Only his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922) is quintessentially F. Scott Fitzgerald in tone – populated by rich, vacuous members of the would-be jazz age who derive their value from money or beauty (or both), the novel is situated in a world of parties, drunkenness, and life generally lived to excess. Spanning just short of ten years in the company of Harvard graduate Anthony Patch, in line to inherit a large fortune from his prohibitionist grandfather, the novel follows its privileged protagonist as he falls into a marriage with beautiful socialite Gloria Gilbert and the two fine young things luxuriate in the world which lives in their thrall as they await the death that will see Anthony inherit his fortune. The reader is invited along to the numerous parties and petty squabbles that make up the marriage of such fortunate creatures and it is not until war (into which he is conscripted) and the threat of losing his inheritance that life is drawn more sharply into focus for Anthony Patch and he and Gloria are rocked from their inertia into a downward descent.

Surrounding the Patches are a range of friends, many of whom are would-be writers, actresses, or otherwise aspirational careers. The salient point is that so many within the novel remain ‘would-bes’ and choose to fill their lives with alcohol and frippery rather than harness their potential and achieve meaningful goals. The Patches barely need seducing into giving way to temptation but almost seek it out as a distraction from the vacant lives they lead. As Gloria notes, "[i]f I wanted anything, I'd take it... I can't be bothered resisting things I want." This is hedonism in the extreme and if you wanted a portrait of lives lived absently you could do a lot worse than pick up The Beautiful and Damned.

The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald book cover
Fitzgerald is in his element when unravelling the lives of the leisure classes in all their unthinking affluence and yet for all that the portrait rings true, the story itself feels as hollow and incoherent as its characters’ lives. The novel was originally titled The Flight of the Rocket – presumably foreshadowing the Icarus-like trajectory of Anthony’s young life – and, to be reductive, the plot is a warning against the imprudence and frivolity that leads to this trajectory; a call to raise up the old virtues of hard work and engagement with more than the pleasures of life. It is a not uncommon plot and the inescapable demise of the Patches is so heavily foreshadowed that the creeping inevitability of the story turns to tedium rather than hopelessness.

What is perhaps more interesting is how far the Patches are cognizant of their demise as it unfolds. Certainly Gloria appears to shield herself from the knowledge of the couple’s financial position but Anthony is all too aware of their dwindling wealth as he sells one bond after another to sustain their lavish lifestyle. Fitzgerald apparently considered Anthony to be in possession of the artist’s temperament but without the spark of creativity needed to pursue such a career. This suggests a rather conflicted person, whose personality suffers a fatal dissonance. However, in Anthony there seems to be not only naivety but a kind of nihilistic cynicism at times too. When talking of his own talent, Anthony proclaims that “there was nothing to waste, because all efforts and attainments were equally valueless." That this sort of nihilism can sit side by side with the naivety that allows Anthony to run his life into the ground provides a different take on his seeming ignorance of the harder side of life. This juxtaposition may exist because of a tonal inconsistency on Fitzgerald’s part or it may point to something more interesting in Anthony.

Gloria and Anthony seem always to be fleeing something – their feelings, their surroundings, the sober world – and the notion that they participate in their own escape from lives they feel are oppressive is interesting. However, towards the end of the novel there are frequent laments as the characters edge towards their thirtieth birthdays and there is a general eulogising of youth and mourning of lost time. That the characters feel this sense of loss, of time elapsed without significance, suggests that there is more than veiled nihilism at play. Gloria’s beauty fades and she is no longer sought after by men or movie producers. Anthony’s fortune is jeopardised and he cannot support his family as he might like. The novel becomes painfully fixed in the real world and the familiar concerns of Fitzgerald – of time and the rapid movement of its sands – come to the fore.

While there is a duality at play somewhere in this, it is a stretch to suggest that Fitzgerald’s still developing technique does not cause tonal inconsistencies in the text which allows these ambiguities to exist. Indeed, as a whole there are numerous sections in the novel that, truthfully, are superfluous to the story and which could easily be cut. These only serve to confuse the whole that Fitzgerald is aiming for. As for that central strand of the story – charting the mental, physical, and moral disintegration of Anthony – this is done in a none-too-subtle manner and with a good deal of repetition. Of course, a life lived entirely for pleasure’s sake is, ultimately, repetitive but as the pages fly by and Anthony continues his own cycle of destruction it does become a little tiring.

Aside from Anthony and Gloria and their band of friends, New York – where much of the novel takes place – is almost a character in the novel itself. Fitzgerald may not do for Manhattan what Dickens does for London but the texture of the novel is undoubtedly linked to its geography. In fact, to slightly develop the Dickens link, there is something a little Dickensian in the novel – Anthony waiting on a grand fortune, wrangling through a labyrinthine court case in pursuit of his great expectations, the morals of money and pursuing it and of its effect on a country’s soul. The links may be fairly subtle but it is an interesting subtext.

The Beautiful and Damned has long been considered a gloomy novel and is by no means Fitzgerald’s best (not that this is related to its gloominess or otherwise). I can’t help but think that there are other books available that achieve a similar ends but in a more satisfactory form. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald has come to be seen as one of the most notable chroniclers of early twentieth century American life and his writing should strike a chord with modern audiences. After all, the Patches have, in essence, achieved and discovered the vacuousness of the aim towards which all Western youngsters are programmed to aspire: becoming one of the moneyed class. With our own roaring 20s tiptoeing ever closer, it is no bad thing to consider quite what makes life worth living.