What if Romeo and Juliet did not commit suicide at the height of their mutual passion?
Knowing what I know of Fitzgerald, it’s hard for me to disassociate any love interests from Zelda; and, because I cannot disassociate Zelda from the love interest, I cannot disassociate the protagonists from Fitzgerald himself.
The effect this has on my reading of The Beautiful and Damned is the same as a first time reading of Romeo & Juliet. Trust fund teens pursue romanticized love that ostracizes that from friends and family and ends in their deaths. Except, in The Beautiful and Damned, they suffer a fate worse than death; a living death.
The book is split into 3 parts and follows a decade in the lives of Gloria and Anthony. Gloria is the young and beautiful blonde who’s pursued by men with fiery passions; she gives out kisses and then grows bored and douses her lovers’ flames faster than a cat loses interest in a new toy. Having always been beautiful, she’s never been disagreed with. She’s used to people moving mountains for her and has never struggled.
Anthony Patch is the heir to the great Adam Patch who worked and obtained a fortune. As heir to that fortune, Anthony is well aware he will never need to work and becomes something of a romantic egotist. He doesn’t “write” but believes he could be the next great writer while others (like his friend, Richard Caramel) continue to work on their craft and find success.
Of course… Anthony has a point. In an extraordinarily conceited conversation, Anthony offhandedly mentions the Chevalier O’Keefe:
“It’d be idiotic to be overconfident. That’s what ruined the Chevalier O’Keefe.”
“Who was he?”
“A creature of my splendid mind. He’s my one creation, the Chevalier.”
In case it’s not clear, Anthony is having one of his first conversations with Gloria and he mentions a fictitious character he made up with the same casualness someone today would mention Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. It’s a not-so-subtle lead in to talking about himself (which I’ve done in the past).
The Chevalier perfectly captures Anthony’s living demise as he’s a man of great wealth who continues to be distracted by the pursuit of women. Eventually, he gives up his money to become a celibate monk in a monastery. To complete his transformation, he must ascend to the second floor for “it was a rule at St. Voltaire’s that no monk could descend to the ground story of the monastery so long as he lived, but should exist in prayer and contemplation… no woman could enter the monastery; no monk could descend below the second story.”
And as the Chevalier rose, never to descend again, he paused on the staircase and looked out the window, admiring the beauty of nature and a life free from sex when, who should run by, but a young peasant girl who, thinking she’s in the middle of nowhere fixes a ribbon that broke on her stocking in the seeming privacy of nature… only to catch a the gaze, far off, of the Chevalier who, in leaning forward to steal a better look, tumbled out the window, “bound for the hard earth and eternal damnation.”
Although Fitzgerald’s anecdotal tale of this Chevalier is hysterical, this is quite literally a Grecian prologue to The Beautiful and Damned.
Anthony and Gloria play the dating “game” and struggle through the same angsty flirtations that haven’t changed in over a century. Eventually however, they’re wed, but the honeymoon is anything but joyous. They don’t communicate effectively, they don’t divide duties properly, Anthony’s interest in Gloria wanes, and Gloria continues to spend money like its an infinite resource.
The couple has problems and what started as a fiery affair turns into wildfire, burning bridges, friends, and innocent bystanders. Gloria, having never needed to work at anything due to her beauty, and Anthony being born with a silver spoon, simply means neither knows how to work at something and they burn to the ground until the sputtering embers die out.
Modern Retelling of Romeo & Juliet
It’s the worst kind of tragedy and genuinely has the same beats as Romeo & Juliet. The mighty Tibalt is played by Richard Caramel (cousin to Gloria) who continues writing and being successful and telling Anthony what to do while Anthony derides the man out of envy. Maury Noble plays Mercutio, friend to Anthony in all things… until Anthony’s rampant alcoholism pushes him out of the picture.
The fact is, Romeo & Juliet is exciting because there are no qualms — just love and passion. Fitzgerald brilliantly realizes that suicide (death) is the easy way out. For years, we’ve all known Romeo and Juliet had an infatuated romance — that had some reasonable longevity due to their disapproving parents.
But had no murder been involved, Romeo would’ve been disowned by his parents, as would Juliet. The two would struggle to make it on their own while their friends (Mercutio) and siblings (Tibalt) would tell them to make life changes to get them back on track, and would only be met with hostility and “don’t tell me how to run my life.”
Eventually, the duo would run out of funds, and realize that their passion was not worth it, but now… all they have left.
So often I see a season finale to TV shows end in birth, marriage, kids, or death (esoteric anecdote: milestones “Ross” illustrates in 1998’s Kissing a Fool). Yet… The Beautiful and Damned ends in tragedy. Not a “pop” tragedy… a lethal living tragedy. You would rather be dead than be Anthony Patch or Gloria Gilbert.
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