criticism is the Nautilus group, especially the Pickerbaugh family and Irving Watters.

Lewis’ style, though not of highest literary quality, is yet vivid and readable. He has a tendency toward long sentences, probably in part a result of his wide reading of the nineteenth-century English and American novelists. Dorothy Thompson praised his use of verbs. She also commented that he put far more of himself into Arrowsmith than any other book. Lewis uses dialogue sparingly and background liberally, with figures of speech which make his sentences more graphic. The device of breaking each chapter into several divisions keeps the material from becoming too involved and stimulates reader interest.

The setting of Arrowsmith is American, except for the plague episode in British territory, the West Indies. From Elk Mills to Winnemac, from Zenith to Wheatsylvania, from Nautilus to New York, the scene shifts, each time portraying accurately and realistically a certain phase of life in the United States. Words that appeal to the senses--words of color, sound, shape, and motion, and even smell and taste--are used to make the effect more vivid.


Satire holds persons, modes of living, or institutions up to ridicule with the intention of making people laugh so that a change or reform can be brought about. Arrowsmith is full of satire of the various strata of society familiar to Sinclair Lewis. Always a radical, always probing the wound instead of applying the plaster, he holds up to ridicule the social climbing, the dollar chasing, and the dishonest motives behind many so-called success stories of the first half of the twentieth century. Each group of characters is subjected to criticism: the students and faculty of Winnemac; the crossgrained and penny-pinching Tozers; the impossible Pickerbaugh family and Irving Watters; the sham and pretense behind the Hunziker procedures; and the hollowness and jealousy among most of the higher-ups at McGurk. Only a few characters, notably Gottlieb and Leora, escape this scathing scrutiny. Even Martin receives a little of it.

The background comes in for its share of analysis. Wheatsylvania, surrounded by a beautiful landscape, is a sore spot on the map. The West Indies, for all their exotic setting, are the scene of death and destruction, with plague-ridden rats peeking from beneath the cargoes being landed on the dock. Hunziker Pharmaceutical Company carries on illicit moneymaking on the side, though outwardly progressive and humanitarian. So pointed was Lewis’ criticism that, like Dickens, he sometimes attracted public attention to existing evils.


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Arrowsmith: Notes
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page 1
  • Life and Background of the Author 2
  • Introduction to the Novel 4
  • A Brief Synopsis 6
  • List of Characters 7
  • Critical Commentaries 9
  • Character Analyses 37
  • Critical Essays 41
  • Essay Topics and Review Questions 43
  • Selected Bibliography 44


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