Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Emptiness of Fame
One of the story's two main characters, Adrian Smith, is a somewhat famous playwright. We are told at the beginning of the story that he is
not a very great celebrity, but important enough to be bathed in flashlight by a photographer who had been given his name, but wasn't sure what his subject did.
A short while later, a minor character by the name of Stacomb approaches Adrian and says, "We all know your—your plays or whatever it is, and all that—and we wondered if you wouldn’t like to come over to our table." Both of these instances demonstrate that many people only pay attention to Adrian because of his fame. Had he not been famous, neither the photographer nor Stacomb would have paid him any attention.
Furthermore, although the exact nature of their relationship is left ambiguous, we are given the sense that Betsy D'Amido also only cares about Adrian because of his fame and wealth (and perhaps his looks). Certainly she does not care for Adrian as Eva does, a fact that is made apparent at the end of the story, when Betsy goes to look for her fiancee and Fitzgerald tells us, "She passed gracefully along the corridor and out of their life."
Finally, it should be noted that Fitzgerald may have given his protagonist the ubiquitous last name "Smith" to emphasize that he is not special. Smith is an incredibly common name, and Fitzgerald uses it to signal the unremarkable nature of his protagonist. The only thing that elevates Adrian, Fitzgerald suggests, is fame. Unfortunately, however, fame is a vapid experience. Only Adrian's children and his wife, Eva, look beyond his superficial status and care for him in a manner that is truly affectionate.
The Conflation of Wealth and Happiness
The Smiths are a wealthy couple and often seem to conflate wealth and happiness, at least at the beginning of the story. This is made apparent when Eva says,
"You know, I made up my mind when you gave me my birthday present last week"—her fingers caressed the fine seed pearls at her throat—"that I'd try never to say a mean thing to you again."
Here, Fitzgerald implies that many "mean" words have passed between Adrian and Eva in the past, but Eva suggests that Adrian's gift of the pearl necklace has helped to fix that problem.
In other words, Eva seems to believe—or at least to want to believe—that expensive gifts and other signs of wealth will literally bring her happiness. This belief, however, quickly falls apart. Within twenty-four hours, the couple is feuding because Eva believes Adrian is having an affair (he is, although readers are never told exactly how far he takes his relationship with Betsy D'Amido). Furious at her husband's transgressions, Eva drunkenly throws her pearls into the sea:
Deliberately she unclasped her pearl necklace, lifted it to her lips—for she knew that with it went the freshest, fairest part of her life—and flung it out into the gale.
In this moment, Eva seems to realize the folly of her error, at least in part. She still cherishes the pearls—she describes them as representing the "freshest, fairest part of her life"—but she also seems to realize that they will not bring her happiness. In order to be truly happy, Fitzgerald suggests, she must mend her relationship with Adrian.
The Upper Class's Insensitivity to the Lower Classes
Like the conflation of wealth with happiness, the upper class's insensitivity to the lower classes is a common theme in many of Fitzgerald's works, and it is especially ugly in "The...
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Rough Crossing." The most important and disturbing instance of this idea manifests itself in the relationship between Eva and Steward Carton. One night, while angry at Adrian, Eva returns to her room to find Carton, who is unnamed at this point, sick in her bed. Rather than take pity on the poor man, Eva feels only anger and revulsion:
A steady pitch, toss, roll had begun in earnest and she felt no sympathy for the steward, but only wanted to get him out as quick as possible. It was outrageous for a member of the crew to be seasick.
Completely unsympathetic, Eva is repulsed by the man's sickness and barely seems to recognize his humanity. She goes so far as to say, "I was all right and it made me sick to look at him. I wish he'd die."
Later, the man does die—of appendicitis—and it is implied that his death is partially Eva's fault. While the doctor attempts to care for the sick man, Eva makes a drunken scene, and resources that could have been used to save the man's life are instead deployed to pacify her unruly behavior. The morning after the man's death, we finally learn his name: James Carton. Significantly, this information has been withheld until Eva is able to recognize the man's humanity.