Alice Adams, the eponymous heroine of Booth Tarkington’s novel, is a character very like other heroes and heroines in literature who test the American myth of success expressed best by the Horatio Alger stories. Like Alger’s “Ragged Dick,” Alice Adams strives to lift herself into another social realm from the one in which she was born. Yet in her desire for a marriage that would satisfy her need for a specifically economic and material freedom, she perhaps reminds readers most of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, who seeks to marry Daisy as a final acquisition marking his success in the world.
As Tarkington’s novel begins, Alice’s family occupies a tenuous position in the mid-level manufacturing class of post-World War I Indiana. Their position affords them a modicum of respect, but they have slowly but surely felt the pinch of declining fortune. They manage to keep a cook, for example, but they can only afford to hire the surly specimens no other, more respectable families will employ.
Intent on improving the family fortunes, Mrs. Adams browbeats her husband Virgil into leaving his position with “Lamb, and Company,” where he is respected for his work ethic, honesty, and loyalty. She insists he leave the “old hole,” as she calls it, to start his own manufacturing company. Virgil’s ethical dilemma revolves around his knowledge of a secret glue formula, the rights to which are owned by Mr. Lamb. Because Lamb has done nothing with the formula for years, Virgil allows himself to be convinced by his wife to steal it, quit his position, and open his own glue factory.
Virgil’s ethical dilemma and subsequent fall parallel his daughter’s attempt to lift herself socially, also...
(The entire section is 709 words.)