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Bridging an Internal Divide: The Search for Personal Reconciliation in the Works of Henry Adams

The perspective of the author often is revealed in the way reality is fictionalized. Henry Adams, novelist, freelance political journalist, and the descendant of two U.S. Presidents was internally divided by a “nagging crisis,” a dilemma present in two of his early novels; Democracy, published in 1880, and Esther, published in 1884, provide insight into the mind and conflicted feelings of Adams. While these two novels allowed Adams to explore issues he dealt with in a fictional world, in The Education of Henry Adams, which was made publicly available in 1913, and was semi-autobiographical, the internal conflict Adams wrestled with becomes clear. “The bearing of the two seasons on the education of Henry Adams was no fancy; it was the most decisive force he ever knew; it ran through life and made the division between it perplexing, warring, irreconcilable problems, irreducible opposites, with growing emphasis to the last year of study. From the earliest childhood the boy was accustomed to feel that, for him, life was double.”[1] Inside of this American with a fine pedigree was the acceptance that he was only a manikin, a figure shaped by external forces, and his “education,” or understanding of the world as he reached his final year would be the perspective he would leave life occupying. The “essential lines of this nagging crisis are commonly drawn in the form of contrasts: confidence and doubt, freedom and constraint, liberation and domination.”[2] The female characters in Democracy and Esther emanate from this internal division Adams felt and they embody many symptoms of the neurasthenia that made the writer feel as if he were “just jellyfish, and flabby defunct as the dodo.”[3] By looking at the search for understanding and the skepticism such a journey aroused in Adams’s female characters, many of the dichotomies he encountered in post-Civil War life become clearer. Democracy and Esther capture the thoughts of Adams during a tumultuous time in his life, while Education provides evidence that the internal struggles of his female characters were not purely fiction, but emerged from the author’s own persistent internal crisis.

Published as an anonymous work, Democracy wastes little time in pointing out the most important character of the novel, as Mrs. Lightfoot Lee is introduced on the opening page. She is “tortured by ennui” and this feeling is made insufferable in New York, where the circumstance of her daily life forces her to wonder, “What was it all worth, this wilderness of men and women as monotonous as the brown stone houses they lived in?”[4] Feeling her own neurasthenia due to her life in New York, she realizes she must leave, a departure likely hastened by the death of her husband and child. The condition afflicting Lee was also a problem for Henry Adams, as both were trapped, confined to a particular life because of their wealth and social status. “It has at last become possible for large numbers of people to pass from cradle to grave without having had a pang of genuine fear,” and this overwhelming lack of any threat instilled a state of apathy, or neurasthenia.[5] Mrs. Madeline Lee decides to head south, traveling to the pre-Civil War northern capital of Washington, DC. As the federal government expanded following the Civil War, the will of men was extended into the daily lives of citizens through a centralized, bureaucratic system. Mrs. Madeline Lightfoot Lee finds herself eager to witness how men with differing political ideologies and desires were shaping and administering the modern American democracy. “She wanted to see with her own eyes the action of primary forces; to touch with her own hand the massive machinery of society; to measure with her own mind the capacity of the motive power. She was bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.”[6] It is difficult to assert specifically what Lee expects to find, but she is willing to investigate Capitol Hill herself and witness what forces power the system in person.

It does not take long for Madeline Lee and her companion, younger sister Miss Sybil Ross, to make connections with the elite members of society who hold power in the capital city. They make the transition from the bourgeoisie social scene in New York to Washington quite easily, meeting politicians as well as others with the ability to shape national politics. Madeline was thirty and “not an orthodox member of the church; sermons bored her, and clergymen never failed to irritate every nerve in her excitable system.”[7] Sybil was six years younger and “transparent,” which is the opposite of how Madeline is portrayed. Though the sisters differ significantly, they both share the ability to inspire strong feelings in the chests of local politicians, diplomats, and other high-class men, who are eager to make the acquaintance of the two women. When Madeline meets Mr. Silas P. Ratcliffe, Senator from Illinois, she felt like she could fulfill her search and uncover a deeper understanding of the democratic American political system. “She wanted to understand this man; to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young physiologists use frogs and kittens.”[8] Madeline is eager to apply scientific reason in order to uncover the mysteries of politics in Washington. Whether she is naive or optimistic, what her inquiry eventually reveals about the American democracy is unsettling.

Henry Adams experienced the death of his wife and sister, events providing him with the insight to create a believable character in Madeline. While Mrs. Lee suffered the loss of her husband and daughter, Henry’s sister, “after ten days of fiendish torture, [she] died in convulsions.”[9] In a time of personal chaos, each of them, real and imagined, desired to find some meaning, a reason to understand their spiritual purpose in life. While Adams eliminates the twenty years during which he was married to his wife Marian and suffers from depression following her suicide from the work, Madeline’s search is the centerpiece of the Democracy’s story; she is the believer who eventually reveals that the novel’s title is a misnomer, a false categorization of the American political system she encounters. A Capitol insider tells her he has “known dozens of senators...and they are all like that. They never think of any one but themselves.”[10] It is not long after this warning that she sees the vacuity of Washington’s elite for herself. At a public event she sees the President and his wife for the first time, finding them to be so mechanical and lifeless looking that they seem unreal, as if they are made from wood or wax.

No one more perfectly illustrates the innately selfish politicians Madeline is warned about than Silas Ratcliffe. From their encounters on the political social scene to paying visiting her at home, Ratcliffe begins to appreciate the beauty and class of Madeline. He sees in her the chance to change through a union, one with ramifications for his political career, which will always remain his central devotion in life. “He felt that Mrs. Lee was more necessary to him than the Presidency itself; he could not go on without her...”[11] Madeline though remains skeptical, continually reminded that beneath the surface of the District, and Ratcliffe, exists a morally questionable character. Even the Illinois Senator’s religious devotions were politically motivated. “He always attended morning service…not wholly on the ground of religious conviction, but because of a large number of his constituents were church-going people and he would not willingly shock their principle so long as he needed their votes.”[12] Madeline was in search of understanding American democracy and she was finding that Ratcliffe was proving it to be a corrupt system.

If the conflict Mrs. Lee experienced in Washington created cognitive dissonance in her mind regarding the American political system, her life was complicated by the presence of two suitors. Though not an elected delegate, John Carrington is a former Confederate soldier who works in Washington as a lawyer. Both Carrington and Ratcliffe are equally enamored with Madeline, but hold differing reasons to desire her companionship as a wife. While she was internally feeling “life was double,” growing to see the divergence between democracy and the American version of democracy, her external world was split by the attention of two men, one from Illinois and one from Virginia. Eventually finding it impossible to remain silent, Carrington tells Madeline that, “For the first time in my life I have known what it is to forget my own affairs in loving a woman who seems to me without a fault, and for one solitary word from whom I would give all I have in life, and perhaps life itself.”[13] Adams offers a male character that is willing to place a woman before himself, to sacrifice dominance or control for a chance to be with a strong, moral female character. Ratcliffe however remains dedicated to his political life, unwilling to devote himself to Madeline, consider her a useful tool in expanding his Capitol power. The senator is aware of the morally corrupt and vacuous life he has to lead in the political realm, which is another reason why he covets Madeline. “Domestic life is the salvation of many men, but I have for many years been deprived of it.”[14] Both men profess their love for Madeline, explaining why they must capture her fancy. Between the two suitors, her daily experiences with men were divided in two, one man willing to compromise, and another seeing Mrs. Lee as a useful adornment to his career.

The conflict evident in the life of the central character in Esther is even more pronounced than in Madeline’s character in Democracy. In the four years between the two novels, Adams’s desire to create a fictional conflict that reflected his own two-ness grew in magnitude. Whether it was simply to be more direct, or his ability as a writer evolved in this period, Esther finds herself be exposed to two “educations” at once. Henry Adams’s idea of “education” is not strictly the experience of sitting in a classroom and hearing a lecture, but refers more broadly to a set of thoughts or ideas which provide an interpretive paradigm to view the world. A particular school of thought, such as that of Kantian philosophy or the will to believe of William James, are each an “education” which provides a way to interpret the world. “The surface was ready to take any form that the education should cut into it...”[15] Adams believed in this, which fueled his desire to find an education which satisfied his desire for understanding. The mind of the individual was a “manikin,” a form open to numerous configurations depending upon intellectual experience and perspective, in the opinion of Henry Adams.

Esther finds herself pulled towards an “education” centered in the church. Sitting in St. John’s Cathedral, she listens as a young preacher delivers his sermon. Hearing the words, Esther is in fact more intrigued by the unwavering attention the congregation pays to Reverend Stephen Hazard. “He took possession of his flock with a general advertisement that he owned every sheep in it, white or black, and to show that there could be no doubt on the matter, he added a general claim to right on property in all mankind and the universe.”[16] Hierarchically pronounced dogma of a much less powerful nature was enough to drive Ralph Waldo Emerson from the clergy. For Esther Dudley, who like Henry Adams and Madeline Lee, experienced the grief of having a loved one die, the level of the faith Hazard is able to inspire in the churchgoers is impressive. Hazard and Esther begin to see one another outside of church, and in it as well; Esther is an amateur painter and works on decorating the walls of the cathedral. Esther is already suffering a weak constitution - the jellyfish Adams’s wrote of - without the added complications of a relationship with Hazard, telling Wharton, who is painting the church along with her: “I wish I earned my living. You don’t know what it is to work without an object.”[17] Living in the same city as Adams’s Madeline, Esther feels a similar ennui, one stemming from the trappings of bourgeois life.

