Tag Archives: F. Scott Fitzgerald

“The Rich Boy,” a Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

The writer as a boy.

The Writer as a Boy

Out of his collections of short stories, The Rich Boy (1926) is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best pieces. Today the tale might be called a short novella; it has also been deemed a psychological study of the advantaged. It is the story of a young man born into wealth and how he responds to love, relationships and issues of money and status within his upper-class, Fifth Avenue inner-circle.

Fitzgerald begins by depicting rich people almost as if they are a separate race – “they are different,” the narrator explains:

“They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are… Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.”

Fitzgerald made the art of characterization seem easy. He molds his characters quickly as if with a painter’s brush, so that I feel I know them perfectly. Their gestures, body-language and thought-processes flow smoothly from the palette, yet his people are not boring stereotypes. Indeed, Fitzgerald himself had this to say about characterization:

“Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing. That is because we are all queer fish, queerer behind our faces and voices than we want anyone to know or than we know ourselves.

 

Fitzgerald was among the writers and artists of the "Jazz Age," a term he invented himself.

Fitzgerald was among the writers and artists of the “Jazz Age,” a term he invented himself.

 
Fitzgerald was devoted to Zelda, though they had a distressing relationship.

Fitzgerald was devoted to Zelda, though they had a distressing relationship.

 

The main character in The Rich Boy, Anson Hunter, grows up having an English governess so that he and his siblings learn a certain way of speaking that resembles an English accent and is preeminent to middle and even upper-class American children. Thus, the people around him know he is superior – they know he is rich by just looking at him.

The tension of the story begins right away – with his fitful love for Paula, and an iffy engagement, tinged with the kind of alcoholism that deviously thwarts everything in sight. Anson is a man who lives in separate worlds during the glittering, glamorous, roaring 20’s, when everything seems impossibly affordable – big houses, flashy cars, Ritzy nights on the town. Yet, his stories take a turn, just as the Stock Market did at the dawn of the 1930s. Fitzgerald’s settings are bewitching. Today some of the vernacular might sound old fashioned, yet, the efficient punch of its delivery stands as a first-rate testament to the writer’s craft!

Everything about Anson creates tension. Even his wealth and his absolute capability cause apprehension. Then there is the awful hold that alcohol has on him and the maddening indecision it creates between Anson and a real commitment to Paula – or any woman. Finally, the way Anson goes about counseling all of the couples in his “circle” yet cannot maintain a lasting relationship of his own. This compulsive-will to verify himself as a moral, respectable, mature man of New York society by patching up difficulties in other marriages proves to be an irreparable flaw in Anson’s character. The conflict builds up to a sad denouement when Anson begins dutifully setting about putting an end to the illicit affair of his uncle’s wife, Edna. And when his machinations turn out badly, Anson takes no responsibility for the tragedy.

 
Ernest Hemingway wrote about his friendship with "Scott" in A Movable Feast, set in Paris.

Ernest Hemingway wrote about his friendship with “Scott” in, A Moveable Feast, set in Paris.

 

I want to like Anson even as I realize that underneath all of his glamour and devotion to high society and tradition of family posterity, he is really suffering inside with alcoholism. This handicap, or tragic flaw, gains my sympathy. However, Anson’s ultimate indecision in regards to commitment and real love, his hyper-vigilant need to interfere in the affairs of others, begins to strike me as infuriating – and of course, this very lapse in character adds to the tension of the story.

Fitzgerald’s propensity for describing a bar-scene at the Yale Club or the Plaza Hotel became thematic to his tales and, upon further reading, takes on a recurring vignette from one tale to the next. Yet, I find myself lapping up these settings that involve stylish bars and hotels, because they are so well articulated, from the clever dialogue at the bar with a bartender or drinking-companion, to the colorful yet moody renderings, to the inevitable infatuation with glamorous women and the way these motifs affect Fitzgerald’s heroes.

I think of Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast, throughout Fitzgerald’s short story; because, in Hemingway’s novel he describes Fitzgerald’s terrible weakness for alcohol. I also think of, The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham, perhaps because of its detached yet familial narrative style.

Fitzgerald, in a style all his own, offers shocks of unexpected sensitivity and wisdom, which seem somehow surprising. I almost worship the writer’s vocabulary and his way of forming a phrase, such as – “rapt holy intensity” when describing the lovers. Or Anson and Paula’s “emasculated humor:” I found this such an apt way of describing the initial repartee that occurs between two people who are falling in love inside their own profound, yet rather childish, bubble.

