The Gilded Age (1873)

In Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s collaborative novel The Gilded Age, the authors rely too heavily on generalizing the personalities of their female characters and seem to borrow their stronger, more round characters from other novels. Most of the women in the novel are unmemorable women who exist in the novel only as supportive wives and mothers. Ruth Bolton and Laura Hawkins seem to be the only exception to this role, but they both seem to be borrowed from other novels. Ruth who is in medical school seems more like precursor to the heroines of novels about female doctors and throughout the course of the novel Laura becomes a victim from a Novel of Seduction.

Even though Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ Doctor Zay was not published until almost a decade later, Twain and Warner seem to have transplanted Ruth from a similar novel. The normal trend in the female doctor narratives like Doctor Zay, or similar novels written by Howells and Jewett, is that it begins with a feminist doctor but ends with the message that women cannot be a doctor and a wife. Towards the end of the novel when Ruth falls ill and the only person who can save her is Philip Sterling, who has no medical background but can evidently save her with his love. Disappointingly, when Ruth’s health does improve, she is happy, not because she can return to caring for her patients, but so that she can be Philip’s wife. .

In the first half of the book, Laura Hawkins also appears to be a strong willed feminist character. Unlike the biological Hawkins children, Laura wants to strike out on her own. However, after her seduction by Col. Selby, Laura takes a step back to back in time to become a character from a late eighteenth century novel like Rowson’s Charlotte Temple. Like Charlotte, Laura misguidedly trusts and runs away with a rake who leaves them stranded and alone. Laura’s seduction does not result in pregnancy like Charlotte but Laura’s disposition and personality does change. Charlotte and Laura’s similar stories deviate at this point but they both become helpless victims who need protection from others. As a final interesting point, Laura’s decision to not get married at the end of the novel leads to her downfall and death.

Twain and Warner are not in fact trying to create progressive or feminist female characters. Even though Ruth feels like she is borrowed from a genre of novels that become popular in the following decade, she is not a feminist at all because in the end she is satisfied with giving up her profession to become a wife. Laura’s character feels even more out of place since she so closely resembles women from novels written a century before The Gilded Age. Twain and Warner have written weak female characters who are either already devoted, supportive wives or are soon-to-be devoted, supportive wives- with the exception of Laura who dies.