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. 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. 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.