“Nevertheless, they fell in love – and on her terms. He no longer joined the twilight gathering at the De Soto bar, and whenever they were seen together they were engaged in a long, serious dialogue, which must have gone on several weeks. Long afterward he told me that it was not about anything in particular but was composed on both sides of immature and even meaningless statements…”

 

The writer pictured in Hollywood not long before his death at the age of forty-four.

The writer pictured in Hollywood not long before his death at the age of forty-four.

Fitzgerald was contracted to write screenplays for Hollywood at two separate stages of his career, though he contemptuously viewed it as “whoring.” The author inserts himself briefly, however lightly-concealed, into Anson’s life:

 

“…one (friend) was in Hollywood writing continuities for pictures that Anson went faithfully to see.”

Thus the interweaving of fiction and autobiography! The glamour and infamous history of the writer himself affects the impact of his tales; yet, whether a reader knows about the writer’s life or not, Fitzgerald’s works are treasures!

 

 

Fitzgerald’s Craft

F. Scott Fitzgerald had an economical way of including important detail in his stories: the who, what, where, why and when of storytelling that readers expect. Yet, Fitzgerald could be efficient while also maintaining melodic prose. A writer who wrote during extremely difficult, tragic times as well as during times of excess and extravagance, Fitzgerald seemed to be at the center of a worldly hub, and he had the drive and the energy to write about it in the genre of fiction.

In the newly discovered short story, Thank you For The Light, Fitzgerald consistently begins a paragraph with a fresh idea to keep the reader interested:

“Eastward, she had known her clientele chattily and had often been offered a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded. But she soon found that in her new district things were different.”

The story is about a woman, Mrs. Hanson, who works as a traveling saleswoman, selling lingerie to appointed buyers in her district. Mrs. Hanson’s initial challenge lies in the adjustment of being assigned to a different district. A smoker, it seems at first that Mrs. Hanson’s anxieties are all hinged around her, rather modest, habit of cigarette smoking. Utilizing this trope, Fitzgerald demonstrates the ways people falter from being rigid to casual and from intolerance to compassion. For example, Mrs. Hanson runs into a friend from her old district who tells her that the client she is about to see would never tolerate smoking. The friend points out that the younger men would not mind if a person smoked but an older man usually would detest it:

“…nobody who was in the war would ever object to anyone smoking.”

Compassion enters into the story: those who have experienced life’s horrors, as in a war, will have compassion, but a man who hasn’t experienced things beyond the mundane business world, will usually not be compassionate. Fitzgerald tugs at our human empathy and infuses the main character with vulnerability. To further win the reader’s approval, Mrs. Hanson’s character is always genuinely humble, politely conforming, using temperance and even gratitude. Fitzgerald applies nice detail in depicting a surprisingly young man, “the exception to the rule,” who disapproves of Mrs. Hanson’s cigarette.

“He seemed a pleasant young man but his eyes fixed with so much fascination on the cigarette that she was tapping on her thumbnail that she put it away.”

In a milieu of post war callousness alongside the march of progress on the mean streets, Mrs. Hanson suffers a spiritual crisis. She feels “a vague dissatisfaction,” no matter how successful her business calls have been, and she attaches this to the fact that she hasn’t been able to have a single puff of a cigarette. As she stands suddenly in front of a Catholic cathedral; “it seemed very tall,” and goes inside, she ponders over her smoking habit, “I’m getting to be a drug fiend,” and she wonders whether God would approve. It is here that we start to realize this isn’t all about cigarettes.

Inside the cathedral, Fitzgerald juxtaposes darkness and light, the tremendous height of the cathedral, inside and out, to Mrs. Hanson’s relative smallness and her remarkable humility, yet the writer brings into alignment the very essence of the Virgin Mary and Mrs. Hanson, herself. – the two women are alike:

“In her imagination, the Virgin came down, like in the play,The Miracle,

and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired,

just as she was.”

Though she is not Catholic or even particularly religious, Mrs. Hanson awakens, inside the cathedral of ever- burning candles, from her lucid nap to a kind of emancipation in the form of a very personal miracle.

Hence, Fitzgerald quickly and skillfully renders an epiphany with enough emotion and mystery to satisfy his readers!

(Thank you For The Light appeared in The New Yorker, Aug. 6th, 2012)

“Thank You For The Light”