The Beautiful and Damned | Study Guide

F. Scott Fitzgerald

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The Beautiful and Damned | Themes


Class, Worth, and Value

Anthony and Gloria Patch belong to a different class than the other characters in the novel because they are wealthy, beautiful, and careless. These qualities are not depicted as noble. Instead, Fitzgerald carefully explores how these characteristics work separately and in combination to damn each of them. However, Fitzgerald seems keenly aware, and wishes to so enlighten his reader, of the difference between 18th- and 19th-century Americas. The former is the America of the Civil War, industry, and philanthropy. It was a time dominated by Adam Patch, his heroism, valor, and moral certitude. The latter has endured a very different type of conflict and has emerged scathed.

Although World War II (1939–45) has not yet begun at the start of the novel, Anthony Patch embarks upon his adulthood as a "man who was aware that there could be no honor and yet had honor, who knew the sophistry of courage and yet was brave." In this, he may appear like his grandfather but for this one difference: his grandfather's virtues were accompanied by actions; his, with money. Anthony and Gloria share values and interests that are centered on shallowness and materialism. Whatever moral flaws are obvious to the observer, Anthony and Gloria are clearheaded about what kind of people they are. Both know what they want from life, and this more so than romantic love or passion bonds them inescapably and sets them apart from the rest of the characters.


Anthony Patch is constitutionally unsuited for the various tasks he undertakes. Yet the one profession for which he might be fit, that of a writer, he scorns as beneath him, even as he watches his friend Dick Caramel make a good living at it. He seems to never consider the possibility that by engaging in it he might elevate the art, redeem himself in the eyes of his grandfather, and perhaps even alleviate his financial troubles.

Gloria likewise is without employment, having caught herself a husband and finding flirtations rather more dangerous now that marriage is no longer the end result. She has no need of the money, yet, unlike her husband, she longs for something to occupy her time and make good use of her, albeit limited, talent.

Through these two and their foils, Fitzgerald raises the question of what vocation a person should adopt when they have a choice. The moderately wealthy in a democratic society do not have the same rights and privileges as European aristocrats do. They cannot fritter their lives away in drinking, dancing, and fashion the way their continental brethren do because the family and social networks will not support it. America requires work. But what sort of work can one do when moderately well-off, reasonably well educated, and constitutionally delicate? All of the choices seem rather demeaning.

Nature of "Beauty" in the Café Society

In what is otherwise a real-world narrative, Fitzgerald briefly digresses early in The Beautiful and Damned to present a concept as a literal character. In Book 1, Chapter 1's "A Flash-Back in Paradise," he depicts a conversation between a godlike figure called "The Voice" and a personification of the attribute "Beauty." Fitzgerald begins this sarcastically humorous passage with a bit of whimsy about beauty being "born anew every hundred years" to make the point that the notion of beauty is defined differently in different times and places. Then he zeroes in on how it is regarded within the setting of upper-class America in the 1910s. In this particular instance, Beauty is told, she will appear as a "susciety gurl." The semiliterate misspelling of the term signals Fitzgerald's low opinion of the values held where she is headed. Never one for subtlety in this regard, he then has The Voice further explain that she will be a "ragtime kid, a flapper, a jazz-baby, and a baby vamp." And lest the reader still misses the point, Fitzgerald includes the exchange:

BEAUTY: (Placidly) It all sounds so vulgar.

THE VOICE: Not half as vulgar as it is.

The stage thus set, the reader is then presented with an example of "café society" (an era in the late 19th century when young people frequented fashionable cafés in Paris, London, and New York) alongside Beauty in the person of Gloria Patch. Although, as Fitzgerald makes clear, she is indeed physically attractive, her obsession with her appearance—along with her lack of interest in much else apart from high living—somewhat dims the gilding of her spectacle. Fitzgerald uses the character to present the values of the time and place as shallow and comically wrongheaded. When Gloria first tells Anthony that she is 22, she adds that she hates "getting old" more than anything in the world. As she approaches 24, she is in an "attractive but sincere panic" about aging. And when, on her 29th birthday, she is turned down for an acting role as a young wife but offered a screen test for the role of a "haughty rich widow," she collapses in grief.

The portrait is only semi-ironic. While Gloria is clearly shallow and self-centered, the novel's hero is attracted to her by her extraordinary beauty, as are many of the other characters. The society in which they live places a high premium on beauty. It's the one quality that puts people on the movie screen, makes them famous, and allows them to earn tremendous amounts of money. Gloria's director has no interest in whether she can act, only in how she looks on the screen. So in some sense, Gloria's obsession with beauty mirrors the value her society places on it.

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