“Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong.”

This advice from Uncle George Amberson comes at least an hour too late to the impetuous Georgie Amberson Minafer.  I take back my earlier comment that I can’t see Georgie as domineering, since he clearly is.  It’s a strange side of him, though–he goes from bristling at the idea that Lucy’s father, Eugene, thinks ill of him straight to a disastrous confrontation with the town gossip, purely because there is “talk” about Eugene and Georgie’s widowed mother, Isabel.  This meltdown of Georgie’s is interesting to me: first of all, when his uncle points out that there’s nothing wrong with a widow and widower getting married (the mourning year has passed), Georgie has no response other than to be appalled that anyone would think this marriage would be acceptable.  But what is it that bothers him so?  He was never close to his late father, Wilbur Minafer–is this Georgie processing his guilt at never having known his dad?  Is it that he feels Eugene will prevent Lucy from marrying him, and he wants to return the favor?  Or is it as simple as he says it is–that one’s good name is the most important thing about them?  But Georgie doesn’t seem much like John Proctor to me.

What is terrible about Georgie is that, even when given the chance to consider things calmly, he refuses.  And the pattern of his life continues–his mother knows, on some level, that Georgie is wrong, but in the end she cannot fight him.  She abandons her home and the man she loves (or might have loved, given time) to roam the earth despite her failing health, all so that Georgie can be satisfied that she will never marry Eugene.  But what kind of life is this?  Even Oedipus would find it hopelessly confining–Georgie, in denying his mother any life outside of her worship of him, will spend the rest of her life as her gloomy chaperone.  His will, his appetite for dominance, has outgrown any reasonable bound: he is a child who believes that only screaming will accomplish his ends.  His most pathetic moment–being ordered out of a home built on a piece of the old Amberson estate by the old gossip who lived there–was the moment where it seemed Georgie might rein himself in, might acknowledge that it was time to grow up.  He might realize that “being an Amberson” gives him very little authority (all of it merely social), and that his bad manners have spoiled any chance he has to gain the town’s respect.  But no.

The funny thing about all this is that Tarkington seems to be on his side.  Georgie is fundamentally old-fashioned–his quarrel with Eugene is essentially an Old Money vs. New Money quarrel (at least at first).  He wants to reject progress, dress as “important men” once did, and preserve the good old class structure in town.  It’s the Morgans who are more democratic, passionate, unconcerned with what the gossip will be.  And yet every chance Tarkington gets, he laments the fall of the old order, the old town, and bashes the arrival of the automobile (thanks to Eugene Morgan’s factories) in very unsubtle ways.  The two themes seem hopelessly contradictory, and I can’t understand why they are here–given that the impersonal 3rd person narrator is unlikely to repudiate earlier assertions about how dirty and awful the modern age is, can it be that we are to empathize with Georgie?  Or is the narrator supposed to, in some mysterious way, be him?  The style of the novel is confusing its message, for me.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m detached from the novel–not engaged by it.  But I’m frustrated with it, and it’s hard to see where it’s taking me.  The Morgans seem without flaw to me, and Georgie irredeemable (though I anticipate an 11th hour redemption, regardless).  I think the interesting characters in the middle of all this are the real Ambersons–the decrepit old Major, Uncle George (whose practicality doesn’t always show up at the right time), and Isabel Minafer, George’s hopeless mother who may yet salvage her life if she can cut herself free from the wreckage of her son’s insatiable will.  And Aunt Fanny Minafer, whose despair has fueled a lot of the trouble here in the later stages of the book, but who is at least a complex person (if a bit tiresome).  But I think Tarkington is much more interested in Georgie’s fall from grace and how immovable the Morgan kindness proves to be–if I’m right, I’ll be disappointed at the book’s ending.  I hope not: come on, Booth, why do the Ambersons matter?  Throw me a rope.  Only 100 pages to go–review tomorrow, in all likelihood.

12 comments on ““Submit to gossip and you kill it; fight it and you make it strong.”

  1. Paul Hamann says:

    Whoa! Time out, partner!

    We’re at about the same spot in the novel, and there are a couple of things I disagree with you on. I do NOT believe that Tarkington is ridiculing the Morgans or automobiles or progress. Even by 1917, it must have been clear that the car wasn’t going to be a flash in the pan. And as much as you, me and every other character save his mother dislikes Georgie, how can we possibly say Tarkington is sympathizing with him? He’s too good a writer to get us to dislike a character he sympathizes with.

    No–this is the story, as I see it, of what happens when an entire society defers to someone. I was pretty damn disgusted when Georgie sees himself as Hamlet. He’s picked the wrong character. He’s Lear–nobody in history has ever told him anything he didn’t want to hear (or when someone, like Lucy, does, he either doesn’t hear or casts the person aside). His mother has a shot at being Cordelia…the only person who loves him and therefore actually speaks truth to him. Eugene gives her pretty explicit directions in how to do that…but she doesn’t. So perhaps Georgie never comes to the deeper realizations Lear does, since his mother decides to go Goneril/Regan on him instead.

