63 pages 2 hours read

Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner

The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1873

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Summary and Study Guide


The Gilded Age, by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, is a satirical work of fiction originally published in 1873. Notable for being the only novel Twain co-authored with a collaborator, The Gilded Age satirizes greed and corruption in America’s post–Civil War era. Mark Twain, best known for his celebrated classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was a pioneer in American literary Realism and vernacular writing. Charles Dudley Warner was a writer, editor, and close friend of Twain.

Written in the wake of the Civil War, The Gilded Age lampoons the racism, sexism, and unchecked avarice of the Antebellum South alongside the corruption of the federal government in Washington, DC. The book’s title, a play on the idea of a golden age, refers to the process of gilding—covering non-precious metals or other materials with a thin, cosmetic layer of gold. This metaphor for the era’s illusory promise of wealth, disguising an economy of fraud and exploitation, gave the era its nickname. The historical period in the US from approximately 1870 to 1900 is now referred to as the Gilded Age.

This guide refers to an e-book edition of the text published in 2014 by Xist Publishing. Pagination may differ from print versions.

Content Warning: The source text features slurs and racial epithets.

Plot Summary

The Gilded Age begins in the mid-19th century in Tennessee. Silas Hawkins is the patriarch of a poor Southern family. Despite having followed his charismatic friend Beriah Sellers into numerous speculative ventures, each failing to produce the promised riches, Silas hasn’t lost confidence in his friend or in his family’s future prosperity. Silas’s purchase of 75,000 acres of land in Tennessee, which he assures his wife will someday make their children rich beyond measure, marks the narrative’s inciting incident. At Beriah’s encouragement, Silas moves to Missouri with his wife, Nancy Hawkins, and two children, Washington and Emily Hawkins. He adopts two orphaned children, Clay and Laura, along the way. In the ensuing twelve years, Silas endures several financial catastrophes. Each takes a toll, and Silas dies a broken man.

A second storyline follows Philip Sterling and Harry Brierly, two men living in New York City who decide to seek their fortune out west, accompanying a railroad surveying team to Missouri. There they meet and befriend Beriah, who inspires Harry to partner in his schemes. Philip dedicates himself to studying engineering and railroad science while hoping to win the heart of the woman he loves, Ruth Bolton. Ruth, who lives in Philadelphia, longs to leave her Quaker community and defy society’s gender norms by becoming a doctor. Laura Hawkins is betrayed by a confederate soldier named Colonel Selby, who marries then deserts her. After the war, Senator Dilworthy visits the Missouri town where the Hawkins family is living along with Beriah, Philip, and Harry. Senator Dilworthy takes Washington Hawkins back to DC as his personal secretary and invites Laura Hawkins to visit during Congress’s winter session.

Beriah and Harry’s plan to found a great city in rural Missouri goes awry when money allocated to the project by Congress doesn’t come and the unpaid workers revolt. Harry’s investigation into the matter reveals such profound corporate financial corruption that he and Beriah now owe thousands of dollars. Ruth’s father hires Philip to survey land he owns in Pennsylvania. Confident there’s an abundant coal vein on the land, he begins a costly mining operation. Senator Dilworthy develops a plan with Washington and Laura to sell their Tennessee land to the government, via an appropriations bill, as a location for a university open to all races. They use bribery, blackmail, and any other tactic necessary to get the bill passed.

Philip’s mining project runs out of money and has to be shut down. The Tennessee land bill passes in the House of Representatives. Laura runs into Col. Selby, who is in DC on business with his family. Her plans for revenge falter with his renewed declarations of love, and she insists he leave his wife. He agrees, but when he and his family abruptly leave town, Laura follows and kills Col. Selby with a gun belonging to her brother. She is arrested and charged with murder. Ruth continues studying medicine and finally declares her love for Philip. Harry gets over an infatuation with Laura and starts a new venture out west.

Amidst an epic bribery scandal, Senator Dilworthy loses his bid for re-election. The Tennessee land bill fails to pass in the Senate. Laura’s defense lawyer successfully portrays her in court as a victim of past traumas that led to insanity, and she’s acquitted. Newly freed, she accepts an offer to go on a lecture tour but is jeered off the stage at her first appearance. She’s found dead shortly after. Washington finally lets go of the Tennessee land and his financial expectations of it. He heads home to Missouri to marry his sweetheart. Beriah goes with him, scheming new ways to achieve fame and fortune. Philip reopens the coal mine with a loan from a family friend. After a great deal of disappointment, his perseverance pays off when he finds enough coal to make him quite rich. Ruth pulls through a grave illness, and the two happily start their lives together.