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Literature / The Late George Apley

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The Late George Apley is a 1937 novel by John P. Marquand.

It is a satire of the insular, stultifying lifestyle of the upper class WASP Apley family of Boston. At the start of the novel George Apley (1866-1933) has recently died. His children have hired George's old school friend Horatio Willing to compose a biography of their father. Willing does so, complementing his own memories and impressions of the Boston smart set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with numerous quotations from George Apley's own journal entries and letters written and received.

Willing admires George Apley uncritically and is also a social conservative who loves the stuffy, hidebound traditions that circumscribe Boston Brahmin life. But peeking in through the gaps in Willing's narrative is a portrait of a man whose sense of duty and responsibility and what he was expected to do wound up costing him his freedom and happiness.

A case of Tom Hanks Syndrome for John Marquand, who before the publication of this novel was most famous for writing the Mr. Moto series of pulp fiction spy novels.


  • Bittersweet Ending: The last letter in the novel has George writing to his son John, who is coming back to Boston after several years away in New York. George says he still doesn't know John very well but looks forward to the chance to get to know him better, hoping that they'll have lots of dinners together where they can talk. Then the very last lines state that George died in December 1933 just two weeks after John got back to Boston.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Willing the narrator, managing over and over and over again to miss the point of the letters he quotes.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Framed as a memoir, with Willing quoting from George Apley's papers and correspondence.
  • Divorce in Reno: George is appalled when his son marries a woman who previously got a divorce in Reno.
  • Epistolary Novel: Sort of. A good chunk of the novel is Willing in the first person sharing his memories of George Apley, but better than half is letters written to and by Apley, as well as diary entries and the like.
  • Henpecked Husband: Although Willing the narrator is too dumb to see it, George Apley is bossed around and controlled by his wife. One letter from Apley's sister says that she refuses to be as dominated by her new husband as George is by Catharine.
  • Historical Domain Character: Billy Sunday the evangelist comes to visit Boston and George Apley writes him a fat check.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Eleanor's radical young boyfriend starts talking about how large inheritances should be made illegal. George actually agrees—but only for the Nouveau Riche. The Old Money types like George himself, the ones that know how to handle money, should get to keep theirs.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: Willing comes across as a particularly dimwitted form of Upper-Class Twit who clings to Victorian conventions and never gets a clue as to what is really going on. His description of the "Apley Mills" milltown make the Apley Company Town sound like a place where the workers are ruthlessly exploited.
    • In one scene we have George's dotty old aunt say out of nowhere, "Young man, should you ever go blackbirding, be sure to select Negroes that are brought down from the mountains, they are stronger and healthier than the Blacks from the coast." Willing writes it off to senility but the reader figures out that the Apleys were slave traders.
    • Willing can't begin to imagine that the men of his generation visited whorehouses. After all, there were so many opportunities "to meet girls of one's own class at the social assemblies of the Boston season."
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: All the chapters are titled this way. Chapter VIII, when we read of George's youthful romance with an Irish girl, is titled "Interlude: Dealing with a Subject Which Would Not Ordinarily Be Discussed in a Work of This Nature." This was already an old-fashioned, outmoded style by the 1930s, and serves to mark Willing as an old fogey out of touch with the times.
  • Kissing Cousins: A poem found in Apley's papers, along with an admonishing letter from his mother, reveal that in his teens George was madly in love with his cousin Henrietta.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: "...there are two kinds of women in this world, good women and bad women." So says George Apley in a letter to his son.
  • Moral Guardians:
    • Horatio Willing himself, as shown when he's discussing the apparently too steamy letters that George wrote to the love of his youth, Mary Monahan.
    "The language in which these letters are couched betrays only too dearly the seriousness of George Apley's infatuation. Many passages must be left out for delicacy, as they might probe too intimately into the secrets of a high-minded idealist."
    • Later in his life George himself gets hooked in with the Moral Guardians, joining the Save Boston Committee which dedicates itself to opposing vice of all kinds. His son John thinks that "French postcards" aren't something to worry about. This backfires on George and leads him to embarrassment when the leader of the Save Boston Committee gets caught in the company of a hooker.
  • Noodle Incident: The "inexplicable actions" of George's sister Jane, which caused her to be institutionalized.
  • Old Money: George's great-aunt Jane says "In a sense, indeed, we are nobility." The Apleys do in fact belong to Boston Brahmin culture, although in Real Life much of their fortune came from slave-trading.
  • The One That Got Away: George let his parents pressure him into breaking up with the love of his life, Mary Monahan, who was an Irish Catholic and thus unsuitable for Apley the WASP.
  • Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!: Aunt Jane is given to this.
    "Once, in later years, she shocked the table with an incredible tale of illegitimacy and a forced marriage in a distant branch of the family, which caused a pall of surprise and embarrassment to hover over the entire table."
  • Secret Other Family: George Apley is unpleasantly surprised to find out after his father's death that Thomas Apley had a mistress and a 12-year-old son in New York.
  • Serious Business: One of the running gags is the degree to which the rich folks of Boston will put so much importance on piddling nonsense. When George's son is born, the disagreement over his name becomes so violent that the baby's two grandparents stop speaking to each other. It's only resolved when George names his son "John", a name found in both families.
    • In one letter George comments ruefully about how he has a collection of Chinese bronzes, which he doesn't even like, simply because he thinks it's the duty of rich people to collect stuff.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: George's club, which is so old and musty that it's apparently just called the Club among the people who belong to it. Thomas Apley is very focused on getting George into the Club. His accession to his father's club is a milestone in George's free spirit being crushed.
    "Once in this Club, much of George Apley's period of experimentation was over and his interests necessarily became centered in the Club itself."
  • The Talk: Didn't happen in 19th century Boston, according to Willing, who thinks it's perfectly OK for privileged youth to trundle on over to the Wrong Side of the Tracks and learn things for themselves.
  • White Anglo-Saxon Protestant: The Apleys, old money from colonial days. The novel recounts the era in which the mass immigration of Irish was pushing aside the old WASP elite; the conflict between WASPs and Irish Catholics is a main theme.
    Thomas Apley: It is not a pleasant thing for me to feel that the Irish are going to run the affairs of this city, and 1 do not see anyone in your generation who has the force and skill to guide them.