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[450] Flappers and Philosophers – F. Scott Fitzgerald

In this classic collection of short stories, Fitzgerald gives us a display of humanity at its frothiest, gaudiest, and most poignant. Although his critical reputation primarily rests upon his novels—especially The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, those novels were always interwoven with the short stories he was writing simultaneously. “Winter Dreams” is most noticeably parallel to Gatsby. Like so many Fitzgerald heroes, Dexter Green in the story makes the mistake of linking his expectations and aspirations to be rich, beautiful and fickle woman who “simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physicial loveliness” and who was “entertained only by the gratification of her desires.” In the end her betrayal kills his capacity for hope and more sadly “the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion.”

Following a similar arc but more scathing is “Cut-glass Bowl”, in which the heroine heroine, Evylyn Piper, is gifted (by an old flame) the titled present that is “as hard as (she is) and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” Although married with two children, she still toys with one of her male playthings. Her marriage is empty; she’s morally bankrupt. Her infidelity ruins her husband. Her prized glass bowl cuts her daughter’s finger, which later is amputated. Her son perishes in the war. The story attends the decay and fall of a former beauty’s happiness and life.

Although Fitzgerald’s stories often share the root in ambition, hope, (youthful) illusion and romance, but almost unfailingly these ideals and aspirations are curbed by a sharp sense of irony. “The Ice Palace” us such symbolic tale of a Southern belle, Sally carol, chilled by life in the frozen North. The coldness is not merely climactical as it is social, for the women whom she encounters in the North are just despicable. It ends with the breaking of her engagement, and hightailing back to Georgia, where she belongs.

The one story I resonate with the most is “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”, a dark tragicomedy about the bankruptcy of the American dream, its destructiveness and delusions. The allegorically named Washington family are the richest and most powerful in the world; their children invite poorer friends from school to visit who are then murdered to protect the secret of the Washington’s wealth. How amazingly relevant this story is if you look at the fraudulent discretion and greed behind Wall Street and corporate America in the present.

So wickedly funny, and thus warrants many re-reads, is “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”: Bernice has a reputation of not being cut in on. Consider her enviable position in society, she has no clue why she doesn’t get any attention. Some pointers on etiquette from her cousin, who “had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately feminine” make her a huge star at the balls. That the young man who had had a hot for her cousin shifted his attention to her instead has provoked a malicious jealousy in Marjorie, who traps her into bobbing her hair (which is quote unquote ugly as sin). The outrageous trap by which Marjorie had made her a fool leads to this incredible revenge that is both funny and judicial.

As the stories have shown in this collection, they form the backbone of Fitzgerald’s longer works, amplifying the novels and playing out variations of characteristic motifs. Permeated in these tales is a sense of loss and regret. The stories read like a series of elegiac farewells to lost youth and lost opportunities.

352 pp. Penguin UK. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Reading Flappers and Philosophers

In Hong Kong, my friend gifted me a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Flappers and Philosophers with a beautiful, ornate cover by C. B-Smith. This hardbound contains more than the eight short stories published under the titled Flappers and Philosophers. Also included are selections from The Jazz Age, All the Sad Young Men, and Taps at Reveille.

Although Fitzgerald’s critical reputation primarily rests upon his novels—in particular The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night—those novels were always interwoven with the short stories he was writing simultaneously. To me, after a few hours with the intriguing Flippers and Philosophers, his intriguing stories amplify the novels, playing out variations on characteristic motifs. The opening story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair is brilliant and funny. It deals with a favorite theme of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s: the desire for popularity in the shallow, appearance-obsessed social climate of the famous Roaring Twenties.

Bernice is a young lady who is educated and from a family of influential position—but she fails to attract attention from young men. After an exasperated Marjorie confronts her with her social ineptness, Bernice meekly agrees to take any advice Marjorie has to give her—that is, to talk flirtatiously. Bernice tries it out and decides on her favorite: “Do you think I should bob [cut short] my hair?” At this time, short hair was seen as a sign of loose morals—no “nice” girl would do it. Soon, the newly confident Bernice is surrounded by fascinated boys. Marjorie realizes that her advice has worked too well. The boy who once adored her, Warren MacIntyre, is now paying attention only to Bernice. Angry and jealous, Marjorie hatches a plan: to challenge Bernice cutting her hair short. Of course it turns out to be a disaster. What happens when a cat fight doesn’t take place between the two cousins? Bitter revenge.

