(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alice Adams cover image

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.)


(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Alice Adams had been reared in a town in which each person’s business was everybody’s business, sooner or later. Her father, Virgil Adams, worked for Lamb and Company, a wholesale drug factory in the town, where he also obtained a job for his son Walter. Alice had been one of the town’s young smart set while she was in high school, but when the others of the group had gone to college, Alice had remained behind because of economic reasons. As time passed, she felt increasingly alienated. To compensate for a lack of attention, Alice often attracted notice to herself by affected mannerisms.

Alice had been invited to a dance given by Mildred Palmer, who, according to Alice, was her best friend. Walter had also been invited so as to provide her with an escort. Getting Walter to go out with Alice, however, was a process that took all the coaxing and cajoling that Mrs. Adams could muster. On the night of the dance, Alice departed in a made-over formal, carrying a homemade bouquet of wild violets, and with an unwilling escort who was driving a borrowed flivver. The party itself turned out no better than its inauspicious beginning. Alice was very much a wallflower except for the attentions of Frank Dowling, a fat, unpopular boy. Toward the end of the evening, Mildred Palmer introduced Alice to a new young man, Arthur Russell, a distant relative of the Palmers. It was rumored that Mildred and Arthur would become engaged in the near future. Alice asked Arthur to find her brother, whom she had not seen since the second dance. When Arthur found Walter, the young man was shooting dice with the waiters in the cloakroom; Alice was mortified.

A week later Alice accidentally met Arthur Russell, and he walked home with her. During their walk, Alice learned that Arthur had asked for an introduction to her at the dance. Flattered, Alice built up for herself a background that did not exist. Arthur asked for permission to call on her.

Arthur, however, failed to appear the next evening. Several nights later, after Alice had helped with the dishes, she was sitting on the front porch when Arthur finally came to call. To hold his interest, Alice asked him to promise not to listen to any gossip about her. As time went on, she repeated her fear that someone would talk about her. Arthur could not understand her protestations.

For many years Mrs. Adams had been trying to...

(The entire section is 980 words.)