Literary Wives: Gaining Perspective on Zelda

I’ve always thought that Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of American author F. Scott Fitzgerald, was crazy.  In a bad way.  I dismissed her and often thought negatively of her.  This point of view is usually reinforced by what I’ve read about her, mostly fictional appearances, like in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

But thanks to Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (2013), I’ve changed my mind.  I see Zelda in shades of grey, rather than in black and white.  Those nuances are something I appreciate in any field or discussion, so I pretty much adore this book.  Yes, it’s fiction and yes it’s not a masterpiece, but I enjoyed reading it.  In fact, I had a hard time putting it down, and I got through it in a day and a half.

zelda cover

This novel is the focus of the Literary Wives Series this month. Please see more of the Literary Wives discussion at the following blogs.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Ariel of One Little Library

Kate at Kate Rae Davis: Reading Culture, Finding God

We read a novel about wives every two months an answer a question: What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

The novel is from Zelda’s point of view, from her days as a single young woman being courted by the dashing young Scott Fitzgerald to her devastation upon hearing of his death after many years of tumultuous marriage.  Theirs was not a happy union, and I couldn’t imagine living under such circumstances.  They constantly drank and partied, leaving little time for the mundane and for their personal connection to each other.  However, the novel portrays their entering of this lifestyle as deliberate, for it helped to sell Fitzgerald’s books.

I appreciated reading about Fitzgerald’s rise to literary fame, and his fall from it.  I did not know much about him or his career before reading this novel, except from reading The Great Gatsby several times for different college courses.  I’m a fan of Gatsby and recently enjoyed the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio.  (Of course, I’m a sucker for anything Baz Luhrmann does.)  It was nice to get a sense of how Fitzgerald came to write Gatsby and what he had written before then.  The book caused me to want to read his other novels, as I own most of them but have never cracked them open.

The characterization of Hemingway was also intriguing, as I’ve read most of Hemingway’s work and I feel like I “know” who he was.  From Zelda’s perspective, Hemingway isn’t the person portrayed in some of the other fiction and nonfiction I’ve read about him.  I mean, he is the same, but there’s something about her perspective that makes his “sins” more stark and more offensive.  I guess you could say Zelda, as a narrator, pulled me in and I sided with her.

Beyond the fictional narrative, Fowler, in an afterward, reveals that “biographers and researchers have shown that the unflattering stories Hemingway wrote about the Fitzgeralds in A Moveable Feast consist of half-truths and outright fictions” (p. 370).  She goes on to recognize that these persist as truth in popular culture, and my own impressions of Zelda, without knowing anything about her, really, prove that.  It is also interesting to me that in my own research on Hemingway’s women, scholars now are much more sympathetic and gentle in their interpretations of his female characters, when at one time they were all considered to be man-haters and bitch goddesses.  I see this same more gentle treatment being applied to Zelda through Fowler’s book.

Overall, I appreciated the way this book gave me a more complex and sympathetic view of Zelda and her life and her problems.  However, I feel that the author treated Zelda’s stays in mental institutions too lightly.  I mean, that’s what we all know about Zelda, but from her perspective in the book, she spends time in and out of these facilities because Scott is jealous of her.  Is that true?  Perhaps.  But there must be something more.  Didn’t Zelda really need help, for perhaps depression or biopolar disorder?  The author notes, that yes, “Zelda undoubtedly suffered from some type of mental illness” (p. 371).  However, we do not know what and she wasn’t treated correctly, as we know that in decades past just being a woman qualified a person for “illness.”  She suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, but she likely also suffered from the perception that women are inferior, more delicate, and suffer from “nerves.”   In some ways, Zelda may be an unreliable narrator.

The novel addresses women’s “issues” in those days in terms of her role as a wife.  Zelda wanted to write and paint, but her work was often published under Scott’s name (to earn more money).  Scott also became jealous if she tried to write novels.  She said, “That was it.  W-I-F-E, my entire identity defined by the four letters I’d been trying for five years to overcome. . . . Upon swallowing this black, bitter truth, I began to shrink, and before long grew so tiny within the world that I very . . . nearly . . . disappeared” (p. 357).  Her struggle in the novel is with identity and wanting to be her own person but being forced, through Scott’s jealousy, adultery, and abuse, to be an accessory to him.  This search for identity is one that is common to women, especially those in Zelda’s position.  One of my favorite novels that explores this same struggle, but through a different racial lens, is Quicksand by Nella Larsen.

When Scott argues with Zelda on her wishes to pursue ballet, writing, and painting, he explains to her that she needs to accept her role as subordinate to him.  Amidst all of this, she tells her doctor, “I don’t think I’ve failed, not in the way you seem to be saying.  And Scott, well, he hasn’t been all that successful in the past few years.  And he sure wasn’t tending to domestic matters either, and I’d say that’s paramount to a woman’s happiness” (p. 326).  She is cleverly pointing out the double standard, that she is expected to maintain domestic bliss, but that her husband has done nothing to help or promote this for her.  Through these interesting explorations of mental illness (and its treatment at the time) and a woman’s role, Zelda pushes for some sort of equality or sharing of the roles in marriage to make it successful.  She cannot do it alone, but Scott expects that.

However, she acknowledges an interesting thing about Scott, especially in context of his relationship with Hemingway.  She says, “That was the thing with Scott: if he loved you truly, he had trouble seeing your flaws. What a gift, I thought.  What a curse” (p. 304).  Scott’s gift is liberally applied to Hemingway, but he slowly loses that love for Zelda and can see nothing but her flaws.  It leads to a depressing marriage and ultimate unhappiness.

This theme of the book made me think it would have fit nicely into the Literary Wives series that I’ve been hosting with three other bloggers.  (Our next post on The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin will be on August 1.)  We are reading, writing about, and discussing some of the recent popular fiction that has the word “wife” in the title.  So, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald doesn’t fit that because of the title, but the themes are the same, and three of the four books we’ve read have been about famous historical wives.  Zelda would have fit right in, especially since the novel is about her marriage and negotiating its struggles.

Now, Zelda’s parents, especially her father, saw the strife coming before she even married.  He knew that Zelda and Scott would wear each other out and that Scott and his dreams of being a literary star would likely not lead to anything good.  He also pointed out Scott’s likely inability to provide, given his literary dreams.  (I guess there’s some interesting commentary in this book about men’s roles as well.)  I mean, how many of the dads you know would be happy with their daughters marrying a young man who claimed he was going to be the next literary sensation, but had no actual success to back that up?  Not many.  However, Zelda is drawn to Scott and believes in him, so she marries him anyway.  She says this, my favorite quote from the book: “The thing, then, was to get away from one’s parents, and stay away” (p. 10).

She does that, but along the way, as thing fall apart (I couldn’t help but think of Achebe’s book while reading this), she keeps wondering what her life would be like if she hadn’t married Scott.  Would she be happier or less unstable?  As she thought this, I was reminded of another book I read about Fitzgerald.  Gatsby’s Girl by Caroline Preston is a fictional account of Fitzgerald’s teenage romance with another girl.  He instead married Zelda, but I applied the same questions and wondered how things would have been different had Scott married the character of Gatsby’s Girl instead of Zelda.

gatsby's girl cover

These are musings we will never know the answers to, but the fact that this book made me think, despite its seemingly unsophisticated premise (that of another piece of popular historical fiction for women) and its predictable first-person narration, has endeared me to it.  I really enjoyed it, but I will freely admit that it isn’t high brow or intellectual or worthy of the “canon.”  But it gave me a new perspective on Zelda Fitzgerald and it kept me occupied for an entire afternoon while my children played with their friends.  What’s not to like?

52 thoughts on “Literary Wives: Gaining Perspective on Zelda

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  1. incredible review and -wow- how great that the power of the written word can give one empathy for behind-the-scenes life of someone like zelda!

