The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

Rating: *****

I had never heard of this book but, yet again, thanks to a book club, I was given an opportunity to read it and it left an impression on me.

It’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and while there have been some winning novels that I didn’t feel deserved the recognition, this is one everyone should read.

I read this book in a day, which is surprising because most classics take me a little longer. Most times, I am trying to decipher what the author is trying to say in pages of philosophical narrative. However, Tarkington relies on the reader to understand what he is saying and keeps it simple. He doesn’t over explain things and it keeps the story moving.

Tarkington revolves his story around the dawn of the automobile age with the focus on the richest family in town – the Ambersons. In a nut shell, the story is about the societal changes that are taking place and how the family is impacted by them.

The main protagonist is George Minafor Amberson, the spoiled grandson of the family patriarch. Right from the start, you want to dislike George. He is arrogant and spoiled and thinks that because his family is the richest in town, he is better than everyone else. He also comes between his mother and Eugene Morgan, who want to reignite their love after George’s father dies.  Because George is so worried about what others will think and the rumors that people are talking, he breaks them up. And yet, by the end of the book, you feel sorry for George and even like him.

George’s character develops slowly in the novel, the changes you do see are paramount.  In the beginning of the book, he is not well liked by anybody and they talk about his “comeuppance but it isn’t until the end of the book that he gets this “comeuppance” in an almost ironic or poetic way.  George is against the progress of the automobile and snubs it calling the automobile, “a nuisance.” Yet the very thing he hates is the thing that marks his down fall when he is rolled over by it.

George’s spinster aunt is another strong character. She seems weak at first, pining after a man who doesn’t love her but she is the one that sees George’s true character and calls him out on it. While everyone else talks about George behind his back, she is the one that tells him to his face and I think that George respects her for it and is why he ends up taking care of her.

I also liked Lucy. She is the daughter of Eugene Morgan who introduces the automobile in the town.  She and George have a relationship but she doesn’t fall for George’s “charms.” While she loves him, she refuses to marry him because he doesn’t want to do anything in life, which brings us to the underlying themes in the book.

One of the biggest ideas that Tarkington brings to the reader’s attention is the idea of being things vs. doing things. It’s not enough anymore for people with money to just be, to have their parties and live off of everyone else. For people to succeed or be wealthy they have to be doing things. Lucy loves George but because he refuses to get an occupation, she won’t marry him. It’s also what results in the downfall of the family.

However, Tarkington doesn’t beat you over the head with it. He introduces each theme gradually and through the character’s own experiences.

George is completely oblivious to this change in ideas but his family isn’t. His own grandfather, the one person you would think would scoff at the changes, knows that money is no longer coming in at the rate that it used to and when George has an idea to buy a tram to drive him around in, his grandfather changes the subject to spending the money on going to school to become a lawyer. The whole time, George is happy to live off the allowance he is given but it isn’t until the grandfather dies, that George realizes that there is no money.

It’s ironic. The richest family in the town is now one of the poorest and the name of the Amberson’s is obsolete, while the Morgan family, who was mocked in the beginning for being without, is now the richest family.

It’s at this point that George finally wakes up, if you will. He has to get a job and not just any job. They are in such a predicament that he has to get a dangerous job to get paid right away and at a wage that he can live on. I thinks its here that he finally grows up.

He also has a moment when they are at the boarding house and he sees a book listing the most prominent families in the city and his family is not listed.  It’s validated when he takes a walk and finds that the old Amberson mansion is no longer standing and the street sign that once said Amberson Boulevard now says 10th Avenue. But then George realizes that it’s a not slight on his family but how society is changing. It won’t stop with his family. Morgan’s family which is now the richest family won’t be in a few years and it will keep going.

In reading about the author, it is said that Tarkington wanted this book to be a political wake up call. He saw the societal changes that the automobile industry was having and wanted to bring it to the forefront. It’s what makes this book so important because you don’t just have to stop at the automobile industry. Look at how the technology age has changed society in the early 2,000s. In a few years, it will  be something else and Bill Gates who is one of the richest men won’t be. It is why this book is as important now as it was then.




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