Booth Tarkington, 1918. Read as an e-Book from the Gutenberg Project by way of BlackMask.com
The Magnificent Ambersons is, indeed, magnificent. It has all of the elements of a great tragedy, tracing the transformation of a small midwestern town into a vast city, and the transition of one of the Important Families of that small town into just so many more working stiffs in the industrial age. It’s simultaneously wistful for the passing of a slower, quieter way of life, and a gentle poking of fun at the mores of that time.
There are many tragedies in this tale; the unfulfilled love of Eugene Morgan and Isabel Amberson, the tragedy of the arrogance and fall of George Amberson Minafer, the tragedy of Fanny Amberson’s unrequited love, and, finally, the tragedy of the passing of a way of life. Tarkington depicts these with a beautiful simplicity, warning us in advance of the inevitability of each outcome, and yet making each one poignant. No Oedipus was more trapped by destiny than George Minafer, more driven by his own hubris.
Tarkington lovingly shows people and their senses of identity. He carefully displays to us where people fit in Society, and what expectations are upon them. He makes it clear to us why the characters regard themselves as they do, and how their senses of identity give them strength — or betray them. He gives a remarkable view of what Society was like in Midwestern cities in turn-of-that-century America. We can admire the characters who are able to break from the expectations that ensnare them, and we can understand those who wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to fulfilling them. Given this understanding, we find ourselves sympathizing (despite ourselves) with even George’s most egregious behavior.