Reverend Hazard is a compelling figure for Esther, especially after hearing him deliver a sermon to the congregation. In the chaos caused by the death of her father, with whom she shared a strong bond as the result of Esther’s mother passing away when she was a young girl, the journey is underway. Death compelled or pushed Henry Adams, Madeline Lee and Esther Dudley to search for meaning. Madeline Lee applied the controlled conditions of a physiologist working in a laboratory to her investigation of American democracy. From his religiously chaste perspective, Hazard perceives that Esther puts too much zeal into her desire to find scientific proof which will solve the quest for understanding. Hazard points out, “You need what is called faith, and you are trying to get to it by reason. It can’t be done.”[18] One possible “education” which can fulfill the spiritual desires of Esther is formal religion; Reverend Hazard represents the outcome of putting faith in a Christian conception of the world. He urges her to forgo her adherence to scientific principles and asks Esther, “What do you gain by getting rid of one incomprehensible only to put a greater one in its place, and throw away your only hope besides?”[19] The pain of her father’s loss, the stifling ennui of her life spent painting without the need to earn a living, and a broader journey to find meaning all combine to push Esther to seek her own suitable “education.”

But religion was not the only perspective, or “education,” which offered an explanation and understanding of what plagued Esther. She is told by her cousin, George Strong, that “science alone is truth.”[20] Truth was achievable, and the chance to settle her internal double life, but the two paths to reconciliation between her mind and a higher understanding differed vastly. Reverend Hazard offers the ritualized practice of worship in a church, one where the rituals he leads serve as the focal point. He represents organized religion and the chance to find salvation through weekly prayer at St. John’s. The alternate system of understanding to this formal religion is the agnosticism promoted by the scientific rationality of George Strong. For Madeline, the internal conflict is created by a scientific search for order, morality, and understanding in the American democratic system. The presence of Ratcliffe and Carrington compounds her confusion, doubling both her inner and outer worlds. The man, and the perspective of democracy - necessarily corrupt or simply imbalanced - she chooses will shape the course of her existence.

The internal disorder experienced by Madeline and Esther is caused by their choice in which “education” each assumes or believes. For Madeline, the choice is between political faith and acceptance of corruption, while Esther must decide if science or agnosticism provides more inner fulfillment. Their respective quests unfold in relation to male suitors, but the central tension in Democracy and Esther is that of the quest for personal revelation. From the way in which the two women form relationships with the males wishing to suit their companionship needs, it seems that the internal discord is strong enough to cause ambivalent behavior. Carrington, the lawyer, accepts that Madeline is a strong and independent woman, one deserving of the space to make her own decisions on which paradigm to employ in interpreting the world. “For months his heart had ached with this hopeless passion. He recognized that it was hopeless. He knew that she would never love him, and, to do her justice, she never had given him reason to suppose that it was in her power to love him, or any man.”[21] Carrington, less dogmatic and willing to accept Madeline’s independence, perceives her need to assert her will by finding her own truth. Rather than imposing his own will, the Virginia rebel has already fought his war and proven his masculinity; honoring Madeline’s decision to not chose him did not challenge to emasculate this valiant former soldier.

Instead of making it easy on Madeline, Ratcliffe is adamant that his will can subsume Madeline’s. His political career, which is his main passion in life, will be enhanced by his union with Madeline. Ratcliffe, with a name that implies a corrupt nature (as in “Rat”), discloses his immoral practices as a politician, explaining his behavior in a dismissive manner. He thinks Madeline will be persuaded to accept his will, like a politician whose vote can be purchased with a bribe. He is demanding in his desire for Madeline. “I must have it. You alone can give it to me. You are kind, thoughtful, conscientious, high-minded, cultivated, fitted better than any woman I ever saw, for public duties.”[22] Despite this pressure, Madeline resists the attraction of a strong, educated man, one she does feel an attraction towards. Unequivocally she explains that, “Mr. Ratcliffe, I am not to be bought. No rank, no dignity, no consideration, no conceivable expedient would induce me to change my mind.”[23] Madeline is not only a strong character, but she is inquisitive and willing to be alone if it means she has a better chance of uncovering the most suitable “education” for herself. For her, “men were valuable only in proportion to their strength and their appreciation of women.”[24]

