Reestablishment of Traditional Womanhood in “The Gilded Age”


Heather Belmonte


            Women, speculation, and politics are all bound up in Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s The Gilded Age.  When dealing with the politics of the novel, Twain and Warner satirize the corruption found in Washington, exposing the need for reform and progress in the form of economic accountability and honesty.  While espousing such progressive ideals, however, they deny the need for progress when it comes to gender roles.  Although the authors seem to be endorsing what would soon be called “the new woman” by creating strong, nontraditional female characters, they ultimately reestablish traditional gender roles by twisting the character development and plot of each main female character in the novel in order to show that a woman’s place is in the home rather than out in the “masculine” arenas of speculation and politics.

            Women are traditionally seen as moral guardians of the home, but Ruth Bolton doesn’t fall under this category.  Twain and Warner seem to be setting this character up as an example of a woman who successfully breaks free from traditional and what appears to be unreasonable societal binds.  Ruth feels all of the constraints that her sex places on her and resents such constraints.  Alone with her father, she expounds vehemently upon the place of women in society, “What a box women are put into, measured for it, and put in young; if we go anywhere it’s in a box, veiled and pinioned and shut in by disabilities.  Father, I should like to break things and get loose” (102-103).  Ruth is a realist and doesn’t want to be dependent upon men all her life.  Therefore she beats “her young wings against the cage of custom” (103) by beginning a career in the male dominated field of medicine.  Her mother has misgivings about her daughter entering such a field and argues, “But thy health and strength, child; thee can never stand the severe application” (101).  The sentiment expressed by Ruth’s mother conforms to the traditional notion that women’s bodies are inherently weak.  If women’s bodies are inherently weak, and as popular notions of the time suggested, dominated by their reproductive organs, than it only makes sense for Ruth to turn from the strenuous task of doctoring and turn toward something womanly such as love.  Ruth, however, does not do the expected and is instead determined to prove her mother wrong by successfully entering her chosen field and proving that she has the willpower to make her professional dreams become a reality.

Ruth immerses herself so fully in her studies that she seems to shun the idea of love and this concerns her friend, Philip.  Philip sees career and family as an either/or decision and asks Ruth, “do you think you would be happier or do more good in following your profession than in having a home of your own?” (356).  Ruth, however, sees the possibility for both to coexist and answers “What is to hinder having a home of my own?” (356).  Her mother has the same concerns as Philip and approaches her daughter with the subject of marriage, asking her daughter if she has met anyone whom she could “live with always”.  Ruth answers, “Mother, I think I wouldn’t say ‘always’ to any one until I have a profession and am as independent as he is.  Then my love would be a free act, and not in any way a necessity” (186).  She wants to be relatively self-sufficient, and this desire will lead her into unchartered waters as she begins her studies at Fallkill Seminary.  Once at school, Ruth experiences a life of greater independence, and this experience is a new and fresh one for her.  As Ruth strikes out on her own she becomes a speculator in the land of her chosen profession. 

The idea of speculation is prevalent throughout the novel, and the plot with Ruth mirrors the speculation fervor.  Ruth is venturing out on her own hoping to strike a rich vein of newfound freedom and ultimate independence from family.  Day by day Ruth diligently digs her mine by working hard in the field of medicine, and as the book proceeds, Ruth seems to be drawing closer to the striking of her rich vein; but ironically about the time that Philip strikes it rich in his coal mine, Ruth loses in the digging of her own “mine”.  “Ruth felt that she was of less consequence in the household, now that Philip had found coal, and perhaps she was not sorry to feel so” (363).  The biggest clue that this character has been shaken is at the end of the sentence: “perhaps she was not sorry to feel so.”  This statement shows that Ruth’s feminist determination is withering as she caves into society’s expectation of her feelings.  The authors build this character up by showing her to be a hardworking and independent heroine who won’t settle for less than she started out to get.  Toward the end of the book, however, Ruth’s character has shifted and a marked change in her character development begins to appear. 

