The Gilded Age | Study Guide

Mark Twain, Charles Dudley Warner

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The Gilded Age | Symbols



To gild is to apply a thin coating of gold on another, less valuable object, such as a wooden picture frame. American life as portrayed in the novel has been "gilded" to the point that its corruption is unrecognizable. The wealthy members of Washington society live in an almost separate world atop the rest of society. Sellers's schemes are gilded, easily accepted by others, through his skill as an exaggerator and spokesperson. Laura's beauty and intelligence gild the scheme to sell the Tennessee land. Finally, Senator Dilworthy's supposedly noble intention of building a university for African Americans on the land adds another coat of gold to the plan.


Land is not an object of practical value in the novel but a symbol of what its sale and exploitation through speculation will bring. Land stands in for wealth and independence, and America's abundance of land is a symbol for the abundance of America.

The Hawkins family's Tennessee land in particular has a number of symbolic functions. It is the only concrete asset possessed by Si Hawkins after his other enterprises have failed. To Washington Hawkins, it represents both his link to the family's past and his dreams for the future. Ultimately, his inability to let go of the land until it is proven worthless is entwined with his inability to decide on his own course in life. Once the land is gone, he is finally free to make his own way in the world.

Steamboats, Railways, and Coal

Steamboats and railways symbolize the coming era of industrial modernity in America, while coal is the fuel that will make their technologies possible. Steamboats and railroads have the capacity to unite the nation's regions and bring about a new era of commerce and adventure. Yet the characters of The Gilded Age, like Si Hawkins and Colonel Sellers, see these new means of transportation mainly as opportunities for graft, not progress. Further, the episode with the paddle-boats is a warning about the perils of new technologies in the wrong hands. The explosion of a paddle-steamer while racing another boat suggests that the mad dash for advancement through technology can bring danger along with advancement.

Coal is, unsurprisingly, linked to the dreams of the only practical character in the book, Philip. A hard worker, he stakes his future on finding an actual resource, with no plan to speculate in it, and he does find it. His wealth, like coal itself, will be solid and tangible.

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