Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I have been an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan since my high school days. Reading The Great Gatsby in 10th grade was a literary turning point for me. I had never before understood how sentences could be beautiful or how a well-crafted plot twist could leave you reeling. In fact, Gatsby started my appreciation for the classics, an interest that (obviously) hasn't waned over the years.

I eventually want to read all of Fitzgerald's novels. I tried This Side of Paradise a few years ago, and was a bit disappointed with it. It was his first book, however, so I considered it to be an interesting look at an author whose greatest works were yet to come. With my Back to the Classics Challenge requiring me to read a novel published in the 20th century, I figured this was a good time to give another one of his stories a shot. I started reading The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald's second book, hoping to enjoy it a bit more.

The plot of The Beautiful and Damned follows a young man named Anthony Patch. At the beginning of the novel, which is set in 1913, he is living a life of relative luxury in a New York City apartment. As the grandson of a famous social reformer worth millions, Anthony doesn't have to work. He lives off of a modest allowance of family money and spends his days socializing with his friends, attending parties, and casually dating a series of women. He has an interest in writing historical novels one day, but he only makes halfhearted efforts in that direction. He gets bored at times, but subscribes to the idea that since everything in life is mostly meaningless, there's not much point in trying to do anything more than pursue leisure activities.

His life takes a turn when he meets Gloria Gilbert, a similarly moneyed society girl vacationing in New York with her family. Gloria is uncommonly beautiful and very willful. She seems almost untouchable in her popularity, floating around the city every night with different friends and different men. She parties incessantly and is completely self absorbed. Instantly, Anthony falls in love with her, and after a short and dramatic courtship, they marry.

At first, Anthony and Gloria spend their days lost in a newlywed haze. They travel through Europe on a honeymoon and eventually settle back down in Anthony's apartment. As both have expensive tastes and go out nearly every night, they run through their allocation of money very quickly. They aren't overly concerned about that though, because they know that when Anthony's rich grandfather passes away they stand to inherit millions. They make no efforts to restrain their spending and are soon living high above their means, renting homes and driving around in cars that they can't afford in the long term.

The good times for the couple, predictably, don't last long. Their decadent and lazy lifestyle becomes boring quickly and their narcissistic personalities are in frequent conflict. Soon, both begin to push the limits with partying and alcohol in order to recapture the thrills of their earlier days. One night, during a particularly rowdy gathering at their home, Anthony's grandfather makes an unexpected visit. He is enraged by the debauchery he witnesses, immediately writes Anthony out of his will, and then dies just a few weeks afterward. Anthony appeals the will, but the case remains tied up in court for years. His money dwindles down to nothing, and the couple spirals deep into alcoholism. Faced with the depressing prospect of living frugally and working a job, Anthony becomes increasingly angry and violent until, one afternoon, he suffers a mental breakdown.

Anthony's downward spiral is part of the theme of the novel, but what exactly we are supposed to learn from his story is muddled at the novel's end. Against all odds, Anthony and Gloria end up winning their case against his grandfather's will and become millionaires. The final pages of the novel show an Anthony that is somewhat diminished from his emotional problems, but triumphant in his victory against having to give up his lifestyle and go to work. Indeed, he muses at the end of the novel that, "Only a few months before people had been urging him to give in, to submit to mediocrity, to go to work. But he knew that he was justified in his way of life--and had stuck it out staunchly." His final thought is "I showed was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!" He learns absolutely nothing from his experience, and comes out of it richer than he was before. I'm not sure what readers are supposed to take from that. It could be meant to be an ironic ending, but it feels like Fitzgerald was being genuine--like he honestly believed that Anthony "overcame" something and succeeded.

The reasoning behind this unsettling ending becomes a bit clearer when considering Fitzgerald's real life. He stands in a weird place in literary history. He was a legendary party boy while he was alive. He lived the stereotype of a 1920s life, with jazz music, flappers, and booze galore. He basically was Anthony Patch, right down to the frivolous lifestyle, tumultuous marriage, and serious alcoholism. However, his novels mercilessly lampoon the society he participated in. He frequently criticizes the emptiness of the lives of the wealthy during this time period and often shows these types of characters meeting tragic ends. He was a man who understood the problems of the society he lived in, but couldn't help indulging in all the vices he wrote about. Perhaps this explains why The Beautiful and Damned is both a cautionary tale and a success story. He knows that Anthony's behavior wasn't right, moral, or healthy, but he couldn't resist having him win at it.

This is the novel that Fitzgerald wrote in between This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, and it definitely feels like a middle kind of book. I enjoyed it more than his first novel, mostly because it stuck to telling one complete story and didn't digress too much into experimental chapters and philosophy sections. That being said, I had some issues with it. It was definitely over-long. Anthony and Gloria's boredom and flaws are discussed endlessly, and my interest started to wane as Fitzgerald labored his points. For a relatively thick book (my version had 366 pages of very small print), not much happens. This stands in stark contrast to Gatsby, which is a masterpiece in brevity. There were some beautiful passages in The Beautiful and Damned, but it was too often a slog to get to them. This novel was also lacking a character to root for, as both Anthony and Gloria were difficult to like, for multiple reasons. I found myself longing for a Nick Carraway or a Jay Gatsby to sympathize with. Instead, this novel was full of Daisys and Toms--empty people with nothing to say and even less to do. Even so, there was a lot in this novel that was promising, but despite my best efforts to get into it, I was often bored and sleepy while reading.

The best part about reading The Beautiful and Damned was knowing that Fitzgerald would be writing The Great Gatsby next. It was exciting to think that the issues I noticed with length, character development, theme, and structure were about to melt away in his very next work. While this story of Anthony and Gloria isn't a special favorite for me, it was definitely an interesting look at a stepping stone Fitzgerald used on his way to greatness. What's more, it was a clear window into the lives of the privileged, moneyed class of people living in America in the 1920s. Overall, I'm glad that I gave this book a shot, and look forward to continuing to explore the rest of Fitzgerald's novels.

Challenge Tally:
Back to the Classics (a 20th century classic): 6/12
Classics Club (#38 on my list): 27/100

Total Books Read in 2018:18