The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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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.

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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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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943

AUTHOR: Fitzgerald, F. Scott; DeFilippis, Nunzio; Weir, Christina

ARTIST: Kevin Cornell (illustrator); Bryn Ashburn (letterer)

PUBLISHER: Quirk Books

FIRST BOOK PUBLICATION: 2008

Publication History

“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” began as a satirical work of fantasy written by American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early 1920’s. Although he was proud of it, Fitzgerald struggled to find a willing publisher because the story departed so dramatically from his more popular flapper stories. Nevertheless, Colliers magazine accepted “Benjamin Button” for its May 27, 1922, issue, and the story also appeared in the “Fantasies” section of Fitzgerald’s anthology Tales of the Jazz Age (1922).

The work largely disappeared into obscurity after the 1920’s, but once David Fincher’s intentions to adapt the tale for film became known, readers and scholars alike developed new interest in the strange piece. In 2007, Quirk Books opted to revitalize the story as a richly illustrated graphic novel, and editorial director Jason Rekulak contracted Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir to adapt Fitzgerald’s text, Kevin Cornell to create the illustrations, and Bryn Ashburn to handle the typesetting and design. The book’s release was coordinated to occur just two months before the release of Fincher’s movie in December, 2008. As of 2011, the graphic novel version of Fitzgerald’s story had yet to be released in a paperback edition.

Plot

The graphic novel adaptation of Fitzgerald’s short story faithfully re-creates the tale of Benjamin Button, a man born in 1860 with the body and mind of a seventy-year-old man. The most important things in the world to Roger Button, Benjamin’s father, are family and social standing, so the anomalous appearance of his son shocks and offends him. As a result, young Benjamin’s parents force him to live the first fourteen years of his life in disguise, playing the role of a youth, with regular shaves, dyed hair, and ludicrous outfits, despite his adult vocabulary and penchant for cigars.

Benjamin’s unnatural appearance is just part of his abnormality: The man actually ages in reverse. As the story progresses, his health improves, his stoop disappears, and his hair grows gradually darker. Anxious to leave home and to curry favor with his distant father, Benjamin travels to Yale as a freshman, but he is kicked out for being too old. Instead, he begins working at his father’s hardware store and gradually enters the high-society life of upper-class Baltimore.

At a lavish party, Benjamin meets Hildegarde Moncrief, a wealthy socialite. Although the two are roughly the same age, Benjamin falls for her physical youth and beauty, and Hildegarde is enamored by the maturity of a man she assumes is fifty. The two soon marry, and their perceived age difference causes a scandal. Unfortunately, because the couple married for superficial reasons, the romance quickly dies, as Hildegarde begins to age visibly and as Benjamin enjoys physical invigoration as his body continues to grow younger.

Bored with his wife and having no real relationship with his son, Roscoe, Benjamin enlists in the army to fight in the Spanish-American War. As a soldier, he excels, rising quickly through the ranks and receiving a medal. Once back in Baltimore, the dashing war hero finds opportunity to golf, dance, and cavort with younger women, much to the disgust of his son, as the two now look roughly the same age. Finally, Benjamin is able to attend college, but this time he chooses Harvard. As a star football player, the seemingly young man enacts his revenge on Yale by defeating their football team almost single-handedly.

Tragically, however, Benjamin’s body continues to grow younger. He is forced to leave college without graduating, and his youthful appearance prevents him from reenlisting to fight in World War I. Before long, he must live with his son Roscoe, who tells everyone he is Benjamin’s uncle. As he ages younger and younger, Benjamin is soon at the mercy of his nurse, a caring woman who treats him with love and compassion. The reverse aging fails to stop, and eventually the infant Benjamin simply fades from existence.

Characters

Roger Button, Benjamin’s father, is a prim and proper Baltimore business owner who consistently appears in a dark suit and tie and who sports long whiskers and a mustache. Although he is the first developed character to appear in the novel, he ends up playing an adversarial role, particularly in his refusal to acknowledge Benjamin’s curious condition or to accommodate his special needs.

Benjamin Button, the protagonist, is a tall man with a long, gaunt face, but his physical appearance changes drastically over the course of the novel as he gradually grows younger. Initially, the white-haired Benjamin has a long beard; later, he sports thick black hair and a pencil-thin mustache; and finally, he takes on the appearance of a young boy, a toddler, and a baby. The entire plot revolves around Benjamin, whose strange appearance and reverse aging constitute the essence of the story.

Hildegarde Moncrief, Benjamin’s wife, is initially depicted as a young, beautiful blond woman. As the story progresses, she ages noticeably, becoming heavier with deep lines about her face. She represents the shallow, superficial perspective of society, as she loves Benjamin only when he appears to be old, and he loves her only when she appears young.

Roscoe Button, Benjamin’s son, looks exactly like his father, although aging in reverse. Roscoe rejects his father because of his condition and only reluctantly cares for Benjamin when he grows too young to care for himself.

Artistic Style

Because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a period piece, illustrator Kevin Cornell strives for historical accuracy and a sense of realism. He painstakingly reproduces clothing, accessories, hairstyles, architecture, and famous landmarks with precise, if sometimes impressionistic, detail.

