The Central Market Book Club had our monthly meeting last night, Monday, August 10, 2009. Connie led eleven of us in a discussion of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS by Booth Tarkington starting out by explaining that she was aware that all of us understood how Georgie, the main character the author followed from childhood to young adulthood was raised as a spoiled child, that he was someone who many of the characters in the book as well as the reader were greatly anticipating his "come-uppance" as the author described it. So Connie's question was not whether we were sympathetic with the main character but her question was "who did we think did the most damage, his mother, Isabel or his Aunt Fanny Minafer"?. And "damage" here was referring to what caused Georgie's selfish, narcisistic, narrow minded and pompous behaviour in separating his widowed mother from her true love, Eugene Morgan, someone whom she had almost married when she was young but because of a silly incident in the front yard of the Amberson mansion, had decided on a less flamboyant candidate (and that is an understatement) in the form of Wilbur Minafer, a less sparkling but persistent young man whom she married but never really loved.
The opening question in our discussions is the most important part of being the moderator. We rotate moderators according to who suggested the book for our ballot (and of course the book has to get a bunch of votes for us to even have a discussion.) This opening question was exceptional in my opinion because it generated a lot of energy in the followup commentary by everyone present. I was surprised to find out that my opinion was not agreed to by everyone (LOL). I thought the mother definitely did the most damage by providing Georgie with an environment where he never received criticism and was viewed always as an "angel" no matter what he did and because of his maternal grandfather's wealth had considerable money to flaunt and use to gain undeserved power among friends, such as in the "literary club", a social group for card-playing where he literally bought his way to the presidency. The story describes many many obnoxious things he did being rude, insensitive and spoiled. But others thought the Aunt had done the most damage being a petty, mean gossip who manipulated Georgie's behaviour by feeding him information about his mother and Eugene in a manner to incite his biggest concern, that "people were talking about his mother" in an unfavorable way.
It wasn't that I disagreed that Aunt Fanny was petty and mean and had definitely created an unfortunate effect in young George. My main point was that if it hadn't been Aunt Fanny, it would have been something or someone else because Georgie from the very beginning of his introduction to Eugene Morgan had disliked him and when learning he and his mother had a prior relationship before he was born, he intensely hated the man. If Aunt Fannie hadn't got Georgie stirred up, something else would have been a "tipping point" because as a result of his intense feelings, there was no way he was going to allow his widowed mother to marry Eugene Morgan.
Later, when he asks, "why didn't you stop me", his Aunt commented that "you were too strong" and that "she loved you too well". Both of these comments were the crux of the story, i.e. what damage a child (even though Georgie was about twenty two I think) could do when given no feedback as to his own infallibilty coupled with having tremendous personal strength of will along with being involved in an oedipal relationship with his mother. He could aptly be described as a surrogate spouse and one for whom his mother was willing to sacrifice all her happiness.
As I've said before, one of the great things about our discussions is that there is no insistance that we all agree. I don't think I convinced others who disagreed with me about "who did the most damage" and they didn't convince me but we still had a great discussion and I believe we all learned or understood better our own opinions because of the requirement that we articulate them to a group and if the group is as highly charged as it was on this issue, the need to articulate clearly becomes an even stricter requirement. Not a bad thing, IMO.
I brought up that youth also was a source of Georgie's damage. Many of us who now have gray hair of course remember how youth can be very arrogant. Though Georgie was an extreme case of youthful arrogance "gone awry", his behaviour was not totally outside the realm of normalcy. Also, we are given a clue via the character of Lucy Morgan, Eugene Morgan's beautiful daughter who Georgie fell in love with and wanted to marry. She kept commenting to Georgie (and to the reader of course) that he was "too young". Georgie was the namesake of Uncle George, Isabel's brother who seemed more sane than any of the other characters except for his penchant to dabble in bad financial risks. Uncle George makes quite a few comments about youth especially his own when he says to Georgie "When I was your age I was like you in many ways, especially in not being very cool-headed ... Youth can't be trusted for much, except asserting itself and fighting and making love." I believe that as far as who does the most damage asked in Connie's leading question, the author is basically telling us through Uncle George that youth plays a big part in the fiasco that results when young George decides to take matters into his own hands.
One of the major themes besides the spoiled nature of young George was the changes in the neighborhood as time passes from young George's childhood until Major Amberson, his maternal grandfather dies and leaves him and his aunt basically penniless. Many in our group thought that the story depicted very well the changing technology as represented by the "horseless carriage" and which was the business of Eugene Morgan, and the changing architecture and growth of the city of Midland as represented by a type of "urban sprawl". As a result, those in the old neighborhood of Amberson Boulevard were left to live in an area that was no longer the best neighborhood of the city. The social changes were such that no longer was the Amberson family talked about, something young George greatly feared, because the population had increased so much and the Amberson family was no longer the wealthiest family. The author seems to have done a great job of showing the changes both in a gradual way and also in a rapid way depending on what perspective you chose.
The story was very dense with themes and characters. Some which we discussed but which I have not written about here include:
- The character of the grandfather, Major Amberson as a self-made man and how the changing time affected his quality of life
- How the female characters of Isabel, the mother and Lucy Morgan, the lover were idealized and seemed to be hollow characters and whether this was a sign of the times or an inadequacy of the author
- The character of Aunt Fanny who I thought was the best character of all - the spinster Aunt who was left out of so much because she had not married when marriage was the ultimate status for a woman during the time of the novel which we believed to be around 1900
- How the author refers to the tragedy of Hamlet and how Hamlet might (or might not) relate to the tragedy of George, his mother and Eugene
- What was there about young George for Lucy Morgan to fall so madly in love about? Was their relationship credible?
- What was the significance of young George not wanting to have a profession, that he wanted to "be" rather than to "do"?
- What path did George take in traveling from his own prideful ignorance to the point he understood what he had done to his mother?
- Was Fanny evil? or just petty? and what were her other traits and what was her relationship with George like? and how did it change?
- Why didn't the author have George killed by the automobile instead of providing us with a contrived ending?
- Why did the author provide the scene near the end between Eugene and the psychic? (some thought this a big cheesy)
- Was the story a Horatio Alger story in reverse, instead of rags to riches, it was riches to rags? (or not)?
- What was the significance of the Indian/tribal story told by Lucy in Chapter 34 with references to "excitement" and "boredom"?
- Is the modern audience too cynical for such a romance as this? Some attendees thought the story was melodramatic and reminded them of GONE WITH THE WIND.
In the end, as we went around the circle for input on who liked or didn't like the book (and anything else they wanted to add and hadn't had a chance to), most liked the book. Though almost all felt the ending was too contrived. For my part, there was a fair amount I didn't like about the book. It seemed more in line with the tradition of storytelling rather than literary novels but I loved the character of young George. I loved the fact the author took such a risk in giving us a leading character so arrogant, pompous and snobbish that we didn't like him and also that the author did such a great job in developing the character into someone the average reader hated. I don't remember disliking a main character to this extent in the fifteen years I've been reading in groups affiliated with Great Books. As a result, I heartily recommend this book for its originality.
Looking forward to our next discussion on Monday, September 13th when we will discuss CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller. Check out our website at http://www.houstonbookclubs.org/CentralMarket/ for more details.