As the title “The Beautiful and Damned” suggests, Fitzgerald takes a skeptical view of beauty. His critique of beauty follows the conventions of nineteenth-century realist authors, such as George Eliot and Gustave Flaubert, who criticized beauty for distracting from more important societal issues, like poverty. Published in 1922, The Beautiful and Damned integrates the realists’ unease about beauty into a depiction of twentieth-century American high society. The socialites at the story’s center become so preoccupied with the material beauty that governs the lives of Jazz-Age elites that they lose track of what it means to live moral, productive lives.
By incorporating references to Plato’s Symposium into the novel, Fitzgerald folds the philosophical discourse of beauty into his rendering of Anthony and Gloria’s misadventures in high society. The Symposium, a classical work that has influenced many writers on the subjects of love and beauty, tells the tale of a dinner party among several great thinkers. Over the course of the evening, each thinker offers an opposing viewpoint on love and desire. Ultimately, Plato’s text is ambivalent about the morals of loving beautiful objects. Fitzgerald structures his novel around this ambivalence, gradually moving from an optimistic to a pessimistic outlook on beauty. In the early days of marriage, Gloria tells Anthony uncertainly, “mother says that two souls are sometimes created together and – and in love before they’re born.” The idea that love is the divine reunion of two souls comes directly from Aristophanes’ speech in The Symposium. Like the follow-up speeches in Plato’s text, both Gloria’s hesitation and the laugh with which Anthony responds undermine Gloria’s suggestion that their attraction is divinely ordained. What’s more, the central chapter of The Beautiful and Damned is entitled “Symposium.” This chapter title not only references Plato’s work, but also places it at the heart of Fitzgerald’s novel. The uncertainty about beauty that characterizes The Symposium is thus central to the novel’s philosophical arc. However, the ambivalence of the chapter “Symposium” contrasts with the more certainly pessimistic title of the novel as a whole. Gloria and Anthony’s beauty, and their moneyed insulation from more practical concerns, “damns” them to yield to their attraction to each other and to the image of wealth. Their marriage grows ever-more unstable, both emotionally and financially, as they attempt to supplement the ugliness of their relationship with a second residence and other beautiful objects of excess.
The insidiousness of beauty hinders the characters’ ability to behave admirably, as both Anthony and Gloria conflate self-worth with their own ever-fading attractiveness instead of with moral goodness or societal contribution. Having failed to achieve fame as a young writer, Anthony reflects that marrying Gloria will make him feel young and more handsome than ever. However, youth and handsomeness cannot endure the way a marriage or a career must. Anthony fails to achieve a productive career or a successful marriage because he fundamentally misunderstands the moral commitment each requires. Gloria’s concern for her personal beauty stunts her career, as well. Instead of pursuing her goal of acting, she spends her youth wishing she were even younger and flirting with the idea of what might have been had she married film producer Joseph Bloeckman. By the time she decides to audition for an acting role, she is already too old to play her dream role of leading lady. She begins obsessively using face creams in the hope that they will reverse the aging process, but her efforts are too little, too late. Though early on Anthony and Gloria imagine the possibility of children, Gloria comes to fear motherhood as a “menace to her beauty.” Gloria’s maternal ambivalence constitutes a bold statement in the context of early 20th-century America. The elite class, which allows ladies like Gloria to hold domestic roles rather than working, is diminishing in power. Gloria relishes her own beauty over motherhood, which many around her would consider not only the moral duty of all women, but also part of her social duty to conserve the American aristocracy. Her preoccupation with her beauty thus contributes to what Fitzgerald depicts as the downfall of her own social class.
Gloria and Anthony’s obsessive desire to be beautiful and to possess beautiful things is symptomatic of their elite position in society. Although they squander their wealth, they belong to a social class that promises them a life of beauty and leisure. The fact that they have not been conditioned to worry about more pressing issues, such as earning enough money to buy food or to pay for their education, leaves them vulnerable to the obsessiveness beauty can inspire in the onlooker. The America Fitzgerald depicts places such a premium on beauty that gifted young people spend their lives as narcissists and magpies, not only neglecting social realities, but also destroying much of what they touch.
Beauty and Self-Sabotage ThemeTracker
Beauty and Self-Sabotage Quotes in The Beautiful and Damned
In 1913, when Anthony Patch was twenty-five, two years were already gone since irony, the Holy Ghost of this later day, had, theoretically at least, descended upon him. Irony was the final polish of the shoe, the ultimate dab of the clothes-brush, a sort of intellectual “There!” – yet at the brink of this story he has as yet gone no further than the conscious stage.
One of those men devoid of the symmetry of feature essential to the Aryan ideal, he was yet, here and there, considered handsome – moreover, he was very clean, in appearance and in reality with that especial cleanness borrowed from beauty.
“Portrait of a Siren”
While it seemed to him that the average débutante spent every hour of her day thinking and talking about what the great world had mapped out for her to do during the next hour, any girl who made a living directly on her prettiness interested him enormously.
“…[Dick] says the biography of every woman begins with the first kiss that counts, and ends when her last child is laid in her arms…He says unloved women have no biographies – they have histories.”
Her eyes appeared to regard him out of many thousand years: all emotion she might have felt, all words she might have uttered, would have seemed inadequate beside the adequacy of her silence, ineloquent against the eloquence of her beauty—and of her body, close to him, slender and cool.
In a moment he would call Tana and they would pour into themselves a gay and delicate poison which would restore them momentarily to the pleasurable excitement of childhood, when every face in a crowd had carried its suggestion of splendid and significant transactions taking place somewhere to some magnificent and illimitable purpose…Life was no more than this summer afternoon; a faint wind stirring the lace collar of Gloria’s dress, the slow baking drowsiness of the veranda…Intolerably unmoved they all seemed, removed from any romantic imminency of action. Even Gloria’s beauty needed wild emotions, needed poignancy, needed death…
She was at the top now and could see the lands about her as successive sweeps of open country, cold under the moon, coarsely patched and seamed with thin rows and heavy clumps of trees…The oppression was lifted now – the tree-tops below her were rocking the young starlight to a haunted doze. She stretched out her arms with a gesture of freedom. This was what she had wanted, to stand alone where it was high and cool.
Then he found something that made him stop suddenly and sit down on one of the twin beds, the corners of his mouth drooping as though he were about to weep. There in a corner of her drawer, tied with a frail blue ribbon, were all the letters and telegrams he had written her during the year past. He was suffused with happy and sentimental shame.
“I'm not fit to touch her,” he cried aloud to the four walls. “I'm not fit to touch her little hand.”
Nevertheless, he went out to look for her.
This was her twenty-ninth birthday, and the world was melting away before her eyes…
“Oh, my pretty face,” she whispered, passionately grieving. “Oh, my pretty face! Oh, I don’t want to live without my pretty face! Oh, what’s happened?”
Then she slid toward the mirror and, as in the test, sprawled face downward upon the floor – and lay there sobbing. It was the first awkward movement she had ever made.
Turning about from the window he faced his reflection in the mirror, contemplating dejectedly the wan, pasty face, the eyes with their crisscross of lines like shreds of dried blood, the stooped and flabby figure whose very sag was a document in lethargy. He was thirty-three-he looked forty. Well, things would be different.