F Scott Fitzgerald’s sophomore novel The Beautiful and Damned is often overlooked in discussions of the writer’s illustrious career and literary heritage, especially when considering the sheer volume of critical attention garnered by later efforts such as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is The Night.
Published in 1922, two years prior to Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned certainly provides a clear indication of the elegiac and sardonic style Fitzgerald would come to master, as well as themes of bourgeois emptiness and unattainable love that he’d continually return to in his later prose. Yet despite being one of his earlier books and the fact that the majority of the narrative takes place in the pre-war era, The Beautiful and Damned has a distinctly modern feel to it at times; with certain passages seeming to be more closely akin to the works of the mid-century generation of realist writers such as Yates and Salter than to the idealised lyricism of Gatsby.
One critic at the New York Times wrote of the novel on its initial release that it “is the record of lives, utterly worthless, utterly futile”. In many ways The Beautiful And Damned acts as the party scenes in The Great Gatsby, generally lacking in the quasi-poetic romanticism and the distinct narrative direction of the latter, focusing more on the moral bankruptcy of a drunkenly hedonistic middle-class in the Jazz Age ( a term famously coined by Fitzgerald himself). It operates as a series of often disjointed anecdotes in the miserable and debauched lives of Anthony and Gloria Patch, two largely contemptible characters whose sense of societal entitlement and self-centeredness leads them to drift aimlessly towards vapid existences validated only by alcoholism and excessive consumption.
The vague yet undeniably noble promises of hope and making something of oneself in America which drive Gatsby so fervently are all but absent here. Instead, Anthony ridicules and scorns those who suggest he should work for a living, choosing to pathetically indulge himself on his millionaire grandfather’s allowance like a spoilt child. Gloria’s awareness of her unrivalled beauty and the stranglehold her appearance has over men has let her grow up with the idea that she is deserving of anything that she desires, at one point declaring: If I wanted anything, I’d take it… I can’t be bothered resisting things I want”. But these characters, icons of their vain age, are never wholly chastised by Fitzgerald; his playfully ambiguous stance treats them with fondness as much as derision, meaning the novel is simply a beguiling, often humorous insight into the status quo, without heeding some kind of sanctimonious moral warning.
It’s no surprise that Fitzgerald is in his element in passages recounting the sordid escapades of these careless, elitist New Yorkers . His evocations of the free and ostentatious atmosphere of this era are as vibrant, majestically detailed and beautiful observed here as they are in The Great Gatsby. Yet what is remarkable is that he is able to bring the reader to immerse himself in the lives of characters who ostensibly lack psychological depth and who engender very little compassion. The fact that Anthony and Gloria’s relationship was allegedly based on Fitzgerald’s marriage to Zelda Sayre does much in the way of explaining why The Beautiful and the Damned feels so much more true to life than Gatsby, in which the central characters occasionally read as conduits for the writer’s profound allegories.
The book is most successful, and indeed most timeless, when it presents the reader with accounts of everyday monotony. As Anthony and Gloria idly and recklessly wait for the former’s grandfather to die so that their patience maybe be ‘rewarded’ with his inheritance, Fitzgerald convincingly discloses the anatomy of a failed marriage. They are under no illusions that their marriage is joyful or even functional, but prefer to perversely enjoy wallowing in their almost perennial states of melancholy. In one brutally vivid scene, Fitzgerald describes a fight between the couple at a railway station, unveiling the foundation of loathing at the core of the relationship, making the reader an implicit, uncomfortable voyeur of this fragile marriage.
The Beautiful and Damned simultaneously presents the reader with a meticulous experience of the social landscape and a nuanced, convincing portrait of marital life. Yet for all of Fitzgerald’s talents, the novel is still greatly flawed in areas. For one, at over three times the length of Gatsby, it is unnecessarily long; and the book loses momentum and direction in the third quarter which outlines Anthony’s year at a military training camp in the south. Additionally, though Anthony and Gloria’s shallowness is profoundly conveyed by Fitzgerald, other characters in their social circle are merely two-dimensional. Anthony’s pretentious, aphorism-spouting, nihilist friend Maury seems like a character conceived of by Oscar Wilde on a particularly lazy day (and does not merit his ten-page monologue on his own educational progression), while haughty movie producer Joseph Bloeckmann reads as little more than a crude and prejudicial caricature of a wealthy Jew.
A must-read for any fan of Fitzgerald’s fiction, The Beautiful and Damned is a joy to read and should rank amongst the very best of the author’s work. Though very much of its time, the novel feels in no way dated, with some passages easily mistakable for 1960s texts such as Revolutionary Road. It may not move and resonate as much as The Great Gatsby, but it is at times more real, powerful and irreverently funny, and despite its imperfections it is almost beyond comprehension that a novel of such maturity and cynicism could have been written by a man still in his early twenties.