Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1154

The Late George Apley, considered by many to be the best of John P. Marquand’s novels, was a turning point in its author’s career. For fifteen years prior to its publication, Marquand had, as a “slick” popular writer, enjoyed considerable commercial success but no critical recognition. The Late George Apley, however, was immediately recognized as an important book, and its author was promoted by the critics from “popular” to “serious” writer. This elevation was certified when the novel earned for Marquand the Pulitzer Prize in 1938. Throughout the remaining years of his writing career, Marquand confirmed and further consolidated his reputation, although he never completely abandoned the commercial marketplace.

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The Late George Apley is the first of a trilogy of novels in which Marquand minutely describes and analyzes the social patterns, behaviors, mores, and conflicts in upper-class Boston society during the rapidly changing period from 1880 to 1920. This novel depicts that part of old Boston society with Puritanical antecedents and commercial traditions; the second of the books, Wickford Point (1939), shows the decline of Bostonians with Transcendentalist ancestors and artistic pretensions; and the last, H. M. Pulham, Esquire (1941), examines the Boston businessman as he tries to accommodate his geographical and class inheritances to the pressures of the contemporary world.

In each of these books, Marquand explores the ways in which social forms and cultural assumptions left over from the past bind those in the present and how, in short, those environments that have evolved to ensure familial and social protection, identity, and continuity become prisons for the individuals who inherit them. This is most obvious in The Late George Apley. George’s father, Thomas, represents the old nineteenth century individualistic businessman. He is highly intelligent, austere, rigid, hardworking, and uncompromising. His relationship with his son is reserved and formal, almost institutionalized, although he shows concern and, on occasion, affection for the boy. The doubts that are to plague his son are foreign to Thomas. He knows who he is and what his roles are as father, as businessman, as member of the community, and as an Apley. When he and George have their only real public disagreement, the older man emphatically quashes George’s fuzzy democratic ideas: “You and I do not stand for the common good. We stand for a small class; but you don’t see it. . . . Nobody sees it but me and my contemporaries.” Thomas, however, is saved from robber baron status by his sincere Puritan “stewardship” ethic; he truly believes that the Apley position and fortune are signs of Godly favor and that the family’s money must be conserved and shared with the community—but only on terms dictated by that “small class” of superior people at the top of the social pyramid.

George Apley envies his father’s certainty and strength but cannot emulate him personally. Early in his life, he accepts the verdict of his uncle William, and subsequently Thomas, that he is “not a businessman,” that he is “too easy-going” and “erratic,” and so accepts permanent placement as an investment counselor (for other people’s money), lawyer, and civic leader. George assumes from the beginning that his environment is the only one he “could have survived in,” but neither he nor the reader can ever be sure. He is never able to test his well-meaning mediocrity; he is given the opportunity neither to succeed nor to fail but only to fit into a predetermined groove.

In his youth, George makes a few feeble attempts at nonconformity: He chooses some dubious friends, questions a few Apley dogmas, and, most important, has a brief, intense love affair with a young middle-class Irish Catholic woman. The affair is squelched, of course; George is sent on a Grand Tour, and Mary Monahan becomes a sad memory (until the end of the book). Throughout his life, George is plagued by the sense that he is trapped, living a life filled with activity but devoid of action or meaning. The most important events of his life are family disputes: what to name the baby, how to prevent cousin John from divorcing his wife, where to bury cousin Hattie, whether or not to move the rosebushes.

George’s few attempts to find even momentary respite from his milieu fail before they begin. He travels abroad but carries Boston with him. “I am a raisin,” he says, “in a slice of pie which has been conveyed from one plate to another.” He buys an island as a masculine retreat from Bostonian formality and its guardians, the womenfolk, and before he knows it, the ladies arrive and “Boston has come to Pequod Island.” Throughout his life, he suspects that he cannot escape the “net” (young John’s phrase) of an environment that stifles more than it supports, and shortly before his death, he acknowledges it. Worst of all, he realizes that it has cost him the one important thing that he might have had from his life: happiness.

Like his father before him, George tries to pass the Apley ethic down to his own son. John rebels more directly and emphatically than his father did, however. His social and political views baffle and alarm George. John pushes the rebellion further by refusing to join his father’s firm, by going to New York City, and by marrying a divorced woman. He is much more attuned to the modern world than is his father, and his experiences in battle during World War I help him to mature and become more sophisticated. In the end, however, John proves to be his father’s son; he returns to Boston and sets up housekeeping at Hillcrest, the family estate. George dies secure in the knowledge that the Apley niche in Boston remains filled; the cycle continues.

The Late George Apley is more than a sad story of the environment’s tyranny over individuals. For all of the bleakness of its conclusions, the novel is very entertaining and amusing. The comedic and satiric center of the novel lies in its narrator, Mr. Willing. Marquand decided to tell the story as “a novel in the form of a memoir” for two reasons: first, to parody the then-common subliterary genre of the “collected papers,” and second, and more important, to filter the information about the Apleys through the mind and language of a character even more dogmatically committed than the Apleys are to the proper Bostonian vision of life.

Willing understands none of George Apley’s incipient rebellions or his son’s more blatant social improprieties. Much of the novel’s rich humor and gentle satire comes from his fussy, polite, pseudoliterary apologies and rationalizations for any errant Apley behavior. In the end, in spite of Willing’s stuffy shortsightedness, the reader comes to know and understand George Apley very well; although amused and saddened by his weaknesses and narrowness, the reader is finally tolerant of, and sympathetic toward, the late George Apley.

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