Scott Fitzgerald is a man who created characters that seemed to drown in their past and their future all at once; perhaps because he himself seemed to do the same. The Beautiful and Damned is not Fitzgerald’s best known work, that will forever be The Great Gatsby, but the books are eerily similar.
Anthony Patch is a Princeton socialite caught up in his illusions of self-importance and smoke screen intelligence. The protagonist of the book, he is far from a hero, seeking solace in the arms of another while he is training for the First World War (that he never actually fights in) and seeking solace at the bottom of a bottle upon his return. Gloria Gilbert is beautiful, desired and has a tendency to see men as toys to be flung around at her leisure. The book’s main focus is on Anthony and Gloria’s relationship but not in the way that Fitzgerald portrays Gatsby’s with Daisy. Gloria is every bit as much on a pedestal as Daisy was; but so is Anthony. This is what makes their relationship so fascinating. They are two self-absorbed characters, so focused on themselves it is any wonder they have time to dedicate to others. Perhaps it is this love, so tumultuous and complicated in its aesthetically fascinated simplicity, that is the best part of the novel. Anthony and Gloria love nothing more than themselves, but they love each other second best. Their large egos cause them to come into conflict and hate each other while also accompanying this with a fierce love. While it could be said that such a relationship could survive off of a respect for the other’s strength, this is not the case as they are both inherently weak characters.
The bulk of their relationship is spent planning a future that they fail to do anything to bring about. They are attracted by the starry-eyed glance in the other’s eyes, all while pretending to have their feet more firmly on the ground than all of those around them. The present seems to elude them while their past clings to them, and they to it. Gloria cannot seem to look beyond her days as a young beautiful socialite unless it is to talk of the acting career she plans on having. Anthony talks of writing great works but spends all of his time speaking to his friends from university that he loves and yet is bored by all at once. While there is much talk of work that they will do, golf clubs they will join, houses they will buy in Europe, trips they will take, the characters seem to be more enthralled by their words and the conviction of their plans than they ever could be with reality. This is truly exposed when Anthony’s mistress utters the words: “I don’t want just words. If that’s all you have for me, you’d better go” since this really is all that Anthony has to offer her: words all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Neither one of the characters has a purpose, another theme in Fitzgerald’s works. The characters themselves even declare that life is meaningless: “I shall go on shining as a brilliantly meaningless figure in a meaningless world.”. Their actions support their words. Their lack of purpose means a corresponding lack in morals which led to the choice of the title: The Beautiful and Damned. Anthony is seen as being attractive but only in certain moments, much like the life-style he represents, while Gloria is seen as gloriously beautiful and damningly obsessed with it. Her beauty is her ticket to the world and she cares nothing of the repercussions her flirting causes for those around her. Including the man she loves.
Much as with Gatsby, Fitzgerald seems to argue that inherited wealth is at the crux of the problems for these characters. Anthony has yet to inherit his fortune from his grandfather but it is the knowledge that this wealth is coming that propels him to rest on his family’s laurels and not seek to better himself or the world around him. Gloria waits day in and day out to become more beautiful. She lives to be admired and can only survive in a world where she sees herself as being admired more and more for something that she inherited and nothing that she made happen herself. Morally and mentally weak, the pair look to the world to hand them their due while shouting from the rooftops that the world cares about no one. Reflective of the generation who lived for the parties and the empty glitz and the glam, Anthony and Gloria float from party to party, ignoring the reality that many that came before them worked so hard to bring about.
Fitzgerald’s own tombstone contains the phrase: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” and this is a phrase that, no doubt, Gloria and Anthony could find some affinity with. The current is the present, getting in the way of their struggle to go back to a time that has long slipped through their fingers. Much like a museum of the mind, the past is there to be seen but not to be touched, no matter how much alcohol or desire are thrown into the backs of the rowers. Perhaps this was what haunted Fitzgerald the most just as it haunted the paper people figments of hi imagination.
Fitzgerald once said “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy” but it appears he was equally capable of writing a tragedy with only the beautiful and the damned to inspire him.