It had been years since I had last read a work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, The Great Gatsby was the first and last thing I had attempted from this great American writer, and that only because it had been required of me to read it back in college. I don’t think I was overall particularly impressed while reading The Great Gatsby, largely because I lacked the maturity and experience to understand what Fitzgerald was saying. Yet, at our instructor’s urging, I came away from it with enduring images of a beacon flashing in the distance symbolizing … something. And the conviction that the author had highlighted how wasteful and irresponsible some people can be. I know—a rather shallow reading.
When scanning my shelves recently, looking for something to read, I noticed The Beautiful and Damned, and I thought, maybe now, years later, I am ready to try Fitzgerald again. Some impressions? Well, throughout the novel I kept mumbling to myself, “My God, how did this man come up with such brilliant descriptions?” I have come to envy Fitzgerald for his keen and vibrant use of language. The Beautiful and Damned is indeed beautifully written. From my perspective.
If anything disappointed me in this novel, it was that I found no one—not a single character—whom I could like. That may seem superficial, but many readers do tend to enjoy literary journeys more when accompanied by a fictitious character they can believe in, cheer for, cry for. I found all the characters in The Beautiful and Damned to be at best annoying and at worst despicable. I read a review once of this novel that referred to the “fall” of the lead couple, Anthony Patch and Gloria, and I thought, “What fall? They were awful to begin with and awful at the end!”
Having admitted that rather personal response to the novel, I should acknowledge that this is indeed a story about decline—both moral and physical decline, encouraged by the financial decline of Anthony and Gloria. Anthony was to be heir to the fortune of a relentless, cold tycoon. And while Gloria strikes one initially as a woman who could care only for that eventual wealth of the man she chooses to wed, her commitment to Anthony seems founded on a greater affection or love than would have thought possible, considering the repeated descriptions of her as little more than a player, a woman seeking nothing but her own pleasure in life.
Beyond the failings and failure of these two people, the novel paints a portrait of American society with harsh class divisions and a constraining expectation that a man defines himself professionally more than anything else. At various points in the story, we read of political opinions, religious beliefs, personal aspirations, but Anthony’s woes, brought on by his own faulty character, are often expressed in his inability to define himself professionally. The only resilient definition that Anthony and Gloria adhere to is that life must be fun, a notion they cling to even when the money runs out and they are no longer welcome to the loudest of parties yet, the Roaring Twenties.