I always imagined Fitzgerald as a writer who dresses his palatable ideas with academic pomp and philosophical swagger. However, with The Beautiful and Damned, I met a writer who simply said what he thought, employed an enviable talent for writing and admirably fused a dimension of himself, as author, into the story.
The novel begins with Fitzgerald describing, in no uncertain terms, the character of Anthony Patch. Yet at the end, it almost sounded as if the Anthony Patch at the beginning had written the final episode for the Anthony Patch at the end. A man glorified in his understanding of irony and pessimism ended the story with nauseating irony and pessimism. The same author issuing heated condemnation of romance and sentimentalism in This Side of Paradise interjected himself vaingloriously in this literary destiny; this time to the reader rather than to the main character. He adamantly refuses to give any prospect of romantic redemption. Yet to avoid an air arrogance on my part by trying to dismantle the shoddy mask used simply to add intrigue to an otherwise plain idea, I commend Fitzgerald on his perfect mastery of personification, balance of character insight and action, and fervor in showing rather than telling.
I imagine Fitzgerald speaking at great length with Tolstoy after the completion of Anna Karenina; the youthful gleam of a bright intellect correlating the culture of his time with that of the Russian master’s – finding a common denominator in people’s insatiable pursuit of happiness. Anthony, the prodigal grandson of an American icon cast as the protagonist in the interminable story of the American Dream, begins as the young intellectual safe in the inevitability of his inheritance. He imagines his life and future as undeniably happy, an offshoot of the privilege enjoyed by English aristocrats. He lives lavishly, never works but idly revels in the possibility of working without necessity. He lives with the perspective, not in any reality, of a world without consequence pertaining to his comfort. He might endure an intellectual challenge, struggle with ideas about honor, courage and dignity but he will always go home and rest blissfully in the thought of his future security.
He partners with a woman, Gloria, who, in my estimable opinion, holds an integrity far firmer than his own. Though she proves vain, selfish and indulges the same sense of future invincibility by dealing in the currency of beauty, she never settles for anything less than what she wants. She indulges only in selfish ambition because she lives his friend Maury’s discipline of nihilism without the tiresome droll of discussing it. Fortunately for Anthony, this selfish ambition includes him! Their marital discord, however, often stems from her giving herself without changing herself and Anthony’s lack of knowing himself. Anthony seemed a man without an identity and, furthermore, needless of one, in his estimation, because of his prospects. Gloria lived her happiness, though vain and nihilistic, while Anthony bet that his would arrive shortly.
Yet both of their lives lack meaning, even together. They stress about their financial ability to support…what?
Fitzgerald narrates the moral, psychological, physical and loving demise of his Sid and Nancy. And where most people might yearn for redemption in Fitzgerald’s story, the author scoffs and smirks to himself about his acute understanding of irony and pessimism. Yet regarding the story, even with the comforts of a luxurious home, extravagant outings and gaudy transportation, one must still go home with oneself, must go out with oneself and ride with oneself. So a kind of arrogant articulation of tragedy brings this story to an end. When men presume, not that money can buy happiness, but that money will free them of the stresses and pursuits which distract them from pursuing happiness, they abandon any sense of virtue they may have had. Virtue and happiness do not abide shyly in a cage waiting for fiscal circumstances to unlatch the door. Yet I do think that systemic necessities can overburden a weaker person and stifle a virtuous perspective…Lord knows. Therefore I don’t hate or chastise Anthony Patch but, like his grandfather, I think, hope he finds redemption which will assuredly lead to a true happiness. Then all his desires, which he thought would lead to happiness – while instead they crumbled in his grasp – would fade and he would find peace.
I found no moral in this story, only a finely observed American deconstruction, a sort of American rendition of the Prodigal Son, in which capitalistic excesses inevitably leads to the misappropriation of virtuous living. This does not mean that the American Dream can only corrupt, just look at Adam Patch. But American success will not seamlessly transfer down through descending generations. Perhaps, like all other things American in nature, it begins and ends with the individual. Alas, so rings Fitzgerald’s contemptuous laughter at Anthony Patch.