F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful & Damned

First published by Scribner in 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned is a story about love, hope and dreams, and what happens when relationships unravel, hope fades, and dreams come true only after you’ve hit your breaking point and therefore can no longer appreciate them. Thought to be based in part on Fitzgerald’s life with Zelda, the novel follows the lives of Anthony Patch and his wife, the beautiful Gloria Gilbert – socialites that inevitably fall from grace because they’re too focused on seeking out the pleasures of life without any of the responsibilities.

In a book review for the New York Times by Louise Maunsell Field in 1922, she writes that, “its slow-moving narrative is the record of lives utterly worthless utterly futile. Not one of the book’s main characters…ever rises to the level of decent humanity.” In many ways, Field was not wrong. When we first meet the novel’s main protagonist, Anthony Patch, he is self-absorbed and living in a small apartment with a servant who comes in in the morning to clean and make Anthony breakfast. He has no profession, choosing to avoid the work-force altogether, but lives under the façade that he is trying to write the next American novel. He spends much of his time socializing with friends and women, accepting an allowance from his grandfather, the wealthy Adam Patch, while waiting for him to die so that he can inherit his fortune.

Anthony’s life doesn’t change that much after he meets and marries Gloria Gilbert because Gloria is the same way as him, wanting to spend her life as leisurely and full of excitement as possible. Much of the novel’s focus is on the parties that Gloria and Anthony host at their apartment in the city and “little gray house” upstate. These parties comprised of endless streams of people drinking excessively for days at a time. We watch Gloria and Anthony go deeper and deeper into debt, selling off bonds like water and downsizing places of residence numerous times. When Adam Patch dies and they learn that they were left with nothing in the will, a length legal battle ensures, but it is not until Anthony is dragged to the brink of insanity that there is a resolution. Their life of leisure and wealth resumes, but it does so at the cost of everything else.

In a way, The Beautiful and Damned can be looked at as a tale of morality. How, having all the money in the world doesn’t matter if you lose your own soul to get it, and how a life of leisure doesn’t necessarily bring about happiness or excitement. What really matters in life is the quality of it and the people who you choose to surround yourself with…a lesson that Gloria and Anthony never learned. This may not have been Fitzgerald’s most exciting book (it was a bit mundane), but his brilliant writing is there.

“After a few tastes of this latter dish I had had enough. Here! I said, Experience is not worth the getting. It’s not a thing that happens pleasantly to a passive you – it’s a wall that an active you runs up against. So I wrapped myself in what I thought was my invulnerable skepticism and decided that my education was complete. But it was too late. Protect myself as I might by making no new ties with tragic and predestined humanity, I was lost with the rest. I had traded the fight against love for the fight against loneliness, the fight against life for the fight against death.”

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned

The Great Gatsby novel Revisited

Originally, I had planned on rereading the novel before seeing the movie, but when that didn’t happen (I was in the midst of a stack of books) I picked it up a few days after.  It only took me forty-eight hours to get through it, and I suspect that it would have taken half the time had I started it over the weekend, where I could have read uninterrupted.  That being said, the novel is quite short – under two hundred pages – and I think that everyone should pick it up whether they have never read it before or to reread it and be re-introduced into Fitzgerald’s world that is Gatsby.  Something to keep in mind, because The Great Gatsby is so short, much of the story happens just under the surface – it’s there, you just have to pluck it out.  After all, it takes place (and was written) in the 1920s, where there were speakeasies due to Prohibition, burlesque dancers, women who cut their hair shorter and dressed in sequins.  It was a loud time, but also a time where things were not talked about.  Most of Gatsby is told through the narrative voice of Nick with not a ton of dialogue, and most of the dialogue is between Nick and Gatsby.  Daisy and Gatsby barely speak to each other, yet they’re supposed to be in love.  They do, however, meet off the pages as we find out when Nick inquires with Gatsby about why his parties had suddenly stopped.  Hence, to read Gatsby, you need to read between the lines.

As I was rereading, I found myself pulling out quotes.  This is a normal occurrence of mine because I love quotes so much (I have a dictionary of quotations).  Interestingly, the quotes ended up all being from the same general area towards the end of the novel.  I particularly like this one:

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.  It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.”

I really feel like this quote encompasses everything that is Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship, or lack thereof.  From the moment that he met her, through the five years when they had had no contact, the Daisy in Gatsby’s mind grew to the point where, had she chosen to leave Tom and be with him, she never would have satisfied “the colossal vitality of his illusion,” and therefore Gatsby would never have been happy.  It really had gone “beyond everything.”  As much as Gatsby wanted Daisy, as much as he invented this life for her, it was much more than that.  He didn’t know who he was, and his crisis of identity started long before he met Daisy, even long before he stopped being James Gatz and became Jay Gatsby.  And I think this is the real key to understanding Gatsby.  All his life, he wanted to be someone that he wasn’t, have the life that he didn’t have, be surrounded by high society – people that he had no business hanging around.  He didn’t want to be the poor boy from the Midwest that no one knew; he wanted to be someone that everyone knew.  In a way he achieved this, but it would never be enough, just as Daisy would never be enough for him either.  She was what made him keep going, but it was the dream of her, not the Daisy in reality.  Nothing is ever quite the same as it appears in a dream, or as your mind turns it into, and Gatsby was learning that.

“With every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.”

The afternoon that they had spent in the city with Tom, Nick and Jordan, when Gatsby was trying to get Daisy to say that she never loved Tom, that was really the beginning of the end for Gatsby, where “the dead dream fought on.”  He became desperate to put the pieces of his dream back together, but it was too late; his dream was shattered.  And that really is the beauty of Fitzgerald’s work – the tragedy that is Jay Gatsby.  The prose lingers in your thoughts as you realize the magnitude of power that this little story possesses, and it stays with you for a while.  I had forgotten how powerful his writing was until last week.  And that’s why I think that everyone should read (reread) this, because it’s worth it. 

“As I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.  He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly grasp it.  He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Great Gatsby Movie Coming Soon

Ever since I first read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I’ve been obsessed.  With its 1920s glamour and star-crossed lovers, who doesn’t love it?!  But really, it’s so much more than that.  Despite Daisy and Gatsby’s mutual love for each other, a love that endured years of separation, it is ultimately not enough.  Daisy is married to Tom and is not strong enough to leave him.  And Gatsby, despite everything, isn’t strong enough either, though he puts up a good façade; no one knows who he really is.  There’s also Nick, Daisy’s cousin, who befriends Gatsby, in awe of the fortune and lavish parties, wishing that he could be just like him.  But after Nick is thrown into Gatsby’s world and starts to see things behind the façade, he realizes that it’s not what he wants after all.

What I find most interesting of the novel is that there’s so much that is not said, so much that the reader has to think about and realize on their own.  It’s truly an amazing work of fiction that Fitzgerald didn’t get nearly enough praise for during his life.

I’ve been waiting for about three years for this film to come out, and thankfully, I have less than a month to go!  You can bet that I’ll thumb through the novel again beforehand so it’ll be fresh in my mind, and then, off to the theater I will go!  I leave you with a quote from The Great Gatsby…perhaps one of my favorites.

 

“He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly.  It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life.  It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.  It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby