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?