From its inception, Adams thought of the Education as an experimental work of literature. A part-time novelist, the author here employs several of the devices of fiction. For example, the story is told through a third-person narrator who rarely goes inside the minds of subjects other than Henry. Henry himself is more of a literary device than a person. Adams tells his readers in the "Preface" of February 16, 1907, that Henry should be thought of as a "manikin, on which the toilet [attire] of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes." This is not a biography of a person; it is more a biography of an education: "The object of study is the garment, not the figure." Nor does the story have to rely on fact. Like a good novelist, Adams is more interested in truth, whether the details fit or not, as he reveals when describing Henry's trip to Washington in 1850: "The actual journey may have been quite different, but the actual journey has no interest for education." The method and direction of this literary experiment carry his readers on a journey that is much like that of a novel. For illumination that is suggestive rather than definitive, it often relies on two devices that are found in various types of literature: symbol and theme.
The narrator often speaks cryptically in the Education, implying rather than stating his point explicitly. It is anyone's guess how consciously this is done, but his symbols range from cities to machines to religious icons to an ancient fish.
Adams is as interested in places as he is in people, and sometimes he speaks of places as if they represent all the people in them. Employing one of his favorite devices, contrast, he opens the book with a comparison of two places that were important to Henry as a boy and will continue to be significant throughout the work: Boston and Quincy. For Henry, Boston is and will remain many things that he detests. It represents "confinement, school, rule, discipline; straight, gloomy streets . . . restraint, law, unity." State Street, the financial district of Boston, embodies a side of life that Adams struggles against all his life. As an adult, he feels that too much power is invested in bankers and financial manipulators. Worse, the financial leaders of State Street in Henry's youth are mostly pro-slavery, anathema to Henry. Quincy, on the other hand, represents "liberty, diversity, outlawry, the endless delight of mere sense impressions. . . ." Summers are spent in Quincy; and summer, with the one amusing exception of an appointment with summer school, means freedom to Henry. Just as important, Quincy is the ancestral home of the family. There is no pro-slavery sentiment at Quincy. At the end of the first chapter, the narrator wonders if perhaps Henry should have opted for the "fatted calf" of State Street rather than the journey he is about to take. But there is no doubt that Henry would always choose Quincy, reform, integrity, and freedom.
Other places work symbolically in this experimental book. Washington, D. C., provides its own dichotomy for Henry. On the one hand, it represents hope and democracy. On the other, Washington too often stands for practical politics, frustration, and even corruption. An example of each is the first Grant administration (1869-1873), beginning, as Henry thinks it does, with bright possibility but soon turning to lethargy, compromise and the apparent malfeasance linking it to Jay Gould's attempt to corner the gold market in September 1869. Still, Henry does ultimately choose to settle in Washington. It is, after all, the center of political action for the country and, increasingly, the world; and Henry, for all his denial, thrives on politics.
The cities of Europe represent a mixture of values. When Henry first visits Berlin (1858), ostensibly to study law, it has not yet experienced the renaissance that will make it an outstanding world city. At this time, it is notoriously unsanitary. To Henry, it represents the side of the German character that is dull, repressive, and dogmatic. Paris and Rome, in contrast, are inspiring in aesthetic and spiritual ways. Henry will become accustomed to spending summers in Paris even in his later years when his health is in question. But it is London that Henry talks about most in the Education. Indulging in a favorite ploy of paradox, the narrator presents some of his infamous English stereotypes at the beginning of Chapter XII: "The English mind was one-sided, eccentric, systematically unsystematic and logically illogical. The less one knew of it the better." Henry carries a family resentment of the English that is left over from the American Revolution and exacerbated by social and political conditions in London during the American Civil War. However, his heritage and his concept of legal justice are British. London represents a mixed bag of values for Henry. Devoted as he is to complexity, it is the perfect place for him to grow to maturity.
