The theme of The Beautiful and Damned—published serially in The Metropolitan Magazine (September 1921—March 1922) before being issued in book form—is the dissipation and deterioration of the inner self. Two people, husband and wife, are equally guilty of an excessive indulgence in illusions and dreams. This idea of a motivated failure of the protagonists was in the author’s mind since the very first conception of the new novel, even if he was thinking at the time of giving a new portrait of the young aesthete:
My new novel [he had written in 1920] called The Flight of the Rocket, concerns the life of one Anthony Patch between his 25th and 33d years (1913-1921). He is one of those many with the tastes and weaknesses of an artist but with no actual creative inspiration. How he and his beautiful young wife are wrecked on the shoals of dissipation is told in the story. (Letters. Turnbull, ed., [New York, 1963], p. 145.)
If ties with the “young artist” that Amory had been are still visible, we cannot say that the new novel was to continue his story, because Anthony Patch is bound from the start to become a failure, and his story is to be seen in close interdependence with the story of his wife. The interdependence of the two characters was emphasized in the title of the manuscript, which was called “The Beautiful Lady Without Mercy” and had furthermore an epigraph taken from Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” (In the MS there is also an epigraph from Samuel Butler: “Life is a long process of getting tired,” which was not used in the printed text.) This epigraph disappeared in the published version of the novel—the new title clearly indicating that both Anthony and Gloria were victims of a romantic conception of the world. But the main theme of the dissipation of the two characters remained as it had been conceived originally, all the more painful because their ruin is the result of an apparent, but deceptive material victory. Anthony and Gloria struggle against philistinism and hypocritical morality so as to be able to prolong their dissipation, but their victory, readied when it is too late, only serves to make the feeling of incurable defeat the more terrible. “The victor belongs to the spoils,” reads the new epigraph: and there was never a more bitter and hollow victory than this one, which leaves the two characters among the spoils and remnants of their struggle and of their existence. It is a pathetic struggle, too weakly and too selfishly fought to become tragic, which reveals the flaws of decay and deterioration under the golden appearance of success. As with Amory in the earlier novel, the story of the two characters, so “beautiful and damned,” is developed as a moral parable, linearly unfolded, though with a better feeling for the general structure. And the parable is precisely that of the youthful dreams and illusions that gradually become a lethargy and then a nightmare and are involved in an inevitable ruin.
The novel is divided into three books, (In the MS the three books bear these titles: “The Pleasant Absurdity of Things,” “The Romantic Bitterness of Things,” and “The Ironic Tragedy of Things.”) each in turn divided into three chapters. Each book represents a distinct moment in the development of the story, while the chapters themselves mark the progressive unfolding of the parable. From a complete abandonment to dreams at the beginning, the two protagonists fall to tasting the lees of an illusory happiness and find that the dreams have become nightmares. Just as in This Side of Paradise, a “portrait” of Anthony is given at the very beginning: he is a sophisticated and blase aesthete, who lives in a comfortable ivory tower in a New York apartment. More mature than Amory and lacking his sentimental obsession with socialism, Anthony has the advantage of a certain culture (he reads Flaubert’s Education Sentimentale…), is independent and rich and has his future assured by the prospect of a big inheritance. He is more refined than his predecessor and enjoys the close friendship of a small set of people, through whom he makes hesitant and timid approaches to the world. His real desire is to perpetuate his pleasant life: he is content to contemplate his own image (there is a touch of Narcissus in him, too) in the golden mirrors and polished surfaces of his house. His favorite retreat is the bathtub, and there he weaves immaterial dreams, castles in the air, reveries of himself contemplating sensual beauties, or playing imaginary violins:
He felt that if he had a love he would have hung her picture just facing the tub so that, lost in the soothing steamings of the hot water, he might lie and look up at her and muse warmly and sensuously on her beauty… . (BD. pp. 11-12.)
He raised his voice to compete with the flood of water pouring into the tub, and as he looked at the picture of Hazel Dawn upon the wall he put an imaginary violin to his shoulder and softly caressed it with a phantom bow. (BD, p. 17.)
All his social and cultural attempts dissolve in that dreamy atmosphere. He feels compelled to do something, and he can think of nothing better than writing a history of the Middle Ages. He feels that he should allow himself some diversions, and he finds a girl, Geraldine, who offers him a new mirror in which to gaze at himself. She is held at a distance and kept for certain hours, because “she was company, familiar, and faintly intimate and restful. Further than that he did not care to experiment—not from any moral compunction, but from a dread of allowing any entanglement to disturb what he felt was the growing serenity of his life.”
