Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Beautiful and Damned

In the publication of this novel, F Scott Fitzgerald managed to create a well-written and thoughtful piece of literature without a single redeeming character.  Even up until the very last sentence, I was holding out hope that one of the characters would redeem himself by the end, but I received no such compensation.  I think it would be difficult to finish this novel without feeling that it is a thoroughly depressing book, and it has taken me some time to sort out its value and insight amid this dark cloud.

Like the Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned is set in New York City in the 1920s.  In our collective imagination, we tend to nostalgically think of that period as a series of glamorous parties and raucous fun.  Fitzgerald, however, challenged this perception in his novels by illuminating the darkness within the revelry.  Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert are the embodiment of this idealized image and thus are both beautiful and ultimately damned.  If this were a Russian novel, Anthony would represent the "superfluous man" - a person with no career, no generosity, and no productivity in his life.  He constantly considers things he can do for a profession, toying with thoughts of becoming an author or a banker.  He even enters the army for a period of time, with a brief opportunity to rise in the ranks of an officer.  But like Oblomov who could hardly take a step beyond his couch, Anthony never makes an effort to move forward.  Yet throughout the novel, Fitzgerald offers a number of hopeful suggestions for Anthony's self-actualization.  He has so many opportunities to change and improve himself that it becomes maddening to watch his self-destruction by the end.  Thus, I found him to be far more frustrating than any other "superfluous man" I have encountered, though his journey feels entirely (though depressingly) believable.  I can't help but feel that Fitzgerald did a great service to Gatsby by killing him at the end rather leaving him to linger in his broken and meaningless life.

Gloria's character is hardly better, as she fails to discover any deeper value beyond her appearance.  As we all know, this is a temporary gift, and its departure creeps upon Gloria like a lurking shadow of inevitable doom.  I could hardly feel sorry for Gloria in her relationship with Anthony, as they had both contributed to the demise of their marriage.  Not even their friends offer glimpses of hope and goodness, as they either abandon the couple or immerse themselves in their own clouds of self-importance.

So why should we bother with this novel?  Why am I including it in my blog?  Despite the negativity, there is a lot of truth that rings out from these pages.  In a way, I feel like Fitzgerald showed courage to create a novel that lacked redemption.  These stories exist in real life; not everything results in some hope or success.  By creating these characters, I think Fitzgerald was giving his readers a warning, telling them to guard themselves against all the frivolous indulgence that led to the characters' damnation.  There are things we can learn from their failures, lessons we can apply in our own lives.  Anthony is full of excuses, but there might be some truth in his reflection: "I've often thought that if I hadn't got what I wanted, things might have been different with me.  I might have found something in my mind and enjoyed putting it in circulation.  I might have been content with the work of it, and had some sweet vanity out of the success."

Many people have suggested that it is our failures which define us.  When we face obstacles and challenges in our life, they can become opportunities to grow stronger and more independent than we would have become otherwise.  Hemingway said that writers are forged by the injustices they experienced.  Pasternak said that the downtrodden are enviable for having something to say about themselves.  Perhaps Anthony did have the curse of getting everything he wanted.  Perhaps he needed to experience failure so that he could learn to move beyond it.  Perhaps we really are forged by the fire in our lives, though I do not remove personal responsibility to live well and deeply.

I have heard that people believe this novel to be a fairly autobiographical account of Fitzgerald's marriage, and all I can say is that I hope this is not true.  But even if it is true, I hope that we can learn from this example to consciously put meaning into our lives.  It is our responsibility to "suck the marrow out of life" and determine how we can leave the world a little better than the way we found it.  I don't think any of us want to end our lives in the way that Fitzgerald ended this novel.

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