    The net result is that I’ll be disappointed if any 11th hour transformation happens to Georgie. I’ve grown to enjoy his sick shallowness, in a rubbernecking sort of way. And Tarkington, at least as of Chapter 26, is telling a little something about the Lear-like insularity of the uber-rich aristocracy, or the Lear-like insularity of someone who is worshipped instead of parented, of someone who believes that the world is exclusively for play rather than for any work (my favorite line of the book so far is “A yachtsman!”). Lucy tries to escort him out, but doesn’t. Isabel has the opportunity to escort him out, but not the fortitude.

    What would have become of Lear if Cordelia had sucked up to him like the others? Georgie would have. So I’m rooting against him learning anything.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Excellent! It’s nice to have someone to engage with on the details of the book–and I’m willing to concede a bit while defending a couple of perspectives I offered in the post.

      I’ll grant you that Tarkington can’t possibly sympathize with Georgie–that’s my frustration, though. The lengthy passages that bemoan the grime and “dirtiness” of the modern city are entirely the narrator’s, and seem very much in line with Georgie’s attitude towards modernity, progress, etc., and very critical of the effect a man like Eugene Morgan has had on the town. I grant you that a more complex perspective is possible here–it’s possible to like Eugene while thinking that cars dirty up the town. Maybe that’s the answer. But why, in this story, does Tarkington belabor that point? What is he driving at (pardon the pun)? (Since it has, as far as I can tell, no connection to the story if it isn’t a slam on Morgan’s bringing the automobile to this peaceful town.) Or maybe Tarkington likes the grime and dirt (seems unlikely to me)?

      Your insight re: Georgie is excellent–I reviled also regarding his identification with Hamlet–Georgie as Lear is a great concept. But Isabel doesn’t have the cojones of a Goneril or Regan: she won’t turn on Georgie, because she actually does love him (I say “love”, although it is a pale imitation of what a mother’s love for her son ought to be). What else could have moved Lear to self-awareness, if not being cast out into the storm? I share your belief that no believable redemption can occur for Georgie (and fear it is inevitable…am I too “modern” and therefore convinced that an old novel like this will of course end “happily”?).

      I agree about the sick joy derived from Georgie at his most frivolous (“A yachtsman!” indeed!), but there’s something monstrous and not frivolous about the more grown-up Georgie that makes me much less willing to be in his company. As long as he sits on staircases, condescending to “queer old ducks” and wishing everyone would be a little more obsequious, I can find him amusing. But his tantrums are becoming more destructive. If there is a “message” in all this, I hope it is that Georgie can (and does) single-handedly destroy lives.

      But if we are right, how can all this end? If Georgie can’t learn, where does the story of the Ambersons come to a close?

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    Oh–that comment about the car–I meant to follow it up by saying that the “Git a hoss!” business is designed to make Georgie, not progress, look bad. Hard to proofread with a spitting-up son nearby.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Oh, I agree at that point. But “as it heaved and spread, it befouled itself and darkened the sky” is surely the narrator laying it on thick about how awful the modern industrial world is. And who in this novel is more closely allied with that world than Eugene? Who is more determined to have nothing to do with the dirt of making one’s own living than Georgie? Do you see my difficulty, at least, even if you don’t share it?

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    I do see your difficulty here. I concede that my own modern knowledge–that nobody outside of thoroughbred breeders will buy a horse ever again after the year this book is set–might be coloring my perspective. I think Georgie looks buffoonish…but maybe that’s the years making him look so more than Tarkington.

    Hmmm…maybe I need to look at Lear a little more closely. I always viewed Goneril/Regan’s bigger sin as false, vacuous displays of love more so than forcing him out into the storm. Of course, in both of these works, SOMEBODY has to force the infantile adult out into the storm. Lucy tries to do so gently–she fails. (More on Lucy later…I have an issue that I won’t be able to get to before dinnertime). Isabel is a pretty crappy mom because she does not recognize that it’s her job to let her 22-year-old son lear to adjust to an often-unfair world. THAT’S the comparison to Lear, who also doesn’t understand this. The result is infantile and, in Georgie/Isabel’s case, bizarrely incestuous. (Sort of like old money is?)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Reading the book both in and out of context does get difficult: I certainly know what you mean about the impossibility of Georgie continuing to believe in the “faddishness” of the automobile. I wonder if it’s 1918 in the book, though–without date cues it’s hard, but I’ve been supposing something a lot closer to 1900…would you disagree?

      I guess I didn’t communicate well re: Lear, since I do agree that G/R’s initial great sin was the falsehood of their love. What I meant to note was that G/R’s second sin–their ambition–when combined with their (honestly, very reasonable) exhaustion in dealing with their father led to the critical moment, when Lear is forced to bear the cruelties of the natural world undefended, and loses himself only to find himself again at the end. It’s my favorite of Shakespeare’s tragedies–a brilliant and sad play. And the difficulty with Georgie is that it’s hard to see him ever really being loosed as Lear was–even after his mother is gone, the Amberson connections will keep him from sharing a hovel with “Poor Tom”. (Side note: strangely, I wanted to write about Lear last week–His Family’s depiction of the old widower with a close yet not close relationship to three daughters, all of whom share a roof with him at some point, and all of whom refer to him as “dear” or “dearie”. But it ended up not being that kind of story.)