Cuba is the only third-world locale visited in the Education, but it is not Henry's only island experience. During the twenty years that the narrator skips (1872-1892), Adams traveled extensively in the South Seas with John La Farge, visiting, among other places, Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, and Fiji. Henry had a typical Westerner's fascination with island life and even wrote a pseudo-autobiographical work based on his experience, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa, Last Queen of Tahiti (1893). To Henry, the islands represent extreme freedom, life without the restrictions of his home civilization; if he sometimes seems patronizing, that is part of the stereotype of the time as well as a reflection of his personality.
Two of the most important symbols in the Education have to do with time and philosophy rather than place: the Virgin and the dynamo. For Henry, the Virgin represents the comforting unity that the Church offered in the Middle Ages. In his studies of medieval philosophy and architecture, Henry finds a stable point of view in which the purpose of man is clearly identified; God and the Church and mankind all form a single entity, providing clarity of direction and moral purpose. While he is not personally devoted to any single religion, Adams views medieval life with nostalgia. The icons of the Church — the gothic cathedral, communion, and the cross — provide tactile representation of God's love for man and mankind's responsibility to a higher meaning. The dynamo, a generator for producing electric current, represents modern science and the multiplicity of contemporary philosophy to Adams. While he may not prefer it, Henry believes that science is replacing religion as the dominating force in the lives of mankind. In his "Dynamic Theory of History," Adams argues that religion, the magnetic force that attracted mankind in the Middle Ages, has been replaced steadily, throughout the nineteenth century, by the force of science. He sees the future as an enormous chaos of scientific force that mankind will not deter but can only manage by making some sort of leap of intellect. This is the dilemma that occupies Henry during the last several chapters of the Education.
Perhaps the most charming symbol in the Education is the Pteraspis, "cousin of the sturgeon," a fossil of a jawless fish that existed some 400 million years ago. During a discussion of evolution, the noted geologist Sir Charles Lyell tells Henry that the first vertebrate was "a very respectable fish, among the earliest of all fossils, which had lived, and whose bones were still reposing, under Adams's own favorite Abbey on Wenlock Edge." Henry is delighted. Throughout the work, he refers to Pteraspis as to an old friend who represents permanence and continuity, a heritage beyond the limitations of Boston, London, or Berlin. "To an American in search of a father," the narrator tells us, "it mattered nothing whether the father breathed through lungs, or walked on fins, or on feet." Adams loves the esoteric, and the Pteraspis is made for him. If it had not existed, he would have had to invent it. It is a literary symbol, the sort of device one might find in a novel rather than a history or a biography and, therefore, appropriate to this experimental hybrid that the author is creating.
Adams also employs themes in the manner of a novelist or even a musical composer. He introduces the theme and then returns to it, embellishing and augmenting as he goes. Important examples in the Education are loss of innocence, confronting exploitation, the Christian unity of the Middle Ages, and the scientific multiplicity of the modern era, each of which contributes to Henry's education.
Adams's understanding of "education" has more to do with experience than formal schooling. A step in gaining that experience is the loss of innocence that Henry encounters early in the work. In the opening chapters, readers find a young boy like many others, naïvely enjoying the freedoms of life and rather crossly annoyed by the restrictions. Henry's early life in Quincy, and for the most part in Boston, is innocent and carefree. His view of the world begins to change during his trip to Washington — and the slave states of Maryland and Virginia — with his father in 1850 (Chapter III). This sudden exposure to evil confuses Henry: "The more he was educated, the less he understood." Man's inhumanity to man is appalling, even to this twelve-year-old boy. He wants to flee the nightmare horror of slavery, the "sum of all wickedness." A political deal struck by some leaders of the Free Soil Party further disillusions Henry. They agree to support a pro-slavery democrat for the office of Governor of Massachusetts in exchange for democratic support of the Free Soil candidate for United States Senate. The narrator points out that this is Henry's "first lesson in practical politics." It is not his last. Any remnants of political innocence are stripped away during Henry's years in London (1861-1868).
