The Magnificent Ambersons ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
It’s the fin de siècle (end of the nineteenth century) in Midwestern America. The Ambersons are the wealthiest family in a town that is about to become a city, thanks to industrialization. The patriarch of the family, Major Amberson, a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War, has made a fortune and then sits back and watches as his family spends his money. He has a son, George Amberson, who makes bad business investments while being a gentleman of leisure. Major Amberson’s daughter, Isabel, is the prettiest girl in town. Eugene Morgan, a friend of George Amberson, is interested in Isabel but, for her own complicated reasons, she chooses to marry dull and steady Wilbur Minafer. Wilbur and Isabel have one son, George Amberson Minafer, who is spoiled terribly by his doting mother, his Aunt Fanny (his father’s sister) and the rest of the family. He grows up with an astounding sense of entitlement; he is brash, arrogant, condescending and not very likeable, although he is admired for his good looks and aristocratic bearing.
When Eugene Morgan again comes into the lives of the Ambersons (he left after Isabel jilted him), he is an up-and-coming inventor of automobiles (“horseless carriages”) and a widower, with a pretty post-adolescent daughter named Lucy. When young George Amberson Minafer meets Lucy at a “ball” given at the Amberson mansion on New Year’s Eve, he is drawn to her in a way that he doesn’t quite understand. When he learns that his own mother and Lucy’s father, Eugene Morgan, were once romantically involved, he takes an immediate dislike to Morgan. He believes that “horseless carriages” are only a silly passing fad and will never take the place of the reliable old horse. He never passes up a chance to insult Morgan and his profession.
George’s father dies fairly young (he was never very healthy, anyway, and he worked too hard) and the way seems open for Eugene and Isabel to resume their courtship of old. George is not going to stand for it, however. Despite his interest in (and growing love for) Eugene Morgan’s daughter, Lucy, he will do anything in his power to keep his mother and Eugene Morgan from getting together again. He is appalled at the prospect that they might marry. When he realizes that the “riffraff” of the town is openly gossiping about his mother and Morgan, suggesting that they were “carrying on” while his father was still alive, he takes matters into his own hands and makes a complete fool of himself. As his uncle George tells him afterwards, the worst way to deal with gossip is to acknowledge it or try to set it right.
Despite all that’s happened, Isabel still believes her son Georgie is an “angel”; she worships and adores him unquestioningly. When he insists that he take her on a “tour of the world” for an indefinite period of time to remove her from the grasp of Eugene Morgan and from the gossiping in their home town, she has no other choice but to comply. George believes he is doing the right thing for his mother but, blinded by his own narrow-mindedness and sense of outraged morality, he is doing more harm than good.
While George and Isabel are busy gallivanting around Italy and other foreign places, things are not going well back home for the Ambersons. Their once-lovely little town is growing into a thriving, industrialized—not to mention dirty and grimy—city. All the people they knew are either dead or moved away, replaced by hordes of foreigners and immigrants. Amberson is not such an important or well-recognized name as it once was. The once-pretty vistas of their hometown are replaced by sordidness and squalor, boarding houses and cheap apartment buildings. More importantly for the Ambersons, their great wealth is dwindling, through unwise investments and negligence. (When Major Amberson builds a beautiful mansion for Isabel to live in upon her marriage, he just happens to omit the important detail of providing her with a deed to the property, which nobody realizes they don’t have until it’s too late.) The Ambersons are not able to keep up with the times; they make the mistake of not foreseeing the societal and economic changes that are going on around them. They seem to believe their insular world will last forever.
More than anything else, The Magnificent Ambersons is about change. While the Ambersons are unable or unwilling to adapt to their changing world, Eugene Morgan becomes successful and makes a fortune at manufacturing and improving the automobile. He is the antithesis of the Ambersons. His name, Morgan, becomes as important in its own way as the Amberson name was in their own high-flying time. He possesses the important attribute of adaptability, which the Ambersons lack.
Indiana native Booth Tarkington wrote The Magnificent Ambersons in 1918. It has the distinction of being on the Modern Library’s list of the hundred best books in English of the twentieth century. It’s a readable and accessible American classic, one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve read it twice in my life, the first time decades ago; the second time I read it I liked it just as much as the first time. The memorable movie version, made in 1942, is one of those rare film adaptations that does justice to the book on which it’s based. Most of the dialogue in the movie is lifted word-for-word from the book.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp