Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
In her prologue, Milford writes of her own early fascination with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, whom she admired for their “special flair” and even for their doomed love and early deaths. Later, after finishing her research for this book, she came to see Zelda less romantically, as “the American girl...
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- Critical Essays
In her prologue, Milford writes of her own early fascination with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, whom she admired for their “special flair” and even for their doomed love and early deaths. Later, after finishing her research for this book, she came to see Zelda less romantically, as “the American girl living the American dream,” a dream that drove her to madness. Although Zelda was written for adult readers, it would be of particular interest to young adults, especially to young women. In the search for their own identities, they must decide to what extent they will permit themselves to be limited by the men they love.
While Milford admires much about F. Scott Fitzgerald, such as his sense of responsibility toward his wife and their daughter, she also sees the weaknesses in him that exacerbated Zelda’s problems. While it is clear that Zelda was spoiled by her parents and by a society that rewarded the kind of brainless, flirtatious frivolity that she exhibited as a teenager, it is also clear that she was deeply damaged after her marriage, when she was expected to suppress her own individuality in order to meet her husband’s needs. Milford shows no sympathy for Scott when he discourages Zelda from writing, sneering at her as a mere amateur, or when he forbids her to use incidents of their life together in her works, insisting that the material belongs to him. Milford also points out the injustice in Scott’s cutting whatever he wished from Zelda’s works, while he freely quoted her letters written to him from the sanatorium as part of his novel Tender Is the Night (1934). For the biographer, the ways in which Scott psychologically violated the woman whom he loved so deeply raises serious questions about the extent to which men expect to dominate the women with whom they are involved.
In Zelda, Milford also deals with the relationship between the demands of real life and the demands of genius. This conflict, too, is a dimension of the destructive relationship between Scott and Zelda. The creative impulse often is so overwhelming that nothing and no one can stand in its way. Viewed from that perspective, Scott’s behavior is somewhat understandable. Yet, although she probably lacked the level of talent that her husband possessed, Zelda also felt the need to create, and she was deeply frustrated when she was thwarted. At first, Zelda fulfilled her needs by acting out scenes on the stage of real life. Unfortunately, outraging society was not enough for the artist in her. She tried to paint; she tried to write. At the age of twenty-seven, she even tried to be a dancer. It is obvious that Zelda was as willing as Scott to sacrifice her personal life to the cause of genius; unfortunately, she lacked the talent to succeed or, perhaps, she had simply begun too late. Her story underlines the fact that the creative life is demanding for everyone; for a woman, it has always been doubly difficult.
In addition to viewing Fitzgerald as a wife and as a creative person, Milford sees her as a product of her time. She prided herself on being a flapper, an American girl of the 1920’s, when women had acquired freedoms their mothers had never been given. If the American Dream is defined as the right to pursue happiness, then women such as Zelda, as well as the men of their social set, seemed to be living the dream. Pleasure and luxury, fame and fortune—Zelda and Scott both pursued and possessed it all. The road that they chose, however, led them to alcoholism, madness, and death, not to happiness. By implication, this scholarly biography thus questions not only the customs of American society but its most basic tenets as well.