Then Bernice winced as Marjorie tossed her own hair over her shoulders and began to twist it slowly into two long blond braids until in her cream-colored negligée she looked like a delicate painting of some Saxon princess. Fascinated, Bernice watched the braids grow. Heavy and luxurious they were, moving under the supple fingers like restive snakes–and to Bernice remained this relic and the curling-iron and a to-morrow full of eyes. She could see G. Reece Stoddard, who liked her, assuming his Harvard manner and telling his dinner partner that Bernice shouldn’t have been allowed to go to the movies so much; she could see Draycott Deyo exchanging glances with his mother and then being conscientiously charitable to her. But then perhaps by to-morrow Mrs. Deyo would have heard the news; would send round an icy little note requesting that she fail to appear–and behind her back they would all laugh and know that Marjorie had made a fool of her; that her chance at beauty had been sacrificed to the jealous whim of a selfish girl. She sat down suddenly before the mirror, biting the inside of her cheek. (Part VI)

Bernice Bobs Her Hair is reminiscent of a modern high school comedy. Bernice is a socially awkward intellectual and a definite party pooper, so thinks her cousin Majorie. Majorie hatches a plan to take plain Bernice and make her into a socially attractive girl who becomes the center of attention. Majorie comes to represent the revolutionary free thinking, modern girl who pushes her ideas of popularity onto Bernice. As we might expect, Bernice soon becomes the talk of the boys, with Majorie a bit taken back and somewhat envious. When Majorie chides Bernice as a “bluffer” about actually going through with her plan to get her hair bobbed, it plants the seeds to a fantastic finish.

[298] The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

” The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption—and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them goodbye. ” [8:162]

Second review. Jay Gatsby purchases the most luxurious mansion in West Egg and throws lavish parties to which guests self-invite with a simplicity (and vanity) of heart that is its own ticket of admission. Neither do the guests know of the tycoon’s murky past, nor does Gatsby care for the rumor abuzz as to what abject lives he had led. The house, which commands a view of  the Buchanans’ home in East Egg, and parties belong to his meticulous plan to reunite with his first and only love, Daisy, Buchanan from five years ago before he left for war. He is hoping she would be at one of his parties.

I could see nothing sinister about him. I wondered if the fact that he was not drinking helped to set him off from his guests, for it seemed to me that he grew more correct as the fraternal hilarity increased. [3:54]

The narrator Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate and bond salesman, acts as Gatsby’s go-between to Daisy, who has married to the arrogant, conceited alpha male-type Tom Buchanan for security in Gatsby’s absence. She wanted her life shaped and the decision was made by some force—mainly of money and of practicality. Unbeknownst to her, Tom has a mistress in Manhattan and their affair incredibly plants the seed for Gatsby’s fall later in the novel.

I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue dawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. [9:189]

It’s indisputable that Gatsby creates a mystique of himself and chooses to live in an imaginary world. The goal to to give emotionally and physically to have Daisy back. He has taken a romantic view on what happened between him and Daisy; but his unrestrained desire, which boils precariously when he confesses his love for her in Tom’s presence, also dooms him. Not for once do I doubt Gatsby’s love for Daisy, by any affection between them is only preserved by his lust for wealth and possession, for Daisy has a profound on his thoughts about wealth.

[Gatsby] hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real. [5:96]

The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story that takes place in a society of which the values have gone awry. Gatsby is a man of desperate love who has been blinded by rotten values. He doesn’t know that while pursuing his dream, it’s already behind him and that Daisy will always be like that green light at the end of the dock in an unreachable distance. In breath-taking lyricism, with sensitive insight and keen psychological observation, Fitzgerald discloses in these people a meanness of spirit, carelessness and absence of loyalties. He doesn’t judge them, nor hates them, for they are dumb in their insensate selfishness, and only to be pitied.

216 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[289] The Beautiful and Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“She was doubting now whether there had been any moral issue involved in her way of life—to walk unworried and unregretful along the gayest of all possible lanes and to keep her pride by being always herself and doing what it seemed beautiful that she should do . . . ” [3, II, 330]

Never has a novel been more depressing than The Beautiful and Damned. The way this book depresses is not about physical perishing—not that from warfare, abuse, or violation of humanity as in A Fine Balance, but a perishing from within, a perishing from a lack of sensibility. The book is a devastating portrait of the debauchery of the Jazz Age, when socially elite and privileged make up the Cafe Society. The Beautiful and Damned is about a young couple, Harvard-educated Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert, living out their days to the hilt in New York City as they await the death of Anthony’s grandfather, Adam Patch from whom they expect to inherit his stupendous fortune.

Gloria laughed, torn between delight and derision; she resented his sophistry as at the same time she admired his nonchalance. She would never blame him for being the ineffectual idler so long as he did sincerely, from the attitude that nothing much was worth doing. [2, II, 178]

Spoiled and capricious, Gloria does not intend to do any domestic work at home, let alone seeking employment. She is one minute in love with Anthony and the next he comes a thing of indifference to her. Considers himself an aesthete, Anthony finds it difficult buckling down to some work. He dapples in writing stories. Instead of keeping down expenses, the couple, feeling entitled because of the imminent inheritance and their social status, lives a life of high-handed extravagance. While they live high in the hog, completely blind and senseless, under the deception of the glamorous lifestyle, they spiral into tragedy.