A “Flash-Back in Paradise,” however, marking the birth of the “beautiful” Gloria, is sufficient to put the serenity of his life in jeopardy. Gloria is a new, more dangerous incarnation of the “debutante” or flapper, both careless and fascinating. She, too, . is possessed by an illusory dream, the dream of a beauty to whom all is due, who accepts no responsibility and subordinates every other aspect of life to an aesthetic principle. To Gloria, “who took all things of life for hers to choose from and apportion, as though she were continually picking out presents for herself from an inexhaustible counter,” it is enough for people to “fit into the picture.” She does not mind “if they don’t do anything.” “I don’t see why they should—in fact it almost astonishes me when anybody does anything.”
Her meeting with Anthony is therefore perfectly logical and unavoidable. And yet, if the aesthete gives up his dream of detachment from the world, of aloofness and isolation, it is only to replace it with a new dream—the dream of eternal love. He knows very well that he is not “a realist,” that Gloria requites his love because he is “clean,” but greatly interested as he is by every girl “who made a living directly on her prettiness,” there is no possible escape for him. It can be either “white” or “black magic,” but Gloria fills him with dissatisfaction, then panic, and finally brings him to the altar.
Anthony and Gloria throw their illusions together, but the dream of one cannot but suffer in contact with that of the other. The illusion of love as an absorbing way of life collides with the ideal that sees marriage as a means of satisfying one’s vanity:
Marriage was created not to be a background but to need one—says Gloria -. Mine is going to be outstanding. It can’t, shan’t be the setting—it’s going to be the performance, the live, lovely, glamorous performance, and the world shall be the scenery. (BD, p. 147.)
After the precarious “radiant hour” (that opens the second book), Anthony finds his serenity compromised, while Gloria finds herself without the much-coveted security. Her “tremendous nervous tension” contrasts with his utter cowardice. A new dream, that of an expected inheritance, keeps them together. But Adam Patch is not so eager to die, and he disapproves of their fast spending and reckless living. He keeps a close watch on them, while they are unconsciously preparing their ruin. Anthony tries in vain to go on with his book and has a short and fruitless working experience; Gloria plays with the idea of becoming a film actress, but her husband objects to it. His further attempt to write commercial short stories is also a failure.
Their dream becomes gradually an inexcusable form of lethargy, and after their refusal to have a child, this lethargy kills even the illusion of eternal love. “Gloria had lulled Anthony’s mind to sleep … [she] realized that Anthony had become capable of utter indifference toward her, a temporary indifference, more than half lethargic… .” Only a childish vision of future happiness and security stirs them at times from their lethargy:
That spring, that summer, they had speculated upon future happiness—how they were to travel from summer land to summer land, returning eventually to a gorgeous estate and possible idyllic children, then entering diplomacy or politics, to accomplish, for a while, beautiful and important things, until finally as a white-haired (beautifully, silkily, white-haired) couple they were to loll about in serene glory, worshipped by the bourgeoisie of the land… . These times were to begin “when we get our money”: it was on such dreams rather than on any satisfaction with their increasingly irregular, increasingly dissipated life that their hope rested. (BD. p. 277.)
Their expectation could not rest on weaker foundations. In a highly dramatic scene, Adam Patch, the old millionaire, who is a prohibitionist and a supporter of a Victorian moral code, visits them at the climax of a drunken party. The blow proves fatal for him and for the hopes of Anthony and Gloria as well, because they are disinherited.
Then lethargy turns into a nightmare. Even Anthony realizes that he “had been futile in longing to drift and dream; no one drifted except to maelstroms, no one dreamed without his dreams becoming fantastic nightmares of indecision and regret.” This realization, however, is only temporary, and the two react by attaching themselves desperately to the hope of winning back the inheritance. They have now to contest the will, but their struggle I related in the third book) is really on two fronts, because their inner tensions break the remaining ties of love and destroy all their serenity. Anthony welcomes the diversion offered by the war and enlists to escape, as it were, his own self and his contradictions, but even this illusion is wrecked by the ruthless impact of reality.
