Curious cases exist where one particular work by a writer transcends his or her existence and takes on a life of its own. For better or for worse this is true for Mr. Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby remains one of the preeminent works of 20th century American literature that it is easy to forget about the man who wrote the book. In his lifetime he was a slightly controversial figure from the Jazz Age and after his first novel This Side of Paradise, which was highly acclaimed and a commercial hit, he suffered from a difficult marriage and enormous financial troubles. It was after his death that he gained the respect he deserved and was seen as the voice of the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44 while working on what was to be his last novel The Love of the Last Tycoon.
Fitzgerald’s second novel The Beautiful and Damned released in 1922. It is the story of Anthony and Gloria Patch, a married couple whose lives slowly descend into poverty after they live well beyond their means. These are detestable characters. Anthony is a Yale graduate who has done absolutely nothing besides live off inheritance and Gloria is a shallow and vain flapper who cares very little about anyone but herself, including Anthony. Together they are Fitzgerald’s vehicles for commenting on the decadence and indulgence of the lifestyle that the upper class enjoyed in 1920s New York.
Anthony and Gloria’s marriage was doomed from the start. Both of them refuse to work because they believe it is beneath them and think that Anthony’s rich grandfather Adam Patch will leave them his fortune. At several points in the novel Anthony and Gloria talk about budgeting and trying to avoid expensive parties but in the very next paragraph they are off to another party at the Ritz Carlton or some other glamourous spot in Manhattan. It is very difficult to sympathize with these characters when their situation is entirely self-afflicted and they never put an honest effort into improving their lives for the better.
In a way, Anthony and Gloria hold each other back from doing great things; their personality traits bleed into one another. Anthony’s weak will stops Gloria from pursuing an early film career and Gloria’s laziness and vanity prevent Anthony from accepting jobs that his Grandfather offers him. Anthony does end up joining the war in Europe as a last resort but ultimately it ends in misery for all involved. Their experiences together bottle up inside one another like a shaken bottle of Coca-Cola and a jaded atmosphere permeates the novel as it goes on. Gloria in particular finds it very difficult to “forgive and forget” and constantly references past fights with Anthony in an attempt to upset him even further. For someone who claims to not care about much in life Gloria is a very sensitive individual and berates Anthony for the same personality traits she has.
The supporting characters especially Gloria’s cousin Richard Caramel are “better” characters with actual ambition. Richard or “Dick” was also one of Anthony’s best friends in Yale. He is an aspiring novelist who by the end of the novel becomes a popular author in New York. Unlike Anthony he is able to complement his air of pretentiousness and prestige with published material to his name. Dick stays Anthony’s friend until the end of the book and for better or for worse is the most likable character in the story. Anthony’s other best friend Maury Noble who has the appearance and mannerisms of a cat is less developed. A self-proclaimed intellectual who breaks off into lectures that amount to well disguised nonsense is similar to Anthony than Dick and just another shallow individual who completely shuns Anthony by the end of the novel.
And finally, the last major supporting character is Adam Patch, Anthony’s grandfather. An astonishingly wealthy and powerful man that is visibly disappointed at his grandson’s laziness. Later on in the story he becomes a staunch advocate for prohibition. In one of their meetings he offers Anthony a job as a war reporter but Anthony turns it down due to not being able to function without Gloria. Anthony’s weak will and cowardice is one of his most important characteristics and one that Gloria despises and constantly belittles him for.
Fitzgerald’s early novels are criticised for being too “shallow” and this rings especially true for The Beautiful and Damned. For a story about marriage collapse, there is very little drama. Most of the plot consists of extravagant parties that add absolutely nothing to the story. These parties just read as an excuse for Fitzgerald to practise his command of the English language. At first they were tolerable but the large amount of them throughout the story becomes very repetitive. In The Great Gatsby and especially Tender Is The Night Fitzgerald strikes an amazing balance between plot development and wordy descriptions. In The Beautiful and Damned he falters a lot with pacing and this hampers the story quite a bit. At 380 pages the editor could have cut out at least 100 and the book would still retain all its impact.
The Beautiful and Damned for all its extravagance feels like the rough draft from someone who will eventually write a masterpiece (or two). Anthony and Gloria’s doomed marriage had the potential to be an all-time classic that an older and wiser Fitzgerald would have been able to fulfil. The world that these characters live in was able to be fleshed out much better in The Great Gatsby. I still think it is a good novel despite some of the issues I have with it and it is definitely an under appreciated novel from “that Great Gatsby guy”.