Things had been slipping perceptibly. There was the money question, increasingly annoying, increasingly ominous; there was the realization that liquor had become a practical necessity to their amusement—not an uncommon phenomenon in the British aristocracy of a hundred years ago . . . after Adam Patch’s unexpected call, they awoke, nauseated, and tired, dispirited with life, capable only of one pervasive emotion—fear. [2, III, 233]

The Beautiful and Damned reads like a social document that meditates on marriage, love, and money. It doesn’t assume much of a plot other than that the finality of the couple’s destiny is clearly marked long before the end is reached. Anthony and Gloria do nothing while waiting for something of meaning to arrive, never realizing that meaning had passed them by, in the end leaving them with nothing. Fitzgerald’s masterful prose, filled with romantic imagination, guides this couple, doomed from the beginning, to the end in his grand scheme of purpose, which is made known through the many asides provided by the surrounding characters, except that this literary plan is populated by beings who are devoid of any purpose. Consider his figurative language, strong and pervasive:

“It is seven thirty on an August evening. The windows in the living room of the gray house are wide open patiently exchanging the tainted inner atmosphere of liquor and smoke for the fresh drowsiness of the late hot dusk. There are dying flower scents upon the air, so thin, so fragile, as to hint already of a summer laid away in time.”

386 pp. Modern Library Classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow] *I select Borrow in comparison to The Great Gatsby, which is a Buy because I do enjoy a story with more dynamics in the plot.

[219] Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald


“So you understand my relations with Nicole are complicated. She’s not very strong—she looks strong but she isn’t. And this makes rather a mess.” [75]

While The Great Gatsby, with its tragic and monetary allure, is wildly popular with critics and public alike, Tender is the Night is in my opinion more substantial in the extent to which Fitzgerald explores the complication of human nature. The dark novel chronicles the rise and fall of Dick Diver, a promising young psychoanalyst, who marries the beautiful and wealthy Nicole Warren, a patient of his.

Beneath the grace and sophistication of the Divers’ high life, whom at the beginning of the novel are surrounded by a circle of American friends at the luxury villa in Southern France are cracks of their emotionally imbalanced marriage. The young starlet Rosemary Hoyt, who also vacations with her mother, has not only fallen in love with Dick at the first sight, but also discerns all that is wrong about Dick’s relationship with Nicole. While her young and naive eyes celebrate the Divers, whose villa she views as the center of the world, Rosemary’s perspective of what the Divers seem to be, the delusion of a happy marriage, will accentuate Dick Diver’s decadence.

Dick had no suspicion of the sharpness of the change; he was profoundly unhappy and the subsequent increase of egotism tended momentarily to blind him to what was going on about him… [86]

As the history of Dick Diver ominously unfolds, one will see that he has married Nicole Warren, who has suffered from a nervous breakdown following an incestuous relationship with her father, as part of her cure is a huge mistake. His flaw lays in the fact that he does not leave a self-protective professional detachment and coldness at the beginning, when Dick seems more a father figure to Nicole. The treatment that he prescribes for her has quickly entrapped him, throwing him on the road to destruction.

Many times he had tried unsuccessfully to let go his hold on her. [180]

. . . he had never felt more sure of himself, more thoroughly his own men, than at the time of his marriage to Nicole. [201]

The irony is that Dick’s preventive measure on Nicole’s disintegration has rendered himself the more debilitating partner. He has progressively failed in what he attempts while Nicole becomes stronger and realizes she is not in love with him. In other word, Nicole is becoming stronger at the expense of Dick’s fall. Written at the time when Fitzgerald’s wife’s condition deteriorated so rapidly that she had to be hospitalized in a sanitarium on Lake Geneva, the book makes inquiries on human soul condition and visualizes people not in their immediate setting. The novel, with its contemplative prose that is beautiful but occasionally hard going, continues the legacy of The Great Gatsby in exploring how money corrupts and destroys wealthy individuals who cannot focus their lives.

313 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Reading Notes: Tender

“He supposed many men meant no more than that when they said they were in love—not a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colors into an obscuring eye, such as his love for Nicole had been. Certain thoughts about Nicole, that she should die, sink into mental darkness, love another man, made him physically sick.” [217]

I’m not making as much progress on Tender is the Night as I have wanted and expected. Don’t get me wrong, because F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose is both contemplative and elegant. Often time I find his evaluation of his characters’ thoughts communicate into the realm of philosophy—that of love, passion, and motive. This morning I lingered over this particular passage, in which Dick Diver inevitably confronts himself the true nature of his feeling for Nicole. Is this out of obligation or love that he has married her? How serious is love when one says “I love you”? Is this just a conversation ender,  casual synonym for goodbye, or really what it is meant to be? Or love is, as Fitzgerald implies, a true submergence of the soul?