Stationed in a southern military camp. Anthony ends by getting himself entangled in a sordid love affair, which is represented as “an inevitable result of his increasing carelessness about himself…. He merely slid into the matter through his inability to make definite judgments.” This same inability is responsible for his breaking bounds to go and see his new girl, with the inevitable result of being stripped of his rank. Thus, even his respectability and self-respect are ruined, and he plunges again into a nightmare of helpless impotence and dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, Gloria, who has recognized the failure of their love (“That she had not been happy with Anthony for over a year mattered little”), falls back on the obstinate dream of her beauty. She flirts with old friends and new acquaintances, makes a new attempt to go into the movies, which results in bitter failure, and is unable to come to terms with reality. Not understanding that circumstances and people change, she reverts to childhood, dreaming of being a child again, of being protected, expecting “to wake in some high, fresh-scented room, alone, and statuesque within and without, as in her virginal and colorful past.”
But the present intrudes: it offers only the pale image of an Anthony who. back from the military camp, spends his time in the house turning his back on every human or worldly contact. The aesthetic recluse has become the melancholy hermit of indigence and helplessness. Anthony spends his time wearily reading newspapers in the midst of disorder and filth, and now more than ever he has recourse to the deceptive relief of drinking. He too reverts to the dream of his past youth, and he too discovers that he is unfit for the present. Even his drinking aims at recreating an equivocal atmosphere of dreamy sentimentalism and decadent aestheticism:
There was a kindliness about intoxication—there was that indescribable gloss and glamor it gave, like the memories of ephemeral and faded evenings. Alter a few high-balls there was magic in the tall glowing Arabian night of the Bush Terminal Building….
…the fruit of youth or of the grape, the transitory magic of the brief passage from darkness to darkness—the old illusion that truth and beauty were in some way entwined. (BD. p. 417.)
Anthony comes to realize that it is an illusion, but it is a devastating realization. His psychological balance is broken, and he resorts to pointless violence. He provokes Bloeckman, his former rival, to a fight, and when Dorothy, the southern girl, comes to see him in New York, he suffers a nervous collapse. It is at this point that the news reaches him that he has finally won his suit against the will and that he owns thirty million dollars.
Their dream is realized, but only when it is too late. The slow and inexorable passing of time has made this victory in extremis a hollow one. With a touch of dramatic irony, the reversal of fortune overtakes the two characters only when their initial situation has been reversed. Anthony, sophisticated and blase at the beginning, is now an empty shell who goes to Europe with a doctor at his side. Sparkling Gloria, who used to divide people into clean and unclean, now herself appears “sort of dyed and unclean.”
If we read the story in this way-disentangling its meaning from the mass of obtrusive material and subsidiary aspects—it becomes clear enough that it is a parable on the deceptiveness of dreams, on the impossibility of evading reality through illusions, and on the painful destructiveness of time. The very evil that wears away the life of the flapper who refuses to grow up, and the life of the “philosopher” who cannot come to grips with reality and experience, is hidden in their youthful dreams, in their careless attitude of defiance toward the world, in their refusal to evaluate and accept the effects of time. Far from being the mouthpiece or the singer of the jazz age, Fitzgerald was its lucid accuser. He was well aware of its equivocal dangers, of its irresponsible attitudes, and he pitilessly exposed “its disastrous consequences—even admitting that his denunciation was achieved almost in spite of his own intentions and was brought to light in the novel almost unconsciously.
If the meaning of the story told in The Beautiful and Damned must be identified with the gradual denunciation of Anthony’s and Gloria’s irresponsible progress of deterioration, and with an exposition of their guilty behavior toward themselves and the world, one cannot deny that in many passages Fitzgerald reveals a tendency to bestow on Anthony, if not on Gloria, a kind of moral greatness that contradicts the objective development of his adventure. At times Fitzgerald seemed to falter between a desire to show the “heroic” side of Anthony and a willingness to criticize his pointless endeavors. The story itself admits of no other possibility than a bitter denunciation of Anthony and Gloria, because their actions speak for themselves, and there is little doubt as to their purport. But at the very end of the book Anthony is represented in an ambiguous light and almost praised for his refusal “to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work”:
Anthony Patch, sitting near the rail and looking out at the sea. was not thinking of his money [!], for he had seldom in his life been really preoccupied with material vain glory… . No—he was concerned with a series of reminiscences, much as a general might look back upon a successful campaign and analyze his victories. He was thinking of the hardships, the insufferable tribulations he had gone through. They had tried to penalize him for the mistakes of his youth… .
Only a few months before people had been urging him to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work. But he had known that he was justified in his way of life—and he had stuck it out staunchly… .
“I showed them,” he was saying. “It was a hard fight, but I didn’t give up and I came through!” (BD, pp. 448-49.)
