F. Scott Fitzgerald defined the Jazz Age as a ‘generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken’. His second novel The Beautiful and Damned continuous the exploration of that ‘lost generation’ and is largely inspired by his troublesome marriage with Zelda. To me, The Beautiful and Damned seems the most depressing of all of his novels. The general atmosphere of futility, waste, lack of purpose is overwhelming. The feeling that there is no point in doing anything is almost painful. In his second novel Fitzgerald is already at his best – skillfully portraying a generation of decay, where the cult towards pleasure and money has destroyed morality.
Anthony and Gloria appear blessed by God and the circumstances. They have all that they might want – youth, beauty, money, social status and a burning love for each other. Their life seems destined for greatness and after marriage Anthony and Gloria start planning for the perfection they would build together…one day. However, all the advantages they have become the reason for their demise rather than a prerequisite for their success.
Anthony and Gloria are typical examples of the lethargic society of the Jazz Age. With all of their good intentions for prosperity and success, their life soon turns into a series of parties, friends and alcohol. Their philosophy seems centered on hedonism – why do anything that doesn’t bring you joy and happiness. Everything outside pleasure seems purposeless. Anthony and Gloria are careless and irresponsible – they find it impossible to find a vocation or a reason to progress. They engage in exuberance and luxury, trying to fill in some void existing inside:
There was one of his lonelinesses coming, one of those times when he walked the streets or sat, aimless and depressed, biting a pencil at his desk. It was a self-absorption with no comfort, a demand for expression with no outlet, a sense of time rushing by, ceaselessly and wastefully – assuaged only by that conviction that there was nothing to waste, because all efforts and attainments were equally valueless.
Anthony, the heir of a rich family, doesn’t have any ambitions or desires of his own. With the exception of Gloria, in whom he falls madly in love. Gloria on the other hand is the typical golden girl – adored and loved by men and hated and envied by the women. Their union is destructive for both. Anthony embraces Gloria’s carelessness as his own; she contents to his lack of drive and ambition. It can be argued who drags whom down. I guess both of them mutually influence each other towards the inevitable demise.
F. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t show any mercy for his characters. When it almost feels like Gloria and Anthony are on the right path, he throws them back into decadence. Anthony decides to become an author but his literary attempts are crashed in the beginning. Gloria attempts to succeed as an actress but she is deemed “too old”. They don’t see a reason or a purpose to engage in anything, or to strive towards anything but momentary happiness and this is where there tragedy lies:
Happiness, remarked Maury Noble one day, is only the first hour after the alleviation of some especially intense misery.
I read somewhere that the worst thing that can happen to you is if your dreams come true. This is especially true in Anthony and Gloria’s case. Given everything one might want in life, they carelessly scatter it around. The emptiness in their hearts is contrasted by the exuberance in their life. They get bored easily, which prompts them to seek new and new ways to keep the excitement in their lives. However, when Gloria’s beauty slowly fades away and Anthony turns for consolation to alcohol, it becomes clear they are headed towards devastation:
I’ve often thought that if I hadn’t got what I wanted things might have been different with me. I might have found something in my mind and enjoyed putting it in circulation. I might have been content with the work of it, and had some sweet vanity out of the success. I suppose that at one time I could have had anything I wanted, within reason, but that was the only thing I ever wanted with any fervour. God! And that taught me you can’t have anything, you can’t have anything at all. Because desire just cheats you. It’s like a sunbeam skipping here and there about a room. It stops and gilds some inconsequential object, and we poor fools try to grasp it – but when we do the sunbeam moves on to something else, and you’ve got the inconsequential part, but the glitter that made you want it is gone.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned shattered me completely. The destruction of two young lives by boredom and lack of ambition, the devastating effects of alcohol and saturation, the shortcomings of beauty and youth alone to bring you happiness made me thing of my own life. Of my own desperation at times, feeling almost nothing has a purpose. Of my own escape into parties and people, just to forget something is wrong somewhere inside. Of my deepest fear to remain average, or worse, to fail. Gloria and Anthony’s story is as relevant today as it was back in the Jazz Age. Especially for young people who have it all and yet have nothing.
More from F. Scott Fitzgerald: