Analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald (September 24, 1896 – December 21, 1940) was a professional writer who was also a literary artist. In practical terms this meant that he had to support himself by writing short stories for popular magazines in order to get sufficient income, according to him, to write decent books. Indeed, most of the money that Fitzgerald earned by writing before he went to Hollywood in 1937 was earned by selling stories to magazines. In his twenty-year career as a writer, he published 164 magazine stories; other stories were never published. All but eight of the stories that originally appeared in magazines became available in hardcover editions.


As one would expect of a body of 164 stories written in a twenty-year period mainly for popular consumption, the quality of the stories is uneven. At the bottom of this collection are at least a dozen stories, most of them written for Esquire during the last years of his life, which have few redeeming qualities; at the top of the list are at least a dozen stories which rank among the best of American short stories. One should not, however, be led to believe that these, as well as the hundred or more “potboilers” in the middle, do not serve a useful role in his development as an artist. Fitzgerald in the 1920’s was considered the best writer of quality magazine fiction in America, and his stories brought the highest prices paid by slick magazines; the Saturday Evening Post, for example, paid him four thousand dollars per story even during the Depression. The noted wit Dorothy Parker commented that Fitzgerald could write a bad story, but that he could not write badly. Thus each story, no matter how weak, has the recognizable Fitzgerald touch—that sparkling prose which Fitzgerald called “the something extra” that most popular short stories lacked. Fitzgerald also learned at the beginning of his career that he could use the popular magazines as a workshop for his novels, experimenting in them with themes and techniques which he would later incorporate into his novels. An understanding of a Fitzgerald story should take into account this workshop function of the story as well as its artistic merits.

Fitzgerald’s career as a writer of magazine fiction breaks logically into three periods: 1919-1924, years during which he shopped around for markets and published stories in most of the important periodicals of the times; 1925-1933, the central period characterized by a close association with the Saturday Evening Post—a relationship which almost precluded his publication of stories in other magazines; and 1934- 1940, a period beginning with the publication of his first Esquire story and continuing through a subsequent relationship with that magazine which lasted until his death. During the first of these periods, Fitzgerald published thirty-two stories in ten different commercial magazines, two novels (This Side of Paradise, 1920, and The Beautiful and Damned, 1922), two short-story collections (Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age), and one book-length play (The Vegetable). In the second period, during which The Great Gatsby and a third short-story collection (All the Sad Young Men) appeared, he enjoyed the popular reputation he had built with readers of the Saturday Evening Post and published forty-seven of the fifty-eight stories which appeared during this nine-year period in that magazine; the remaining eleven stories were scattered throughout five different magazines. In the final period, Fitzgerald lost the large Saturday Evening Post audience and gained the Esquire audience, which was smaller and quite different. Of the forty-four Fitzgerald stories to appear between 1934 and his death, twenty-eight appeared in Esquire. In addition to Tender Is the Night, which was completed and delivered before Fitzgerald’s relationship with Esquire began, Fitzgerald published his final short-story collection (Taps at Reveille); he also drafted The Last Tycoon (1941) during the Esquire years. Twelve stories, nine of which have appeared in Esquire, have been published since his death.

An obvious conclusion may be drawn about Fitzgerald’s professional career: He was at his best artistically in the years of his greatest popularity. During the composition of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s commercial fiction was in such demand that large magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Hearst’s, and Metropolitan competed for it. Tender Is the Night was written during the time when Fitzgerald’s popularity with slick magazine readers was at its all-time high point; for example, in 1929 and 1930, important years in the composition of Tender Is the Night, he published fifteen stories in the Saturday Evening Post. In sharp contrast to the 1925-1933 stories, which are characteristically of an even, high quality, and many of which are closely related to two novels of this period, the stories of the Esquire years are, in general, undistinguished. In addition, with minor exceptions, the stories written in this final period have little relation to Fitzgerald’s last “serious” work, The Last Tycoon. The Esquire years thus constitute a low point from both a popular and an artistic standpoint. They are years during which he lost the knack of pleasing the large American reading public and at the same time produced a comparatively small amount of good artwork.

