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Book cover of the first edition, published in 19222


6 March 2023

Face-To-Face With Adulthood: Reflections on Fitzgerald


I tried to relax over the Christmas Holiday. However, the imminent prospect of graduation this year loomed ever present in my mind, acting as a dampener on the typically convivial seasonal experience. The nebulous next step appears hard to fathom.I sought refuge in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the exalted meditator on the loss of youth and innocence. I picked his less explored second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, described by H.L Mencken as his turning point from ‘wunderkind’ to serious novelist.


The novel centers around the married life of Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert, two young and carefree socialites hailing in glitzy, early 20th century New York.  After graduating effortlessly from Harvard, Anthony is free to pursue a romanticist's life of leisure thanks to the assumption of inherited wealth from his prosaic but successful grandfather, Adam Patch. He fills his time promising to write gratuitous essays on Popes of the Renaissance, discussing abstract intellectual ponderings with his friends Maury and Dick and waiting eagerly for the death of his grandfather so that he would inherit his wealth. Leaving aside the concerning attitude towards his elderly relative, does Adam’s lifestyle not seem too dissimilar to many of ours here? 


Gloria also pursues an ostensibly unafflicted life of leisure. With her striking physical beauty, she attends innumerable parties, charming any man she pleases but never commits to anything serious. The banality of monogamy seems beneath her. However, partly as a result of his aloof intelligence, which Gloria finds charming, and the allure of his garish flat on 52nd street, Anthony manages to sway her prejudice against commitment and marries her. They continue to elude the ghastly prospect of a career, seeking enjoyment and the maximum preservation of their youthfulness and beauty. This is put to an end when Adam Patch unexpectedly visits their holiday home in upstate New York. He walks in on a debauched, alcohol infused party and being the puritan that he was, decided to cut Anthony out of his will.


The couple are left in the precarious and unfamiliar position of having to derive their own income. This is a salient moment in the book and can be seen as the beginning of their long and painful decline from innocence. Fitzgerald describes this loss of innocence as when we: “cease to be impulsive, convincible men, interested in what is ethically true by fine margins, we substitute rules of conduct for ideas of integrity, we value safety above romance, we became, quite unconsciously pragmatic.” 


Does graduation not also represent the ultimate symbol of lost youth and a step in the direction of unconscious pragmatism?


Gone will be the freedom to idly swan off to the pub with friends to talk about nothing in particular. I picture the slow progression of conversation to the banal topics of mortgages and where the kids are to be sent to school. Hopefully this prediction of drudgery is misinformed and simply reflects my inherent fear of bourgeois suburban life.


Subsequently, Anthony is forced into pursuing painstaking employment. As World War I continues in Europe, he signs up as a trainee soldier at an army camp near Kansas City. He struggles to deal with the absence of Gloria and pursues a meaningless relationship with a local Southern girl, Dorothea (Dot) Raycroft. The lack of freedom and subjection to authority nearly turns him mad, and upon the cessation of the war he returns to New York. After briefly being driven to futile corporatism, working as a salesman of motivational pamphlets to businesses, inertia lends him back to idleness. His descent into alcoholism accompanies Gloria’s ever increasing fears over the rapid evaporation of their income. She can no longer buy the debonair luxuries she sees as key to furnishing her personality, and their marriage begins to break down. Lacking the wealth to disguise it, a sense of waste begins to afflict the pair of them. They can no longer live a life lacking significance.


Everything at this stage suddenly seems portentous. Days of freedom and breezing through the odd lecture are set to be replaced by regimented hours of office exertion, as our looks and enthusiasm fade in equal proportion.


Forgive me for sounding depressing and perhaps a bit wimpish in the effort to expose my underlying gerascophobia. I sincerely hope I am wrong in these premonitions - but this is all a bit terrifying. Regardless, the novel successfully communicates the life and times of a typical couple in an America which was trying to discover itself and claim an identity. I hope, dear reader, that in your own coming of age, you avoid the pitfalls of the tragic Anthony and Gloria Patch.

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