Places: The Magnificent Ambersons

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1918

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1873-early twentieth century

Places DiscussedMidland town

Midland Magnificent Ambersons, Thetown. Midwestern city modeled on Indianapolis, Indiana, Booth Tarkington’s birthplace and hometown. The town offers a physical representation of the novel’s theme: changes in values and even the kinds of corruption that arrive in the wake of progress. The novel conveys the idea that while change is inevitable–in the town, in class structure, in the economy–it also exacts a high cost in aesthetic and moral values.

The novel’s Midland town is in transition. Its center of population is moving away from its former downtown area as new generations build their homes on the town’s outskirts. Additions and subdivisions and roads multiply. However, as the town’s economy becomes more reliant on manufacturing and as gas and electricity are more commonly used, the town also acquires grime, soot, and polluted air.

Tensions between the past and the future are incarnated in the novel’s two antagonists, George Minafer, scion of the wealthy, upper-crust Amberson family, and Eugene Morgan–an inventor, particularly of automobiles. George hates automobiles and intensely dislikes Eugene for both personal and cultural reasons. It is clear that George wants the present and the future to be identical to the past. Eugene, on the other hand, knows that the future must bring change and finds the future exciting. To resist change–personal, cultural, and economic–George goes to extremes that are painful for him and for other members of his family. Ultimately, however, the theme of change, as seen in motifs of place, becomes manifest in George’s learning about the very contingency of life itself. In one of the novel’s cruelest ironies, George is seriously injured when he is struck by an automobile while crossing the street.

Amberson mansion

Amberson mansion. Midland home of several generations of the Amberson family. The great house reflects both the Ambersons’ prosperity early in the novel and their later decline. The house is a masterpiece of late Victorian architecture and furnishing. In an early scene, the Ambersons give a ball in the house in honor of George’s return home from school. The ball is presented as a symbol of the end of an era; there will be no more displays of such elegance.

George and Eugene, voices of the past and of the future, meet for the first time at the ball. Their personal confrontation begins, against the background of the clash between nineteenth century upper-class society, on one hand, and entrepreneurship, adventure, and confidence in the future on the other hand. Also at the mansion’s ball, Eugene resumes his courtship of Isabel, George’s mother, while George himself is smitten with Eugene’s daughter Lucy.

Later, the neighborhood around the mansion deteriorates as old families sell their homes and move out or rent them; property values decline, and eventually the mansion itself is demolished.

Boardinghouse

Boardinghouse. Place where George and his aunt Fanny share rooms after the Amberson family fortune is gone after the death of patriarch Major Amberson, and George must go to work for a living. The boardinghouse is a concrete representation of the depths to which George falls, and there he learns to deal with insults to his pride.

BibliographyCournos, John, and Sybil Norton. Famous Modern American Novelists. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952. Contains a brief biography of Tarkington and a useful synopsis of the Growth trilogy.Fennimore, Keith J. Booth Tarkington. New York: Twayne, 1974. Perhaps the best book on Tarkington for the general reader, one that offers a good overview of the author and his novels, a useful chronology, and an excellent annotated bibliography. Emphasizes the interaction between the aristocrats and the upstarts in The Magnificent Ambersons.Gray, Donald J. Introduction to The Magnificent Ambersons, by Booth Tarkington. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Provides a valuable overview of the novel as well as an overview of Tarkington’s prolific career. Claims that the author is less concerned with psychological than social realism.Noe, Marcia. “Failure and the American Mythos: Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons.” Midamerica 15 (1988): 11-18. Contends that failure is a prominent theme in American literature and that this novel is Tarkington’s most thorough treatment of that theme. Holds that George’s failure as an aristocrat is an essential element in the novel in that it paves the way for his moral growth.Woodress, James Leslie. Booth Tarkington: Gentleman from Indiana. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1955. An old but valuable biography that includes insightful analyses of the author’s plays as well as the novels. Highlights the importance of work as the foundation of Tarkington’s moral vision and the purifying power of a woman’s love in The Magnificent Ambersons.
Categories: Places