Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Title: Arrowsmith
Author: Sinclair Lewis
Genre: Classic, award-winner, medical
Published: 1925
Read for: Battle of the Prizes, American Version and Back to the Classics Challenge 2011
Source: Personal copy

Martin Arrowsmith was introduced to medicine at an early age as he worked as an assistant to a small-town doctor. He decides to become a doctor, but while he is in medical school, he falls in love with research. Torn between his need to provide for his family and his love for pure science, Arrowsmith goes through several occupations and circumstances in his life before coming to a place where he can immerse himself in knowledge.

In a previous life I was a neuroscience major, and my hero was Dr. Dawson Hedges, who taught my introductory psychology class and my behavioral neuroscience class. He is hilarious and also happens to know everything. Anyway, he mentioned this book in passing one day in class, I scribbled it down, and when I discovered it won a Pulitzer, I knew it would be a winning choice for me (I've yet to fail with a Pulitzer. I know it will happen sooner or later and my faith in the prize will be dashed to smithereens and I won't know where to turn for a fantastic book. But until then...). I was correct -- Arrowsmith was a perfect read for my medical, science-nerd side, and was written well enough to satisfy my lovely-language-loving side.

I have recently made the acquaintance of the term bildungsroman. I am unsure of the translation (and yes, I know I can google it) but essentially, it is a book about the development of a person. I have also come to realize this is my favorite type of book. Perhaps it is because I am in my twenties and am still trying to figure out my future (sure, I'm married and have gone to college (twice) but there are still many, many uncertain things), but books that slowly unravel a person's mishaps and victories on the path to self-dom tend to reach me more personally than any others. And Arrowsmith definitely goes through many changes. He was so very human and fallible, constantly hurting people accidentally, changing his mind about his occupation (general doctor? public health administrator? lab rat?), and falling in and out of love. I have changed my major extensively and am certainly susceptible to making all variations of dumb mistakes, as I think most people are, so this reverberated with me. At times I would cringe at Arrowsmith's choices, and at times I didn't like him as a character. However, I saw in him myself and others that I know. And while Arrowsmith didn't necessarily follow the path I would have chosen for him, he found what made him happy and fulfilled, despite the many missteps along the way.

I also loved all of the medical references. This book was written nearly 100 years ago, but many of the issues it presents are still relevant to medicine today. Do we overprotect in matters of public health? Are scientific discoveries of any worth if they can't be applied directly to health? Do we wait to prove those discoveries through properly controlled and randomized trials, or is it unethical to withhold a treatment we think might help? These are issues I think about on a daily basis, and although people who aren't involved in medical occupations and studies may not think about them as frequently, they certainly apply to all of us, especially in light of recent changes in litigation.

Another part of the novel that fascinated me was Arrowsmith's relationship with  Leora. Granted, I know that she is a detriment to feminism. Malleable and submissive and at times mistreated by Arrowsmith (generally through idiocy rather than genuine malice on his part), she certainly isn't a good role model or a strong woman. And their relationship wasn't perfect, either -- she supports him too much, while supports her too little. However, there was something about their love for each other, despite the differences and the foolish mistakes and the inequality, that was touching. They are so close to each other that at times they seem to blend together. This isn't a popular concept in our modern day and age -- we are all about asserting ourselves and having our own identities and preserving our sense of self no matter how many children we have or who we are in relationships with -- but to me, there is still something romantic about it. I think I believe that real love means a willingness to give everything to each other -- but hopefully, being with someone who respects you enough to keep you yourself. I am now getting off topic and waxing philosophical.

So, in brief, Arrowsmith is a fantastic and complex book. Whether or not you have a particular interest in the medical world, I think it has a lot of offer. The Pulitzers have yet to let me down.

4 stars

Warnings: I honestly can't remember. It's probably rated PG? I don't remember anything appallingly offensive, but there is probably something in there that would offend someone sensitive.

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