To invoke my mother’s frequent dismissals of recent cinematic offerings (Bridesmaids, The Help and Friends with Benefits among them), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned simply “went on too long.” The basic conceit is in place very early on—Anthony Patch, a Harvard-educated brat with a rich grandfather meets a woman even more entitled than he, the latter’s self-importance derived not from wealth but from beauty—and, until the last seventy-five pages or so, it doesn’t get much more interesting than that. While The Beautiful and Damned is certainly worth reading, I can’t say I “liked” it, simply because it felt undisciplined and a bit too captivated by the decadence it’s claiming to critique. One can’t help but feel, making her way through the novel that immediately preceded the far better The Great Gatsby, that Fitzgerald based his later character Jay Gatsby at least in part on himself: The author seems to have his nose pressed up against the glass of this Jazz Age high life of parties and Harvard social clubs and “intellectual debates” over cigars in drawing rooms and, most of all, beautiful women. He doesn’t approve of it, necessarily, but he’s clearly enthralled by it just the same. And I won’t indulge in spoilers here, but if I had ever entertained any doubt that Fitzgerald ultimately endorsed his character’s lives, the ending disabused me.
My basic problem with Fitzgerald is that, while he’s an unequivocally beautiful reader and some of his sentences are iconic enough to be sewn onto pillowcases, all his characters are pretty much of the same mold. The Beautiful and Damned’s Gloria Gilbert, later Patch, is really just an earlier incarnation of Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan (or the author’s own Zelda Fitzgerald): spoiled, shallow, indicative of what so many women “aspire” to but lacking the pith to make her transcend her superficial accouterments. There’s a hint of misogyny here: Both Gloria and Anthony loll about, dreaming of reaping the benefits of other people’s hard work, imagining that their social status confers some kind of moral superiority and looking down on those who actually deign to work for a living, but only Gloria believes her job should be merely to stay beautiful and fun; only Gloria blurts out in her sleep that she’d easily suffer the deaths of millions of the hoi polloi around the world if it were to net her a palace and a lifetime’s supply of fur coats. Anthony’s psychological struggles are given far more page time than his wife’s; can we assume this indicates a clear preference in terms of legitimacy? The difficulties of the roles women were expected to unquestioningly play in an era when they didn’t even have the constitutional right to vote are never really examined. It’s all about the men, as usual.
All that said, it’s made clear that Gloria possesses more personal integrity and honor than her husband, which somewhat balances her clear advantages when it comes to frivolity and fascism. But Anthony and Gloria are, at times, so utterly horrid that you really can’t conjure up any sympathy for them, and that’s when you start to resent Fitzgerald for not making them more complex. Yes, it’s insightful when Anthony declares that his indolence really owes itself to the fact that he once wanted something (Gloria) more than he had ever wanted anything and ended up getting it. And yes, it’s quite poignant to watch two people, used to utterly charmed existences, slowly come to terms with the fact that what they had always counted on as sure things (Anthony’s inheritance, the effects of Gloria’s beauty) can, in fact, be snatched away. But the novel never really seems to make a larger point. While the protagonists’ circumstances change, their characters never evolve. They’re shallow at the beginning and they remain shallow at the end, if slightly humbled. Perhaps Fitzgerald’s trying to make the point that these kinds of people never really change. But while Gatsby made a similar point, at least that novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, came away disillusioned. In The Beautiful and Damned, nobody really does, even though they very clearly should.