On the surface a study in failure, The Beautiful and Damned might more accurately be said to be a study of the atmosphere of failure. Through chapter after chapter, one finds Anthony and Gloria overwhelmed by nothing more substantial than the depressing, claustrophobic ambience of the world in which they find themselves. They are constantly fleeing places—their apartment, their summer house, parties—trying to escape their own emotions and sense of frustration. Similarly, they escape into alcohol, fleeing the sense of desperation and failure that surrounds them like an ever-growing shroud.
The thrust of the novel is blunted by Fitzgerald’s ambivalence. At times, Anthony is portrayed as an admonitory example of the man without purpose, a representative figure of his generation. At other times, he is more sympathetically portrayed as a man who will not compromise with a brutal and meretricious world. The focus of Fitzgerald’s criticism shifts correspondingly. In the end, the reader is moved by Anthony and Gloria’s pathos rather than by their tragedy, and the moral message of the novel is shortchanged by the frailty of its underlying sentiment.