Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1225
George William Apley is born on Beacon Hill in Boston on January 25, 1866. The Apleys are an old family in Massachusetts. Thomas, known in the old records as Goodman Apley, emigrated from England to America and settled in Roxbury in 1636. Goodman Apley’s son, John, graduated from Harvard in 1662. From his time, there has been an Apley at Harvard in each succeeding generation. John Apley’s son, Nathaniel, established himself in Boston. A later Apley, Moses, became a shipping master and laid the foundation of the Apley fortune. Moses Apley was George Apley’s grandfather.
George Apley grows up in a quiet atmosphere of wealth and social position. He learns his parents’ way of living calmly and with fortitude. In an orderly way, he is introduced to the polite world, at first through visits to relatives and later through study at Harvard. His Harvard days are probably the high point of his life. His parents send him to Harvard in part to help him firmly establish those qualities of gentlemanly behavior that they and private grammar school together have tried to encourage in him. George’s parents are anxious that he should make friends with the right people.
At Harvard, George is carefully instructed in the ways of high-minded gentlemen. The success of this training is evident in a theme that he writes in which he describes a Boston brothel in terms expressing his repulsion and shock. In the gymnasium, George wins distinction as a boxer. Moreover, he becomes a member of the board of the campus humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. He is also taken into the Club, an honor his father appreciates greatly. In his junior and senior years, he takes part in the musical extravaganzas of the Hasty Pudding Club. In spite of these activities, George never neglects his studies, and he is known as a respectable student with grades placing him in the middle of his class at graduation.
While in college, George falls in love with an impossible woman, Mary Monahan. Their affair is cut short by the Apleys and is never referred to publicly. Shortly after the breakup, George’s parents prescribe a sea voyage for him. When he returns home, he takes up the study of law and becomes a member of the board of the Boston Waifs’ Society. As part of George’s instruction in the shrewd business manners and knowledge of the Apleys, he is sent to work with his uncle William for one summer. William senses that his nephew will never make a good businessman and advises that George should go into law or be made a trustee of other people’s money, not his own. As a result George, like many of his friends, never goes into business actively.
In February, 1890, George follows his parents’ wishes and becomes engaged to the suitable Catharine Bosworth. After he is married, his father-in-law and his own father see to it that the young couple have a house as well as a summer cottage. The two mothers are equally solicitous. George discovers that he has married not only Catharine but the rest of her family as well. When Catherine and George have their first child, the naming of the boy becomes a subject for debate in both their families. The name John, common to both families, is finally chosen. Their second child is a daughter, Eleanor.
As the years pass, George devotes his time to charitable groups, to learned societies, and to writing for his clubs. One of his papers, “Jonas Good and Cow Corner,” is said to be among the best papers read before the Browsers in fifty years.
Shortly after George’s sister, Amelia, is married, George’s father dies of a stroke. He leaves one million dollars to Harvard, other large sums to various charities, and the remainder of his fortune in trust for his family. George has to pay a sum of money to a woman who claims that she bore George’s father a son; although he does not believe the charge, he pays rather than allow scandal to touch the family.
George invests in a place known as Pequod Island, and he takes his friends there when he wants to get away from Boston. On the island, he and his friends condescend to share their campfire with their guides. Envisioned by George as a male retreat, the island is soon overrun with literary lights of the times, invited by George’s wife and sister.
As his son grows up, George notes the increasing tendency on the part of the younger generation to be wild and careless with money. Later, George begins to believe that he and his generation have let much slip, and he is particularly dismayed that the “Irish element” is taking over Boston. He lends his support to the Save Boston Association, as he considers his membership an Apley duty. He also studies bird lore and philosophy and takes as much personal interest as possible in the affairs of his children. When his mother dies in 1908, George counts her death as one of his most poignant tragedies.
When his son enters Harvard, George takes a new interest in the university and notes many changes he does not like. He finds his daughter’s marriage not completely satisfactory because Eleanor does not induce her husband to give up his job for a position in the Apley mills and to take up residence near her family. During World War I, George is proud of his son for his service at the front. When John marries a girl of good connections after the war, George is doubly pleased.
In his later years, George comes into opposition with a man named O’Reilly, whom George plans to have brought before criminal court on charges of extortion. O’Reilly, however, tricks George into a scandal. George intends to have the whole case cleared in court, but before the trial, he receives a note from his onetime sweetheart, Mary Monahan. After an interview with her, he settles the case quietly and buys off his opponents.
In 1928, George becomes a grandfather. As soon as the baby is born, George telegraphs the elite prep school Groton to include his grandson’s name among its entrance applicants.
In his final years, George takes an interest in the new novels, condemning those that he finds too blatant in their descriptions of sex and fighting against the inclusion of some of them in the collections of Boston libraries. He hides his own copy of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) in a safe to keep his daughter from seeing it. He defies Prohibition as an abuse of his rights, using the services of a private bootlegger on principle, he says, because it is important to help break such an unjust law. He also believes that the colossal fortunes being gathered by the uneducated should be handed over to the government.
In the autumn of 1929, George and his wife make a trip to Rome, where they visit George’s cousin Horatio Apley, recently appointed to a diplomatic post there. George is thus absent from the United States when the stock market crash comes. His financial affairs do not suffer greatly, but his health is increasingly poor, and he begins to plan his will and his funeral. George Apley dies in December, 1933.
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