In the first two years of Fitzgerald’s storywriting, his sensitivity to audience tastes was naïve. “May Day” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” not only the two best stories from these years but also two of the best stories in the Fitzgerald canon, were written for sale to mass-circulation magazines. Both, however, were too cynical about American values to be acceptable to a large, middle-American audience. By 1922 and the publication of “Winter Dreams” in Metropolitan, Fitzgerald had learned how to tailor his stories for slick magazine readers while at the same time using them to experiment with serious subjects and themes that he would later use in longer works. “Winter Dreams” • Viewed in association with The Great Gatsby, “Winter Dreams” provides an excellent illustration of Fitzgerald’s method of using his stories as a proving ground for his novels. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald describes “Winter Dreams” as a “sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea,” and indeed, it contains sufficient similarities of theme and character to be called a miniature of The Great Gatsby. Parallels between Dexter Green and Jay Gatsby are striking: Both men have made a total commitment to a dream, and both of their dreams are hollow. Dexter falls in love with wealthy Judy Jones and devotes his life to making the money that will allow him to enter her social circle; his idealization of her is closely akin to Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby’s idealized conception of Daisy is the motivating force that underlies his compulsion to become successful, just as Dexter’s conception of Judy Jones drives him to amass a fortune by the time he is twenty-five. The theme of commitment to an idealized dream that is the core of “Winter Dreams” and The Great Gatsby, and the similarities between the two men point up the close relationship between the story and the novel. Because “Winter Dreams” appeared three years before The Great Gatsby, its importance in the gestation of the novel cannot be overemphasized.

Important differences in Fitzgerald’s methods of constructing short stories and novels emerge from these closely related works. Much of the effectiveness of The Great Gatsby lies in the mystery of Gatsby’s background, while no such mystery surrounds the early life of Dexter Green. In “Winter Dreams,” Dexter’s disillusionment with Judy occurs suddenly; when he learns that she is no longer pretty, the “dream was gone. Something had taken it from him . . . the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. . . . Why these things were no longer in the world!” Because his enchantment could be shattered so quickly, Dexter’s commitment to Judy is not of the magnitude of Gatsby’s commitment to Daisy. Gatsby’s disenchantment could only occur gradually. When he is finally able to see Daisy, “the colossal significance of the green light . . . vanished forever,” but his “count of enchanted objects” had only diminished by one. Even toward the end of the novel, there is no way of knowing that Gatsby is completely disenchanted with Daisy. Nick says that “perhaps he no longer cared.” The “perhaps” leaves open possibilities of interpretation that are closed at the end of “Winter Dreams.” Although Dexter can cry at the loss of a dream, Gatsby dies, leaving the reader to guess whether or not he still held on to any fragment of his dreams about Daisy. The expansiveness of the novel obviously allowed Fitzgerald to make Gatsby and his dream believable while he could maintain the mystery of Gatsby’s past and the origins of his dream. Fitzgerald could not do this as well with Dexter in “Winter Dreams.” The point is that in writing “Winter Dreams” Fitzgerald was giving shape to his ideas about Jay Gatsby, and, after creating the story, he could better see the advantages of maintaining the sense of mystery that made Gatsby a more memorable character than his counterpart in “Winter Dreams.”

The Rich Boy

Like “Winter Dreams,” “The Rich Boy,” published a year after The Great Gatsby, clearly illustrates the workshop function that the stories served. The story’s rich boy, Anson Hunter, falls in love with the beautiful and rich Paula Legendre, but he always finds some reason for not marrying her, although he maintains that his love for her never stops. Anson, the bachelor, ironically becomes an unofficial counselor to couples with martial difficulties and, in his role as protector of the family name, puts an end to an affair that his aunt is having. Paula marries an other man, divorces him, and, when Anson encounters her late in the story, he finds her happily remarried and pregnant. Paula, whose revered place has been jeopardized by her pregnancy, finally dies in childbirth, symbolically taking with her Anson’s youth. He goes on a cruise, disillusioned that his only real love is gone. Yet he is still willing to flirt with any woman on the ship who will affirm the feeling of superiority about himself that he cherishes in his heart.

