Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In much of his fiction, F. Scott Fitzgerald treated the real barriers lying beneath the illusion of access to opportunity. Henry Bradin, the philosophical spokesperson who labors amid New York City’s incongruous mix of glittering fantasies and bleak social realities, tells his sister, “The human race has come a long way . . . but most of us are throwbacks. The soldiers don’t know what they want, or what they hate, or what they like.” Like others in American literature since Mark Twain’s mobs, “They’re used to acting in large bodies, and they seem to have to make demonstrations.”

Fitzgerald understands social categories and knows that the type, “most” who are “throwbacks,” includes not only George Key and Gus Rose but also many near the top and certainly Edith Bradin, the recipient of the lecture. The privileged also move in crowds and demonstrate: Consider Philip Dean and Peter Himmel’s drunken prance, complete with placards—a hollow parody of the upsurging frustrations of society’s servants. Money isolates in their illusions the “most” who have it; only a few, Henry and perhaps Edith, combine some awareness and the power of position. They are potentially tragic. Jewel Hudson, arguably the most abused of all, though intelligent and sensitive, lacks the privilege to rise above the pathetic. Gordon Sterrett cannot bear reality; the others, high and low, have hardly glimpsed it.

Violent dislocation is imminent because all can walk through the marketplace and most can purchase baubles; happiness eludes them, however, and those who have acted as society’s servants are reaching for more in a blind way that does most damage to themselves. As pressure for access builds, however, means will be found to accommodate it, democratic or otherwise, by those who will tell the crowds “what they want” and “what they hate” and “what they like.” Democracy is failing, and renewal seems unlikely because society lacks the critical mass necessary to transform it.