    – i really appreciated how you worded this: “Zelda, as a narrator, pulled me in and I sided with her,” and also “That was it. W-I-F-E, my entire identity defined by the four letters I’d been trying for five years to overcome. . . . Upon swallowing this black, bitter truth, I began to shrink, and before long grew so tiny within the world that I very . . . nearly . . . disappeared” (p. 357)…’

    perhaps this book will help those trapped in codependency to see the parallels, wake up and become proactive in their future.

    1. Thanks! And yes, I like your interpretation of the story as applicable to real life. Of course, that is the power of storytelling. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but instead just focused on Zelda. She’s fascinating. Thanks for your comment!

      1. In many ways, this can and is true today in the roles wives, husbands, or the significant other find themselves in. The husband and provider needing the wife to play the role of supporter but in turn cannot be to her. It might cause the significant other to feel emasculated if the role is reversed or the wife is put on a pedestal. Unfortunately, we could all fall off that pedestal.

        I did find the review insightful and made me eager to read this book on Zelda. We are both women from the south and find that I know very little about her.

        Thank you.

  2. Great post, Emily! I heard an interview with the author when the book came out and was immediately intrigued and your post has confirmed this book needs to be added to my reading list! It does have a lot in common with the other books in our series. The theme I find the most intriguing is the threat any creative woman seems to pose to these (insecure) creative men…..

    And I adore Baz Luhrman’s work, too!

    1. No kidding! It does seem that her creativity (outside of being able to bear children) is what threatened him. I see some parallels to the great “power” women do have as mothers and life givers, and this story certainly explores the threat that posed to the fictional Scott when she tried to extend that into his field. Do read it!

      1. OK this is weird — just read something this week that said that The Eagle’s song, Witchy Woman, is based on Zelda!!!! Whoa…..have you heard that?

          1. It was in Writer’s Digest. Spring??? There was a box blurb on all things Zelda, to coincide with the release of Fowler’s book, and the song was mentioned. I suppose if you consider the lyrics, it makes sense. But I’d really have to listen to it closely and also, of course, read your book rec. as I know so little about her. But I believe it could be true. Just thought it was interesting and you’d get a kick out of it. 🙂

  3. as ‘almost a woman,’ i enjoy your perspective. i’ve yet to read the paris wife, but it’s on my list. IF it ever goes on sale ANYWHERE, i will buy it. the comments about zelda are interesting as well. have you seen ‘midnight in paris’? it’s woody allen’s homage to paris. it is a great movie if you love paris, which i do. but the characters, including hemingway, zelda, f. scott, etc. are too much caricature to be real. let me know if you want to borrow it. i own it because i love it! and paris, too.

    1. Well, since you are one of “us,” I will let you borrow my copy of The Paris Wife. I will bring it to you tomorrow! I did see Midnight in Paris, and I agree that the characters were so caricatured that it was hard for me to love, but I did enjoy it.

  4. Great review — I’m dying to read this one. I’m a huge Zelda fangirl — not a Hemingway one, so I always find his behavior impossibly boorish — but I appreciate novels that are a little more nuanced than I am. I’m also grateful in the resurgence of interest in the Fitzgeralds and a appreciation that Zelda might not be a crazy harpy!

    Can’t wait to see what you the of The Aviator’s Wife, which has a heroine I actually rather admired until I finished the novel — I liked the book a great deal, but gave me complicated feelings about loyalty, marriage, etc. While I’m not always a fan of the biographical novel, when done well, I think it allows the reader to envision a figure in a more human way.

    1. Yes, complicated feelings to be sure on The Aviator’s Wife. It should be a good discussion on Thursday. And I think you will love this one about Zelda since it portrays her as the heroine, and Hemingway is somewhat of a villain. It is a satisfying version of their conflict.

    1. Yeah, it would be interesting to know. I do know, from this fictional novel, that her novel did not sell well at all, but his did. I want to read some of her work now!

      1. From the period of their lives, her “Scott Fitzgerald” books might not have been advertised as much as his. (Fun to speculate.) Biz was a “boy’s club” early in the 20th century. Wonder if she was the author that finished his “Love of the Last Tycoon” posthumously?

