This is the story of the fall from social prominence of a “Midland” family around the turn of the 20th century. Due to the financial success through land and investments of Major Amberson, the patriarch of the family, the Ambersons achieved social prominence in one generation. The story is primarily concerned with the abrupt decline of that family in the 3rd generation, as experienced by Major Amberson’s only grandchild, George Amberson Minafer. An arrogant and self-absorbed child who keeps those less-than-endearing personality traits into adulthood, George is the embodiment of the selfish, narcissistic “dandy”; his life goal is not “to do”—any sort of work or profession is beneath him and his self-perceived status—but “to be”—a gentleman.
But coming along to upset almost everyone’s ideas of society and progress is the automobile, its disruptive force personified of one of its (fictional) pioneers, Eugene Morgan. A former resident of the town as well as a former suitor of George’s mother, Isabel, Morgan invokes uneasiness in George, who proceeds to fall in love with Morgan’s daughter, Lucy.. That uneasiness turns to hatred when George’s is unaccustomedly denied something he wants and has his superficial values of life rejected. The result is tragic.
The automobile, however, is more than just an irritant for George, an unacceptable way for Morgan to make a living. It represents enormous economic and social upheaval, as wealth shifts from the American equivalent of the landed gentry to the new industrialists and speculators. The mobility provided by the automobile drastically alters the landscapes of urban areas; the Midland town—a mall puddle in which the Ambersons are large frogs—becomes a large city, whose growth in unchecked, leaving the Ambersons and their old-fashioned ideas of society behind; the Ambersons literally vanish in the sprawl of a large industrialized city.
In 1919, when Tarkington wrote the book, there was nothing remotely approaching an “environmental movement”. Yet Tarkington, in vivid prose, describes the price of the automobile and the resulting unrestricted growth, both in cities and in industry: soot-filled air from soft coal-fired furnaces of factories; disappearance of farm land as the city “upheaves” and moves its boundaries further and further out; the disintegration of the old pioneer values that had held sway for nearly 100 years only to be replaced by those of untrammeled greed; the destruction of neighborhoods as families are displaced by apartment dwellers and those living next to one another hardly ever meet. The Magnificent Ambersons is prophetic.
These forces destroy George’s world, so affectionately described at the opening of the book. But Tarkington doesn’t lay the blame solely on outside forces; instead, he makes very clear the negative impact of a doting mother and grandfather, who give George everything he wants and treat him like a god, an indifferent father who cares only for his business, and a group of fawning companions and similarly afflicted spoiled colleagues at university. George is not a bad person, but his self-absorption, his mania about preserving the “family name” as a reflection off his own self-important social status, is a recipe for disaster for those closest to him. The language may seem stilted, more suited to the post-Victorian era which it portrays (the story ends before the start of World War I), but the story is immortal; it can be seen played out in today’s media by the society celebrities of this age.
The Magnificent Ambersons is a morality tale with obvious lessons. George, a sinner, is suitably punished but earns redemption. While the language of the Victorian Age may present a bit of a problem and personal behavior may stretch the credulity of an early 21st century reader, the story is told poignantly, with great clarity, and to enormous effect.