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‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ by Booth Tarkington won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919 and is a valuable portrait of American Midwestern life at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Amberson family fortunes wax and wane as the novel follows the progress of the automobile across the American landscape and the life of spoiled George Minafer.

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Introduction to The Magnificent Ambersons

The Magnificent Ambersons is a dynastic saga following a family’s reaction to the changing conditions of modernity. As such, it is similar to other writing of the period, such as the British writer John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (1906-1928). Indeed, both Galsworthy and Booth Tarkington, author of The Magnificent Ambersons, achieved critical success (Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize in 1932) and the writing of both was very popular in their lifetimes. The writing of both authors has seen success in adaptation, the Forsyte Saga on British television (1967) and The Magnificent Ambersons in an acclaimed 1942 film by Orson Welles.

Author Booth Tarkington
Booth Tarkington

What Happens in The Magnificent Ambersons

The novel is set in an unnamed Midwest town, a thinly disguised Indianapolis (where Tarkington grew up and lived most of his life). The events of the novel begin with a retrospective on the family history; In 1873, ‘Major’ Amberson comes into money and buys and develops an extensive plot of land. By the time his daughter, Isabel, is being courted by a multitude of suitors, the Ambersons are wealthy and considered pillars of the community.

Isabel Amberson has to choose between Eugene Morgan, poor but creative, and the more sedate Wilbur Minafer. She chooses to marry Minafer, who is the better businessman.Isabel and Wilbur have a son, George, who is spoiled rotten from his earliest childhood. He rides roughshod over the town’s residents, terrifying everyone.

Everyone secretly wishes George Minafer would get his comeuppance. On vacation from prep school, he meets Lucy Morgan at a ball. He is captivated by her, and although she is not intimidated by him or his family, she appears attracted to George. George is, however, not interested in a career, only in ‘being a gentleman.’ Lucy’s father is none other than Eugene Morgan, who moved away after his rejection by Isabel Amberson and became an inventor. George takes an instant dislike to Eugene.

The automobile changed the Indianapolis landscape, in daily life and in the novel.

Indianapolis at the beginning of the 20th century

Over the next few years, George presses Lucy to marry him, and, although she is fond of him, she refuses, mainly because he takes no serious interest in a career. Wilbur Minafer dies some time after George graduates from college. Meanwhile, Eugene Morgan’s fortunes have been rising as he begins to manufacture his horseless carriages (automobiles).

George’s hatred of Eugene grows, so that when his widowed mother Isabel reveals that Eugene has asked her to marry him, George insists that she never see Eugene again. Isabel reluctantly agrees.George and Isabel go on an extended European trip. Before they leave, George tells Lucy that their relationship is over. Lucy is devastated.

During George and Isabel’s absence, the Ambersons’ fortunes continue to wane, while Eugene and Lucy Morgan become more and more wealthy and successful in the production of automobiles. When Isabel returns from Europe, she is mortally ill and dies without seeing Eugene, despite her wishes to do so. With the death of Major Amberson, the family fortunes are in ruins. They sell off their remaining assets to cover their debts.

George is forced to take a job to support his aunt Fanny. George shows himself to be a good worker at a dangerous chemical plant, but Eugene refuses to give him a job at his automobile factory.George is run over by an automobile and breaks both his legs. Lucy and Eugene go to his bedside at the hospital. George apologizes to Eugene for his behavior over the many years, and Eugene realizes that Isabel would have wanted him to be kind to George.

Major Characters

Isabel Amberson is a beautiful and well-bred young woman, but when she is embarrassed by Eugene Morgan she decides to marry the less imaginative Wilbur Minafer instead. This decision proves a disastrous one, as Isabel spoils their son George to the point where not only is he unmanageable, but where she defers to him in everything, even to the point of disregarding her own wishes for happiness (as when Eugene asks her to marry him again when she is a widow).

George Amberson Minafer has been given everything he has ever wanted. As a result of being spoiled, he is hated and feared by the town’s residents because he gets away with all of his petty and destructive deeds as a child and as a teenager. He is scarcely better as a young adult, considering work to be something the lower classes do and that, as a gentleman and member of the prestigious Amberson family, he should be free to pursue leisure activities like yachting.

George is also incredibly self-absorbed and cannot see that his irrational hatred of Eugene Morgan ultimately serves no purpose other than quashing his mother’s last chance at happiness. George’s redeeming qualities are forged in adversity after his family’s fortunes are ruined and he is forced to work hard and think about others. George’s punishment for the selfishness of his character is that he sees his way of life completely crumble around him, changes that he is helpless to prevent.Eugene Morgan is in many ways the opposite of George.

He has not been born into a life of privilege and begins the novel poor. He has, however, ambition, which comes to fruition when he makes good while manufacturing automobiles. Eugene is tolerant of George’s behavior up to a point; he never flaunts his achievements against the ailing Amberson family fortunes. Eugene has a canny understanding of modern tastes, saying in Chapter 19, ‘It isn’t the distance from the center of a town that counts…it’s the time it takes to get there.

This town’s already spreading; bicycles and trolleys have been doing their share, but the automobile is going to carry city streets clear out to the county line.’Lucy Morgan, Eugene’s daughter, is physically beautiful and also quick-witted. She appears to be flippant when George tells her their relationship is over, but when he is gone she faints, betraying her depth of feeling for him. Despite her misgivings, Lucy is genuinely in love with George; in Chapter 7 she notes that when George apologizes, ‘No doubt it is true that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner repented than over all the saints who consistently remain holy, and the rare, sudden gentlenesses of arrogant people have infinitely more effect than the continual gentleness of gentle people.

Lesson Summary

The Magnificent Ambersons is a dynastic saga of family life in a Midwest town at the turn of the twentieth century. Spoiled and privileged George Minafer eventually sees his whole way of life change as society faces modernity. George must learn the value of hard work in adversity as the landscape around him is transformed by the invention of the automobile.

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