Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons

Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Author: Booth Tarkington
List: #100 on Modern Library Board’s Top 100 20th Century Novels
Worth reading? Yes.

Magnificent indeed are the Ambersons, living as the ruling elite in a small, but burgeoning, Midwest town at the turn of the 20th century.  Social life revolves around the Ambersons, as does the gossip, and the Ambersons set the bar with their sense of fashion and their lavish parties.  The wealth and power of the Ambersons culminates in the patriarch’s only grandchild, George Amberson Minafer.  George grows up spoiled, arrogant, convinced that he owns not only the town, but also the world, and completely indifferent to the concerns and feelings of those around him.  He has no idea that others frown upon his behavior, but even if he did, he would not care because he believes everyone should respect him and conform to his worldview.

George is also unconscious of a world changing around him.  He believes his family will always be powerful and rich and sees no reason why his, or anyone else’s, behavior should change with the times.  Although he attends college, he does not intend to enter a profession because he prefers “being” something rather than “doing” something.  Secure in his reliance on his grandfather’s wealth to support him, he fully intends on living life as a “gentleman.”

While home from college for the holidays, George meets and falls in love with Lucy Morgan, the beautiful and sensible daughter of an automobile inventor and manufacturer.  Unbeknownst to George, Lucy’s father and George’s mother have a long history extending to before the marriage of George’s parents.  George has no confidence in Mr. Morgan’s business, believes automobiles are just a fad, and treats Mr. Morgan quite shamefully.  Most tellingly, he ignores Mr. Morgan’s prediction that the development of automobiles, trolleys, and faster transportation will turn the small town into a larger and larger city that will change everything George takes for granted.

The novel elegantly describes the transformation industry brought to towns across America and the supplanting of old family money by new wealth derived from innovation and industry.  The novel’s descriptions of George’s arrogance are written in a tongue-in-cheek manner so that you can almost hear the author’s suppressed laughter in descriptions of George’s actions and attitude.  Towards the end of the novel, however, the mood becomes more serious as George’s world turns upside down.  Even though, like many of the people George interacts with, readers may despise his lack of feeling and arrogance, it is almost impossible not to like him, and, at the end, not to sympathize with his anguish.

I would recommend reading The Magnificent Ambersons.  It is a short, light, amusing read, but also a quite poignant read in its conclusion.  Besides the amusing writing and the author’s skill in telling the tale, I can think of another reason it may have been placed on the Modern Library Board’s list:  It perfectly describes the effects of technological and industrial changes on American culture and morals at the start of the 20th century and reminds us that these types of changes continue to affect our lives and relationships today.

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