In spite of Senator Ratcliffe’s political maneuvering, he cannot win the one thing he believes his life positively requires. Whether or not Mrs. Lightfoot Lee is naive, by the end of the novel, she found the understanding which drew her to Washington. “She had got to the bottom of this business of democratic government, and found out that it was nothing more than government of any other kind.”[25] Democracy, as she discovers, is certainly not democratic, which becomes apparent when Madeline learns that Ratcliffe used his influence on Capitol Hill to eliminate Carrington as a competitor for her affection. Even though Madeline told Sybil, her younger sister, that she would wed Ratcliffe, his corrupt politics push Mrs. Lee away. “Was it politics that had caused this atrophy of the moral senses by disuse?” she wondered, finding that Ratcliffe’s behavior proved that the heart of the American democratic government was not necessarily mysterious, but definitely in an unhealthy state. Democracy was not the way to create order amidst the chaos of the post-Civil War “megaphonic” era.[26] In spite of her optimistic hopes, Madeline realizes that corruption is seemingly endemic to Washington.

The men competing for Esther’s affection create an external conflict, which is directly related to the “education” paradigm they represent. George Strong, college professor of paleontology – is a man of science. Esther respects his opinion as an educator, asking him, “is religion true?”[27] Esther’s Aunt Sarah Murray believes that even though George is her cousin, he is the best suited mate for the painter. He offers the chance to unify the double life Esther is leading, one conflicted by the choice between agnosticism and religion; he understands that there is not a physical division in men’s souls. “I can tell you all about the mound-builders or cave-men, so far as known, but I could not tell you the difference between the bones of a saint and those of a heathen.”[28] As a scientist, Strong is pointing out that there does not have to be an original sin, nor an inherent dichotomy between good and bad, heathen and saint. But, he is careful to realize the limitations of this similarity at the basic level of one’s skeleton. He does not believe in science as a terminus, a supreme form of “education,” but thinks that his service to “help in making it truer,” is worthwhile, since science is capable of removing the continual conflict faced in life.[29] George Strong, a hearty name for a character, is a man representing the faith to believe, but the desire for empirical proof.

Reverend Hazard, as a result of his religious beliefs, is more interested in putting faith in the church and its doctrine. His idea of courtship involved the casting of his will upon the desires of Esther. Writing to her cousin, Esther informs him that she is aware of one thing: “All I know about it is that I can’t be a clergyman’s wife…”[30] Rather than accepting a faith forced upon her by Hazard, Esther is honest with herself and aware of the challenges George’s field offered to counter the orthodoxy the Reverend wishes she will embrace. “I am hopelessly wicked! I can’t go to church every Sunday or hold my tongue or pretend to be pious.”[31] Caught between religion and science, skeptical that either could provide a thorough understanding of the world, Esther continued to paint, resisting the force of Hazard. Much like Madeline, Esther is a strong female character, one intrigued by men, but adamant in finding her own understanding and asserting personal will. An indication of how Henry Adams felt about women, and why he created two such strong female characters in his novels is provided in his Education. “Adams owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of, and felt not the smallest call to defend his sex who seemed to be able to take care of themselves...affirming that the woman was superior.”[32] The reluctance of Madeline and Esther to enter into a union with men who threaten to usurp their independence reflects the admiration Adams felt for the opposite sex.

Writing about issues he personally experienced through fictional characters did not alleviate the external forces which trouble Henry Adams. The death of his sister sent him in search of understanding, while he struggled to overcome the tedium vitae William James considered innate to members of the bourgeois class towards the end of the nineteenth century. Writing his own semi-autobiography, the duality of life, and the ability of “education” to change perspective remained an issue Adams explored. For all of his honesty and willingness to struggle through personal confusion in an effort to locate meaning, it is significant that Adams left out the pain he experienced after the suicide of his wife. Throughout his Education, Adams returns to this idea of the internal conflict he experienced throughout his life. “The violence of the contrast was real and made the strongest motive for education. The double exterior nature gave life its relative values. Winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, force and freedom, marked two modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain.”[33] From the structure of the human brain, to the contrast between seasons, Adams felt the pull between opposite forces. In Democracy and Esther, he uses the main characters as manikins, fictional forms which allow him to examine his own feelings about the inner disorder of modern life.

