From the Terrace Summary
by John O'Hara

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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 marriage in the spring of 1920 corresponds exactly with the death of Alfred’s father. The marriage is not a happy one. Mary has never completely broken her ties with Roper, and Alfred will later learn that she has resumed her relationship with her former fiancé. Mary’s adultery is especially sordid because Roper, who has become a psychiatrist, is also a declared homosexual who introduces her to a variety of deviant sexual practices.

Meanwhile, Alfred has happened upon a young boy who has fallen through the ice into a pond. Alfred saves the child from drowning, thus earning the gratitude of the boy’s grandfather, James MacHardie. MacHardie is a rich and powerful Wall Street banker. He offers Alfred a job in New York, and the protagonist decides to leave his struggling company and take it. Alfred is an immediate success in banking, but he soon learns that he has relinquished his freedom of action. The image of MacHardie and Company is not to be tarnished by the divorce of any of its executives, so Alfred must stay married to Mary.

On a business trip back to Pennsylvania, Alfred meets and falls in love with Natalie Benziger. She becomes his mistress, but only after having suffered through a failed marriage of her own. Alfred and Mary’s adulterous marriage of convenience continues for more than twenty years but is finally destroyed by the dislocations of World War II. Alfred takes a leave from MacHardie and Company to become an assistant secretary of the Navy in Washington, D.C. Mary’s...

(The entire section is 1,011 words.)