“Things are sweeter when they’re lost. I know – because once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted badly, Dot, and when I got it it turned to dust in my hand.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned (1922)
“First published in 1922, The Beautiful and the Damned followed Fitzgerald’s impeccable debut, This Side of Paradise, thus securing his place in the tradition of great American novelists. Embellished with the author’s lyrical prose, here is the story of Harvard-educated, aspiring aesthete Anthony Patch and his beautiful wife, Gloria. As they await the inheritance of his grandfather’s fortune, their reckless marriage sways under the influence of alcohol and avarice. A devastating look at the nouveau riche and New York nightlife, as well as the ruinous effects of wild ambition, The Beautiful and the Damned achieved stature as one of Fitzgerald’s most accomplished novels. Its distinction as a classic endures to this day.” More on Goodreads
- Loss of identity
- Love vs. expectations of marriage
- Failure to be accountable for one’s own happiness
I had a hard time to choose the best novel that I’ve read so far by Fitzgerald. I was contemplating between This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald‘s debut novel, and the one that I eventually selected, The Beautiful and Damned, published two years after the debut novel. I had the pleasure to read Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald‘s (1896-1940) probably most famous novel, The Great Gatsby, during my high school exchange in Massachusetts, but it’s definitively not my favorite. There is nothing wrong with it but it didn’t have a remarkable impact on me.
This Side of Paradise is mostly a coming-of-age tale of a young romantic man with a promising background and his unfortunate affairs and expectations. In this regard, The Beautiful and Damned is a more comprehensive lookout at the moral landscape of the early Roaring Twenties or the Jazz Age as it is often portrayed.
“The theme of The Beautiful and Damned (…) is the dissipation and deterioration of the inner self. Two people, husband and wife, are equally guilty of an excessive indulgence in illusions and dreams.” ~Sergio Perosa, The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald, The University of Michigan Press, 1965
The 1920’s is one of my favorite decades of the 20th century. I could recommend several German novels from the same period, also describing the moral concepts in tumultuous times. However, the writers during the Weimar Republic were perhaps less disillusioned than their contemporaries in the United States. The sad beauty of the decade rests in its finality as a period – I believe the 1920’s was a divisive decade. During that period, one experienced the last remnants of the previous decadence, the trial of breaking free from the old concepts, and finally the painting of a deep boundary between what was there and what is to come. Unfortunately there seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the Roaring Twenties since actually – although this is somewhat geography-dependent – the years that roared were not so numerous and ended before the great crash of 1929 and the following economic depression.
The unfortunate thing is, and this falls on the shoulders of hindsight, that the struggle against the Old seems to have absorbed the identity of the Roaring Twenties that were not so roaring or golden to begin with. The fight for freedom lost its meaning because there was no freedom to fight for, only contradictions after the other. It’s the age-old way to measure one’s own success against that of others, a method that often leads to disappointment, jealousy and bitterness.
I think, and I guess this is up for debate, that the 1920’s were a testing field for modern pop culture. There were “radical” attempts to change cultural norms, some lame and rather innocent in our perspective, such as women bobbing their hair and wearing trousers as a fashion statement.
From the Expectation of Riches to Superficial Morality
Ernest Hemingway popularized the term “Lost Generation” in his novel The Sun Also Rises (1926), referring to people coming of age during World War I and becoming disillusioned by the Great War and the cynicism they perhaps found solace in (see further for the Hemingway Project below). This particular novel by Hemingway is on my to-read list, but I’ve many a times made use of Hemingway’s catchphrase of an expat. The definition captures the essence of living abroad, although the life and times were different during Hemingway’s journeys in the world.
The restless expectation of a large inheritance makes a mark on the protagonists in The Beautiful and Damned. The long journey towards the inheritance becomes a giant possibility, opening up further opportunities, or so the protagonist perceives. The future is filled with riches but as the time passes, the moral choices of the main antagonists starts to unravel. They constantly struggle in an inner identity crisis, unable to break free from old habits and expectations. The search for meaningfulness goes lost as the couple fails to see what is important and meaningful. Their meaning seems to stem from outer sources and superficial ideals, but they fail in the simplest of tasks concerning the daily life by throwing fancy and hip parties for their friends without necessarily having the means for it.
Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda Fitzgerald, maybe the original flapper, was an interesting character as well. In some way the couple was the real life embodiments of Beautiful and Damned. Both were very talented and both passed away prematurely in their 40’s.
I truely enjoy Fitzgerald’s novels. The tormenting feeling one has while reading is at the same time filled with such a mix of beauty and sinister build-up. The characters are harmless and somewhat pitiful with all their flaws, so often one has sympathy towards them. The Beautiful and Damned is a time travel experience to the heart of what it was like to be young in the 1920’s. If you’re not so familiar with Fitzgerald, begin the literary journey with This Side of Paradise, however, to allow more growth of characters to grow with.
– Review in the New York Times on 5 March 1922
– Review in the Independent on 8 January 2015
– The Hemingway Project on 20 July 2010: Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, and the Lost Generation: An Interview with Kirk Curnutt
Other novels and stories by Fitzgerald
- This Side of Paradise (1920)
- Flappers and Philosophers (1920)
- Bernice Bobs Her Hair (1920)
- Tales of the Jazz Age (1922)
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922)
- The Great Gatsby (1925)
- Tender is the Night (1934)
- The Love of the Last Tycoon (unfinished, published posthumously in 1941)
“I shall go on shining as a brilliantly meaningless figure in a meaningless world.”
~F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned