George Amberson Minafer is one of the most insufferable characters I have encountered. He made it impossible to get through this book. In doing some research for the book, I found out that in addition to the Orson Welles movie, The Magnificent Ambersons was also a made-for-tv movie in 2002. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays the role of George Amberson Minafer. If you are familiar with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers you will realize how perfect that casting was. No one plays a whiny bitchy snob like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, god bless him.
The Ambersons are an aristocratic family that made their money in the years after the Civil War; the way that the money was made is never really explained, just that they have lived in “magnificence” since 1873. None of them have really done much since then — one Amberson is in politics, but the rest of them just live off the family money. Isabel, Major Amberson’s daughter, married Wilbur Minafer, after stringing along him and another beau named Eugene Morgan, and gave birth to the unholy terror that is George Amberson Minafer.
What the book basically boils down to is George is a spoiled brat who is accustomed to getting whatever he wants. Of course, the deeper meaning is that time and money are fickle, as the Amberson family is losing their fortune and are unable to catch up to the Industrial Age. George pugnaciously refuses to give any stock to the “electric carriages,” opting instead to use horses.
George returns from college, and several people in the town remark on the fact that he is just as horrid as before and how they had so hoped that he would have “got what was coming to him,” and attends a party thrown by his grandfather. There he meets Lucy Morgan, and is instantly enamored. Lucy is the daughter of his mother’s former boyfriend, Eugene Morgan, who has moved back to the town to open a garage and start manufacturing automobiles. Lucy evades George’s seduction, the methods of which are basically one step up from him clubbing her over the head and dragging her back to his lair.
Meanwhile, George’s father, the emasculated Wilbur Minafer, has been in declining health for years, and he dies. (George doesn’t mourn much.) How convenient that Isabel’s old flame has arrived into town! Isabel and Morgan reacquaint themselves, much to George’s chagrin. George hates Morgan, because he doesn’t like cars and Morgan disapproves of the fact that George doesn’t work and has no aspirations to do anything but live off his good looks and family name. Because Morgan has sense. So George, who has his mother wrapped around his finger, becomes even MORE of a jerk. He has a giant temper tantrum when his aunt tells him about Isabel and Morgan becoming chummy, and when he bitches at a town gossip for gossiping, even though she wasn’t, he realizes that things have gotten out of his control. So he does the only logical thing — he convinces Isabel to take a trip with him to Europe and basically guilts her into staying, holding her prisoner by her own motherly affection.
While in Europe, Isabel grows sick. George is forced to bring her home, where she has a lovely deathbed scene, though George doesn’t let Morgan see her before she dies. Dick. Isabel’s father, Major Amberson, who is the patriarchal head of the Ambersons, dies soon after, and the Amberson land and money becomes entangled in legalities; it turns out that the Ambersons weren’t very good with keeping their wills updated. George is forced to get a job in a chemical plant, which pays him fifteen dollars a week. He has finally received his “come-uppance,” according to the people in the town. He has had to sell most of his possessions and is living in an apartment with his aunt Fanny, his father’s sister.
One day, while he’s walking through the town, he thinks he sees Lucy, who he hasn’t seen since he severed all ties with her due to his anger about his father dating his mother. He walks across the road to see if it was her, and he is hit by a car, proving that instant karma is indeed going to get you. However, the narration cuts to Morgan, who gets this weird feeling that Isabel wants him to go to see George in the hospital, so he does. And George asks for forgiveness. And Morgan accepts. And Lucy is at the hospital, facilitating this kumbayah circle, because she still loves George, I guess, I was annoyed at this point and wasn’t paying much attention.
There are a lot of great passages and reflections about time and youth that were pretty interesting, especially in regards to romance.
Youth cannot imagine romance apart from youth. That is why the roles of the heroes and heroines of plays are given by the managers to the most youthful actors they can find among the competent. Both middle-aged people and young people enjoy a play about young lovers; but only middle-aged people will tolerate a play about middle-aged lovers; young people will not come to see such a play, because, for them, middle-aged lovers are a joke — not a very funny one.
When I read that, I immediately thought of It’s Complicated, the romantic comedy last year with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. Every time a movie with “seasoned” actors in the romantic roles come out, there is the question — does it appeal to younger generations? Or is it just, “ew, old people,” no matter what the story line?
Tarkington also has another zinger in regards to gossip:
“Gossip is never fatal, Georgie,” he said, “until it is denied. Gossip goes on about every human being alive and about all the dead that are alive enough to be remembered, and yet almost never does any harm until some defender makes a controversy. Gossip’s a nasty thing, but it’s sickly, and if people of good intentions will let it entirely alone, it will die, ninety-nine times out of a hundred.”
Gossip is like fire — don’t fan the flames and it won’t flare up and singe your eyebrows off.
Overall, The Magnificent Ambersons was a good book. Once I realized that this wasn’t a story of George becoming human and stopped waiting for him to redeem himself. I can see how it was important at the time, when there were these huge Rockefeller-Hurst-Carnegie families who had tons of money for generations, but rather than the changing of the guard, I found the relationships, both of the mother-son dynamic and the romantic relationships, to be the most translatable to today’s society. Dating your parent’s boyfriend’s daughter is just awkward, no matter what year it is.