Even hundreds of years before the 20th century frivolities of any romantic or modernist era, Heraclitus, too, had had enough of constancy.
He intended, instead, to change: “All things are in flux; the flux is subject to a unifying measure or rational principle,” he said of man’s turbulent individual odyssey, “This principle (logos, the hidden harmony behind all change) binds opposites together in a unified tension, which is like that of a lyre, where a stable harmonious sound emerges from the tension of the opposing forces that arise from the bow bound together by the string.” This may be nothing more than a colorized restatement of Xenophanes’ remark, “No man knows distinctly anything, and no man ever will!” But either way, perhaps this is something to keep in mind when analyzing the wavering indecision that the strong-minded protagonist Edna Pontellier, from Chopin’s The Awakening and the charismatic Dick Diver, from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night illustrate. Both characters, caught up in an intricate web of societal constraints and conflicting desires, must make decisions that create waves of change in their lives and in the lives of those close to them. Class seems to inform honesty in the same way desire informs motivations. The desire to shed one’s humble origins and achieve greatness transpires in classic stories such as Book VIII of Virgil’s The Aeneid, along with the tale of Trimalchio from the first century AD, extending all the way up to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumously acclaimed The Great Gatsby, as well as his last novel Tender Is the Night.
But how far will we go to achieve this strictly individual goal? How much of ourselves and of others will we compromise on the way? While Dick Diver copes with these questions in a highly externalized way, Edna’s struggle remains deeply private.1: A CODE TO LIVE BYHovering between the nostalgic fiction of Victorian America and the grainy naturalism of Twain’s age, Kate Chopin wrote about what she knew best: a woman enduring the consequences of a man’s world. But often the women Chopin depicted thought too much (for women), or wound up in troublesome circumstances – oblivious to society, or shackled to men they didn’t love. When Chopin’s second novel, The Awakening, was published in 1899, it seemed she’d finally pushed things too far. Edna Pontellier was not only adulterous, she hadn’t even loved the object of her desire – and it didn’t remedy things when she drowned herself in the novel’s final scene.
As role models go, Chopin had her own share of quirks: smoking Cuban cigarettes in public, riding astride instead of sidesaddle (Caldwell). Her refined background allowed for a somewhat renegade intellect. Which is, of course, paralleled in The Awakening. Raised in a family of Irish and Creole parents, Chopin was a strong-willed, gifted girl who read Austen and Brontë when she was supposed to be dreaming about debutante balls. She married when she was 20 and had six kids in the next decade. When her husband Oscar died in 1882, she took over his land holdings in Louisiana. In 1885, Chopin began to write – an acceptable avocation for women, so long as they stayed within the perimeters of propriety (Caldwell).
But Chopin experimented with controversy from the very beginning, writing about syphilis, prostitution and the trauma of war – unthinkable for her time. The bleak inevitability of The Awakening proved as troubling to reviewers as its illicit affair, but critics preferred to concentrate on “its cruel, loathsome monster Passion.” Perhaps it’s impossible to get a closer look at Chopin’s inner self, given that she was a private woman and most speculation about her from surviving relatives seems only that. But for all the detail in The Awakening – a portrait of a woman who could live with such difficult truths – the truth about Kate Chopin never entirely emerges.
Furthermore, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early life was also plagued with disillusionment. From the day of his birth, Sept.
24, 1896, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald seemed destined for greatness. But insecurity, too, had a hand in the author’s formative years. Fitzgerald was always the poorest boy living in the richest neighborhoods, attending the most exclusive private schools.
This outsider status set the stage for lasting feelings of inferiority that haunted him despite his intelligence, aristocratic good looks, and magic with words. In his junior year, he left Princeton to join the Army (Ropalske). Though Zelda was only 18 when Fitzgerald began courting her in July 1918, she was already a legend in the deep South.
Independent, charming, and free from conventional social constraints, she was the quintessential Southern belle; a beauty who managed to be simultaneously ridiculous and romantic. The glamorous young newlyweds took New York by storm, riding on the rooftops of taxi cabs, splashing around in public fountains, and, despite Prohibition, drinking heavily. However, the endless partying soon took its toll; Fitzgerald was on the verge of becoming a serious alcoholic, and Zelda’s outrageous behavior sometimes provoked Scott to engage in dangerous bar brawls and fist fights. The next few years were a kaleidoscope of motion for the Fitzgeralds. On Oct. 26, 1921, Zelda gave birth to their only child, a daughter they called Scottie. In May 1924, Scott and Zelda decided to rent a villa in the picturesque town of Valescure, France, a then unfashionable summer address on the French Riviera.
One day, Zelda, angered when Scott began flirting with a legendary dancer, suddenly threw herself off a cafe’s stone patio into the darkness. She was luckily saved from serious injury when a ledge broke her fall (Ropalske). As the Roaring Twenties crashed to a close in the Great Depression, the couple who seemed to best represent the era’s values found their carefree days ending as well.
After a breakdown on April 23, 1930, Zelda entered the Malmaison clinic outside Paris, and a few weeks later she was diagnosed as schizophrenic. In February 1932, she suffered a more severe breakdown and was institutionalized, beginning an endless pattern of costly hospitalizations (Ropalske). Meanwhile, Fitzgerald finished Tender Is the Night, which appeared in early 1934.
The novel’s themes reflected his endeavors to make sense of Zelda’s illness and his own artistic and personal shortcomings.