Cornell’s illustrations are primarily red-and-black sepia-toned watercolors that replicate the monochromatic look of early photographs and daguerreotypes. This approach not only gives the work a dated feel but also underscores the book’s themes of time, age, and aging. Many of the panels, especially the portraits, are overtly framed to resemble photographs, with wide, rectilinear spacing and gutters, making the book seem like a scrapbook or family album. In fact, each of the eleven chapter title pages consists of just such a formalized portrait—almost always of Benjamin depicted at the age he will be in the following chapter—with no text or written title; these progressively younger images offer visual cues regarding each chapter’s focus and content. In addition, Cornell’s trademark loose, easy style and the washed-out quality of the watercolors give the entire book a dreamlike quality, as if the images are faint memories or even hearsay. Near the end of the work, the illustrations become increasingly less defined, symbolizing and re-creating Benjamin’s own fading existence.

As the story relies exclusively on the verbatim words of Fitzgerald’s short story, designer Ashburn chooses to present the graphic novel’s printed text in formal, blocked paragraphs in a serif typographical font, and these blocks are often offset from the illustrations by rectangular, colored frames. Although dialogue appears in traditional conversation bubbles, it too is rendered typographically, albeit in an almost maroon color. The formal approach to reproducing the source material underscores the literary origins of the written text.

Themes

Despite the story’s rather sad ending, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is actually a fanciful satire condemning selfishness, vanity, and superficiality. As an aristocratic businessman with a refined family tree, Roger Button’s chief concern is his appearance to others, and his family must adhere to rigid codes of social propriety. Ironically, however, he stubbornly refuses to address Benjamin’s physical appearance, focusing instead on maintaining a superficial facade.

Thus, another, related theme in Fitzgerald’s tale is the difference between appearance and reality. For example, Hildegarde focuses on surface alone, misreading who Benjamin is on the inside because of how he looks on the outside. Benjamin is hardly any better; his initial interest in Hildegarde is similarly based on her looks, and he throws her aside when she begins to age visibly. Later in the story, the military, Harvard officials, and even Benjamin’s own son treat him as nothing more than a child, despite his many years of wisdom and experience. In the end, Benjamin must become a child because he looks like one.

Finally, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button addresses the bittersweet realities of aging and mortality. Benjamin may begin his life a seasoned, intelligent man, but he cannot take care of himself because of his infirmities. At the end of his life, Benjamin is back to being helpless, now a physical infant who needs a nurse to look after him, feed him, and change his diapers. Most of Benjamin’s life is prosperous, however: He marries, has a child, survives war, and becomes successful in business and football.

Impact

As adapters, DeFilippis and Weir were obviously influenced by Fitzgerald’s original short story; in fact, all the written text in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A Graphic Novel comes directly from that literary antecedent. However, Fitzgerald also drew upon preexisting source material, an idea created offhandedly by renowned novelist Mark Twain. In the table of contents from Tales of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald wrote that the concept for Benjamin Button was “inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.”

This curious idea of a man aging backward has been echoed and imitated, if not outright stolen, by a number of other writers, including Gabriel Brownstein (the 2002 story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W), Andrew Sean Greer (the 2004 novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli), and Fincher (the 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Since the publication of the graphic novel version of Fitzgerald’s classic literary text, a number of other such books have appeared on the market, in particular, graphic novel adaptations of Shakespearean plays, Jane Austen novels, and classic gothic fiction. Although the proliferation of such “literary” graphic novels likely has no direct connection to DeFilippis and Weir’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s story, a new trend in graphic novels has nonetheless emerged.

Films

  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Directed by David Fincher. Warner Bros. Pictures/Paramount Pictures, 2008. This film adaptation stars Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button and Cate Blanchett as Daisy. The film differs from the novel dramatically: In addition to shifting the time period about fifty years into the future, almost all crucial plot points and characters were changed. In fact, the name of the title character and the conceit of his aging backward are the only plot elements retained from the original Fitzgerald story.

Further Reading

  • Austen, Jane, Nancy Butler, and Sonny Liew. Sense and Sensibility (2011).
  • Cornell, Kevin, and Matthew Sutter. The Superest: Who Is the Superest Hero of Them All? (2010).
  • Shakespeare, William, et al. Romeo and Juliet, the Graphic Novel: Original Text (2009).

Bibliography

  • Cornell, Kevin. “The Curious Job of Kevin Cornell.” Bearskinrug, August 13, 2008. http://www.bearskinrug.co.uk/_articles/2008/08/13/curious_job.
  • Publishers Weekly. Review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A Graphic Novel, by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. 255, no. 39 (2008): 65.
  • Russell, Benjamin. Review of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A Graphic Novel, by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. School Library Journal 55, no. 1 (2009): 135.
  • Sheehy, Donald G. Afterword to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: A Graphic Novel, by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2008.
  • Curious Case of Benjamin Button, TheCritical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents & Underground Classics Bart H. Beaty Stephen Weiner 2012 Salem Press

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