F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Tragic Autobiographer

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It is ironic that books that are driven by love can leave such a bitter taste in your mouth after finishing them. For all the parties that you can almost feel, for all the champagne that you can almost taste, it leaves you cold when they are revealed to be nothing more than façades; cardboard backdrops filling otherwise empty voids. For every romance that you are involved in and every friendship that you share it is a similarly melancholy experience to discover that the people who inhabit this society are shadows, with consciences that turn on a dime. 

Yet for all his sombre stories, there is something about F. Scott Fitzgerald that keeps you coming back. The vividness of his worlds are so instantly addictive and so romantically described that it feels as though you have been dropped into a moment in the roar of the 20s. Reading Fitzgerald’s work is comfortable, easy, and yet it is also deeply rooted in life. As the literary critic Edmund Wilson noted about Fitzgerald’s first book, “[Fitzgerald’s work] does commit every sin except the unpardonable sin: it does not fail to live.” Perhaps that is the key to his success a century on; the sense of life is retained in his writing even today.

This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and the Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon are more than great novels. For us in the 21st Century, especially in our current predicament, these tales of overindulgence, love and ambition are still fantasies of a dream. The 100 years spent since the 1920s has garnered the era an untouchable mythical status, and Fitzgerald’s novels feed into this sparkling narrative, however accurate they are. Equally, his books chronicle the author’s tragic life, and hidden amongst the glamour of his settings are conflicts which mirrored his own, which perhaps explains why his novels have been heralded for their authenticity, and why he has sometimes been called a facile writer. To do so, though, ignores the rare natural talent that Fitzgerald possessed.

It is undeniable though that Fitzgerald’s own experiences shaped his stories. It is said that every author puts a little of themselves into their books, but Fitzgerald made it no secret that he put his life wholeheartedly into his work. It is unsurprising then that, like many of his protagonists, he suffered.

Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born to a failed Aristocratic father in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Although Fitzgerald’s father had a title, they were looked down upon by their monied neighbours, who saw the family as outsiders, despite their relative wealth. Growing up, the boy had an almost neurotic obsession with becoming popular, which was all that stood between him and his desire to drop out of school. Eventually, his indifference saw him flunk out of Princeton University in 1917, where he had acquired numerous titles of his own for Literary social clubs. The same year though, Fitzgerald was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the army, although much to his regret he never saw any action: the armistice had been signed as he was about to board his ship to France.

Fitzgerald’s life influenced all aspects of his writing, but no part more than his love life. Ginevra King was the daughter of an Illinois banker, and having met her in Saint Paul at a party in Winter, he fell madly in love with her, a combination of her beauty and his self-proclaimed ‘heightened sensitivity to the promises of life’; he was a romantic. Coming from humble beginnings though, Fitzgerald was always oppressed by the class distinction which existed in society. Whoever it came from, whether it was from King’s father or friends, the sentence which Fitzgerald overheard would have a deep and permanent effect on him.

“Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” 

Naturally, their relationship fell through, and so unsurprisingly, Ginevra King is thought to be the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. In a way, the whole book is devoted to her. It is a fantasy of Fitzgerald’s – a ‘What If?’ scenario if, instead of being complacent and dejected, he had pursued King. What if he had worked his way up to become rich, would it have even mattered? It was the confession of an unrealised dream.

Fitzgerald was forced to examine his poverty again when he married Zelda Sayre, who had broken off their engagement before due to his financial instability. He was finally rewarded after releasing This Side of Paradise, and all of sudden, Fitzgerald was thrust into the life he had dreamt of. He was critically acclaimed, and a commercial success. He was finally recognized by the literary elite. This life of glamour did not last for long though, and during the 1930s, with F. Scott Fitzgerald drinking and Zelda suffering mental breakdowns, the life he had cultivated came crumbling down. Tender is the Night chronicled this period of the author’s life, and although it was financially unsuccessful, it is seen as his most raw and vulnerable novel.

Tender is the Night studies the relationship between Dr Richard Diver and his wife and former mental patient, Nicole. The great irony in the book is that for Nicole to truly recover, she has to leave her husband, however as their marriage continues to fail, Dick Diver himself becomes less refined and more prone to outbursts as his dependence on alcohol worsens. Overall, the book investigates to what extent love can be destructive, and how useless money is for helping with real issues and problems, both of which were complications that Fitzgerald had to face when his wife was admitted to a mental institution, and he was forced to reexamine his success.

Fitzgerald married again and moved to Hollywood to become a screenwriter, but he never returned to the heights of his career. He died at 44, having only written half of the book which would later be published as The Love of the Last Tycoon.

Throughout his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald would never manage to be like his contemporaries. His life had been too different. There is a unique dualism in his books; that he acknowledges the lack of substance easy money brings, and yet wants it more than anything else – save love. Also exclusive to Fitzgerald is his perspective; as the author himself said, “I write from a place of failure.”

He is able to see both sides of the polarising era—the vast wealth and the desperate poverty which existed in parallel to one another.

Each book represents a different moment in Fitzgerald’s life, a snapshot of his deepest desires, and of his most crippling insecurities. More than that though, many of the characters which inhabit his worlds are embodiments of different Fitzgeralds. In his most famous novel, Jay Gatsby is the self-reflection of the brokenhearted and older writer, whilst the younger, more optimistic Nick Carraway is the manifestation of what the author believed he was like in his youth. So, to truly understand his books, you must first truly understand the man behind them. However, after doing so, you realise that Fitzgerald was not an author, but an autobiographer.