[184] The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

gatsby1“When the ‘Jazz History of the World’ was over girls were putting their hands on men’s shoulders in a puppyish, convivial ways, girls were swooning backward playfully into men’s arms, even into groups knowing that someone would arrest their falls—but no one swooned backyard on Gatsby and on French bob touched Gatsby’s shoulder and no singing quartets were formed with Gatsby’s head for one link.” [55]

The Great Gatsby is set in Long Island’s north shore and New York City during the summer of 1922. The sense of time is a bit dreamy and warped, as most of the actions are confined in three months’ window. The novel’s events are filtered through the consciousness of its narrator, Nick Carraway, a young Yale graduate, who is both a part of and separate from the world he describes. Although Fitzgerald, like Nick in the novel, idolizes the riches and glamor of the age, he was uncomfortable with the unrestrained materialism and the lack of morality that went with it:

“…I come to the admission that [tolerance] has a limit . . . I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” [6]

Upon moving to New York, Carraway rents an inexpensive cottage sandwiched between two mansions in West Egg. His neighbor is an eclectic millionaire Jay Gatsby who throws grand party at his mansion every Saturday. They city’s elite and fashionable come to marvel at the extravagance of this man of mystique. Rumors have it that Gatsby has rooted in a murky past and he has built his fortune from illegal gambling and bootlegging. Despite of high-living, Gatsby is unhappy. At one of the parties where Nick overhears gossips that flavor the conversations of frivolous guests who haven’t even met the host, he strikes up a conversation with a man who claims to recognize him from the army during the Great War. Nick mentions his difficulty in finding the host and the man reveals to be Gatsby himself. This is an important event of the novel as Nick becomes Gatsby’s only loyal companion in the jungle of shallow social climbing and emotional manipulation. Their friendship begins as Gatsby invites Nick to more get-togethers.

Later it’s been revealed to Nick that Gatsby fell in love with a young girl before the war. He couldn’t afford to marry the her. One of his most fulfilling moments in life is when the girl’s wealthy family accepted him to be their own. This girl is Nick’s own second cousin Daisy, who is married to Tom Buchanan, an ex celebrated football player at Yale. Although phenomenally wealthy, he is a brutish, overbearing dilettante who nourishes a mistress in the city. The reason why Gatsby has bought a mansion in West Egg, and throws lavish parties is more than a proof of his achieving a social status. It’s indisputable that Gatsby creates an imaginary world in which he inhibits in. He has taken a romantic view on what happened between him and daisy, and that he hopes she might visit one of his parties.

“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay. You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.” [98]

She is something that Gatsby longs and searches for that is just off in the distance—and no matter how much he has, he never feels complete. Once he says “her voice is full of money.” How tied the idea of wealth is to Daisy in Gatsby’s mind. If there is any true love between them, it’s been preserved by his lust for wealth and possession, for Daisy has a profound impact on his thoughts of wealth. After his reunion with the former love, which is arranged by Nick, Gatsby becomes single-minded in getting her back and oblivious to anything that will weaken his fixation on Daisy. His unrestrained desire, which boils when he makes known his love for her in Tom’s presence and confronts her marrying Tom out of convenience, also dooms him.

The Great Gatsby is a novel about money and power. The power of Gatsby as a character is inextricably linked with his wealth. From the very beginning Fitzgerald sets up his eponymous hero as an enigma. But soon Nick realizes what Gatsby has told him about his past is mere fabrication. The reality of situation is that Gatsby is a man in love. He creates his mystique and personality around rotten values, gives everything he has emotionally and physically to win Daisy back. With a decadent cynicism, the party-goers and the privileged—the guests who don’t know the host—cannot see beyond their enjoyment. What old aristocracy possesses in taste, however, it seems to lack in heart. Nick’s impression of his own cousin seems to foreshadow the downfall of Gatsby who is a victim of desperate love:

“I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.” [22]

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . .” [188]

People like Tom and Daisy, the East Eggers, have proven themselves careless, inconsiderate bullies who are inured to money’s ability to ease their minds that they never have to worry about hurting others. In Gatsby’s pain and depression, Nick coaxes him to leave for a week, saying “they [Daisy and Tom] are a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” [162] But Gatsby smiles the irresistible smile that Nick has described as having “faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.” [52]

“He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” [189]

The Great Gatsby is an American classics because it captures the intimation that the American dream has been corrupted by the sole, empty pursuit of money. The foresight and divination of the book, which reflects very sharply and accurately the materialistic world that we live in now, escalates it to the pantheon of classic literature. 216 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]