The Significance of F. Scott Fitzgerald
by D. S. Savage

For literary history, the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald begins with an exuberantly immature best-selling novel entitled This Side of Paradise and concludes with the posthumous valedictory and confessional volume entitled The Crack-Up. The implied antithesis is neat, and not insignificant, and it is more than literary. There was, throughout, the closest correspondence between Fitzgerald’s life and his writing, and yet the widest disparity between the man and the artist.

From this side of paradise, then, to the crack-up. Between the strenuously gay social adventure of the young Scott and Zelda in the New York of the Jazz Age and the anguished, shattered existence of the later years, the disparity seems complete. Yet in fact, as Mr. Arthur Mizener’s biography [The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Arthur Mizener. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951.] puts beyond question, it was but the furthest extension of a duality which was always there: the rift in the lute widened slowly to a chasm, but it is already evident in the frantic oscillations between misery and bliss, poverty and affluence, failure and success which characterized the young man from Princeton in 1919.

What happened then is of crucial importance in Fitzgerald’s life. In an article in The Crack-Up called “Early Success” he tells how he gave up his job in an advertising office, retiring “not on my profits, but on my liabilities, which included debts, despair, and a broken engagement” and crept home to finish a novel.

That novel, begun in a training camp late in the war, was my ace in the hole. I had put it aside when I got a job in New York, but I was as constantly aware of it as of the shoe with cardboard in the sole, during all one desolate spring. It was like the fox and goose and the bag of beans. If I stopped working to finish the novel, I lost the girl…

My friends who were not in love or who had waiting arrangements with “sensible” girls, braced themselves patiently for a long pull. Not I—I was in love with a whirlwind and I must spin a net big enough to catch it out of my head, a head full of trickling nickels and sliding dimes, the incessant music box of the poor. It couldn’t be done like that, so when the girl threw me over I went home and finished my novel. And then, suddenly, everything changed, and this article is about that first wild wind of success and the delicious mist it brings with it. …

The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fair years to waste, years that I can’t honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea.

That final paragraph says nearly everything. Fitzgerald was indeed a romantic who wished time to stand still forever at the hour of youth so that an aesthetic paradise might be superimposed upon life’s harsh actuality. This could only be done, it seemed, by the power of money, and accordingly Fitzgerald wrote for money—magazine stories at two or three thousand dollars a time. This money brought him among the rich, to share, as he put it, “their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives.” His wider significance, which should always be borne in mind, is indicated by the coincidence of this temper with the prevalent mood of the time. That first novel fell into the hands of a ready world—“a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.” But the crack-up too was a particular incident in a general calamity. His early happiness, Fitzgerald wrote, often approached ecstasy, but “my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural—unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.”

Despair. In Kierkegaard’s definition, despair, the contrary of faith, is the Sickness unto Death arising from an impotence in the self to choose and to become itself. In this precise sense, Fitzgerald was a man in despair. For two years previous to his eventual collapse, he tells us, his life had been a drawing on resources that he did not possess: “I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” In a poignant passage he describes the sickness of despair as an inability to love.

I realized that in those two years in order to preserve something—an inner hush maybe, maybe not—I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love—that every act of life from the morning tooth-brush to the friend at dinner had become an effort. I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretence of liking. I saw that even my love for those closest to me was become only an attempt to love, that my casual relations—with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days. All in the same month I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in the magazines, the screech of tracks, the dead silence of the country—contemptuous at human softness, immediately (if secretively) quarrelsome toward hardness—hating the night when I couldn’t sleep and hating the day because it went toward night. I slept on the heart side now because I knew that the sooner I could tire that out, even a little, the sooner would come that blessed hour of nightmare which, like a catharsis, would enable me to better meet the new day.

Fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail… In this condition, for the first time “forced to think,” he concluded that, essentially, he had never lived—that the essential business of his life he had left to this and that admired figure among his contemporaries.

So there was not an “I” any more—not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect… It was strange to have no self—to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do…

But was there in reality ever an “I”—would it not be more exact to say that he had parted finally with a fictive personality-image and come to a realization that he had no self and was in despair? Considering those of his contemporaries who somehow managed not to commit suicide or to become insane, he wrote mordantly that it led him to the idea that they had made some sort of irretrievable break with their past selves. “So, since I could no longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years?”

… I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person—to be kind, just or generous. There were plenty of counterfeit coins around that would pass instead of these and I knew where I could get them at a nickel on the dollar… There was to be no more giving of myself—all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste.

How characteristic of the man it was that after glancing bitterly in these articles at the novel’s increasing subordination to the mechanical and communal art of the film, he should have gone to Hollywood to end his life as a patcher-up of film scripts. And how utterly in keeping with the pathos of his life that he should have collapsed and died in the middle of writing the novel which was to have comprehended his Hollywood experience and vindicated his name as an artist.


The more closely one looks into Fitzgerald the more clearly one perceives the crucial importance of that disconcerting early experience with Zelda. It confirmed him in his belief in the sovereign power of wealth, while arousing in him a moral revulsion against that power, thus accentuating the division which expressed itself most completely in the disparity between the man and the artist. Of the early success which gave him the money which brought him back his girl, Fitzgerald retrospectively insisted:

The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class … since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.

That early experience is the model for Gatsby’s relations to Daisy in The Great Gatsby, while its later consequences are reflected in the relations of Dick and Nicole in Tender Is the Night.

Both these novels portray the shining world of the rich, and in each there is a critical exposure of the corrupting influence of money upon human values. Let us compare their plots. In the former, Jay Gatsby, a poor farm boy, amasses a fortune in order to be able to win back the rich girl he had fallen irrevocably in love with five years earlier, but who in his absence overseas in the army had married Tom Buchanan, a man of established social position but a coarse-grained brute. Nick Carraway, the narrator, arranges a meeting of the former lovers, but the romantic idealism proves to be all on one side, and Gatsby fails in the issue to win back Daisy from the faithless and self-assured Tom. Tom and Daisy extricate themselves from a sordid scrape by conspiring to pin the guilt of the manslaughter of Tom’s disreputable mistress on to Gatsby, as a result of which he is murdered by the dead woman’s husband. Gatsby’s fortune is revealed to have been built on crime. Of the crowds who had swarmed to his parties only one man presents himself at the funeral; Nick returns to his home in the West, and Tom and Daisy are left to the self-enclosed enjoyment of their careless, glittering lives. “It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”

In Tender Is the Night, written after a nine-years silence during which he and Zelda had been ruinously dissipating their resources in the playgrounds of Europe and America, Dick Diver, an able and promising psychiatrist from the Middle West, undertakes the treatment in Europe of a Chicago millionaire’s neurotic daughter, Nicole Warren. Treatment succeeds, but complications arise when the rich girl “falls in love” with the poor doctor, and against all advice he marries her, turning a professional responsibility into a personal commitment, and slowly finding all his energies diverted to the emotional needs of a wife who is simultaneously a patient. When Nicole has used him to the limit she abandons the exhausted man for a lover of the Tom Buchanan caste. The irony is that to Nicole’s family his relation to her is nothing but a professional one—Dick’s services have been bought; so that when Nicole has “cut the cord” he is no longer needed and can be casually returned to the poor parishes of his origin—“That’s what he was educated for.” Thus both Gatsby and Dick Diver, fascinated by wealth (and a woman) venture romantically into the world of the established rich and are destroyed.

This could be a variation on the edifying theme of the corrupting power of riches upon human values, but the matter goes deeper than that. Money is valued, not for itself, but for the entry it purchases to an earthly paradise of leisure far removed from the stresses of real life: an illusory region of eternal youth. In Tender Is the Night, a retrospective appraisal of the degenerative effects of “seven years of waste and tragedy,” the mirage-paradise is shown in diffuse form as the search for the Carnival by the Sea: in Gatsby, however, written at the early peak of Fitzgerald’s career—the summit from which, afterwards, all was decline—it is presented with contemporaneous immediacy and cast into unitary shape. The one is clinically more explicit, and offers a key with which to unlock the cryptic message of the other—for although Gatsby remains the most complete and concentrated statement of Fitzgerald’s situation, its symbols are veiled.

We must look closer at this paradise which is bought by money. In doing so it will be well to follow a pregnant hint dropped by Mr. Mizener—“Somewhere very deep in [Fitzgerald’s] imagination that complicated tangle of feelings he had about the rich interlocked with his feelings about the delight of vitality and the horror of its exhaustion.” There is a very early story entitled Absolution, which not only reminds us that Fitzgerald was raised a Roman Catholic, and that the earthly paradise is an inverted theological conception, but serves to show the connection between Carnival—a fleshy word—and vitality. It opens: “There was once a priest with cold, watery eyes, who, in the still of the night, wept cold tears… Sometimes, near four o’clock, there was a rustle of Swede girls along the path by his window, and in their shrill laughter he found a terrible dissonance that made him pray aloud for the twilight to come.” The priest is confronted with an eager little boy on the exciting threshold of experience, and before his bright innocent gaze he breaks down and raves crazily about—an amusement park.

Did you ever see an amusement park? … Well, go and see an amusement park… It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place—under dark trees. You’ll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air, and a long slide shooting boats down into the water. A band playing somewhere, and a smell of peanuts—and everything will twinkle. But it won’t remind you of anything, you sec. It will all just hang out there in the night like colored balloon—like a big yellow lantern on a pole.

But, he warns the boy, don’t get up close, “because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.” When the priest collapses precipitously (and symbolically) to the floor, the boy rushes in panic from the room. “But underneath his terror he felt that his own inner convictions were confirmed. There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God.” There could hardly be a more appropriate symbol for the earthly paradise than an amusement park with its sensational, circular mechanisms: while the heat, the sweat and the life associated with it form a link with the Swede girls invoked at the beginning of the story and again at its close.

It is exactly this profane vision which is the theme both of The Great Gatsby and of Tender Is the Night. At their pristine encounter it is first of all Daisy’s heavenly house that captivates Gatsby. “Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine… Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.” It is such a stellar paradise that he must provide, five years later, if he is to turn back time and regain the lover who had forsaken him for a richer man. In both novels the paradisal condition is to be attained by a three-fold legerdemain comprising the transformation of space, the suspension of time and the negation of Experience with its distinctions of good-and-evil. In Tender Is the Night this last is accomplished by a conspiracy of manners—Dick Diver’s perfect courtesy establishes a charmed circle within which all are released from the bondage of their actual imperfections. “To be included in Dick Diver’s world for a while was a remarkable experience; people believed he made special reservations about them, recognizing the proud uniqueness of their destinies, buried under the compromises of how many years. He won everyone quickly with an exquisite consideration and a politeness that moved so fast and intuitively that it could be examined only in its effect.” Here the negation of time is determined by the imperative necessity to stay young. Dick and Nicole experience time differently. “For him time stood still and then every few years accelerated in a rush, like the quick re-wind of a film, but for Nicole the years slipped away by clock and calendar and birthday, with the added poignance of her perishable beauty. The ruined Abe North negates time with alcohol, for “The drink made past happy things contemporary with the present as if they were still going on, contemporary even with the future as if they were about to happen again.” Dick’s inner collapse shows itself as a breakdown of manners, running significantly parallel to a physical deterioration—the last link snaps when he miserably fails in the attempt to display his earlier prowess on the surf-board. When youth goes, the Carnival is over.

It is in this later novel that the interlocking of money with vitality is most explicit. It is especially evident in Dick’s growing subjection to Nicole: he is “inundated with a constant trickle of goods and money,” and is led to reflect that despite himself he had been “swallowed up like a gigolo and somehow permitted his arsenal to be locked up in the Warren safety-deposit vaults.” Money here would appear in some obscure way to be the agent of feminine sexuality; by its means Dick, robbed of his male potency—the historical will to vocation, work, culture—has fallen into subjection to the natural female will to idleness and pleasure. Fitzgerald fails to stress the fact, but it is Dick’s culpable folly in agreeing to marry his own patient which is the initial fault that sets in motion the entire process of involvement and degeneration; and it is interesting to note that, although he is made to hold out for some time, he is shown in the outcome as powerless to resist, not the inducements of Nicole’s bank-balance but the sheer overwhelming vital force of her sexual attraction. The passage in which the virtual seduction of Dick by Nicole is described would be conclusive even were it not underlined by the character of his subsequent liaison with the ingenuous Rosemary—transparently a recapitulation of the earlier experience—in which again the woman is sexually the aggressor, employing an appealing childishness to captivate the male to whom she stands in a relationship which is ambiguously filial and maternal. The principal defect of the novel, its one-sidedness which obstructs a truthful, total presentment of the situation, is the result of that too-close approximation of the author’s viewpoint to that of his hero which leads him to expose the flaw in Nicole to the full while passing silently over the flaw in Dick which leaves him so unaccountably open to victimization at her hands. In spite of this grave defect, a sharp eye may discern clearly enough Dick’s actual subterrene complicity with Nicole. It is hinted in a passage describing his emotions during one of her psychotic relapses: “Somehow Dick and Nicole had become one and equal, not opposite and complementary. He could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them.” Since Nicole’s condition is the consequence of physical seduction at the hands of her own father, it is impossible to evade the conclusion that Dick is unconsciously implicated in the very incestuous regression which is at the root of her psychopathic (schizophrenic) condition. It is precisely the same incestuous regression which, in fact, determines the unconscious symbolism of The Great Gatsby—a symbolism, however, which I lack space to elucidate in the present article.

In the dark enchantment of the incestuous regression, life flows back to its own origins, history is dissolved into nature, the masculine will to creativeness is absorbed in the feminine will to reproduction, and that in turn to the will to dissolution. As for money, that, for Fitzgerald— as is revealed in the passage concerning the “droit de seigneur”—was no other than a symbol for possession. With money, the unconscious thought seems to have run, you could possess—your girl, the materials for the earthly paradise, Mother Earth, your mother… The Carnival by the Sea is an incestuous festival.


There is no help for it: what emerges most patently from Fitzgerald’s biography is his character as a mother’s boy. “His mother’s treatment,” Mr. Mizener points out, “was bad for a precocious and imaginative boy, and as Fitzgerald confessed to his daughter after she had grown up, “I didn’t know till 15 that there was anyone in the world except me…’” After The Great Gatsby he began a novel about matricide called The Boy Who Killed His Mother. “At about this time he also wrote a comic ballad about a dope fiend of sixteen who murdered his mother… Fitzgerald used to deliver this ballad at parties, his face powdered white, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and his hands trembling.”—Not so comic.

Already in This Side of Paradise the components of this complex are evident enough. “Amory Blaine,” runs the opening sentence, “inherited from his mother every trait, except the stray inexpressible few, that made him worth while.” At thirteen he is “more than ever son to his Celtic mother,” and it is at this tender age that he begins his childish amours. The fascination of femininity supplies the book’s very substance, and there is occult significance in Amory’s self-identification with Monsignor Darcy and in the character of that ecclesiastical personage’s relationship with Amory’s mother—he had been her lover. That is through “Monsignor” the incest-wish is indirectly expressed and religiously sanctioned. Openly faced, or half-faced, only in Tender Is the Night, the incest motive is in fact central to all of Fitzgerald’s novels. The Great Gatsby is a profane myth in which the religious symbols are inverted. Gatsby seeks to go back to happiness and innocence through an impossible union with the maternal-image, Daisy, just as, in The Last Tycoon, the tired and dying Monro Stahr—another stellar hero— seeks to repeat his experience with his dead wife through the girl he first descries on top of a scenic set-piece of the Goddess [sic] Siva, Destroyer and Reproducer, which is floating on the surface of the flooded lot. The reason why this novel is a comparative failure and the other a consummate success lies in the disjunction between the real and the apparent themes in the one and their perfect mutual assimilation in the other.

In such a situation of unconscious infatuation by the maternal image as Fitzgerald exemplifies, the sheer assertion of masculine will becomes a primary need of the personality. It is, I think, important to realize that Fitzgerald felt all his life that he had failed even in the primitive achievement of masculine independence. In The Crack-Up he drew a parallel between the precipitating cause of his current dereliction and certain experiences of his youth. Together with the crucial Zelda episode he bracketed the loss of some coveted offices at Princeton and a humiliating failure to be appointed on active service overseas in 1918. “Some old desire for personal dominance was gone,” he wrote of the latter discouragement, and of the former: “There were to be no badges of pride, no medals after all. It seemed on one March afternoon that I had lost every single thing I wanted— and that night was the first time that I hunted down the spectre of womanhood that, for a little while, makes everything else seem unimportant.” [These italics are Mr. Savage’s.]

Failure of this primitive assertion of masculinity (which, among primitive peoples, is accomplished through the initiation-ceremonies and ordeals of adolescence through which the boy is prepared for adult membership of the tribe) is at once a failure to achieve that indispensable measure of individuality upon which depends the corresponding power to individualize the “other,” failure to assert the predominance of the “reality-principle” over the “pleasure-principle” (Freud), and failure to sever the infantile emotional bond with the mother and with the values of childish innocence. In consequence of the enchanted or charmed subjection to the diffused attraction of a generalized, maternal femininity, the sexual relation has a fatal tendency to regress to a childish stage which is also incestuous, being “innocent” and “guilty” simultaneously or by turns.

The Great Gatsby is a parable of Innocence and Experience, and Fitzgerald’s history must be interpreted in the light of the alternation of these terms and the oscillation between them: he lacked comprehension of the third, unitive term in the series—Imagination. Innocence is here the pristine integrality of the asexual childish selfhood represented by the beautiful little boy in Absolution “with eyes like blue stones, and lashes that sprayed open from them like flower-petals.” Experience is the abandonment of innocence through entry upon the adult, sexual, moneyed life, the world of the Warrens and Buchanans who are, in the total sense of the word, in possession. The Gatsbys and Divers are romantics in contradiction with themselves, in that they wish to make of experience a means to the renewal of innocence: and what was the daemoniac gaiety of Fitzgerald’s life but an attempt, not merely to ride two horses at once, but to ride two horses going in opposite directions: to live, in the context of adult, responsible experience with the innocent irresponsibility of the child? In a short story entitled Babylon Revisited, a repentant reveler whose escapades have brought about the death of his wife and the alienation of her family, returns to the Paris of his past follies in an endeavor to regain custody of the child surrendered through his neglect into the hands of his wife’s hostile sister; but his plans are ruined by the irruption into the family circle of two drunken companions of his former life. The biblical associations of “Babylon” are obvious enough; but was it not Robert Graves who once pointed out that in the old nursery-rhyme which runs:

How many miles to Babylon?
Three-score and ten.
Shall I get there by candle-light?
Yes, and back again,

“Babylon” is most probably an elided form of “Baby-land.” Certainly there is a marked infantile quality in the escapades of which the returned reveler is reminded by his former fellows. “We did have such good times that crazy spring, like the night you and I stole the butcher’s tricycle, and the time we tried to call on the president and you had the old derby rim and the wire cane. Everybody seems so old lately, but I don’t feel old a bit.” Reading the note in which this occurs:

His first feeling was one of awe that he had actually, in his mature years, stolen a tricycle and pedalled Lorraine all over the Etoile between the small hours and dawn. In retrospect it was a nightmare. Locking out Helen [the drunken act which had resulted in his wife’s death] didn’t fit in with any other act of his life, but the tricycle incident did—it was one of many. How many weeks or months of dissipation to arrive at that condition of utter irresponsibility?

It is the basic incest-pull which, accentuating the disparity between innocence and experience and splitting the personality between irreconcilable halves, results in the disorientation of the self from itself and the eventual surrender to despair. Yet, had Fitzgerald obtained his medals and badges of pride, worn his overseas cap overseas and, establishing himself in Experience, staked out his masculine claim to possession, he still would not have thereby constituted himself a self. To become a self, to move from conscious or unconscious despair into faith, is to relate the temporal to the external and thereby to act, not because the action will bring pleasure or avoid pain, nor yet because it is in accordance with some socially-imposed pattern of rights and duties, but because the act has intrinsic meaning through its immediate relation to the Truth of which it is an incarnation. This is imagination. What Zelda did for Fitzgerald in accepting his love was to open the possibility, through a personal relationship, of a movement towards the self in fidelity and truth; in rejecting him, by a disavowal of responsibility, she negated this possibility; and in taking him again when he had enough money to enable her to continue to live with the irrefragible egotism of a child, she implicitly rejected the potential principle of meaning and truth and enthroned the pleasure-principle at the heart of their relationship. There followed the relentless operation of a fatal dialectic of self-destruction which they both were powerless to surmount or comprehend. There is a world of pathos in the contrast between Mr. Mizener’s description of the eighteen-year-old maiden—“she was beautiful and witty … and there was nothing she did not dare do”—with the distracted figure released for a visit from the sanatorium, who quarrels with her drunken husband, walks out and is found at the station, “exquisitely dressed, a thoroughly sophisticated woman, except that she was wearing a hat like a child’s bonnet with the strings carefully knotted under her chin. She was reading the Bible.”

D. S. Savage, the English poet and critic, is the author of The Withered Branch and The Personal Principle. His essay on Fitzgerald was published in The Arizona Quarterly.

Published in Arizona Quarterly magazine 8 (Autumn 1952). Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection Of Critical Essays ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963).