Friday, August 25, 2017

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

I'll be digging back into Shakespeare's history plays in a couple of weeks, but by way of a break I decided to read Booth Tarkington's classic American novel The Magnificent Ambersons.

I'd heard a lot about The Magnificent Ambersons before getting around to reading it, but I was under the impression that it was an unpretentious comedy. I had no idea that it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and having read it, I can see why. Though it comes with plenty of gleams of humour, this novel is an earnest drama with an ambitious scope. 

When we meet them, the Amberson family is a prominent, wealthy, and aristocratic founding family of a small midwest-American town. They live in the biggest, fanciest house in the town, and everyone knows their name. Everyone also knows the only grandson, George Amberson Minafer, an engaging but spoiled child whom everyone agrees needs a sharp comeuppance. Time rolls by and the town expands, threatening the Ambersons' pre-eminence, but George (now a young man) continues to believe that his family is the centre of the universe. Will George get his comeuppance in time? Or will he sacrifice everything and everyone he loves to his own sense of self-importance?

There were a few things that I really liked about this novel, and a few that I really didn't. The main thing I didn't like was George himself. For most of the novel, I found him completely unbearable. I also got the impression that the author wanted me to find him charming despite his evident faults, which only compounded my exasperation with this character. At one stage I decided he was completely unredeemable. I'll try not to give away too much of the ending, except that Tarkington managed to surprise me - but not enough to obliterate the unbearableness.

George's mother, Isabel, was also a character I bore little sympathy for. Tarkington treats her with tiresome Victorian sentimentality - oh, what a noble saintly mother she is for bearing with him and loving him tenderly despite all his flaws. In fact, Isabel starts out by spoiling her son rotten and winds up letting him domineer over her and the people she loves to tragic consequences. She's actually culpable for her actions, and Tarkington wants us to feel sentimentally fuzzy about her. Well, I didn't. 

This, and the novel's rather loose plot structure, made the novel feel a little dated to me. That said, there were a number of things I actually did like in this story.

I thought that Fanny Minafer, George's rather pathetic old maid aunt, was probably the most human and realistic character in the whole book. You didn't like her, but you felt sorry for her. You realised that she probably didn't deserve anything better than what she got, but you sympathised with her desire for something better. Fanny becomes a pivotal character in George's character arc toward the end of the book, and I really loved what Tarkington did with her.

I loved the historical background to this story. Tarkington covers several decades in this book, his focus being on the changes wrought by the passing of time, on a personal scale with the fall of the Ambersons and on a grand scale with the rise of the city itself. I loved how these two threads compared and contrasted to each other. Using just a few repeated motifs - the automobiles, the town gossips, the Neptune fountain, and so on - Tarkington easily tracks the fortunes of new blood and old money, conveying information to us that the viewpoint characters themselves barely notice. Clearly this story isn't just about a selfish young man, it's primarily about an era in American history, and Tarkington does a terrific job of evoking this.

Finally, despite my impatience with some of the novel's most prominent characters, the second half of this book had me completely hooked. Tarkington pours on the drama, and it's oodles of melodramatic fun. 

I didn't love The Magnificent Ambersons. But I can appreciate why it would have made such a hit in its own day, as well as its enduring appeal. I imagine that the things I didn't like could easily be fixed by a good film or TV adaptation, and I might actually sniff one out.

Find The Magnificent Ambersons on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg or Librivox!


Anonymous said...

Orson Welles directed and narrated a movie adaptation ( co-written w / Tarkington) but i found it rather dry.

Anonymous said...

There was also a 2002 made for TV movie, supposed filmed according to Welles' notes of how he wanted the movie to be.

Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

I think I actually had less patience with Isabel than I did with George, to be honest.

I happened to be thinking about the plot of this novel one time recently, and something occurred to me. I see George's overblown pride as the driving force of the main characters' plotline, and that's in consequence of Isabel having spoiled him so terribly. If you take the prediction of the neighbor woman at the beginning, that Isabel would spoil her children because she was married to a man she didn't really love, then that's in consequence of her originally having refused Eugene out of mistaken pride. Looking at it that way, it's Isabel's own original fault of pride that results in the same fault blown to disastrous proportions in her son, and coming back to bite her in the end.

The historical part is the best, isn't it? That's one of the top reasons I like it so much.

There are only two film adaptations—I reviewed the somewhat controversial 1942 adaptation on my blog a while ago, and also linked to a series of articles about the complicated history of its production. I haven't seen the recent version, but have heard some negative things about it. I think it would be terrific if somebody could produce a really worthwhile adaptation one day, just leaving Orson Welles out of it and going straight back to the source!

Suzannah said...

Oh yes, I heard about the Orson Welles film, and I was under the impression there was a more recent version, too. Perhaps someone will make a decent miniseries one day? With just a little bit of expansion to make the characters more believable and relatable, it could be great watching.

Elisabeth, I totally agree about Isabel! Still, everyone's responsible for their own souls, so you can't blame Isabel too much. I was a little revolted that she was made such a saint of, though.


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