As the Civil War worsens for the Union, the diplomatic situation in London is exacerbated (Chapter X). The narrator raises the question whether any politician can be trusted. Examples are Prime Minister Palmerston and the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Russell. With the South apparently on the brink of chasing President Lincoln from the White House, Palmerston writes Russell (September 14) and suggests diplomatic intervention on the side of the Confederacy. Russell responds even more strongly; he adamantly supports intervention regardless of the military situation. As the Union gains military advantage, Palmerston backs down. Russell, however, calls for a Cabinet meeting in hopes of intervention. He deceivingly tells Minister Adams that the policy of the British government simply is to "adhere to a strict neutrality." The cabinet votes down Russell's plan for intervention. All along, Henry has trusted Russell, whom the Minister, Charles Francis Adams, has liked but wisely not completely trusted. Russell has behaved like a practical politician, a lesson in experience for Henry.
Having lost his childhood innocence, Henry is prepared for his part in the struggle to confront exploitation of the weak and disenfranchised. This comes as second nature to him because of his experience with slavery and the family's position on that issue during the Civil War. He gets an opportunity to act during his early days as a reform journalist. On September 24, 1869, the price of gold crashes spectacularly, exposing a scheme involving financiers Jay Gould and James Fisk as well as President Grant's brother-in-law, a man named Corbin. Gould and Fisk attempt to corner the market on gold, which would ruin many small investors. The Secretary of the Treasury finally places $4,000,000 worth of government gold on sale, putting an end to the scheme. Gould, however, has somehow learned of the move beforehand and begins to sell just in time. The implication is that Gould had information from inside the Grant cabinet. Although he can never absolutely prove that connection, Henry's investigation into the scheme establishes his reputation as a reform journalist. In 1893, a different issue concerning gold calls for Henry's attention. This time, the question is whether international trade should be based exclusively on payment of balances in gold or on a combination of gold and silver. Adams supports the silver backers — primarily small businessmen, laborers, debtors, and farmers — because he is wary of the control of bankers and other gold capitalists, whom Henry calls gold-bugs.
After a visit to Cuba with Clarence King in 1894, Henry becomes devoted to the cause of Cuban independence from Spain, proposing to Congress a peaceful, diplomatic resolution titled "Recognition of Cuban Independence" (December 21, 1896). Because diplomacy fails, Adams welcomes the Spanish-American War of 1898, which results in Cuban independence.
Henry's interest in the Christian unity of the Middle Ages is part of one of the most important dichotomies in his character. Adams has gained an appreciation for the significance of the Church and its symbols — the Virgin, the mass, the cathedral — in the lives of fourteenth-century Christians. The Church is a unifying force, and Henry admires the comfort and direction that the people share. Near the end of 1900 or the beginning of 1901, he composes a poem titled "Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres." The poem expresses the theme and recognizes the force of medieval Christianity as expressed in the miracles attributed to the Virgin as well as in belief of the Madonna's capacity to intervene on behalf of her people through prayer. Having studied Gothic architecture intensely since 1895, Henry also writes his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, a historical and philosophical meditation on medieval unity, which is published in 1904.
In contrast, the last third of the Education is increasingly concerned with the scientific multiplicity of the modern era. Expositions in Chicago, Paris, and St. Louis attract Henry's attention to a new direction for mankind. The comfortable unity of the Middle Ages has been replaced by scientific multiplicity. There are no longer any simple answers. People must struggle to maintain control over scientific advance. Henry believes that mankind will need to make a dramatic increase in intellect just to deal with all of the scientific data arriving in the twentieth century. Part of his "Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres" (1900-1901) is a section titled "Prayer to the Dynamo"; in it, mankind has lost its innocence along with its unifying faith and finds itself in a materialistic world, worshipping the dynamo. Technology has replaced the Church. Adams does not necessarily prefer this. In fact, he seems nostalgic for the simple unity of the Middle Ages. But as a historian and an intellect, he must recognize what is happening and try to incorporate scientific thought into his own approach to history. This is the starting point of the closing chapters of the book in which he does develop a "Dynamic Theory of History" (1904). As a companion piece to the Chartres, Adams writes The Education of Henry Adams (1907), a study in multiplicity.
Within the context of an experimental work of literature, Adams makes effective use of symbol and theme. The result is a hybrid of biography, history, fiction, and philosophy, which Modern Library calls the best work of nonfiction in English in the twentieth century.