Analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams

Winter Dreams presents situations and themes that would preoccupy F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel The Great Gatsby, which also embodies American aspirations for social legitimacy and existential self-worth in the form of a longing to possess a desirable woman. Much like that work’s, its account of the enduring, unrequited yearning of Dexter Green for Judy Jones is a biography of desire itself. Fitzgerald’s artful rendering of the particularities of plot and character serve to make emotionally vivid the trajectory of all too many desires. It passes from the initial perception of an object seemingly imbued with the plenitude and vitality of summer, which promises to replace all that seems lacking in one’s personal winter of discontent; through fits of disappointment and disillusionment to abandonment of the object of desire; and to a final pervading sense of nostalgic loss for the enchanting vitality, however painful, that had once accompanied that yearning— a sense of loss that marks the return of a now-permanent emotional and psychological winter that, like the season itself, is “shut down like the white lid of a box” (108).

Although the story opens in the winter season, it is the springtime of Dexter’s mundane, middle-class life, as he caddies at a country club for the opportunity to get glimpses of the “brilliant” world he wants someday for himself. One day, his teenage fantasy of success— besting the club players even if that means coming up “magnificently from behind”—is abruptly interrupted by the tantrum of a “beautifully ugly” 11-year-old girl, Judy Jones (109). Though initially a physical description, this phrase aptly describes the girl’s entrancing manner of abusing other people in the pursuit of her desires, in this case, a servant she is about to club, but in later years, Dexter himself. The abruptness of her disruption is prophetic; so, too, is the fact that while fully aware of her outrageous, petulant conduct, Dexter cannot “resist the monstrous conviction” that she “was justified” (111). Having experienced “a strong emotional shock” requiring an equally “violent and immediate outlet” (112), he soon after abruptly and inexplicably quits his job. The narrator’s explanation is terse but telling: “Dexter was unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams” (113), which is to say, he acts and will continue to act under the compulsion of compensatory reveries of someday possessing the qualities and traits that converge in his social superior, Judy Jones.

It is important to recognize that while Dexter responds to Judy’s beautiful flesh and to the magnetic vitality that “shin[es] through her thin frame in a sort of glow” (110), the ultimate source of her attraction and power is what she unconsciously represents to him: the even greater magnetism of social mastery and its concomitant indifference, an utter self-absorption that assumes the homage of others is completely deserved and to be expected. He sets out single-mindedly to advance himself toward his social goals without realizing that his desire to progress beyond his unexceptional circumstances is driven by hope of acquiring what will capture and hold Judy’s attention. Having money to buy the “glittering things” will buy him social prestige: “Often he reached out for the best without knowing why he wanted it—and sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges” (112). Judy will become the epitome of those denials, just as she epitomizes the obscure object of desire.

Years later, playing golf with men for whom he once had caddied—and feeling alternately “a trespasser” and superior to them—Dexter encounters Judy for a second time when one of his companions is struck by her “bright” ball. Judy’s mere semblance of apology and defensive challenge (“I yelled ‘Fore’ ”) displays how her casual indifference puts forth a tacit claim to her superior rights. The “careless” tone of her remark, “I’d have gone on the green except that I hit something,” is indeterminately “ingenuous or malicious” (114). The unprincipled carelessness of the moneyed leisure class, so in contrast to Dexter’s painstaking middle-class, entrepreneurial diligence, becomes a motif in Fitzgerald’s account, finally being transformed into Dexter’s inability to care. In the interval, Dexter adopts the careless mannerisms of those long accustomed to wealth, knowing “that to be careless in dress and manner required more confidence than to be careful.” But he also appreciates that authentic “carelessness was for his children” (118).

Judy’s temperament is as “fluctuating and feverish” as her complexion (114), which produces “a continual impression of flux, of intense life, of passionate vitality” that is “balanced only partially by the sad luxury of her eyes” (115). Unfortunately for Dexter, he has an eye, and a soul, for melancholy. This is registered in his fixation on the way her smile “twists her lips down at the corners” (109). Judy’s smile is “preposterous” (110) in its flirtatious insincerity, and the fact that it is at the same time “radiant—blatantly artificial—convincing” is what gives it its “general ungodliness” (109–110). Fitzgerald’s psychological acuity enables him to demonstrate that Dexter’s fixation necessarily entails ambivalence. Judy’s petulant moodiness causes him as much “uneasiness” as the promiscuity of her smile: “Whatever she smiled at— at him, at a chicken liver, at nothing—it disturbed him that her smile could have no root in mirth, or even in amusement” (119).

The most evocative passages in “Winter Dreams” reflect Fitzgerald’s own sensitivity to mood and his gift for conjuring dreaming rapture. One evening, as Dexter listens to a distant piano play “the songs of last summer” while “the moon held a finger to her lips,” he undergoes “a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and that everything about him was radiating a brightness and a glamour he might never know again” (115– 116). It is at this moment that Judy Jones appears and both disrupts the glamorous placidity (with her motorboat) and remakes it in her own image: fish jumps, star shines, lake lights gleam—“and, for the second time, her casual whim gave a new direction to his life” (117).

One of the first things Judy says to Dexter constitutes a warning he chooses to ignore: that she is in her speedboat in order to escape a man who insists that she is his “ideal” (117). Dexter briefly seduces himself into believing that Judy’s “exquisite excitability” can be “controlled and owned.” But a week later she is seeing other men, though he is gratified that she “take[s] the trouble to lie to him” (121). Her ease in getting the attention of any man and her equal ease in becoming bored with that attention cause Dexter increasing “restlessness and dissatisfaction” after the initial “exhilaration” of being the momentary object of her fickle changeability. Judy strings along all her suitors by alternating neglectful indifference and flirtatiousness, “mak[ing] these forays upon the helpless and defeated without malice, indeed half unconscious that there was anything mischievous in what she did” (121).

