Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington Summary

Instructor: Kevin Watson

Kevin has taught college English and has master's degrees in Applied Linguistics and Creative Writing.

''Alice Adams'', by Booth Tarkington, is a novel of manners where a small town girl from a modest upbringing, tries to blend in with the higher social class. In this lesson, you will learn about Alice's family and her thinking, and her attempts to reach her rightful place in society.

Meet the Adams Family

The story opens with a grumpy Virgil Adams, in his fifties, recuperating in bed while his wife is nagging him not to go back to ''that hole''. The ''hole'' is his job at Lamb and Company where he's worked for decades. When the wife leaves she passes Alice Adams's door, where the daughter, in her early twenties, is play-acting in the vanity mirror. She is given to elaborate fantasies of fame and a more affluent life. Alice tells her mother to be more tactful with her father, but there is an issue that has clearly been stewing for some time: money. Adams feels his boss has been good to him over the years, but Mrs. Adams believes his boss has profited greatly while failing to pass a little of the money her husband's way. Alice goes in to see her father, telling him they skimp but get by.

Alice Adams is a bit higher energy than the others, including her twenty-year-old brother Walter, who she badgers at the dinner table. ''He's ALL secrets'', she says while her sallow-complected brother squirms uncomfortably. Alice finds her brother a useless high school dropout although he has a job at Lamb and Company and a private life. He does not seem to like Alice. He doesn't like the rich, popular people that Alice wants to mix with.

The Social Climber

The house has watercolor paintings and is described as having grime, from an industrial plant, ground into everything. Alice wants more than this and tries to mix with the upper crust of the town. Invited to the wealthy Mildred Palmer's party, Alice has no money for flowers, so she takes charge to remedy the situation, heading into the meadow to pick three hundred violets. Her brother Walter, despite his dislike for her social aspirations and crowd, accompanies her to the party where she happily dances with Frank Dowling, until his mother drags him away from her. Unexpectedly, she meets Mildred's distant cousin Arthur Russell. Arthur asks her to dance and the two take a liking to each other, though Alice is certain that Arthur must be engaged to Mildred.

A Surprise Meeting

After buying her father's tobacco, Alice passes by the Frincke's Business College and shudders at the thought of young women becoming secretaries and being turned into used-up old spinsters. She is met in the street by Arthur Russell, who speaks flattering words to her, and does not act like a man who is engaged. He hangs on her words, engaging in flirtatious banter, and leaves her with the assurance that he'll visit, which he does two days later. This kicks off a promising courtship since he is of the social class to which Alice aspires.

Alice and Arthur
Alice and Arthur

Alice tells Arthur it's only a matter of time till he hears bad things about her from his cousin Mildred Palmer, or through her friend Henrietta Lamb. They look down on Alice, and Alice tells him how bad they all talk about each other. Arthur promises that he will not listen to them if they start badmouthing Alice.

Mr. Adams's Plan to Change their Future

From the start, Mrs. Adams has tried to get her husband to dump his job. She believes he's wasted years under old man Lamb, who has profited greatly from Adams's work but never truly appreciated him. There's some secret behind the couple's tension that comes out during Adams's convalescence. They argue a bit about old Mr. Lamb, with the mother attacking and the father defending. Later, old man Lamb comes to visit Mr. Adams, bringing cheer and an infectious optimism. Mrs. Adams tells her husband that he's cheap, that they've only ever just gotten by, and that she doesn't want things for herself but for her children. This finally lights a fire under Adams, who quits his job and opens a glue factory. He had made a glue discovery years ago was while working for Lamb, but Lamb lost interest in the project. There seems a legal question about the rights to the glue formula. Mr. Adams asks Walter to leave his job with Lamb and Company, and come to work in the glue enterprise, but Walter demands $300 upfront bonus, which Adams refuses to pay. This later turns out to be for some debt that Walter leaves town over.

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