Study Guide

From the Terrace

by John O’Hara

From the Terrace Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

From the Terrace is representative of O’Hara’s later novels. The narrative covers a period from the protagonist’s birth in 1897 to the postwar 1940’s. From the Terrace is much longer than O’Hara’s first novel and presents power struggles at the highest levels of business and government against a background of sexual intrigue and violent death. Thus, it provided excellent material for a motion picture and eventually became a successful vehicle for the actor Paul Newman.

Some similarities between From the Terrace and Appointment in Samarra are discernible. Raymond Alfred Eaton, called Alfred, is, like Julian English, born into the upper economic and social stratum of a small Pennsylvania town, Port Johnson. Alfred’s father, Samuel Eaton, owns the local steel mill. Like Julian English, Alfred Eaton is deeply suspicious of himself, largely because of an occurrence during his boyhood over which he had no control. His elder brother, William, was the favorite son and was destined to succeed his father as the first citizen of Port Johnson until he died of meningitis at fourteen. Alfred’s father can never bring himself to show his surviving son the same attention he lavished upon William.

Two later events reinforce Alfred’s sense of himself as a sort of jinx to others. He quarrels with his first love, sixteen-year-old Victoria Dockwiler, forbidding her to go riding in a borrowed Stutz Bearcat. She defies him and is killed in a car crash. Alfred then begins an affair with a family friend, Norma Budd, seven years older than he. Norma is later the victim of a married lover, who kills first her and then himself. Although it is irrational for Alfred to think that he corrupted Norma, he feels vaguely responsible later for her death.

Alfred attends Princeton University until the United States enters World War I. He serves with distinction as a naval officer and does not return to Princeton after the war. He also chooses to decline his father’s tepid offer of a job at the mill. Instead, he and Lex Thornton, a friend from Princeton, start an aircraft company together. Alfred meets eighteen-year-old Mary St. John at a party, and here begins the sort of sexual triangle typically found in O’Hara’s later novels.

Mary is engaged to Jim Roper, a pre-medical student. Alfred is strongly attracted to Mary, more sexually than romantically, and he succeeds in winning her away from Roper. Their...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

From the Terrace Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tightly packed with detail and characters as well as incident, From the Terrace chronicles roughly the first fifty years in the life of Raymond Alfred Eaton, known as Alfred, born during 1897 in the small mill town of Port Johnson, Pennsylvania. Throughout more than eight hundred pages of frequently dense narrative, O’Hara sifts through the various data of Alfred’s life, loves, friendships, and often brilliant career, attempting thus to account for Alfred’s rapid rise in the business world and his even more precipitous fall. When the novel ends, shortly before Alfred’s fiftieth birthday, he is shown leading a life of enforced idleness, his power and status irretrievably behind him.

The novel begins with an extended portrait of Alfred’s father, Samuel Eaton, supplemented by a description of the town of Port Johnson and culminating in an evocation of the town-wide revelry that greeted the birth in 1894 of William Eaton, Samuel and Martha Eaton’s first child. The birth of a second son some three years later passes virtually unnoticed until 1908, when William Eaton dies of meningitis. Alfred, accustomed to living in his brother’s shadow, is at first unprepared for the attention that he will receive as the surviving son of the town’s most prominent family. His father’s attention, however, will forever be denied him, reserved for William in death as in life.

William’s death, perhaps the first major trauma in Alfred’s young life, will soon be followed by others, all of which remain lodged in his memory. Shortly before he enrolls at Princeton, his girlfriend is killed in a senseless motor accident for which Alfred will assume responsibility in his own mind, although he was not even in the car. Seduced soon thereafter by Norma Budd, a family friend some seven years his senior, Alfred will also feel responsible for Norma’s subsequent misadventures and her death, several years later, at the hands of a suicidal married lover.

Alfred’s life, meanwhile, proceeds without much external incident. His career at Princeton is cut short by American involvement in World War I; commissioned in the Navy, he serves with some distinction, deciding thereafter not to return to Princeton. As the unnoticed second son of Samuel Eaton, Alfred was never groomed for management in the steel mill, nor has he ever wished to work there; it is hardly surprising, therefore, that he refuses his father’s halfhearted job offer, choosing instead to start an aircraft company in partnership with his Princeton friend, Lex Thornton. It...

(The entire section is 1046 words.)

From the Terrace Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bruccoli, Matthew. John O’Hara: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978. A thorough, scholarly bibliography on all aspects of O’Hara’s work. A must for the serious student.

Bruccoli, Matthew. The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara. New York: Random House, 1975. The expertise of Bruccoli is evident here in this comprehensive biography of O’Hara. Contains valuable background, critical references to his works, and a useful bibliography.

Eppard, Philip B., ed. Critical Essays on John O’Hara. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994. Divided into sections on reviews and essays. All of O’Hara’s major fiction is discussed, as well as his relationship to naturalism, his view of society, his short stories, and his view of politics, the family, and small towns. Includes a comprehensive introductory chapter on O’Hara’s career and the reception of his novels, but no bibliography.

Grebstein, Sheldon Norman. John O’Hara. New York: Twayne, 1966. This critical study both interprets and assesses O’Hara’s work. Grebstein is mostly sympathetic toward O’Hara, but has some reservations about his writings. Also assesses other criticism on O’Hara.

MacShane, Frank. The Life of John O’Hara. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980. Looks at O’Hara’s life through his work. A thorough study well worth reading for its valuable insights.

Shannon, William V. The American Irish. New York: Macmillan, 1963. Deals with O’Hara’s work from the point of view of his Irish ancestry and his desire to escape from it.