        1. I’m not sure on that, but I want to say that I don’t think it was her because she died just a few years later. Her novel was published under her name… That may account for its dismal sales. Of course, by that time Scott wasn’t selling much either.

  5. I’ve felt the same way about Zelda as you describe in the beginning of your post, but perhaps I should be more sympathetic (though, to be fair, I’ve never much cared for Scott, either.). Have you seen Midnight In Paris? Some delightful literary appearances, I thought.

    1. Yes, I’ve seen it! Very fun movie. The literary figures are a bit exaggerated, but I think that is what makes it fun, especially Hemingway.

      1. I liked Kathy Bates as Gertrude Stein — just the right amount of over-the-top, I thought. I did wish Alice B. Toklas had gotten more screen time. Then again, I feel that way about her real life.

        1. I agree. There is a scene in this book where the wives are (typically) separated from the artists at Stein’s house. I often wonder how Toklas felt about that. This book takes a stab at how Zelda felt.

  6. Wonderful, thoughtful review. I also enjoyed reading this book- I love the time period, the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I also enjoyed The Paris Wife and though both works were eye openers in terms of their portrayal of Hemingway. I agree that this book skirted over Zelda’s mental illness to the detriment of the story.

    1. Yeah, there really should’ve been more about her illness, not in an indulgent sort of way, but in a way of helping us understand her and perhaps shedding some much-needed light on the reality of mental illness.

  7. Great review, Emily, and I’ll have to check out the book! I used to read every title I could find about Fitzgerald and Zelda, including their family scrapbook (The Romantic Egoists), Zelda’s novel Save Me the Waltz, and countless biographies. I’ve also been to various Fitzgerald sites–the museum in Alabama, a museum in Texas where their friend Gerald Murphy’s paintings are, and one of the asylums Zelda was housed in (in Baltimore)–and once I interviewed the great FSF scholar Matthew Bruccoli. Studying Fitzgerald’s work and life to that degree, and seeing how Zelda’s career was marginalized, definitely made an impression on me, and it would be fascinating to read a fictionalized version.

    1. Wow! You know and have read a lot. I wonder if the book would just end up bugging you, especially if there are parts that have taken too much liberty. I wouldn’t know which parts those are or could be, but I would be interested to hear what you think if you read this. What great memories you have of studying the Fitzgeralds!

  8. Reblogged this on where i keep my stuff and commented:
    I absolutely love anything to do with the Fitzgeralds. My fascination began in high school where I first heard the myths about Zelda’s jealousy, only to find out years later just how complex their relationship was. This book is going on my To Read list.

  9. Emily, to me it is hard to judge how people were treated for mental illness back then, as it has been an evolutionary branch of medicine. It wasn’t until only in the last twenty years that treating people to live with certain mental illnesses became the more accepted practice rather than trying to institutionaiize someone. So, I guess with that lens of the times, how does the book handle her situation in your mind? Today, she would have likely been treated differently depending on a more accruate diagnosis. Alchohol is an anesthetic for a lot of things. Good post, BTG

    1. BTG, yes you are so right. So the book was accurate to the time, with mental institutions and such (and, if I remember correctly, shock treatments), and she was misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. I guess what bothered me is the misdiagnosis, especially since, from the book’s portrayal, it seemed like a lot of the treatment stemmed from the fact that she was a woman and was “nervous.” The book also made it seem like, from her perspective (again, unreliable narrator maybe?) that there was nothing wrong with her and that she was breaking down because of the way her husband treated her. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  10. Sounds like an intriguing read. It’s always compelling to try to imagine what life must be like for a life partner living in the shadow of a living legend. I confess I haven’t yet read Gatsby. Am surprised it was never required reading in school.
    A friend at Goodreads just gave a good review of A Girl in a Blue Dress which is the fictionalized account of Dickens’ wife.
    I really enjoyed reading a sympathetic historical novel that brought Mary Todd Lincoln to life: The Emancipator’s Wife by Barbara Hambly. Mary Lincoln has carried such a bad rep over the years, it was really eye-opening to try to live through the events of Lincoln’s challenges through her eyes. I’m always ready to defend her (to a degree) now.
    Wonder if there are any books where it’s the man who is living in the shadow of his wife’s greatness? As the centuries pass, we’ll see more of those. 😉

    1. Yeah, we maybe have to wait for a book about a man living in his wife’s “great” shadow. Don’t hold your breath! 😉 Those other titles sound intriguing. Thanks for telling me about them.

    1. I’m very pleased! Sometimes I post something like this thinking how “interesting” it is, at least to me, and then it seems like I was wrong. Not this time! 🙂

  11. I enjoyed the unique perspective of Zelda in this book and needed to remind myself that it was fiction. The narrative voice seemed authentic–from the 21st Century point of view, at least. That is to say, we have to be careful about projecting our mindsets onto historical figures, especially those who were known to have mental problems; you make a good point about the fact that in the past, women were assumed to have mental problems (hysteria). The movie MIDNIGHT IN PARIS was clever and entertaining; another movie which offers a different(deeper) perspective on artists in the ’20s is GENIUS. The movie, which has an amazing cast, presents the story of Max Perkins, the Scribner editor who oversaw Thomas Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other remarkable authors. Similar to my experience of reading Z, watching the movie opened new perspectives and reflections which lingered in my thoughts afterward. I think this qualifies both the novel and the movie as pieces of art, highbrow or low.

  12. It’s so interesting that we came at this book from different places – you already had an idea in your mind of what you thought Zelda was like based on other accounts, and I had no idea in my head of what she was like beyond the fact of who she was. Now I’m curious to read other accounts – would I change my mind about her, or stick with the way I see her after reading this book?
    The whole thing has also piqued my curiosity about Hemingway’s perspective of the Fitzgeralds, as well as the fiction they wrote during their chaotic lives. I’ve never felt the urge to read more of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book until now. (I’ve only read The Great Gatsby). I also found myself googling the other writers they were hanging around with. For example, I had just been considering trying Morley Callaghan sometime soon, and then he showed up in the book!
    More than anything else, I came away with pity for both Zelda and Scott, and the feeling that both of them could have accomplished so much more. I have the same unanswerable questions as you – what if they had not married? What if she had left him? What if they hadn’t got so caught up in keeping up with everyone else, and had just concentrated on each other, their families, and their work?

  13. I think your point about Zelda’s illness is interesting. I came away from Z thinking she didn’t have a mental illness, so you are right, it was downplayed. Maybe from Fowler’s perspective, since that IS the only thing most people know about Zelda, she wanted to de-emphasize it. I think I read a biography of Zelda some years ago, but I can’t remember what it said about this. But I would say that life with Scott put her under a lot of pressure. And it’s true, as Susan Davis points out above, that women were frequently diagnosed with hysteria.

    On the other hand, Hemingway’s character is pretty much what I expected, although I didn’t know that he actively tried to foster insecurities in Fitzgerald.

    1. Did I read that when doctors later looked at Zelda’s medical records, they thought maybe she was bipolar, or did I see that somewhere else?

  14. It’s interesting that the female struggle for identity often seems to crop up in partnerships where the man is famous/a celebrity. It seems to be a recurring pattern. The personalities of these women are often overshadowed by their husbands. So much lost talent. I’m reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing at the moment, which is part-memoir and part-exploration of loneliness in NYC as depicted in the work of four artists. I’ve just read the chapters about the artist David Hopper — his wife also painted but he actively discouraged and criticized her, effectively preventing her artistic career from flourishing.

    The novel about Zelda sounds like a great read! And it’s nice to see a post from you in my Reader — I’ve been missing your book reviews. 🙂

  15. Another author wrote a novel from Zelda’s point of view, Gilles Leroy with Alabama Song. That was published in French in 2007 and it won the Goncourt Prize that year, one of the top literary prizes in France. Unfortunately, I did not find an English translation. It was quite good. I read it when I was having a F. Scott Fitztgerald fixation and read most of his novels, as well as a few biographical works. I’ll keep the Fowler book in mind for next time that frenzy hits me!

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