Alice Adams is Tarkington at his most brilliant. Selecting the coming-of-age of an adolescent girl as his ostensible subject, Tarkington establishes the novel’s main theme as the much larger issue of America’s coming-of-age in the years after “The Great War,” World War I. The central themes are all developed around Alice’s search for her own identity in a culture that seeks to impose identity based on class and economic position.
The scene in which Alice stares into the mirror and wonders who she is introduces her personal quest for identity, and it also highlights the larger issue of how society defines identity by material wealth. Alice’s struggle to define herself using the material terms provided by society is expressed by her pathetic attempts to create the facade of a wealthy heiress. She cannot afford to purchase a corsage for the dance, for example, so she spends an entire afternoon picking wild violets. As might be expected, the flowers wilt, and Alice discards them. Natural worth is similarly discarded by society, Tarkington seems to say, and the symbolism surrounding the flowers illustrates Alice’s inability to create her own identity separate and apart from the basic rule of measurement employed by society: money.
Alice’s conflict with her brother Walter over his gambling and friends moves into a larger discussion of democracy. She responds to her brother’s defense of himself based on the idea of living...
(The entire section is 452 words.)