The Jazz Age was a time of drunkenness, parties, flappers, and other sordid and decadent facets explored, enjoyed, or reviled. The time heralded in great works by literary giants, music that crossed race lines, and lives lived in ignorant bliss and happiness, unaware of the dark times later to come: The Great Depression. It was during those times of booze and inhibitions that authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald made their indelible mark upon the world, taking their own experiences and using them as fictional gems. The novel The Beautiful and Damned was clearly such an example, for it mirrored Fitzgerald’s own life with his wife, Zelda. The pages tell a story of a young man, Anthony Patch, and his clueless but lovely wife, Gloria, and their dramatic decline into a muddied world filled with alcoholism, transparent friendships, and a constant desire for more in a materialistic manner. Patch is a man of leisure; he has no work skills nor has any drive to obtain any, for he places all of his faith on the will of his sick but internally strong grandfather, Adam Patch. Patch lives in New York City amid a whirlwind of status, the privileged, and the socially acceptable intellectuals. His friends, Maury and Richard Caramel, are his rocks of stabilization but they too give in to the sybaritic pleasures from time to time.
Gloria, the soon to be wife of Patch, is a flighty yet entertaining woman to read about; she cares for nothing else except for her looks, fearful that one day she will lose them for they are her only asset. She sees herself as the great Beauty, one that cannot be touched by the dirty hands of Time or Mortality; she is, because of her fears and priorities, a tarnished goddess. She is not capable of loving anyone fully but herself; men swoon and chase her but to no avail, for she escapes them and their repetitive claims of undying love. She sees in Anthony, however, a similar mindset and a feeling of sympathy, treating him at times like an abandoned puppy. She loves him in her own way and therefore gives him a view into her own distorted life, treating such a view to be a privilege. Once the two become one, it is obvious to the readers that this is a marriage of lost dreams and shattered hopes; we witness the burning tower falling and yet we are fascinated by the power in such destruction.
Patch is a man driven by his extremes; he wants to live among the greats and will do anything to accomplish such a feat. However, his view is muddy and his actions are childlike, clearly revealing a man who really has no clue about anything around him or himself. His actions are further hindered by his constant drinking and the thoughtlessness of his wife. He makes futile attempts of work in different areas, only to give up after a week or several days. He even goes so far as to join the Army while the Great War looms over America. In doing so, he meets a young woman named Dot who thinks him to be her salvation out of her own dead end of a life when we can see that misery most assuredly loves company. Through his mistakes is one goal that keeps him somewhat going: the inheritance of his grandfather’s estate. However, once he realizes that is not to be the case, the strings keeping him tied to reality become taut with tension; we the readers wonder when the strings will break. When they do, we see a transformation of the most horrific kind; through experiencing such transformation, the readers are transformed as well, seeing their own world in a new light that we wished we did not.
Fitzgerald writes with tragic passion; each line is one of a kind, sculpted perfectly to be unique among all the others within the novel. While I read this novel, I was moved to almost tears at some while desperately wishing to live during that time in others. He shows us the beauty in the good and bad of this society, glorifying we today would either completely love or hate, for at times it reflects our own. His words are like a lover that desires to touch us, wanting to please us in every way, even if we are cruel for the cruelty will be returned in kind. We are drawn to Patch, Gloria, Caramel, Maury, Bloekman, and others in the web of the story because there is a part of us that desires to live in such a carefree and hedonistic time while being extremely grateful that we do not.
One passage that clearly expresses Fitzgerald’s lyrical passion is this one:
He watched her for several minutes. Something was stirred in him, something not accounted for by the warm smell of the afternoon or the triumphant vividness of red. He felt persistently that the girl was beautiful – then of a sudden he understood: it was her distance, not a rare and precious distance of soul but still distance, if only in terrestrial yards. The autumn air was between them, and the roofs and the blurred voices. Yet for a not altogether explained second, posing perversely in time, his emotion had been nearer to adoration than in the deepest kiss he had ever known.
This is such a simple and every day act but through Fitzgerald the readers are exposed to something deeper, something holier than the obvious of what lies before us. We cannot help but fall in love, become angrier than a jealous lover, or cry tears that are flavoured with the sadness of others. A valuable lesson is learned along the way and yet how many of us would follow in Patch’s or Gloria’s footsteps? How many of us would be swept away by the bliss of ignorance, simply because we knew of nothing else? How hard was the temptation for Fitzgerald; after all, The Beautiful and Damned did reflect his own life. Did he spiral downward in a similar fashion as Patch, or was there more of a willingness for moderation in all things? Whatever the case may be, it is worth it to endure the tragic and carefree while reading this work. Life, either during the Roaring 20s or in our present 2009, is Life and we make of it what we will, no matter the price we are willing to pay.