As the hegemony of religion faded, and the confusion of James’s “megaphonic” era overstimulated one’s mind, it was necessary to find a new “education.” From his own experiences as a member of an elite family, to his life in Washington, Adams perceived the problems with the democratic government of the nation. Esther was deeply troubled by the loss of her father and Adams knew the affect such a death could have on a woman; Marian, his wife, was driven to her own death by the loss of her father. He indicates the depth of his own personal troubles well in Education, pointing towards the “jellyfish” life that plagued him, which is felt by both Madeline and Esther. “So passes the whole of life. We combat obstacles in order to get repose, and, when got, the repose is insupportable; for we think either of the troubles we have, or of those that threaten us; and even if we felt safe on every side, ennui would of its own accord spring up from the depths of the heart where it is rooted by nature, and would fill the mind with its venom.”[34]

Over thirty years before Henry Adams was willing to write about how his own “life was a double,” he explored the inner disorder created by daily life through characters in his novels. This division was naturally experienced, like the momentary connecting with the eternal moon, and the subsequent return to dilemmas of daily life, both big and small. But, the possible solution to creating internal unity was in the “education,” or paradigm that one employs in order to find meaning. Adams is able to explore relationships between men and women in detail, a piece missing from Education. Both Madeline and Esther finally conclude that it is best to remain single, to reject the men who covet their love. Ratcliffe is not merely politically corrupt, but reprehensible for his casual ability to justify his behavior. The democracy of Senator Ratcliffe suffered from moral bankruptcy, since he was elected to be a public official, but was nothing more than a well-dressed scoundrel. Madeline understood after traveling to Washington and meeting Ratcliffe the actual rules which dictated American democracy: “Wealth, office, power are at auction. Who bids highest? Who hates with most venom? Who intrigues with most skill? Who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, the darkest, and the most, political work? He shall have his reward.”[35] Once she gained an understanding of Reverend Hazard and his church, Esther succinctly described her dissonance with his system of education. “It must be that we are in a new world now, for I can see nothing spiritual about the church. It is all personal and selfish.”[36] Through the leading characters in his novels Democracy and Esther, Henry Adams explored the way in which he felt a dualism of life, an ongoing conflict within himself. Religion or science, faith in morality or skepticism, each placed differing requirements on the personal will. Madeline and Esther, though it was difficult, chose to pursue their own understanding and assert their own will. Pushed by the pain of death and eager to find an education which satisfied their desire to understand their world, Madeline and Esther, and Henry Adams, accepted the dualism of life and allowed the resulting ambivalence to serve as a reason to find meaning.

Closing in on the twilight of his own education, the crucial end of his study and intellectual journey, it is not clear that Henry Adams reached an understanding that provided contentment. Death and a fear of inertness pushed him to write, think and explore, as he refused to accept the tedium vitae his family name threatened to impose upon his life. In the twenty-fourth chapter of Education, entitled “The Abyss of Ignorance,” Adams contemplates the search for unity and the faith of religion. “True, the Church alone had asserted unity with any conviction, and the historian alone knew what oceans of blood and treasure the assertion had cost; but the only honest alternative to affirming unity was to deny it; and the denial would require a new education. At sixty-five years old a new education promised hardly more than the old.”[37] Science and religion were diametrically opposed and a sense of resignation in Adams is apparent. In a way, his final education was not the discovery of a gratifying paradigm, but the choice between two contradicting forces, a conflict he lacked the time to resolve. At least Henry Adams refused to live his life as a jellyfish and valiantly struggled to find his own meaning.


Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Adams, Henry. Esther. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1938.

Adams, Henry. Democracy: An American Novel. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1908.

Cotkin, George. William James: Public Philosopher. Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1994.

[1] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 14.

[2] George Cotkin, William James: Public Philosopher. (Illinois: Illinois University Press, 1994), 74.

[3] Cotkin, 75.

[4] Henry Adams, Democracy: An American Novel. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1908), 1-2.

[5] Cotkin, 71.

[6] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 10.

[7] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 17.

[8] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 36.

[9] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 242.

[10] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 56.

[11] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 152.

[12] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 153.

[13] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 260.

[14] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 309.

[15] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 39.

[16] Henry Adams, Esther. (New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1938), 6.

[17]Adams, Esther 117.

[18] Adams, Esther 201.

[19] Adams, Esther, 290.

[20] Adams, Esther, 72.

[21] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 235.

[22] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 310.

[23] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 365.

[24] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 100.

[25] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 342.

[26] Cotkin, 74.

[27] Adams, Esther, 198.

[28] Adams, Esther, 198.

[29] Adams, Esther, 198.

[30] Adams, Esther, 269.

[31] Adams, Esther, 230.

[32] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 369.

[33] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 12.

[34] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 357.

[35] Adams, Democracy: An American Novel, 114.

[36] Adams, Esther, 297.

[37] Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 359.

Last Updated: 8/12/16