The Gilded Age | Study Guide

Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner

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The Gilded Age | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Hawkins Family

Squire Silas "Si" Hawkins, a Tennessee landholder, accepts an invitation from his friend and occasional business partner, Colonel Beriah Sellers, to move to Missouri. Hawkins and his family—wife Nancy and children Emily and Washington—travel westward, lured by Sellers's boasts of easy money. Along the way, they adopt two children: an orphan boy called Clay, and the survivor of a paddle-steamer explosion named Laura. Eventually the family arrives in Missouri, where they are greeted with the reality of Sellers's boasts: they live for 10 years in meager circumstances while Sellers loses money as soon as he gains it. The 10 years pass and Si Hawkins never makes the promised fortune. His children are left to find their own place in the world. Si's son Washington accepts an invitation to visit Colonel Sellers at his home in the town of Hawkeye. There he finds Sellers living in poverty, but Washington is captivated by Sellers's irrepressible optimism and gift for making marvelous claims. In particular, Sellers plants the idea in Washington's head that a vast fortune is to be made in land speculation. Subsequently, Sellers introduces Washington to General Boswell, a real estate agent. Washington's dreams of wealth are enhanced by his love for Boswell's daughter, Louise.

Si Hawkins dies having never made his fortune. His children inherit his lands in Tennessee. Laura discovers a series of letters in Hawkins's archives that describe the pursuit of the true identity of Laura's biological father. But the pursuit proved fruitless, and Laura's real father is never found, a fact for which the authors apologize in a note at the end of the book.

Eight Years Later

At this point the focus switches to the careers of two young railway engineers, Philip Sterling and his friend Henry "Harry" Brierly. Philip is a solid, dependable, and talented man, while Harry is adventurous and outgoing. Like the Hawkins family, they are moving to Missouri to work on the railroad. They, too, fall into the company of Colonel Beriah Sellers.

Philip loves the progressive Ruth Bolton. In Philadelphia, Ruth describes to her parents her intention to train as a doctor. The Boltons, moneyed Quakers, are invited to join a scheme to profit by speculating on railroad construction. Meanwhile, in St. Louis, Colonel Sellers asks Harry to speculate with him on the diversion of a railway through a small village called Stone's Landing. Harry and Sellers become closely associated, while Philip holds himself at a distance.

The perspective returns to Laura, who—eight years after the death of Si—has become renowned for her looks. She lives at Hawkeye, Sellers's estate. She has cultivated a sharp mind through her love of reading. During the Civil War Laura had become involved with a Confederate officer, Colonel Selby, whom she married. Disastrously, Laura learned that Selby was already married to another woman. Later, Harry and Laura met, and Harry became infatuated with her—a regard she does not return.

Senator Abner Dilworthy visits Hawkeye and the surrounding regions. Sellers approaches Dilworthy with his schemes to improve the local rivers. Washington also makes the acquaintance of the senator and is invited to return with him to Washington, DC to serve as a secretary. Washington agrees enthusiastically. He plans to sell the family's lands in Tennessee for a large profit.

When Harry and Philip once more encounter Ruth, they call on her at the house of her friend Alice Montague. A comic love triangle threatens to develop since Ruth, whom Philip hopes to marry, is apparently taken with the gregarious Harry. Harry moves on to Washington, DC to serve the interests of Sellers's scheming with Senator Dilworthy, while Philip returns west to work on the railroad. With Washington's assistance, Senator Dilworthy successfully gets approval for the improvement of the Columbus River, a fact Washington happily reports to Colonel Sellers. Sellers and Harry prepare to begin work on the improvement but are faced with turmoil and unruly workers when the designated money fails to arrive. Sellers is forced to flee, but his spirits are undaunted as he moves on to the next scheme—railroad construction. In Washington, Brierly learns exactly how the $200,000 appropriation for the river has been spent—primarily greasing the palms of various agents and interested parties in the capital. Philip, meanwhile, is employed by the Boltons to survey for coal on a plot of land at Ilium.

