Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1062
In "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (1922) by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a child is born into nineteenth-century Baltimore an old man. His father, a proper gentleman of means, encounters first the disgruntled doctor, then the horrified nurses, and finally, his son, a small but wrinkled old man dangling his feet over the side of his crib. Mr. Button cannot accept that this old man is his son Benjamin. Rather than buy him the cane his son requests, Mr. Button cuts off his son's long, white beard and has a tailor outfit him in a suit with short pants suitable for a young boy.
The plot develops chronologically. People say the new addition to the family resembles the grandfather, who is initially upset by the sentiment. The grandfather soon recognizes a kindred spirit in his newly-born but aged grandson and together they enjoy sitting together, ruminating over the day's happenings.
Even though Benjamin sneaks his father's fine cigars and reads encyclopedias, Mr. Button stands firmly against the reality of his son's condition as if it were a position, something to be disagreed with. He enrolls him in kindergarten but Benjamin exacerbates the teacher by napping at the wrong times. Mr. Button is forced to take his son out of school. Benjamin tries to accommodate his father by playing with boys his age but he takes care to avoid the rougher sports in fear his bones will fracture and refuse to heal.
By the time Benjamin is twelve years old, he begins to notice that his white hair has gone dark gray and fewer wrinkles line his face. Overall his physical condition is improving. He is getting younger. His parents hardly notice. They have become used to him and his father continues to insist the situation is normal. When Benjamin, who still looks very much like an older man, insists on wearing long pants—a coming-of-age event reserved for fourteen-year-old boys—Mr. Button refuses, saying that Benjamin, at twelve, is not old enough. The two agree to compromise. If Benjamin continues to dye his gray hair black, play more often with boys his own age, not wear his eyeglasses, and leave his cane at home, his father will permit him to wear long pants.
Unlike the father, who cannot accept the reality of Benjamin's physical appearance, the outside world is presented as being capable of responding to nothing other than Benjamin's physical appearance. Even though Yale accepts Benjamin's application for college entrance, the university refuses to accept him in person because he looks old enough to be his own father. The college registrar tells him Harvard should have him, a humorous allusion to the on-going rivalry between the two universities. The other freshman harangue and harass the disappointed Benjamin who asserts, "I am eighteen years old."
At twenty, Benjamin begins working alongside his father at Roger Button & Company, Wholesale Hardware. The father and son now look like brothers and regularly attend dances together. Prior to one dance, Benjamin experiences love at first sight when he views a young woman, Hildegarde—"beautiful as sin." She appreciates a man of fifty, she tells Benjamin, because at fifty a man is no longer full of himself but not yet too old. Benjamin says nothing to her of his true age. The two choose each other based on looks alone, marry, and manage to enjoy several years during which Benjamin doubles the family fortune.
The older in years Benjamin becomes, the younger his body becomes. Unfortunately, as his wife ages, he begins to lose interest in her and this disturbs him. Whereas her youthful energy once inspired their relationship, now she is the tired one who would rather stay at home. He seeks and finds solace in the service of his country when he enlists as a captain and charges off to fight in the Spanish-American War.
Benjamin returns looking even younger and a hero, and his wife Hildegarde finds him disgraceful. Like Benjamin's father, his wife sees his continual youthing as something he ought to be able to control. She demands that he have the decency to stop. Benjamin turns to socializing, particularly dancing with younger wives, and people in the town begin to pity him, married to an older woman. Socializing takes up more and more time, so he happily leaves more and more of the business to his own son, Roscoe. Indeed, at this point Benjamin and Roscoe appear to be the same age.
Benjamin's father, who has never accepted Benjamin, now admires his son's youth and prowess.
Benjamin applies and is accepted to Harvard University where he excels due in part to his maturity in years but especially to his success at football. As a freshman, he is a star. Unfortunately, his body continues to grow smaller and slighter. By the time he is a senior, classmates mistake him for a freshman, which he finds humiliating.
By the time Benjamin graduates from Harvard, his wife has retired to Italy. Benjamin moves in with his son, who finds Benjamin's youthful appearance embarrassing. Roscoe insists Benjamin refer to him as "uncle" both in public and in private.
No longer needing to shave, Benjamin nevertheless responds to a re-enlistment call from the United States army. Based on his service in the war, he receives a promotion to brigadier-general. Excited, he has a uniform made to order, complete with proper insignia. Once on the army base, however, Benjamin is again humiliated when no one believes he is anything but a brazen young boy. When his son is sent for to escort him home, Benjamin cries.
Soon, Roscoe's son is born. At the time, Benjamin appears physically to be ten years old. Everyone likes him but Roscoe, who finds his father a source of frustration. He, like Mr. Button and Hildegarde, insists Benjamin behave normally, taking Benjamin's predicament personally.
When his grandson begins kindergarten, Benjamin attends alongside him. When the grandson moves on to first grade, though, Benjamin must stay behind. He enjoys the simple activities but soon can no longer understand what is expected of him. Frightened by the bigger children, he is taken out of school and becomes the charge of Nana, the nurse. He spends his days playing in the nursery and at the park.
His memory fades along with his age as he slips into darkness, leaving even the thought of warm milk behind.
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