In “The Rich Boy,” then, Fitzgerald uses many of the themes—among them, lost youth and disillusionment in marriage—that he had covered in previous stories; in addition, he uses devices such as the narrator-observer point of view that had been successful in The Great Gatsby, and he pulls from the novel subjects such as the idealization of a woman who finally loses her suitor’s reverence. “The Rich Boy” also blends, along with the themes he had dealt with before, new topics that he would later distill and treat singly in another story, just as he first deals explicitly with the rich-are-different idea in “The Rich Boy” and later focuses his narrative specifically on that idea in “Six of One.” Finally, particularly in the use of the theme of bad marriages in “The Rich Boy,” there are foreshadowings of Tender Is the Night and the stories which cluster around it.

Babylon Revisited

The best of these Tender Is the Night cluster stories is “Babylon Revisited,” which earned Fitzgerald his top Saturday Evening Post price of four thousand dollars and which is generally acclaimed as his finest story. “Babylon Revisited” represents a high point in Fitzgerald’s career as a short-story writer: It is an artistically superior story which earned a high price from a commercial magazine. In the story’s main character, CharlieWales, Fitzgerald creates one whose future, in spite of his heroic struggle, is prescribed by his imprudent past, a past filled with heavy drinking and irresponsibility. He is destined to be haunted by reminders of his early life, embodied by Lorraine and Duncan, drinking friends from the past; to be judged for them by Marion, his dead wife’s sister who, like Charlie’s conscience personified, is disgusted by his past and demands punishment; and to be denied, for his penance, any right to fill the emptiness of his life with his daughter Honoria, who is in Marion’s custody and who is the only really meaningful thing left. Fitzgerald fashions Charlie as a sensitive channel through which the reader can simultaneously view both Paris as it existed for expatriate wanderers before the Depression and the now-dimmed Paris to which Charlie returns.

The contrast is masterfully handled in that the course of Charlie’s emotional life closely parallels the changing mood of the city—a movement from a kind of unreal euphoria to a mood of loss and melancholy. The contrast at once heightens the reader’s sense of Charlie’s loneliness in a ghost town of bad memories and foreshadows his empty-handed return to Prague, his present home. All of Charlie’s present misery has resulted, in Fitzgerald’s precise summary, from his “selling short” in the boom—an allusion to the loss of his dead wife Helen. Charlie, however, refuses to be driven back to alcohol, even in the face of being denied his daughter Honoria. Although he might easily have done so, Fitzgerald avoids drawing the reader into a sentimental trap of identification with Charlie’s plight, the responsibility for and consequences of which must finally be borne only by Charlie. As he later did in Dick Diver’s case in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald has shown in “Babylon Revisited” how one man works his way into an existence with nada at the core; how he manages to dissipate, “to make nothing out of something,” and thus prescribe for himself a future without direction. It is also in the creation of this mood of Charlie’s isolation that the artistic brilliance of the story, as well as its kinship to Tender Is the Night, lies.

The popular thrust of “Babylon Revisited” is a dual one in which Fitzgerald plays on what were likely to be ambivalent feelings of popular readers toward Charlie. On one hand, he is pictured first as an expatriate about whose resolution to remain abroad American audiences may have been skeptical. On the other, Charlie appears to have reformed and obviously loves his daughter. Marion, by contrast, is depicted as a shrew, and the reader is left to choose, therefore, between the punishment of a life sentence of loneliness for a penitent wrongdoer and the granting of his complete freedom and forgiveness rendered against the better judgment of the unsympathetic Marion. Fitzgerald guarantees that the reader will become emotionally involved by centering the story around the highly emotional relationship between a father and his daughter. Because Charlie is, in fact, guilty, to let him go free would be to let wrongdoing go unpunished—the strictest kind of violation of the Puritan ethic. To deprive Charlie of Honoria, however, would be to side with the unlikable Marion. Fitzgerald, then, resolves the conflict in the only satisfactory way—by proposing a compromise. Although Marion keeps Honoria for the moment, Charlie may be paroled, may come back and try again, at any time in the future.

The story, therefore, is successful on three major counts: It served as a workshop in which Fitzgerald shaped the mood of Tender Is the Night; it entertained with the struggle against unfair odds of a well-intentioned father for the affection of his daughter; and it succeeded on the mythic level, suggested in the title, as a story in which all ingredients conspire to lead to Charlie’s exile—an isolation from the city that has fallen in the absence of a now-reformed sinner, carrying with it not only the bad but also the good which Charlie has come to salvage.

Esquire Stories

About four years after the publication of “Babylon Revisited,” Fitzgerald had lost the knack of writing Saturday Evening Post stories, and he began writing shorter pieces, many of which are sketches rather than stories, for Esquire. Esquire, however, was not a suitable medium to serve a workshop function as the Saturday Evening Post had been. On the one hand, it did not pay enough to sustain Fitzgerald through the composition of a novel; even if it had, it is difficult to imagine how Fitzgerald would have experimented in the framework of short Esquire pieces with the complex relationships that he was concurrently developing in The Last Tycoon. Moreover, there is the question of the suitability of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon material, regardless of how he treated it, for Esquire: The Monroe Stahr-Kathleen relationship in The Last Tycoon, for example, and certainly also the Cecelia-Stahr relationship, would have been as out of place in Esquire as the Esquire story of a ten-year binge, “The Lost Decade,” would have been in the Saturday Evening Post. In short, Esquire was ill-suited to Fitzgerald’s need for a profitable workshop for The Last Tycoon, and it is difficult to read the Esquire pieces, particularly the Pat Hobby stories about a pathetic movie scriptwriter, without realizing that every hour Fitzgerald spent on them could have been better spent completing The Last Tycoon. From a practical standpoint, it is fair to say that the small sums of income for which Fitzgerald worked in writing the Esquire stories may have interfered with the completion of his last novel, whereas the high prices Fitzgerald earned from the Saturday Evening Post between 1925 and 1933 provided the financial climate that made it possible for him to complete Tender Is the Night.

Indeed, if the Esquire stories in general and the Pat Hobby stories in particular, close as they were in terms of composition to The Last Tycoon, marked the distance Fitzgerald had come in resolving the professional writer-literary artist dichotomy with which he had been confronted for twenty years, any study of the function of the stories in Fitzgerald’s overall career would end on a bleak note. Two stories, “Discard” and “Last Kiss,” neither of which was published in Fitzgerald’s lifetime, indicate, however, that he was attempting to re-create the climate of free exchange between his stories and novels characteristic especially of the composition period of Tender Is the Night. “Last Kiss” provides a good commentary on this attempt. When the story appeared in 1949, the editors remarked in a headnote that the story contained “the seed” that grew into The Last Tycoon. The claim is too extravagant for the story in that it implies the sort of relationship between the story and the novel that exists between “Winter Dreams” and The Great Gatsby, a relationship that simply does not exist in the case of “Last Kiss” and The Last Tycoon. There are, however, interesting parallels.

Last Kiss

Fitzgerald created in “Last Kiss” counterparts both to Monroe Stahr and Kathleen in The Last Tycoon. Jim Leonard, a thirty-five-year-old film producer in “Last Kiss,” is similar to Stahr in that he possesses the same kind of power: When the budding starlet, Pamela Knighton, meets Leonard, her agent’s voice tells her: “This is somebody.” In fact, on the Hollywood success ladder he is, in Fitzgerald’s words, “on top,” although, like Stahr, he does not flaunt this fact. Although Pamela is fundamentally different from Kathleen in her self-centered coldness, they also share a resemblance to “pink and silver frost” and an uncertainty about Americans. Kathleen is no aspiring actor, but her past life, like Pamela’s, has an aura of mystery about it. Moreover, the present lives of both are complicated by binding entanglements: Pamela’s to ChaunceyWard, and Kathleen’s to the nameless man she finally marries. There are other parallels: The first important encounter between Leonard and Pamela, for example, closely resembles the ballroom scene during which Stahr becomes enchanted by Kathleen’s beauty. In fact, the nature of Leonard’s attraction to Pamela is similar to that of Stahr’s to Kathleen; although there is no Minna Davis lurking in Leonard’s past as there is in Stahr’s, he is drawn to Pamela by the kind of romantic, mysterious force which had finally, apart from her resemblance to Minna, drawn Stahr to Kathleen. Moreover, both attachments end abruptly with the same sort of finality: Pamela dies leaving Jim with only film fragments to remember her by, and Kathleen leaves Stahr when she marries “the American.”

The possibility that these parallels were the seeds of The Last Tycoon is small. The important point, however, is that “Last Kiss” is a popular treatment of the primary material that Fitzgerald would work with in the novel: Jim’s sentimental return to the drugstore where he had once seen Pamela and his nostalgic remembrance of their last kiss earmark the story for a popular audience which, no doubt, Fitzgerald hoped would help pay his bills during the composition of the novel. Fitzgerald was unable to sell the story, probably because none of the characters generates strong emotion. It is sufficiently clear from “Last Kiss,” however, that Fitzgerald was regaining his sense of audience. In the process of demonstrating how well he understood Hollywood, the story also captured much of the glitter that is associated with it in the popular mind. In order to rebuild the kind of popular magazine workshop that he had had for Tender Is the Night, it remained for him to subordinate his understanding of Hollywood to the task of re-creating its surface. If he had continued in the direction of “Last Kiss,” he would perhaps have done this and thus returned to the kind of climate which had in the past proven to be most favorable for his serious novel work—one in which he wrote handfuls of stories for popular magazines while the novel was taking shape. It is also possible that he might have used such stories to make The Last Tycoon something more than a great fragment.

Regarding the role of the stories in Fitzgerald’s career, one can finally state that they functioned as providers of financial incentive, as proving grounds for his ideas, as workshops for his craft, and as dictators of his popular reputation. The problem for the serious student of Fitzgerald’s works is whether one should examine the popular professional writer who produced some 164 stories for mass consumption or limit one’s examination of Fitzgerald to his acclaimed works of art, such as “Babylon Revisited,” “The Rich Boy,” The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night. To do one to the exclusion of the other is to present not only a fragmented picture of Fitzgerald’s literary output but also a distorted one. Just as the stories complement the novels, so do the novels make the stories more meaningful, and the financial and emotional climate from which they all came illuminates the nature of their interdependence.

Major works
Play: The Vegetable: Or, From President to Postman, pb. 1923.
Novels: This Side of Paradise, 1920; The Beautiful and Damned, 1922; The Great Gatsby, 1925; Tender Is the Night, 1934; The Last Tycoon, 1941.
Miscellaneous: Afternoon of an Author: A Selection of Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1958; F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Princeton Years, Selected Writings, 1914-1920, 1996 (Chip Deffaa, editor).
Nonfiction: The Crack-Up, 1945; The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1963; Letters to His Daughter, 1965; Thoughtbook of Francis Scott Fitzgerald, 1965; Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, 1971; As Ever, Scott Fitzgerald, 1972; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger, 1972; The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1978; A Life in Letters, 1994 (Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor); F. Scott Fitzgerald on Authorship, 1996; Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, 2002 (Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks, editors).

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
Eble, Kenneth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1977.Eble, Kenneth. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1977.
Hook, Andrew. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002.
Jefferson, Margo. “Still Timely, Yet a Writer of His Time.” The New York Times, December 17, 1996, p. C17.
Kuehl, John. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Mangum, Bryant. A Fortune Yet: Money in the Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Short Stories. New York: Garland, 1991.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Meyers, Jeffrey. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Petry, Alice Hall. Fitzgerald’s Craft of Short Fiction. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1989.
Tate, Mary Jo. F. Scott Fitzgerald A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 1998.

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