His last words are words of self-satisfaction and defiance, and his long struggle is here represented in a sympathetic light. This final reversal of the moral judgment is even more apparent in the magazine version of the novel, in which Fitzgerald not only defended the grandeur of Anthony’s and Gloria’s desperate attempt, but went so far as to exalt the validity of its motivation—“the freshness and fulness of their desire.”“Their fault was not that they had doubted but that they had believed,” Fitzgerald had written. Their only “disastrous extremes” were identified with “the exquisite perfection of their boredom, the delicacy of their inattention, the inexhaustibility of their discontent,” and their figures acquired a halo of romantic suffering and purity. It is worthwhile quoting the whole final passage of the magazine version, which justifies, among other things, the title of the last chapter (“Together with the Sparrows”) which was retained in the book:
That exquisite heavenly irony which had tabulated the demise of many generations of sparrows seems to us to be content with the moral judgments of man upon fellow man. If there is a subtle and yet more nebulous ethic somewhere in the mind, one might believe that beneath the sordid dress and near the bruised heart of this transaction there was a motive which was not weak but only futile and sad. In the search for happiness, which search is the greatest and possibly the only crime of which we in our petty misery are capable, these two people were marked as guilty chiefly by the freshness and fulness of their desire. Their illusion was always a comparative thing—they had sought glamor and color through their respective worlds with steadfast loyalty—sought it and it alone in kisses and in wine, sought it with the same ingenuousness in the wanton moonlight as under the cold sun of inviolate chastity. Their fault was not that they had doubted but that they had believed.
The exquisite perfection of their boredom, the delicacy of their inattention, the inexhaustibility of their discontent—were disastrous extremes—that was all. And if, before Gloria yielded up her gift of beauty, she shed one bright feather of light so that someone, gazing up from the grey earth, might say, “Look! There is an angel’s wing!” perhaps she had given more than enough for her tinsel joys. (In The Metropolitan Magazine, LV (March 1922), p. 113; see also Letters, p. 152.)
The logical development of the story is here given a deliberate twist; and it is perhaps significant that this idea of a moral comment on his characters that would justify their struggle and explain its motivations came to Fitzgerald, it seems, at the last moment and in a sudden flash, since in the manuscript version of the novel the story closed simply with the return of Gloria to her Paradise:
The stars greeted her intimately as they went by and the winds made a soft welcoming flurry in the air. Sighing, she began a conversation with a voice that was in the white wind.
“Back again,” the voice whispered.
“After fifteen years.”
The voice hesitated.
“How remote you are,” it said. “Unstirred… . You seem to have no heart. How about the little girl? The glory of her eyes is gone-”
But Beauty had forgotten long ago.
Such a conclusion probably belonged to an early conception of the novel, when Gloria (la belle dame sans merci) was to be represented as the main cause of Anthony’s deterioration and ruin. But it makes it clear that Fitzgerald had not completely mastered his material when he published the novel and that his final rehabilitation of Anthony was due to a sudden impulse which reflected, somehow, a basic uncertainty as to his real stature and accomplishments. Traces of this wavering attitude toward Anthony can in fact be found in other passages of the book as well, and they must be acknowledged, even if it means recognizing that The Beautiful and Damned does not present a story as straightforward as one would like to have it.
Consider, for instance, the nature of Anthony’s relationship with his few friends, especially at the beginning. It is clear that he enjoys an unquestionable superiority over Maury Noble and Richard Caramel, but even after his “downfall” Fitzgerald represents him as superior to both Noble and Caramel. It is true that Noble, in spite of his nihilistic tirade in the middle of the book (at the end of the chapter entitled “Symposium”), succumbs to a respectable, middle-class marriage, and that Caramel undertakes a brilliant career as a commercial novelist—a career which gives him fame and fortune, but does not redeem him from the limitations of his talent and the meanness of his compromises. Still, Anthony docs not do any better than they: but by using these two figures, Fitzgerald apparently wished to set off in relief the purity, “the exquisite perfection” and the inaccessibility of Anthony, who remains true to his initial ideals without ever descending to a vulgar compromise. This is made quite clear in an episode toward the end, when poor Caramel is violently abused by Anthony, and Fitzgerald seems to watch the performance with great gusto.
