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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 465

Modeled in part on the time that he and his wife, Clover, spent in Washington, D.C., Henry Adams crafted a deft political satire. Although the novel was originally published anonymously in 1880, few readers could have doubted that Adams was the author. Writing about politicians of the generation immediately following the Civil War, Adams exposes the fault lines that still affected the United States. He creates the credulous character of Madeleine Lee, who believes herself knowledgeable about government but craves a deeper understanding of “POWER,” as he writes it in all capital letters. Madeleine naïvely believes that she will not only remain untainted by the dirt but can even exert a positive influence on political processes. Largely through the interventions of her more practically minded sister, Sybil, Madeleine narrowly manages to avoid scandal and a disastrous marriage to a scoundrel.

One of the novel’s strengths is that it presents a significant part of the behind-the-scenes workings of governance through the female characters’s interactions. In the 1870s, women could neither vote nor be elected to office, so they exercised influence on the elected and appointed officials primarily in social settings. Near the novel’s beginning, Madeleine attends a few sessions of Congress, but the reader learns what was said through her conversations with other characters. As she develops a relationship with Senator Ratcliffe, he secures her and her sister “the best places to see and hear” the presidential inauguration; their response is to find fault with the ceremony and complain of the cold wind.

On the strength of friendship and distant “relations” with numerous people who might be her cousins, Madeleine quickly gains entry to Washington’s political social circles. Her conversations with the First Lady and the widow of a prominent lobbyist, for example, reveal those women’s relative simplicity or astuteness. Mrs. Baker, the lobbyist’s widow, explains how she helped her husband keep track of the information about every politician they wanted to influence: “My husband used to make lists of them in books with a history of each man and all he could learn about him, but I carried it all in my head.”

As Ratcliffe skillfully manages his own ascent along with Madeleine’s help, she fails to acknowledge his corrupting influence. Her sister proves an effective foil, as she sees through everyone’s masks and forms other alliances that will help protect Madeleine from her own good intentions. John Carrington, a former Confederate soldier, is portrayed as more interested in good governance than personal ambition. His genuine affection for Madeleine ultimately saves her from marrying Ratcliffe, even though his career had been temporarily sidelined by an undesirable foreign posting. Even though Madeleine does not admit she has been played, she concludes that politics is not her game.

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