Story Playlist 7: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (1922) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous short story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” is a work of magical realism, though it was written before that critical term came into use. The principle is simple: what would happen if a baby was born as an old man and “grew up” in reverse, getting younger and younger, until he “died” as a newborn? It’s a wonderful idea, rife with comic potential and also allegorical possibility. In Fitzgerald’s hands, the story succeeds with a sense of gentle satire and no need for much in the way of flash.

Fitzgerald’s writing is spare and cool, with a somewhat cartoonish sense of the absurd. The absurdity of the story is heightened by the matter-of-fact method of presenting its facts. One has a sense throughout that the characters themselves are rolling their eyes at the absurdity of their situation, as when the doctor at Benjamin’s birth cannot bring himself to speak outright to Mr. Button about his son’s condition. With quick and masterful sketches, Fitzgerald provides some enduring situations: wrinkled old Benjamin in a bonnet, shaking a rattle to please his parents, when he would rather be sharing a cigar and a chat with his grandfather (who is, emotionally, the same age as “baby” Benjamin); Benjamin late in life, appearing as a young child, in the care of his now-adult son, Roscoe, who feels like his father is growing in reverse on purpose, just to spite him, and should have stopped the process at some point; Benjamin in his fifties setting off with a commission as a general in the First World War, only to be turned away at camp because he looks like a twelve-year-old boy.

The tale is most touching at its end, where it even triggers an element of longing in the reader. When we die in old age, we die with a full knowledge of impending death, with all of our memories of those who died before us held in a thread-bare sack (emptier the less our memory stays with us). Benjamin Button, on the other hand, grows younger and younger, losing memories and consciousness, but not in the way of Alzheimer’s, a condition that is upsetting because we are conscious of what we are losing, frustrated at what we fail to recall. Benjamin, rather, loses his memories in the way one sponges away the writing on a blackboard; it’s as if the life he lived hasn’t happened.

The story’s matter-of-factness subverts emotional effects. Fitzgerald is more interested in having fun with such elements as the proverbial disparity in the maturation of the sexes: Benjamin finds in Hildegarde a college girl happy to marry a man of eighteen who looks and acts fifty; but when Benjamin reaches fifty and looks eighteen, alas, his wife has become a frumpy matron in his eyes. There’s also much sport when Benjamin, thrown out of Yale as too old when he’s young, becomes in his maturity a wonder on the gridiron for Harvard, besting the Crimson’s staunchest rival.

Fitzgerald could have gone into more depth, to add perhaps melodramatic interest in Benjamin’s mental state around the point at which his sense of the diminishing future and his youth coincide. The reader is privy to none of Benjamin’s thoughts about how, when he becomes too young to play ball for Harvard, he must realize he will die in about ten years. We might expect some consideration of the fact that counting backwards means that Benjamin can determine the years he has remaining, doing away with the blessing that we generally do not know, precisely, when we will die. But to expect Fitzgerald to explore that might be to demand existentialism before its time. Instead, we simply see Benjamin grow ever younger until, absolutely unconscious as to what is happening and what has happened, he takes joy in kindergarten pastimes and finally becomes a newborn and passes away. The void of unknowing is powerfully rendered, and the point seems to be that the tabula rasa of birth and death may be one, an idea that may sound pretty good for those of us who fear death. Fitzgerald conjures the old idea that “an aged man is twice a child,” but subverts it as Benjamin had never been a child until the end of his life.

The flippancy of Fitzgerald’s style maintains an emotional distance, creating the kind of magical realism that treats the absurd and uncanny as plausible. We are allowed to paint what allegory and message we will onto the canvas prepared by Fitzgerald, who seems mainly interested in the reversal of the natural order and, like many modernists, in finding a way to thematize time’s relativity in a linear narrative. Oddly, “Benjamin Button” seems both of its time and ahead of it.