Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 17, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

ben-buttonI haven’t seen the movie (and don’t plan to) but I thought it would be interesting to read the short story on which it is based.  Like many fairy tales it is based on an absurd premise, that is, that its hero is born prematurely aged, and ages backwards, becoming younger throughout his 70-odd years.  Fitzgerald uses this idea to poke fun at people overly concerned with appearances, and to warn against prejudice.

The Buttons hold ‘an enviable position, both social and financial, in ante-bellum Baltimore’  and from the moment of Benjamin’s birth his father is more concerned about the reactions of others than he is about either his wife’s or his new son’s. 

A grotesque picture formed itself with dreadful clarity before the eyes of the tortured man–a picture of himself walking through the crowded streets of the city with this appalling apparition stalking by his side.

He seems to believe that Benjamin has some control over his unorthodox ageing, and blames him repeatedly for the angst it causes, taking a perverse delight in dressing him inappropriately. 

The notion of dressing his son in men’s clothes was repugnant to him. If, say, he could only find a very large boy’s suit, he might cut off that long and awful beard, dye the white hair brown, and thus manage to conceal the worst, and to retain something of his own self-respect–not to mention his position in Baltimore society.

Eventually he chooses fancy dress for his son, and when Benjamin protests, he vindictively replies

You’ve made a monkey of me!” retorted Mr. Button fiercely. “Never you mind how funny you look. Put them on–or I’ll–or I’ll spank you.” He swallowed uneasily at the penultimate word, feeling nevertheless that it was the proper thing to say.

He refuses to accept his son’s condition, and insists on having him fed with baby food, giving him unsuitable toys, and sending him to kindergarten.  He mellows a little as Benjamin’s age begins to approximate his own, but is still primarily concerned to conceal the truth about him.

Benjamin’s wife doesn’t judge men for what they are either.  She has determined that men behave in particular ways according to their age, and that is that!

“I like men of your age,” Hildegarde told him. “Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to appreciate women.”

Benjamin felt himself on the verge of a proposal–with an effort he choked back the impulse. “You’re just the romantic age,” she continued–“fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be pale from overwork; 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.”

Alas for Hildegard, Benjamin is no more inclined to value people for their intrinsic worth, and when she ages, he loses interest…

There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him.

At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son, Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-coloured hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery–moreover, and, most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste.

She is just as conformist as everyone else:  “If you’ve made up your mind to be different from everybody else, I don’t suppose I can stop you, but I really don’t think it’s very considerate,” and their son, Roscoe is just the same.  He is profoundly embarrassed by his father who, as time goes by, reverts to babyhood.  This is probably the only contented time in his life for he does not remember the humiliations and rejections, but lives only for the present. 

This cautionary tale shows that Benjamin’s suffering is not unlike the suffering felt by anyone judged through prejudice rather than on merit. 

I read this book online at Daily Lit.


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