The Beautiful and Damned Themes
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The epigraph of the novel — "The victor belongs to the spoils," which is a paraphrase of Anthony Patch's advice to a friend — sets the tone and thematic thrust of the novel. While a number of themes have been identified in this long novel, there is general agreement that it is a condemnation of American society and, to a degree, life in general. The gloomy atmosphere of the work underscores the severe, almost tragic, vision of the wasted lives of the principal characters: Anthony Patch and his wife, Gloria Gilbert Patch.

A prominent theme, about which some critics disagree, seems to be the revolt of youth against the status quo. When the text was first published, in serial form, in The Metropolitan Magazine, the subtitle, which Fitzgerald probably either wrote or approved, was "A Searching Novel of the Revolt of American Youth." While some readers wonder what, exactly, it is that Anthony and Gloria, in their self-destructive behavior, are revolting against, the ambience of rebellion against the society in which they live (even as they take every advantage of it that they can) may be felt as the text offers repeated ironic comments on the way America functions — and, inasmuch as the period of the plot (roughly, from 1910 to 1920) was one of some turmoil, the resistance appears somewhat justified. Certainly, capitalism, as represented by Anthony's wealthy grandfather, Adam Patch, comes under fire, both from the rebellious grandson (who rejects the high moral stance taken by his closest relative) and from the author, who treats the lofty ambitions of Adam with some scorn.

As to the theme of the meaningless of life, debate also has developed, some readers believing that Fitzgerald did not really accept this cynical attitude (and a character, Richard Caramel, who is thought to represent the author, declares near the end of the novel that he definitely believes in "moral values"). However, there is ample evidence that the main characters either do firmly believe that there is no significance in life — Gloria at one point openly says so — or use such a claim as an excuse to live essentially useless lives (it has been noted that the "Damned" in the title indicates Fitzgerald's belief that such people are spiritually "lost").

While Anthony and Gloria at first live in "high society" and eventually, because of improvidence and laziness, are forced to leave it, some opinion holds that the novel is a condemnation of the imprudent, self-serving...

(The entire section is 905 words.)