Fat Books & Thin Women


Classic Read: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned

From Wikipedia

Continuing my breathless rediscovery of “classics” as a means of avoiding studying for the GRE, I’ve finally made it through The Beautiful and Damned, the one (complete)* Fitzgerald novel I’d disregarded till now.

The novel is about Anthony Patch: his early life, briefly, his meeting and marriage to Gloria, and their subsequent decline. I believe that the length of time for which Patch holds an occupation, excluding the year he’s drafted into the army, amounts to less than a month, all told, and Anthony and Gloria largely drift through life, both becoming increasingly and alarmingly dependent on alcohol.

Anthony is the grandson of Adam Patch, a millionaire whose fortune he expects to inherit. Both Anthony and Gloria, a great beauty, glide through their youths on what they have (Gloria’s looks) and what they imagine they will soon have (Anthony’s money). These possessions have fostered a remarkable degree of irresponsibility in both; throughout the novel, they don’t so much make decisions or do things as they allow things to happen to them. History rolls over the pair, and while they might brush against it – as when Anthony is drafted, only to have the war end shortly before he is to ship out – they effectively avoid becoming a part of it.

Much of their lives, in fact, are spent in longing for what is past. Early in his acquaintance with Gloria, Anthony:

wanted fiercely to paint her, to set her down now, as she was, as, as with each relentless second she could never be again.

And then, later, while visiting General Lee’s house with Gloria, he asks:

“Don’t you want to preserve old things?”

“But you can’t, Anthony. Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for a while in the few hearts like mine that react to them….”

An especially interesting quote given Gloria’s reaction to her own aging as she hits 30 near the novel’s close. Do aging, decaying people “breathe out” memories in the same way that Gloria says other beautiful things do?

Early in the novel, when Anthony and Gloria are in love, when they are both young, it’s easy to see their indecisiveness as something that will shift off gradually with time; but as the years pass and it remains, as their bank account dwindles and their real estate holdings fall progressively down market, as they continue not to make the decisions they need to make regarding work and money, all I wanted was to grab the pair and shake them. If they’re meant to be a portrait of a society, they’re a portrait of a society that’s lost the ability to make the hard decisions, to accept life as something that is not always beautiful and not always still, to view the world as something other than a stage set for its own meanderings.

At one point in the novel Gloria says, “I don’t care about truth. I want some happiness.” And it’s this sense that pervades the whole. Neither Anthony nor Gloria wants to see behind things; they just want the pleasurable surface. The problem, of course, is that with time this stance shifts from being the kind of youthful statement worth humoring, like Anthony’s belief that it’s better to have no profession than to lower himself to the jobs his fellows are entering into, to one that only evokes pity or disgust from their former friends. The two don’t so much stand still in time as they exist outside of it, like Gloria’s wish “to exist only as a conscious flower, prolonging and preserving itself.”

While I read this, I kept thinking of the articles, like the New York Times’s “What Is It About 20-Somethings?”, propounding that today’s 20-somethings seem incapable of growing up and moving past adolescence into the markers of adulthood, like holding a steady job, marrying, and having children.** Haven’t these reporters read The Beautiful and Damned? Anthony and Gloria make fine examples for this currently popular subject of handwringing.

Read it: The Beautiful and Damned at Project Gutenberg

* That is to say, except for The Last Tycoon, which I exclude because it’s not complete and I maintain my distrust of unfinished work, not to say I didn’t read Nabokov’s last or won’t read David Foster Wallace’s.

** Nearing my 25th birthday and being unmarried, without children, and with the sort of “temporary employment” (the Peace Corps) that is reportedly so attractive to my fellow post-adolescents, I have a vested interest in finding that my way of life is a totally normal and acceptable one, although Anthony & Gloria may not be the best example for this.

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5 Comments

Hi Ellen,

I’ve only read The Great Gatsby a very long time ago (in high school). I think I would like this book for themes in it, which you’ve juxtaposed nicely with the same question that has been posed in the article you’ve linked to.

Of course, this makes me wonder whether it’s a life cycle thing -something common to middle class 20-somethings, no matter what the timeframe.

If it’s of any consequence, I too had no idea what I wanted to do with myself, and ended up working in a bank … all the while knowing that I should have gone to university.

I finally did go to university at 27.

Comment by Amanda

Hi Ellen,

Really insightful! I have read and loved both The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, but I found it so difficult to get my teeth into this one and I can’t really pinpoint why. I did read that The Beautiful and Damned is often considered as structurally and stylistically weaker than Gatsby and Tender, so this has perhaps put me off.(I wonder if you think that this is the case?)

The themes sound really interesting though and I do love Fitzgerald, so maybe I should give it another shot…

Comment by Little Interpretations

I think you’re right, it’s a weaker book than Gatsby. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Gatsby…maybe even since high school??…and it would be interesting to reread it and get a better feel for what Fitzgerald can do at his best. Because I do think some of his published work is pretty weak – it was all I could do to get through “Tales of the Jazz Age.” I think I tried starting this book before and like you couldn’t get into it, but something hit right this time (extreme boredom? a week of rain?).

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] on about my favorite books. But I do remember thinking, at times while reading, that the title of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned was better than the rest of the […]

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