Reader’s Recommendation: The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Many novels mention or state that they tackle themes of decadence and wealth. But, to my knowledge there is no clearer window into the realistic fall, the apathy of the wealthy, the vapid, consumptive, hungry nature of the idle rich and nouveau riche than The Beautiful and Damned, one of many great novels written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Noteworthy for possessing a more haunting ending than a lot of horror books I’ve read, and utterly unexpected.
On my part, I would argue that The Great Gatsby is a short classic, but hardly the most immersive, technical, or engaging piece of Fitzgerald’s work, not by a long shot. The Beautiful and Damned is to me a refinement and longer version of the kind of urban erosion that Fitzgerald liked to explore in many of this novels. Where This Side of Paradise -which I love the most- is raw and carries a love it/hate it appeal, and Gatsby is the book they push down your throat in school and do a disservice to when they make you dislike it, The Beautiful and Damned is just out of the way enough that it’s underappreciated.
Part of the reason I wrote this is to address that underappreciation, as lovers of Jazz Age fiction will quite enjoy it. One of those very descriptive novels for those who enjoy that sort of thing, attention is given in that fun paradox of writing, to make listlessness potent, and scarcely meaningful dialogue relevance.
Where many authors explore the intelligent character on a quest for knowledge or to solve a mystery or aliment, Fitzgerald explores those who sabotage their potential to the point of lament. People with no reason to better themselves, or not taking the chance becoming slowly hollowed out by their own character. And the length and detail coveys this in a way you or I see naturally, as with life. How the fortunes change when you fall in and out of touch with people. How people carry on, or stay the same. Encountering romances more like a repeat of the past, or reflect far too late on something all but forgotten. And what that motion does to the characters experiencing these things as their lives go on.
There is very little love I find within this novel. But attachment, obsession, the dregs and unfortunate additions that cling to love very much consume this story. It becomes a lesson in a realistically unpleasant romance and life asking ‘now what?’ When one settles, or grips only to hedonistic whims, or worse encourages only the passionless minutiae accompanying a relationship to dig roots, eventually what crumbles is both the construct, the relationships around them, and the lover themselves.
There are a lot of listless romance novels, but few that cover the period of beginning whirlwind of romance, followed by living into the disappointment caused by personal defects and worsening co-dependency. Fitzgerald makes the antagonist of his famous novels the inadequacies and laziness of his protagonists, something relatable to many at a young age, or even for many readers generally within modern society. Fitzgerald’s New York is not radically different to New York today, the nature of relationships, losing touch, or the emotions underpinning these lives hardly different from soap opera or the nature of modern romance that dominates much of Western cinema and literature.
I find rather than exaggerating the horror and adding drug addition to the depiction of life as would be done to great effect in novels like Less than Zero, Fitzgerald places a notion of lax positivity, the idea that we are imperfect armchair philosophers; and ultimately indolence and comfort in excess lead to misery and a disease of the soul. Wealth and apathy in their way cause malignancies of the spirit because they are against our better nature. We can always find little improvements and curiosities, and doing good and following friendship or romance offers even the dull-witted or unpleasant a chance. But if you fail to take it, like a sickness laxity drains your body and even has the possibility to infect others around you. Fitzgerald writes this slow decline in longer, wordier 1920’s prose, but in a way I find more realistic, and more to digest as our lives are often a collection of experiences and slow rises and declines, rather than orgies of hedonism punctuated by catastrophe.
While Anthony Patch is a drinker and his vices catch up with him in an ugly fashion, I think that the dependencies themselves unlike many other novels are not the fatal flaw, not the point. It could be alcohol, drugs, violence, or orange juice. The extreme is in the active measures not to do anything, which in these tales becomes apparent and takes an active and concerted effort as much to improve. Just as a hard struggle eventually yields rewards or a conditioned optimism, the tragic figures or villain protagonists of Fitzgerald’s works deliberately atrophy consistently for almost the entire duration of the novel. They are not gifted, moral, or righteous men but of average or even less than average intellect as seen by the reader observing their life. Very small windows of genuine reflection, and beyond that, actual effort differentiate the figure who may have some hope, or experience a fall.
Fitzgerald ultimately rejects this binary which in part he made very popular in The Great Gatsby, with a haunting ending sting that punctured my guesses about the ending of the story and showed that as much as some lives are cut short or slowly ground down by uncaring societies, even the nature of victory, or the ‘character’ of a person can be entirely ground to something worse than villainy. Empty consumerism, victory with no acknowledgement, the notion of improvement or success being dead in a living being with a dead soul. That strikes me as truly horrifying, tapping into a primal fear beyond a monstrous aesthetic.
The Beautiful and Damned is to my memory one of the longer Fitzgerald stories, it certainly took me the longest to read. This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned share a quality in that reading is not related to work count, at least to me. It’s not reading On The Road, so many pages equivalent to time and progress. The Beautiful and Damned is slow in its plot pacing to reflect the minds of heads filled up with a lot of material that goes round in circles, rolling over years in a few pages, or fixated in extensive scenes because elements of fixation root all of the author and character’s attention there. I read a couple of pages at a time, or a chapter in a session. Its richness of detail reminds me of a very old mahogany room, where you struggle to really make sense of things at first with its appearance being different and filled with objects you don’t often see.
The Beautiful and Damned is a dark novel; in the sense that a pull, a sense of romanticism is not present as it is in other works by Fitzgerald or his contemporaries. This is by far the bleakest story he wrote, or at least very clearly the least whimsical or optimistic. In many ways, while not part of the horror genre, the starkness of the unlikable characters, harshness of their circumstances, and eventual strangulation that compresses them due to their lack of resolution or hope does make this in my opinion a kind of realistic horror piece.
When Fitzgerald spoke of this novel reflecting his famous romance with Zelda Fitzgerald, I certainly hope not. It rings as a desperate message of what to avoid romance becoming, but more than that, it demonstrates within its iconic time that the listless vanity of people makes them lessons as much as a more theatrical monster. Scenes of Jazz Age life may not capture public imagination like a vampire does, but a lingering thought I’ve had is that Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert are people we could become, that the realism of poisonous romance is an uglier possibility than a fantastical antagonist.
Parts of Damned are intended to be vacuous and gaudy in the same fashion pills and other drugs flood Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or the glut of money in The Wolf of Wall Street. In the words of William Blake; ‘we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough’. This hard wearing experience is conveyed in this book, as many other lessons are by writers trying to show a slice of life, a wrong term or a hardship they conceived of or found their own way towards and want to share.
My copy of The Beautiful and Damned as shown in my photograph is part of an anthology worth a recommendation in and of itself, containing stories and short stories including This Side of Paradise and Flappers and Philosophers. I bought my copy a number of years ago in Canterbury. I’m not certain, but expect that it will be available in classic collections, certainly on the internet somewhere. Still, if you prefer the story in a cheaper novel or just want the one story, I can’t fault you and know odds are you can find it in a second-hand bookstore. I know I found my first copy of This Side of Paradise from a farmers’ market.
Fitzgerald, F.S. Classic Works. Barnes and Noble, New York. 2018.