“The people who have done the most in contempt of other people’s opinion, and who consider themselves the highest above it, have been the most furious if it went against them. Arrogant and domineering people can’t stand the least, lightest, faintest breath of criticism. It just kills them.”
So says Eugene Morgan, early “horseless carriage” manufacturer, and father to George Amberson Minafer’s intended fiancee. There’s a lot of truth in it, and a lot of truth in his perception that Georgie Minafer’s sensitivity stems from the same place as his arrogance, although I wouldn’t call Georgie “domineering,” exactly. Even once he’s fully grown and his own man, I can’t see it.
There’s an aspect of The Magnificent Ambersons that is like watching a slow-motion trainwreck–I can see by now (closing in on the 1/2 way point) how the Major’s fortune has slowly evaporated, how the children haven’t the faintest idea how to go about living their lives, how the Major’s only grandson, Georgie, will be an utter fool (and penniless, besides) unless perhaps Lucy Morgan gets through to him. It’s the inevitable consequence of the Ambersons’ obscene amounts of money, or so Tarkington believes, and I can’t disagree. None of the family, other than the Major, have ever had to bother with being good at anything other than continuing to build up their already overdeveloped senses of self-worth.
There are subplots that don’t involve Georgie (at last!) , but I can’t see how they amplify the theme–Fanny and Isabel’s (Georgie’s old maid aunt and his widowed mother) maneuvering for the love of Eugene Morgan doesn’t do much for me. The rapid urbanization of the town–the loss of the “country estate” feel of the Amberson’s neighborhood and the rise of cheap wood homes–strikes me as very believable, but as the only person mourning the old ways is the ridiculous Georgie, it’s hard to sense that the author sees this as anything but positive. There is a liveliness to the characters at times (especially Lucy, who continues to fend off Georgie in a charmingly disarming way), but everything continues to operate in the long shadow of Georgie Minafer. I agree with the comment Paul made on my earlier post that this is intentional, and that Tarkington has something to say about Georgie, but unlike Paul, it’s not engaging me much as a reader. I feel as though the message is a fairly obvious one, and the plot isn’t doing much to open up other possibilities for me. I feel oddly like someone watching a director’s cut of It’s a Wonderful Life in which Capra explores the character of Mr. Potter instead of George Bailey–Potter’s interesting, of course, but the scope of his world becomes claustrophobic even in a few movie scenes. I’ve spent 250+ pages stuck in a room with Georgie Minafer, and while he’s a better man than Potter was, I’d much rather go home with most of the other characters I’ve met. I don’t mind characters who are unpleasant, but Georgie just isn’t doing it for me.
And though it’s entirely off-topic from the rest of the post, I just have to say that Tarkington’s casual racism shocks me (though it shouldn’t) with how matter of fact it is. I can of course intellectually accept that the North was as racist as the South, and that racism was particularly bad here at the end of the 1st World War (as the first major race riots erupt in East St. Louis about this time). But somehow it always blind-sides me when I turn a page and find a grotesque dialogue with a “darkie” servant. It doesn’t happen often, but more than enough for me: I don’t know what to do with it, but by now, I’ve given up hope that Tarkington has any interest in getting us to see black servants sympathetically. Tarkington can chide the Ambersons for being condescending to other middle-American white people, but he seems pretty blind to his own condescension. But maybe I should just issue the “it was a different time” blank check we always issue to men like George Washington…I don’t know. It seems different here somehow.