Despite knowing that Judy is “the most . . . unprincipled personality with which he had ever come in contact,” despite recognizing that her sole objective is “the gratification of her desires,” despite sensing that the “helpless ecstasy of losing himself in her was opiate rather than tonic,” Dexter feels “no desire to change her” (120–121). He continues to feel as he had years before on the golf course, that “her deficiencies were knit up with a passionate energy that transcended and justified them” (120). His understanding deepens as he also begins to recognize that all the beckoning encouragements and contemptuous slights and indignities to which Judy had subjected him—the “utter indifference she manifested and sincerely felt toward him” (123)—had been due to her need to maintain the integrity of her being against the onslaught of too many would-be lovers. She has unconsciously opted “to nourish herself wholly from within” (121) as a means of protecting herself from the many amorous dalliances that would have left her “soiled long since had there been anything to soil her—except herself” (126). However admirable as a motive, this strategy enables Judy to dominate and humiliate Dexter, along with all the others, and he begins to suspect that she “had played his interest in her against his interest in his work—for fun” (123).

In bitter retreat from an “ecstatic happiness and intolerable agony of spirit,” Dexter tries to accept that he will never possess Judy by concentrating on the “untold inconvenience” she has caused him and on the “glaring deficiencies” she presents as a prospective wife. He also accommodates his loss by becoming engaged to “sweet and honorable, and a little stout” Irene, whose bourgeois stolidity is explicitly contrasted with the glittering Judy and her “incorrigible lips” (123). But, missing Judy’s “poignant, unforgivable, yet forgiven turbulence” (124), Dexter abandons his fiancé at the first sign of her renewed interest. Judy is as enchanting and provocative as ever, and her return to him is the return of “all mysterious happenings, all fresh and quickening hopes” (126). Aware of his engagement, she asks him to marry her, displaying the enormity of her confidence that he could not love anyone else, except as “a childish indiscretion . . . something to be brushed aside lightly” (127). She induces the willing Dexter to believe that she is miserable: “Her moist eyes tore at his stability,” causing “a sediment of wisdom, of convention, of doubt, of honor” to be swept away along with his injured pride (128). Predictably, Judy’s “flare for him” lasts no more than a month. But he feels no regrets—not even for the pain and embarrassment he has caused Irene and her family. Fitzgerald perhaps projects on to his character something of his own exquisite aestheticism and subjects it to his own self-contempt, when he remarks, with parenthetical irony, “There was nothing sufficiently pictorial about Irene’s gift to stamp itself on his mind” (129). Dexter is left with two strong feelings—that he has passed “beyond any revulsion or any amusement” and that even though he can never have Judy, “he would love her until the day he was too old for loving” (129).

Years later, after he has sold his business and moved to New York, these feelings are revived when Judy enters his life for the last time. He learns from a business associate that Judy has married a man younger than she, who “treats her like the devil,” but though he “runs around,” she does not and always “forgives him,” presumably out of love. This news does not seem to upset Dexter. He seems shocked and angered, rather, by the man’s offhand description of Judy as “all right” looking, together with his observation that “lots of women fade just like that” (131–132). On hearing of Judy’s lost allure, Dexter knows “that he had just lost something more, as surely as if he had married Judy Jones and seen her fade away before his eyes” (132). What he has lost to the degradations of time is his winter dream that there are things so exquisite that they can transform and enrich mundane reality. An enchanting vitality and a magnetic melancholy “had existed and they existed no longer” (132). This illusion dispelled, his emotional life is frozen forever. “He wanted to care, and he could not care . . . there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time” (133). This phrase gathers additional implication retrospectively in view of Dexter’s intimation years before while contemplating the “startling stolidity” of the looming houses of the rich: “The steel of the girders, the breadth and beam and pomp of it were there only . . . to accentuate” Judy’s “slightness—as if to show what a breeze could be generated by a butterfly’s wings” (128).

Fitzgerald couches his account of Dexter and his winter dream of Judy within his developing understanding of how the American class system structures the individual’s emotions and sense of self. Lamenting the recent disappointing disclosure of her present lover’s poverty, Judy pointedly asks Dexter, “Who are you, anyhow?” Dexter replies, “I’m nobody. . . . My career is largely a matter of futures” (119). Initially, Judy’s many suitors make her all the more desirable because of what they signify to him. He compares himself favorably to them within the terms of an established American class discourse about the selfmade man, who, being “newer” than those with inherited wealth, is therefore “stronger.” Yet their polish and savoir faire are to be desired: “In acknowledging to himself that he wished his children to be like them he was admitting that he was but the rough, strong stuff from which they eternally sprang” (118). Dexter’s amorous desires and his social aspirations cannot easily be distinguished. Virtually one and the same, they dictate his determination to become a regional laundry magnate by perceiving the needs of his clients with the same diligent industriousness with which he had once pursued lost golf balls. That said, Dexter’s infatuation with the glittering Judy should not be mistaken for an infatuation with her world, which she transcends: “No disillusions as to the world in which she had grown up could cure his illusions as to her desirability” (123).

Fahey, William A. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the American Dream. New York: Crowell, 1973.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Edited by Patricia Hampl and Dave Page. St. Paul, Minn.: Borealis Books, 2004.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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