The Magnificent Ambersons
is a 1918 novel written by Booth Tarkington, which won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is the second novel of his trilogy called Growth.
The story is set mainly in a fictionalized version of Indianapolis and was greatly inspired by the neighborhood of Woodruff Place. The trilogy follows the aristocratic Amberson family as their fortune declines over the course of three generations.
Major Amberson built his family’s fortune during the 1870s. His daughter, Isabel, is courted by two men: Wilbur Minafer, a quiet businessman, and Eugene Morgan, a debt-ridden lawyer. Before long, Morgan ruins his chances during an incident on the Amberson estate in which he becomes intoxicated and proceeds to make a fool of himself.
Isabel marries Wilbur, and they have a child, a boy they call George Amberson Minafer. Isabel dotes on her son, spoiling him rotten. George runs wild, treating others with great disrespect, and being expelled from his prep school due to his bad behavior. Everyone in town is eager to see George punished for his actions.
When George is an eighteen-year-old college student, a ball is held in his honor at the Amberson mansion. At the ball, George meets his mother’s former suitor, Eugene Morgan, and falls in love with Morgan’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Lucy. Morgan left town and became an inventor after being dismissed by Isabel. He has returned twenty years later to manufacture horseless carriages.
George vies for Lucy’s affection, and as the two get to know each other, he tells her that he has no plans regarding his future career. They take a sleigh ride together the next day, and George attempts to embarrass Morgan by racing his sleigh past Morgan’s inoperative horseless carriage. However, George crashes the sleigh, and he and Lucy must catch a ride back into town on Morgan’s vehicle.
George goes off to college, but when he returns for his summer vacation, he and Lucy reunite and begin to spend time together. On the night before he is set to return to college, Lucy tells George about Wilbur’s declining health. Wilbur is greatly concerned with the state of his health as he and George’s uncle, George Amberson, have embarked on a business deal together with much of their assets tied up in a company owned by friends, a deal that Wilbur predicts is about to turn sour.
The following summer, when George returns once again, he hears a false rumor that she is engaged to Fred Kinney, which prompts him to make his own proposal to her. Lucy refuses to give George a straight answer right away, promising to have the matter settled by the time he returns to school in the fall. However, the final night before George heads back to college arrives, and Lucy still declines to give him a yes or no answer. George heads back to campus with the relationship between him and Lucy still unsettled.
Back at college, George receives a letter from Isabel telling him that she has convinced the ailing Wilbur to take a vacation and that George’s uncle, Sydney Amberson, and his wife have claimed their one-third share of the Amberson fortune. Shortly thereafter, Wilbur dies, and his bad business decisions leave Uncle George and Fanny broke. George Minafer offers his father’s insurance money to Fanny as compensation.
After George graduates from college and returns to his family’s estate, he is shocked to find that the Major has had five new houses constructed on the property — his attempt to recoup the family fortune. George becomes increasingly irritated with Morgan, and his daughter, Lucy, still refuses to commit fully to their engagement. She doesn’t like the fact that George does not intend to pursue a career as her father has done. George tells his mother that he must protect the family name, convincing her to cease all contact with Morgan. George tells Lucy that he and his mother are planning to leave the country indefinitely.
When Major Amberson dies, the Amberson estate goes bankrupt. The new houses prove to be a failure, and the other family investments turn out to be a flop. George makes plans to stay with Fanny to study law, however, he soon learns that she has no money with which to support them. In order to do so, he must take a dangerous job involving explosives.
In spite of the downfall of the Amberson family, the rest of the town seems to be growing increasingly more prosperous; George feels the humiliation that was wished upon him by the townspeople when he was younger. George is injured in a car accident, and Eugene goes to visit him in his hospital room, seeking to repair the relationship with George and ultimately reunite with Isabel.