Book Talk: The Beautiful and Damned

“I don’t understand why people think that every young man ought to go down-town and work ten hours a day for the best twenty years of his life at dull, unimaginative work…”

“The Beautiful and Damned” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)

Anthony Patch is waiting for his grandfather to die. Tycoon Adam Patch is very old and not long for this world and, being the only heir, Anthony assumes his grandfather’s fortune will come to him when the old gent dies. Anthony is part of café society, the Eastern elite, and he and his friends drink – and that’s about it. They pursue good times and lofty discussions of life and literature.

Anthony meets young and beautiful Gloria Gilbert. She of many and varied suitors knows how to control men, getting what she wants while giving very little. Anthony and Gloria fall in love and get married. They become a fashionable young couple and engage in a never-ending series of parties. They each have little or no ambition where work or earning are concerned and they both are awaiting Anthony’s inheritance. But old Adam Patch lives on and, in addition, he is a supporter of temperance and abstinence and heartily does not approve of his grandson’s lifestyle. Anthony begins to fear that he will not inherit his grandfather’s fortune. Sure enough, when the old man dies, he leaves his holdings and assets to organizations he has supported and to his faithful secretary. Anthony hires a lawyer to dispute this and the lawsuit lingers for years, depleting Anthony and Gloria’s meagre resources.

Anthony begins to realize that he likely will never be able to earn any money himself. His drinking has gotten out of hand and Gloria and he constantly fight. He is then drafted into World War I and stationed at a training camp in the south. There, his despondency overcomes him. During his off hours, he meets young Dot, a nineteen-year-old girl who falls headlong for Anthony despite knowing he is married. Anthony begins a dalliance with her but finds that her neediness only contributes to his declining mental health. He breaks it off with Dot when he is able to return to Gloria.

The lawsuit to gain his grandfather’s fortune drags on interminably and Anthony descends deeper into despair and drink. He and Gloria have to keep changing apartments, moving into more and more decrepit living quarters as their bank account dwindles. Finally one day, Anthony is supposed to meet Gloria at the lawyers to hear the final verdict on their legal fight but he can’t bring himself to go. He gets drunk instead. At this his lowest ebb, Dot shows up at his door, professing her love for him.

I’ve gotta hand it to myself. In my teens and early twenties, I discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald. I recall taking The Great Gatsby in school and liking it only somewhat. Then I taped off TV the 1942 film version and promptly fell in love with Betty Field. From this starting point, I began to collect his other novels. Here’s where I half-jokingly give myself credit as you could say it was ambitious of me to tackle Fitzgerald’s work at such a young age. But, being a romantic, I was able to tap in to his books and found it easy to connect with Tender is the Night and the novel we’re looking at today.

The Beautiful and Damned is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel and his most substantial in terms of length. It was followed, three years later, by The Great Gatsby. There is a romance inherent in this novel but it is by no means romantic. It resonated with me in my youth no doubt because of its depiction of an aimless young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl. And what ambitions does this young man have? None beyond this girl. His idle nature and his assumption that his inheritance will “bail him out” appealed to me when I was young with an idle nature and few prospects. As something of a dreamy poet, I connected easily with Anthony’s infatuation of Gloria and of Fitzgerald’s descriptions of her. Indeed, Anthony’s life seems empty and directionless until he meets Gloria, “the most celebrated and sought-after young beauty in the country”.

“She gave back forgotten dreams to the husbands of many obese and comic women.”

I was watching for something fraudulent in their courting and eventual nuptials. While a passion is evident between them, it also seems that the union will “work” for each of them. Fitzgerald says that Anthony is “not so much in love with Gloria as mad for her”. And Gloria is at this point in her life not inclined to do or be anything other than the wife of a wealthy man. They marry and it is one party after another. It’s almost maddening for the reader, how they just can’t get it together. Anthony begins to feel like a guest in their home, they quarrel incessantly and hurt each other purposely. Gloria, for her part, seems resigned to the life of a married woman and to accept it grudgingly. She longs for her youth and resents the passage of time, feeling old in her late 20’s. And there’s an interesting moment in which Anthony hears a young woman’s careless laughter outside his apartment window. He dreads the end of his youth as well and this becomes a predominant theme of the book.

“A languorous and pleasant content settled like a weight upon him, bringing responsibility and possession. He was married.”

Considering Gloria’s “infinite capacity for men”, I was watching for signs of infidelity from her. A former suitor of hers, who was quite struck when she married Anthony, is in the movie business and Gloria thinks that is something she would like to try. So, when Anthony gets conscripted, I was waiting for the uncomfortable scene showing Gloria being unfaithful. As Anthony heads for training camp, Fitzgerald describes their parting at the train station in such a way that it seems to summarize their whole relationship; “At the last they were too far away for either to see the other’s tears”. But it is Anthony who strays. The appearance of young Dot in the book is emblematic. She embodies the youth that both Anthony and Gloria lament losing and she also represents an empty-headedness; a lack of caring about what is going on around. She is the implement that drives Anthony over the edge.

“But magic must hurry on, and the lovers remain…

Old Adam Patch once surprised Anthony and Gloria with a visit to their home and walked in when the party was in full swing. Adam was disgusted by the debauchery and Anthony felt this sealed his fate. Then, he finds himself far away from Gloria and engaged in mind-numbing training for a war he assumes he will never engage in. And while he hopes to enjoy the salve of a teenager, she becomes part of the problem, clinging to him and taking things much too seriously.

Anthony and Gloria are both happy to be reunited after the war but fall into the same rut. They both talk about how much better things will be – how much better they will get along – when they have money. When Adam Patch dies and the couple realizes he has not left them his fortune, they are devastated and have no choice but to begin a lengthy legal process designed to rectify this. This depletes their funds and causes them to spiral. Anthony reveals himself to be flawed and quite pathetic, a hopeless drunk who wants to see the world through “the rosy spectacles of intoxication”.

After thinking Gloria would do Anthony wrong, I emerged with a respect for her. She is driven nuts by Anthony’s defeated demeanour and calls him a weakling, though she sees no value for her in an affair and when they are apart she misses him. The two send mute signals to each other but the signals get crossed resulting in misunderstanding. Gradually, they fall away from each other. Which is sad because they seem to cherish each other so. This all makes Anthony’s drunkenness maddening to the reader. You realize he is weak and its his weakness that makes him a failure. At their lowest ebb, Gloria shows her common sense and strength in her preparedness to accept their fallen station and to survive on $2.50 for the week; but Anthony needs a drink. Dot’s reappearance then proves devastating.

“With almost a tangible snapping sound the face of the world changed before his eyes…”

While I enjoyed the book, The Beautiful and Damned is actually frustrating to read. These two people just can’t straighten things out. And stupid Anthony; he chooses to drink instead of rolling up his sleeves and getting down to business and providing for himself and his wife. Another theme of the book is classism; Anthony is not prepared to lower himself and work a menial job simply because they need money. Even when it comes down to groceries for the week or a couple of pints with the lads, Anthony blows his money on useless camaraderie and booze. Maddening. I have to say, though, that Gloria, at first, had me worried. I assumed she would be Anthony’s downfall or hook up with another guy. But she showed a strength that her husband was sorely lacking. Contemplating the rest of her days as the novel ends leaves you with a bitter taste.

Warner Bros. offered a film version in 1922. The film is now considered “lost” as the negative was later destroyed.

One significant concept that I got from this novel actually filled me with dread. One character suggests to another that one may “know” too much for his writing talent to express. As a young man, I was scared this might happen to me. Sure, I feel things deeply, I thought, but do I have what it takes to relate those feelings in writing?

I’m still to this day surprised at how underwhelming I find the work of Ernest Hemingway. For my money, the five novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald are not only endlessly entertaining but they are also lucid, well-presented and thought-provoking. The Beautiful and Damned is easy to find but do yourself a favour and start at AbeBooks.


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