The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Literary Criticism and Significance

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

In a Social Science Journal article titled "Conceptual Conservatism: An Understated Variable in Human Affairs," conceptual conservatism is defined as "the cognitive tendency of human beings to cling to existing beliefs even after these beliefs have suffered decisive refutations." In Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," family and associates refuse to see beyond their own beliefs when it comes to perceiving Benjamin.

Even though Benjamin Button is an anomaly, born an old man, capable of mature thought and language, his family—specifically his father, wife, and son—treat him as if he were his chronological age. When he is newly born but with a long, white beard, and in need of a cane, the father insists on dressing him as a young boy and surrounding him with toys suitable for a baby.

At twenty, his wife assumes him to be fifty because he looks fifty years old. She expects him to age and when when he does not, instead of noticing the anomaly, she chides him on his stubborn attachment to rebel against the cultural norm as if he could control his own physical appearance. How he appears is of the utmost importance and she wants him to appear according to the sociocultural norm.

His son, even though he has grown up watching his father grow younger, expects his father to conform. Roscoe is embarrassed by what he sees as his father's unwillingness to fit in.

All three characters are attached to the sociocultural norm and therefore are rendered incapable of accepting Benjamin Button as he is.

We are expected to fit into sociocultural norms, Fitzgerald seems to be saying, and when we do not conform to sociocultural expectations, we are not recognized. Benjamin Button is never recognized. He is expected to behave as the norm expects him to behave, not as he is.

At the time the story was written, America was enjoying the Roaring Twenties, a time of economic optimism and greed that led to the Great Depression. In The Great Gatsbyalso by Fitzgerald, we see that the American Dream is an illusion, defying even financial success. Although Gatsby manages to wear fine fabrics, throw popular parties, and build a castle of a house, he cannot obtain what he wants most: love. Daisy, the woman of his dreams, belongs to a social class that he cannot earn admittance to, no matter how rich he becomes.

Conceptual conservatism insists that Daisy, even though she loves Gatsby, will see Gatsby not as the loving man he is but as an outsider incapable of earning membership in the privileged class. Fitzgerald explores conceptual conservatism as he juxtaposes characters who can only see through sociocultural expectations, no more, no less. Even though she can appreciate his taste and passion, like the characters in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Daisy is unable to accept Gatsby as the man he is. She can only accept him as he originally appears to her—a man of a lower class.

In "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Fitzgerald points the spotlight at the very human tendency to grasp on to erroneous perceptions encouraged by cultural expectations rather than seeing that which is really there.

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