Although a few sections of Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age are gratingly detailed,
especially when describing the complicated humbuggery of embezzling ‘tycoons,’ this novel often reads like an Axios News analysis of our contemporary social-political state of affairs. Enhanced by Twain’s acerbic wit and sarcasm, the novel resonates in our own times as well as the period in which the story takes place. Grift, patronage, theft, and abuse of power, among many forms of corruption, dominate most interactions between major characters. Adding some love, light, and drama to the wretchedness are romantic situations among younger characters, but dark motives and predatory actions dominate the narrative. The Gilded Age is a fitting read for today.
While many of Twain’s novels feature the triumphs, losses, and complexities of life as a man in the second half of the 19th century and female characters are merely supportive and definitely secondary, Twain wrote more perceptively and sympathetically about several women in The Gilded Age. Ruth Bolton, a sometime medical student, and Laura Hawkins, an ambitious but ill-fated beauty who initially conquered the aristocracies of Washington, DC, are drawn well and drive the narrative forward because Twain explores and develops their inner life with more interest and respect than in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.
For Twain fans, I recommend reading The Gilded Age for its quaint plot twists as well as its relevance. I do not excuse the offensive epithets and references to enslaved people in the tale, but in context I understand Twain used them to criticize his times, especially the deceit, abuses, and foolishness of his contemporaries.