F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the biggest writers ever. His The Great Gatsby is noted as one of the classics of literature. It is acknowledged as one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century. Not too many people are familiar with his ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ – or weren’t before Brad Pitt lead-star role in a movie of the same title. Just coming from a reading of the book and wow! I am not sure I have had such a good laugh in some time. The fluidity of Fitzgerald’s narrative just holds you captive. He tells his tale in the story-teller narrator format that seems to have disappeared. You read the story almost feeling the narrator in front of you reading the tale – or better, simply rendering it. There’s the premise that puts you into the historical sphere of the story: ‘1860…’ when it was the proper thing to be born at home. You find him gearing you up, letting you know how things would go: ‘I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself’…
We follow the eagerness of Mr. Roger Button whose wife has put to bed – wait for it [and Fitzgerald sure keeps you waiting building suspense through an agitated doctor, surprised nurses and all] – a man! Wow! Well, if you have watched the movie you have an idea. But trust me, that’s where it ends. The story is different from the movie in that the author colours his rendition with lots of humour, he holds you still with suspense. He keeps you guessing, builds adventure into the whole thing and just let’s you keep on reading. Now, in the story you find a man faced with the dilemma of a man-child! Yes, a seventy year old man. Hmm. Somehow things keep twisting along the way as certain events happen to thwart the narrative and make it an enjoyable read.
If you are a literary scholar, you would find much to ponder on. You can find post-colonialism and the like or something to quarrel about in the allusion to slaves and all. There’s the charged place where Roger Button wishes that his horrible son should have been black: ‘…for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black…’ That might signal a minus to some people. This is also because later we connote that more than just wishing the son was black because he thinks the son horrible, he wishes he could have used that occasion to let people know his son was more of a slave or worse, sell his son into slavery. You find this interpretation in the connection that brings the above stated quotation: ‘they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market – for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black…’
It would help anyone to note that this is just a showing to buttress the feelings of the time when blacks were slaves and the like. Such an emotion or wish would also be typical of a person of the time. As such, Fitzgerald was only being realistic.
The story also explores existentialism in several ways and a great touch of solipsism. It – the story – shows how several people look at things centred round their viewpoint alone. You find this in the lives of Mr. Roger Button, the general society and even Benjamin Button himself. You just discover that everyone seems to put existence around themselves. It is the way society views Benjamin at different points that gets you thinking. At some point, they see the weirdness of him and despise him. As he progresses, those same people that disdained him love him, then later repeat the cycle. He seems to also point out that in the end, we just phase out…
Somehow, Fitzgerald finds a way to couch unpleasantness in a way as not to make the reader displeased. Perhaps he knows that there is too much tragedy in the world and he shouldn’t make it worse by reminding his readers of it. That is on the one hand. On the other, he imbues realism into his work by not making a fairytale of his story but as earlier mentioned, couching the anguish shown at points. This he does in what many consider the death of Benjamin’s mother (you would note that she is not mentioned in the story). You would also discover this in the silent phasing away of Mr. Roger Button, the grandfather and some other characters. You might be tempted to think that they weren’t important which prompted the silence closure. A worthy point to counter that would be that even in some cases of our lead character, the author does the same thing.
Now, several people would see this as a weakness on his part. Some would ask, why would he leave the mother angle quiet? Some would further ask why the story of Benjamin’s wife is left quiet too. Matter of fact, some would build a case of feminism against Fitzgerald. Maybe this is where one would have to jump in to say the story is a SHORT story and cannot therefore carry the full tale of everyone. The phasing of the other afore mentioned gentlemen should also act as compensation of sorts.
You find also find great lines in the tale. Some romantic, some just to add to your knowledge. For those ladies who love older guys, there’s some big representation. This finds expression in Hildegaarde’s proclamation to Benjamin: ‘You’re just the romantic age…fifty. Twenty-five is too worldly-wise, thirty is apt to be pale from over work; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole cigar to tell, sixty is –oh, sixty is too near seventy but fifty is the mellow age. I love fifty’ [I can imagine the smiles on most men this age when they read this. Well, as long as they remain fifty, no problem. If they dare go further…]. You also come across such lines that remind you of our everyday situation in some coloured language. For instance, when there’s some love-lost between Benjamin and Hildegaarde, we are told: ‘She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.’ When there are rumours as to the origins of Benjamin, Fitzgerald says ‘the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.’ And for those people who think that publishing is easy or country specific or maybe limited to our time or something, we get this part: ‘Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes, which had been refused by nine prominent publishers.’ Yup, like yesterday, today and tomorrow, money works; money talks.
In all, Fitzgerald creates in his short story, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ a strangely fantastic realistic world that criticises the vanity of life. He gives another thought to the oft quoted Solomonic wisdom. So to say, he shows also the passing vanities of people and society. He shows the futility of most of our actions and gives hope too emphasising that nothing lasts forever. Of this final lesson, he shows things in two light: nothing lasts forever whether pleasant or unpleasant. Enjoy things as they are.
In such times, this is a lesson most of us can take home to bed. [Yawn*] Indeed…
You know, one could go on writing pages and pages of ideas inspired by that piece but let’s not make this writing longer than the paper [let’s not make the critique longer than the story ]… Not to mention, the sleep. Phew! That story had me reading and now writing this without interruption.
If you haven’t read it, what you waiting for? Find it here…
(First posted on http://sueddie.wordpress.com)