The Lure of the Capital

Washington becomes convinced that he can sell the Tennessee land for a very great sum, turning down several more modest offers in sequence. He invites Laura to join him in Washington, DC, where she will work as a lobbyist on a bill to sell the Tennessee land to the United States government. Senator Dilworthy intends to use the land, ostensibly, to build a college for newly emancipated slaves, but primarily to skim money from the appropriation. Philip, Harry, Ruth, and Alice are reunited in Philadelphia, where Philip is wounded in a stampede at a music hall. He becomes Ruth's first medical patient as she tends to his broken arm and bruised head.

Laura proves a great success as a lobbyist, navigating several levels of Washington high society, which features a number of comic grotesques, distorted and exaggerated circumstances, and characters that border on the disturbing. Through her eyes the authors contrast the varying grades of Washington society, making a distinction between old money and new, and between formal manners and the myth of the self-made man and woman. Laura becomes a valuable assistant to Senator Dilworthy in attempting to secure passage of the appropriation bill for the Tennessee land. She is shocked, however, by the sudden reappearance of her estranged lover, Colonel Selby. Laura tries to convince Selby to take her back. He claims that he will, but he is lying to her. The appropriation bill becomes the most anticipated congressional debate of the session. The bill passes the House of Representatives.

Laura, however, has left Washington, DC. With the assistance of Harry Brierly, who is still infatuated with her, she travels to New York. There she shoots Colonel Selby dead and attempts to take her own life. She is arrested for the crime and charged with murder. Laura's defense is prepared, including the hiring of a famous attorney, Mr. Braham. Philip, meanwhile, returns to his work surveying for coal at Ilium. He believes he has found coal, but the seam turns out to be worthless. Undaunted, Philip purchases the land at Ilium for himself when Mr. Bolton is forced to sell his assets. With the investment of Squire Montague, Philip resolves to continue his search for coal.

Laura on Trial

Laura's trial begins, and a jury of comically unsuitable characters is assembled with the skillful guidance of Mr. Braham, Laura's attorney. Harry Brierly testifies against Laura. At length, a defense of temporary insanity is mounted for Laura and ultimately secures her acquittal. The appropriation bill for the Tennessee land comes up for a vote. Just then, Senator Dilworthy's political rival, Mr. Noble, accuses Dilworthy of attempting to bribe him and produces the bribe money, $7,000, as evidence. After this revelation, no senator votes for the bill. Sellers and Washington are forced to console themselves at the total defeat of their scheme. Noble, for his efforts, is persecuted for having accepted a bribe as the Senate rallies to defend its honor.

Laura attempts to launch a career as a lecturer, but this proves disastrous. She dies shortly thereafter. Washington, upon receiving a tax bill for $180 on the Tennessee lands, tears it up and leaves Washington, DC, finally letting go of his dream of making a fortune through speculation. Philip, meanwhile, during his last attempt, finds coal in his mine. The money the mine provides secures his future, and he and Ruth settle down to a life of comfort.

The Gilded Age Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Si Hawkins moves his family west to Missouri.

Rising Action

2 Laura Hawkins is rescued and adopted.

3 Si Hawkins dies, leaving his land to the family.

4 In Missouri Harry and Philip meet Colonel Sellers.

5 Laura marries and is abandoned by Colonel Selby.

6 Harry Briers and Colonel Sellers work together.

7 Senator Dilworthy promotes the sale of the Hawkins land.

8 Laura moves to Washington, DC to work as a lobbyist.

9 The land sale passes Congress.

10 Laura murders Colonel Selby.


11 Laura is put on trial and acquitted of Selby's murder.

Falling Action

12 The land sale fails to pass the Senate.

13 Washington abandons the land sale.

14 On his last attempt, Philip finds coal.


15 Philip and Ruth settle down in comfort.

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