      The Old/New money thing really has me going–I think it’s important, but I don’t know how. I think if I understood its meaning to Tarkington, I could make sense of some of the things that bother me. And if you get the time to share on the Lucy issue, I’d love you to–she’s hard for me to get a read on. I don’t know whether to be baffled by her attachment to Georgie, or bored by her sainthood, or whether to just like her (since she’s clearly written as a very likable character).

      • Paul Hamann says:

        I think we are agreeing on Lear. The problem with Georgie is that his mother won’t push him out onto the heath. My perspectives on a lot of things have changed since I’ve become a real-live parent, but I do know that the kid is going to bonk his head as he learns to walk. I bet Isabel padded entire rooms to prevent that from happening to her “dear, perfect boy.”

        Re: Lucy…well, I think Tarkington fumbled her a little. I was totally baffled by her attachment to Georgie. It’s not explained at all until chapter 26 or 27, when the narrator explains that she’d fallen “in love at first sight.” Indeed, that chapter indicates that most of her attraction to Georgie is physical.

        This leads me to a bigger problem…very, very few novelists write in such a way that I understand -why- characters fall in love. “At first sight” is a pretty weak out, I think. I want to see what it is in character A that leads her to want to add character B to her life, and vice versa. Tarkington drags the likeable Lucy through Georgie’s pretty lame behavior, and doesn’t explain why the heck she puts up with it until after the fact…and even that explanation is pretty lame.

  4. jwrosenzweig says:

    I have to agree with you regarding Lucy overall–it’s a fumble on Tarkington’s part. And I also feel pretty strongly in favor of offering a rationale other than “the plot would otherwise fall apart” to defend a relationship between major characters.

    Interestingly, I’m leaning a slightly different way than you–I’d decided early on that it was a purely physical attraction for Lucy, but by the chapters you name, I felt as though it was more about “taming a bad boy”. I can’t remember the exact point, but there was some commentary about Georgie being bad but “interesting” in a way the other local boys were not. The problem is, I don’t think Georgie is a bad/interesting boy in any of the ways girls fall for (feel free to correct me, ladies). I think a guy’s arrogance or distance can be appealing in many ways, but aristocratic snobbery combined with an utter lack of personal ambition strikes me as a very strange combo to fall for. Maybe it “really” is a purely physical attraction for her, after all, but I felt like Tarkington wanted us to see her as the girl who believes “I can change him”.

    • Paul Hamann says:

      Well, I’d reverse the cart and horse here. BECAUSE she is attracted to him, she decides to give it a shot at changing him. Sort of a rich-snob Pygmalion effect. But, again, not too convincing–and it -certainly- doesn’t explain why she sticks with him for that long and through his complete unwillingness to change. But yeah, it’s in there.

    • Bonnie Hood says:

      This struck me as maybe similar to the Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet relationship in Pride & Prejudice. I don’t know if you’ve read it, although, being married to Betsy…. Why does Elizabeth fall in love with Darcy, the arrogant, rude, bad boy?

      Several classmates thought that she fell in love after she saw a change in him, but several guys who read it in a college class with me said that she only “fell in love” with him because she saw his house, and how truly rich he was, and she would become.

      Could money be a factor for Lucy? Or can she see a change in him that you can’t?

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        I (being very familiar with P&P…in fact, as I recall, I’d read it before Betsy had) agree regarding the possible Darcy parallel: it occurred to me, anyway. But I think there’s a subtext to their initial conversations–we can understand Lizzie’s attachment/revulsion for Darcy, and it only grows to love as she discovers lovable things about him. Lucy is entirely opposite–a love that is hard to understand, and which doesn’t waver much even after Georgie proves pretty irritating.

        The Pemberley visit, of course, reveals the real Darcy–not wealth, which Lizzie already knew and was unimpressed by, but private kindness. I’d be very surprised if anyone (especially those college boys) could maintain a reading of Lizzie-as-mercenary-golddigger using an honest assessment of the text. There’s a vitality to Austen’s relationships–we get why Jane likes Bingley, even why Charlotte attaches herself to Mr. Collins. Tarkington, despite some real facility as a writer, and the ability to make us believe (for example) Isabel’s attachment to her old beau, Eugene, gives us very little to believe in the book’s central relationship.

        Money strikes me as unlikely, only because Lucy is, if anything, more wealthy than Georgie (more likely to be wealthy in the future, at the very least). I suspect the “sees a side of him we don’t” solution, although Paul doesn’t think there’s redemption coming for Georgie (and I hope Paul’s right!).

  5. […] every reader, but it’s important to me—I went a few rounds with Paul on this subject in the comments section of a post on The Magnificent Ambersons, and I suspect I may go a round or two with Jillian in this post’s comments section.  This […]

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