The same might be said, with different qualifications, of Gloria, whose fascinating personality predominates in many episodes of the book and whose charm is felt both by Fitzgerald and the reader. But even if Fitzgerald’s intent—conscious or unconscious—was to extol the “beauty” of his two characters by contrasting them with the mediocrity of middle-class life and ideals, we must still say that the remedy proposed is worse than the evil indicated and that this alternative to reality denies its own reasons, because the two protagonists are “damned” without hope by their actions and attitudes, as they are developed and made apparent in the story. And they are damned not only in the eyes of the world, or for moralistic considerations on the part of the readers, but because their story is a story of self-destruction, which naturally results in inner and outer ruin.
All this must be taken into consideration to understand the exact nature and quality of the book and its deeper meaning, in spite of the many misleading suggestions that we have to confront. The Beautiful and Damned is not “a distressing tragedy which should be, also, one hundred percent meaningless,” as Edmund Wilson claimed, if we see beyond the surface into its objective line of development. And it is not a mere “muddle” in the presentation of the two characters, as Arthur Mizener maintained. (Cf. Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise, p. 140. Wilson’s essay “S.F.” had appeared in The Bookman, March 1922. See also William Troy. “Scott Fitzgerald—The Authority of Failure” (1945), and J. F. Powers, “Dealers in Diamonds and Rhinestones,” both in A. Kazin (ed.) F. Scott Fitzgerald.) if we see their true natures behind the screen of their self-complacency. The book has a meaning and a significance, even if its theme is not rigorously focused and consistently developed to its logical conclusion.
The reason for this incongruity lies perhaps in the fact that Fitzgerald’s attempt was too ambitious. Soon after his autobiographical This Side of Paradise, he was facing a new and complex theme which required a considerable amount of objective treatment. Amory had been a direct projection of the writer himself. To Anthony and Gloria he gave many characteristics, traits, and apprehensions of his own and of his wife, but he imagined his characters’ experience as a possibility, rather than representing his own private experience. It was not simply a question of evoking or recreating a personal reality—it was rather a question of bringing to life an imaginary situation, which he had contemplated as a possibility, with no immediate connection with his own life, and which was to be represented in its objective development.(Gloria [he wrote his daughter years later] was a more trivial and vulgar person than your mother. I can’t really say there was any resemblance except in the beauty and certain terms of expression she used, and also I naturally used many circumstantial events of our early married life. However the emphases were entirely different. We had a much better time than Anthony and Gloria did.” As quoted in The Far Side of Paradise, pp. 124-25. This did not prevent reviewers from interpreting the novel as autobiography.) In this ambitious attempt Fitzgerald proved himself unequal to the exacting task of controlling the objective development of his characters according to a rigorous thematic principle. He tried to detach himself from his characters, to stand aside and unfold their story in all its implications, going so far as to pass a moral judgment on them. On the other hand, he sympathized with his characters and shared some of their illusions and not a few of their attitudes, with the result that he felt like justifying, incongruously, the greatness of their attempt. He had, in other words, to expose and denounce two characters who appealed to him. or to justify their beauty in spite of their damnation. He wanted to do both things, and the thematic unity of the book was seriously compromised. The double choice offered in the title is reflected in the lack of a consistent resolution of its conflicting motives. The objective and inescapable result of the action is that Anthony and Gloria are “damned”: and they cannot be, therefore, as “beautiful” as the author tries to make them.
This is why we have to conclude that The Beautiful and Damned is a transitional novel. It lies half-way between a youthful success and the achievement of maturity. But if it is a novel of transition, it is so because some of the limitations of This Side of Paradise were transcended. Flappers and philosophers celebrate no triumphs in this novel. If they do seem to gain a victory, it is soon shown to be illusory and deceptive, a subtle form of irredeemable defeat, the snare of moral misery. Although sympathizing with the defiant attitude of his heroes, Fitzgerald feels the need to pass a moral judgment on them, and even in their glamorous and careless way of life he reveals . the hidden flaw of failure and defeat. In spite of his enthusiasms, in The Beautiful and Damned Fitzgerald is concerned with exposing the inner meaning of life, not with reproducing its brilliant surface alone: he is concerned with suffering and the bitter aspects of experience, not with its playful manifestations. “I guess I am too much of a moralist at heart”—he was to write in his notes—“and really want to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.” (The Crack-Up, p. 305 and Letters, p. 63: on the subject of Fitzgerald’s moralism, cf. also The Far Side of Paradise, pp. 3—4, 16, and 18. among others.) This inclination—if not yet this intention—is already present in his second novel.
From The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Sergio Perosa. Copyright, the University of Michigan Press, 1965. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.