Even though Ruth starts out very independent, seeming to succeed in her endeavor to free herself from traditional constraints, in the end her work is too much for her and her mother is proved right.  Ruth becomes gravely ill, and the doctor attending Ruth “told Philip that the fever had undoubtedly been contracted in the hospital…and would be little dangerous if Ruth were not so worn down with work” (461).  The authors create a twist to the character and plot of Ruth, showing that ultimately she’s not strong enough for the man’s work she’s adopted.  When men work they’re invigorated.  When women work, however, they’re simply worn out.  Becoming dependent is ultimately Ruth’s only salvation, and Philip’s strength becomes her cornerstone.  “Philip so yearned to bring her back to life, he willed it so strongly and passionately, that his will appeared to affect hers and she seemed slowly to draw life from his” (461).  Ruth is not used to being placed in such a submissive and helpless state.  “It was new for Ruth to feel this dependence on another’s nature, to consciously draw strength of will from the will of another” (461-462).  This is a new experience that Ruth discovers she likes. 

The feelings of romantic love eventually come to Ruth and they are shown to be the only true feelings of a woman.  “Perhaps she saw that her own theories of a certain equality of power, which ought to precede a union of two hearts, might be pushed too far.  Perhaps she had felt sometimes her own weakness and the need after all of so dear a sympathy and so tender an interest confessed, as that which Philip could give” (374).  Ruth drinks in Philip’s tenderness “with the thirst of a true woman’s nature” (374).  Now that her stubborn nature has been curbed by her illness, the authors suggest that Ruth has finally come to her senses and does what is expected of her all along.  Her speculation in the field of medicine has not turned out the way she’d hoped for, therefore Ruth turns toward something safer and a bit surer, Philip’s love.

            Just as Ruth attempts to break from a traditional role and joins the field of speculation, Laura Hawkins goes against the concept of traditional womanhood and speculates in the field of politics and men’s hearts.  Laura begins as a sentimental character but doesn’t remain that way for long due to her sham marriage with Col. Selby.  After this incident there is a shift in Laura’s character and the authors cast a dark light on her by saying that she “was not much changed.  The lovely woman had a devil in her heart.  That was all” (138).  As a result of the cruelty Laura experiences in the arena of love, she turns with full force to manipulating men through the use of her female charms.  “It was keen delight to Laura to prove that she had power over men” (143).  As Ruth searched for power by proving she’s not dependent upon men, Laura proves her power by dominating them.

The need to dominate men becomes an obsession with Laura.  Indeed she gets caught up as a lobbyist in Washington simply because she wants to test her powers of captivation.  As a result, she begins living a nontraditional fast-paced life filled with coquetry and bribery.  Laura has gained a new sense of freedom and power in this new lifestyle which obliterates the need for dependency on anyone other than herself.  Like Ruth, Laura yearns for self sufficiency.  Ruth’s desire, however, sprang from a feeling of suppression whereas Laura’s desire sprang from rejection and therein, suggest the authors, lies her weakness.  Laura has refused to be the outcast tainted woman, but Col. Selby still holds emotional sway over her as evidenced in her meetings with him in Washington.  The rejection she experienced has left her determined never to be placed in such a position again, and she tries to secure safety by maintaining strict power over the men in her life.  Only as she succeeds in this area can she remain strong, and when Col. Selby arrives and she is confronted with the one man who rejected her, Laura’s tower of strength crumbles.  Her outer image of beauty and stoic self sufficiency seems only to be a façade for her inner turmoil, and when confronted by the initial cause of that turmoil, Laura’s carefully wrought veneer begins to crack.  “My God,” she cried...“How I hate him.  And yet I loved him.  Oh heavens, how I did love that man.  And why didn’t he kill me?  He might better.  He did kill all that was good in me” (278).  Ruth was reluctant to let love into her life, but Laura was only too ready and was scorched early on, turning her into a hardened woman.  The example which Twain and Warner give of a nonconformist woman only turns on the woman in the end.  When women don’t fit the mould, their end has the potential of disaster, and Laura is an example of what disaster a woman can come to if given too much independence. 

Fairly early on, Laura realizes “this is a desperate game I am playing in these days—a wearing, sordid, heartless game.  If I lose, I lose everything—even myself” (273).  She has a sense that she is playing in deep and unchartered waters, and when Laura has become a thoroughly broken woman she finally realizes, like Ruth, that “Love…was a woman’s first necessity: love being forfeited, there was but one thing left that could give a passing zest to a wasted life, and that was fame, admiration, the applause of the multitude” (441).  Laura tried to divorce herself from the need for love by filling the void Col. Selby left with power she seized in the political capital, but Laura is eventually cornered and forced to recognize the centrality of love to a woman’s existence, thus reinforcing the stereotypical notion of women being good for nothing except marriage.  The authors build Laura’s character up in similar fashion to Ruth’s character by showing her to be a hardworking and independent heroine.  Once again, however, the authors introduce a shift in character development toward the end of the novel which suggests that women, no matter how strong they seem, are ultimately dependent upon male love.  Ruth succumbs to this love, and Laura realizes in the absence of it that she no longer has a reason to live.

When it comes to traditional womanhood versus radical independence, Alice Montague is a more complex character.  She seems to be thoroughly domesticated and any mention of her is always in connection to her home.  Philip can always count on her because she never seems to go anywhere and apparently never changes.  As a result, Philip takes her for granted.  “He had known her so long, she had somehow grown into his life by habit, that he would expect the pleasure of her society without thinking much about it” (369).  In a sense, Alice has become invisible but doesn’t resent this fact like Ruth or Laura would. 

Unlike Ruth and Laura, Alice is not a speculator.  She never ventures further than the theatre, and doesn’t appear to risk anything or strive for anything.  Indeed Ruth wonders “what her (Alice’s) object in life was, and whether she had any purpose beyond living as she now saw her.  For she could scarcely conceive of a life that should not be devoted to the accomplishment of some definite work” (155).  At one point, Alice does seem to show some sense of revolutionary spirit when Philip smilingly suggests that women will have to vote.  “Well, I should be willing to, if it were a necessity, just as I would go to war and do what I could, if the country couldn’t be saved otherwise” (371).  Although this seems like a progressive statement, Alice is only putting women in the category of the last resort.  Alice’s passions are hidden and border on being passive.  She’s lacking Ruth’s active ambition and Laura’s manipulative fascination, and it’s her tendency towards passivity that enables Philip to use her.  He pours all of his concerns regarding Ruth into Alice’s ready ear without considering how it affects her feelings.  “If he ever wondered that Alice herself was not in love and never spoke of the possibility of her own marriage, it was a transient thought” (369).  Such careless treatment of this character would seem to be a statement against traditional womanhood, showing that it leads to emotional heartache and abuse, but instead Twain and Warner applaud Alice, saying, “the world never knows how many women there are like Alice, whose sweet but lonely lives of self-sacrifice, gentle, faithful, loving souls, bless it continually” (463-464).  Indeed the whole novel ends in a culmination of her praise, ultimately reinforcing the vision of traditional womanhood.   

Twain and Warner reestablish the concept of traditional womanhood in The Gilded Age by showing what comes of women who go out speculating.  Women are to stay at home, like Mrs. Bolton, Mrs. Hawkins, and Mrs. Sellers, while their husbands do the speculating, and when women take the role of speculator upon themselves, whether it’s in a career like Ruth or in the political arena like Laura, they end up losing.  Women are to be the enablers by maintaining the home front while the men are away investing in numerous dubious schemes and speculations.  Laura comments to Harry Brierly, “You men must enjoy your schemes and your activity and liberty to go about the world” (142).  When Laura tries to do the same, however, she utterly fails. 

Twain and Warner seem to be setting up strong female characters who go against the grain of society.  Ultimately, however, these strong female characters encounter roadblocks which alter their pathway to freedom.  For Ruth, the roadblock is the illness that she contracts due to her beloved work showing that her plans for an independent and nontraditional lifestyle backfired on her.  For Laura, the roadblock is the reappearance of Col. Selby in her life, showing that her goal of escaping the remnants of her love life has not succeeded.  In the end it is Alice who is praised, for even though she’s a single woman with no husband to back up, she takes on the traditional role of enabler by standing by Philip even as he uses her with no thought to her feelings.  Alice, who never ventured to speculate, is the one praised at the end of the novel.  Twain and Warner are sending the message that when women strive to reach beyond their prescribed boundaries, disaster or eventual surrender can be the only results, and thus the authors are ultimately reestablishing the concept of traditional womanhood rather than promoting the image of a liberated sex.