The Gilded Age | Study Guide

Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner

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The Gilded Age | Character Analysis

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Laura Hawkins

The Hawkins family adopts Laura, a survivor of the wreck of the steamboat Amaranth, after the tragedy. Her father is unknown although some characters—Si Hawkins, Colonel Sellers—attempt to find him. Laura is clever, independent, and considered beautiful. She has a short-lived and disastrous marriage to Colonel Selby, who was already married to another woman. Her loss of reputation causes her to go along with Sellers and Dilworthy's scheme to sell the family's land to the government. Laura's looks, wits, and independence make her more than a match for Washington society. She outwits several characters while attempting to smooth the passage of the bill to sell the Hawkins land. She is disarmed only by the reappearance of her former lover, Colonel Selby. She follows Selby to New York and shoots him dead. She is eventually acquitted of the murder through a defense of temporary insanity. She makes a disastrous attempt at pursuing a career as a lecturer and dies shortly thereafter.

Philip Sterling

Philip is a bright and reliable young man who, like other characters in the novel, seeks to make his fortune. But unlike the others, he thinks hard work is the way to achieve success. His main desire, however, is to have a family life with Ruth Bolton. Along with his more carefree friend Harry, Philip travels to Missouri, where he meets Beriah Sellers. While Harry becomes closely involved with Sellers's schemes, Philip continues to ply his trade as an engineer, working for the Bolton family. He moves to a tract of land near Philadelphia to attempt to find coal for the Boltons. After many trials, including an episode in which he is badly injured in a stampede in a concert hall, Philip finds coal, securing a fortune for himself and the Boltons. He marries Ruth and settles down to a life of modest wealth and happiness.

Colonel Sellers

Colonel Sellers is behind many of the events in the novel. He is an optimist whose lust for acquiring a fortune through a variety of schemes, including patent medicines and land speculation, never wavers despite constant and varied setbacks. He convinces Si Hawkins to join him in Missouri, putting the early adventures of the novel into motion, and then involves Laura Hawkins and Harry Brierly in his attempt to sell the Hawkins's land in Tennessee. Beriah Sellers sits somewhere between an exaggerator and a con artist. His skill is in convincing people to invest in his dreams and his schemes despite his habit of embellishing the truth. He has been compared to Dickens's character Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield, another habitual optimist who makes his way through the world with the maxim "something will turn up"—which, for Sellers, usually does.

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