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An Analysis of the Contextual Influences of Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s Work
Francis Scott Fitzgerald is considered to be one of the seminal figureheads of contemporary American literature. He inspired contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway, T.S Eliot and later would be revered by 20th and 21st century writers, such as Hunter S. Thompson, who claimed that to learn to write, he would retype the Great Gatsby to “teach [his] neurological system how it felt to write that kind of prose” (Thompson quoted in Leone, 2006). He brought life to the Fitzgerald-coined “Jazz Age” of writers, and with it brought a contemporary voice to a nation writing their own comparably short artistic histories. Fitzgerald would never know of his posthumous success, and, during his transient life, he had a tortuous relationship between his public persona, personal relationships and the influence that alcohol had on his life. These things indelibly mark most of his writings, and can be seen in many aspects of his novels. This paper will analyse the texts from the man behind the famous writing style, and unearth meanings that can be found behind his first three novels: This Side of Paradise, 1920; The Beautiful and Damned , 1922; and The Great Gatsby, 1925.
Fitzgerald’s life started as inauspiciously as any other son of a wicker furniture merchant. Despite moderate wealth descending from his Irish mother’s family, his parents considered themselves poor, and much of his failing father’s inability to build a successful business was resolved by grooming the promising fledgling talents of Fitzgerald (Shepard, 2005, p19). The temperamental state of finances, reliance on extended family money and fear of economic ruin haunt Fitzgerald’s early writings, and outline key themes which echo throughout his work: money and security. His Grandmother’s death, and bequest of $125,000, luckily enabled Fitzgerald’s scrabble for last minute high grades to be rewarded by a place at the esteemed Princeton University. There he found the reinvention that he desired to poise himself as a “literary genius”, like his protagonists in This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, and began his quest to attain a higher social status (ibid., p24).
In This Side of Paradise, admission into Princeton fills Amory full of adoration and he reveres the “lazy beauty” of its architecture. He speculates how underneath this, in the interim of their stay, “the air that pervaded his class” would lead a “worship” of the “breathless social system” which would rule attendees’ social actions. Fitzgerald, like his character Amory, would not excel to the lofty heights of “God of class”, as Amory aspires, but he did find intellectual stimulation and encountered friends and peers who excited his, often supercilious, intellect (ibid., p27). In a semi-autobiographical account of meeting Thomas D’Invilliers, who was loosely based on John Peale Bishop, a famous American poet who also attended Princeton, Amory describes discussing “books he had read, read about, books he had never heard of” and is delighted at this new company (John Peale Bishop 1892-1944, 2011). Like Amory, Fitzgerald idolised the exclusive social echelons of university, but his grades were not satisfactory and he left Princeton without graduating. His work was seen to be so poor, and he so indolent, that one of his tutors staunchly refused to believe he could possibly be the author of The Great Gatsby (Shepard, 2005, p31). When, in identical circumstances, Amory leaves Princeton, D’Invilliers philosophises: “what we leave [at Princeton] is more than [a] class; it’s the whole heritage of youth”. Fitzgerald’s characters’ over-indulged fantasies are depleted and left behind after leaving Princeton, as were his own when discredited and dismissed without a degree.
Leaving university, and evolving from a “personality to a personage”, has a profound affect on both, respectively, Anthony and Amory from This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. They leave university, and, like Fitzgerald, they find themselves thrown into a world that doesn’t esteem their intellectual capabilities without certificated merit. They attempt to hold down mundane jobs, such as “writing copy for an advertising agency”, but are primarily driven by a desire to appease their romantic interests, Cecelia and Gloria. Fitzgerald, after his brief stint in the army, met and fell in love with Zelda Sayre; the romance was recorded extensively in the form of these romantic interests. The elusive and mercurial natures of Zelda’s personality seemed to appeal to the part of Fitzgerald that distanced himself from his forebears, and desired sophisticated beauty. Their lives together were seen as extraordinarily decadent and characterised by excessive alcohol use, and relentless partying. Fitzgerald’s first book, This Side of Paradise, had been widely acclaimed by the public and it shot its author to success, which facilitated their turbulent lifestyles (Dardis, 1989, p102).
Zelda’s direct character portrayal in The Beautiful and Damned, as the distracted socialite wife, however, is treated with careful language and she is depicted as being influenced into Anthony’s lifestyle. In initial discourses between the two, she asks rhetorically: “You drink all the time, don’t you?” To this, Anthony agrees, and presupposes everyone is the same, which Gloria opposes by saying she only drinks occasionally, and, even then, only “two or three”. They marry, and as they age, their superlative beauty fades, and life descends into an alcohol-fuelled melodrama. With this demise, Gloria becomes corrupted into Anthony’s alcoholism: she goes beyond her “limit of four precisely timed cocktails” per evening, and is a key figure in the party that Anthony’s grandfather inadvertently witnesses, prompting his writing them out of his wealthy legacy. In portraying Gloria this way, Fitzgerald appears to absolve his wife of responsibility for what would, ultimately, contribute to their ominous fates.
Author and essayist, Geoff Dyer (2004), says the tragedy of The Beautiful and Damned shows the distinct awareness of the consequences of pouring “into themselves...a delicate poison”. He goes on to say that “an ominous note is struck when, for a wedding present, [a friend] gives them an ‘elaborate drinking set’”, and says that this is symbolic of their nuptials. Furthermore, Dyer thinks the couple’s tragedy epitomises Fitzgerald’s fixation with “beauty gone foul and revelry remembered in disgust”. For me, Dyer’s keen and eloquent insights cut straight to the heart of the novel, and his examples exemplify the key turning points that lead to the couple’s damnation. Moreover, I think this self-indicting sentiment is particularly evident amidst a party, in the “Broken Lute” chapter. Fitzgerald describes the couple’s hedonistic party as “one of those incidents in which life seems set upon the passionate imitation of the lowest forms of literature”. It is ironic, however, that literature is imitating what Fitzgerald seems to feel is the lowest form of life.
Fitzgerald’s, self admitted, shallow short stories paid for his lifestyle, but contributed to extended periods of producing little work of merit (Shepard, 2005, p72). Until constructing the often-touted perfect American novel , the progression of his skills as a writer clearly shape and progress. This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned show that, early on, Fitzgerald was exemplarily skilled in eliciting senses of atmosphere and social dynamic: depicting contemporary social imagery with an expansive command of English, in which he found its most romantic tones. However, the structural flimsiness and unclear storylines in the “quest novels”, as Fitzgerald called them, show his growing development as a complete writer (Fitzgerald, quoted in Rowland Book Collections Editors, 2010).
In his first two novels, Fitzgerald experiments with interspersing playlets, to break up the standard prose format, which work with a mixture of success. When brought into The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald inserts a first person extra-diegetic narrative into the script’s stage directions, which leads the reader’s imagination around the dialogue-heavy scene. However, experimentations such as this are disregarded for his later work. To construct The Great Gatsby, he used a linear, intra-diegetic Henry James-esque protagonist, aka Nick the humble bond salesman. The reader is provoked into questioning the integrity of Nick’s motivations and personal attachments as a result of subtle suggestions and descriptions from the, occasionally biased, narrator. This directly contributes to the wistfully elusive nature of Gatsby’s character and the novel as a whole.
Ironically, before starting work on The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald wrote to his publisher, Maxwell Perkins:
“My 3rd novel, if I ever write one, will I am sure be black as death with gloom. I should like to sit down with ½ dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death but I am sick of life, liquor and literature ” (Fitzgerald, quoted in Dardis, 1989, p99).
This statement seems incongruous with the seminal piece of work that followed, but the sentiment might well resonate in the undertones of the novel. During a stay in Europe, Zelda had formed a bond with a French aviator, which may well have been consummated (Shepard, 2005, p64). Either way, Fitzgerald wrote in his ledger, “Something has happened that can’t be repaired” (Fitzgerald, quoted in ibid., 2005, p64). Although in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald disposes of the self imbued “egotist” character, it could easily be argued for a number of reasons that Fitzgerald’s sense of lost faith and isolation are written into the character of Jay Gatsby. Shepard (2005, p65) thinks that, “given his track record for recycling experiences in his fiction...it is highly likely that he included some of his hurt...in the book”. The legitimacy of this claim can be backed up by the fact that Gatsby discards his family to create a new ego; he has a half finished educational record and represents newly acquired money; he feels his life is set on a “rock of the world [that] was founded securely on a fairy’s wing”; and, importantly, has a sense of yearning and sense of loss towards a person with whom he had an intense bond.