The Beautiful and Damned ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
In college literature classes, we learned that there are about seven basic themes in all of literature and that nearly all great novels incorporate all seven of them. One of these themes is “the fall” or “fall of man.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (published in 1922), is an example of the theme of “the fall.” It concerns the young and doomed (by his own hand, by his own frailty) fictional character known as Anthony Patch. Anthony is young in the early years of the twentieth century. He is of the privileged class. He attends Harvard University and is the heir to a considerable fortune, being the only living relative of his grandfather, Adam Patch. We don’t learn how Adam Patch made all his millions, only that he is a “reformer.” From that word, we can deduce that he’s moralistic and Puritanical.
Anthony meets a debutante named Gloria Gilbert and falls in love with her. Gloria’s beauty is the wellspring of her shallowness and self-centeredness. Her beauty and desire for social status are all she has going for her. Men are, of course, drawn to her, but that’s because they’re shallow. We know that when she gets older and her looks begin to fade, she will be finished. Anthony persuades Gloria to marry her; she is easily persuaded because one day he will be very rich. The two of them are happy for a while, at least a few years, but Anthony discovers that marrying Gloria was the worst thing he ever did.
It seems that old Adam Patch will never die. Anthony could get a job, but all he does is wait around for years for the big day when the old man dies and leaves him all his money. Anthony and Gloria are a socialite couple. They throw parties (or attend parties that other people give) every night. Drinking all the time, Anthony becomes an alcoholic, if he wasn’t already one. Gloria and Anthony have only limited money that they get from their investments but—not to worry—when Anthony gets his millions all will be well. The longer they wait for the money, the more they get on each other’s nerves. They begin to hate each other and their marriage deteriorates.
One night in summer old Adam Patch decides to pay an impromptu call on his grandson and his wife at the house they’re renting. On that night, Anthony and Gloria happen to be “entertaining” guests with drinking, dancing and raucous fun. Adam Patch is appalled at what he sees (people drunk out of their senses, dancing in their underwear). He dies soon enough, but when he does Anthony discovers that he has disinherited him, leaving all his money to servants. Anthony contests the will, being forced to retain an expensive lawyer, but he isn’t given much hope that the case will go his way in court.
So, Anthony and Gloria wait out a lengthy court case, with no reason to believe they will win it in the end. Anthony continues his drinking, his money problems get worse, and he and Gloria become more alienated from each other. While World War I rages, Anthony is drafted into the army. He ends up in a miserable training camp in Mississippi and it’s while he’s there that he begins an affair with a local girl named Dot. For Anthony it’s just a little fling while he’s away from home, but for Dot it’s all or nothing. She proclaims her love for him, suggesting that she might kill herself if for any reason he should happen to leave her. She knows that Anthony has a wife back in New York, but she doesn’t care very much, believing that he will choose her (Dot) over his wife. It’s while Anthony and his unit are waiting to be shipped to France that Germany surrenders and the war ends. Dot isn’t giving Anthony up without a fight, though.
After Anthony’s stint in the army, he returns to Gloria and things only continue to get worse between them. The suit he filed to contest his grandfather’s will isn’t going anywhere and Anthony and Gloria are down on their heels. They don’t know what they are going to do for money. Neither one of them will consider going to work and earning any honest dough. They drink and quarrel, as their friends and their hopes abandon them. Anthony becomes completely unraveled and degrades and humiliates himself. But, wait a minute! The court case is still pending! Is there any chance, even a slim one, that it might still go Anthony’s way, since public sentiment has turned against “reformers” because of Prohibition?
Almost more than any other American writer of the twentieth century, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a chronicler of his age, the World War I era, the years leading up to the war, the 1920s, Prohibition, and the “Jazz Age.” We get a vivid impression, though his books and stories, of what it was like to be alive in those days that were so different from our own. Of course, a hundred years’ passage of time has romanticized the era. Maybe in 2116, people will have a romanticized view of 2016 because they didn’t live it and couldn’t possibly know what it’s like with its leaf blowers (I hear one now), cell phones, microwave ovens, computers and political lunacy.
The Beautiful and Damned, if not a great a novel, is certainly a very good one, with a strong story, vivid characters and a strong sense of time and place. Where else could we learn about New York “café society” in the years before, during and after World War I? (Through Fitzgerald’s descriptions, we see the New York streets, the park, the buildings and the trees around Anthony Patch’s apartment.) The story of Anthony Patch and his lovely bride Gloria, we are told in background material, parallels the real-life story of Fitzgerald’s tumultuous relationship with his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald. Plenty of heartache to go around.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp