Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Power of Place to Imprison Character

F. Scott Fitzgerald knew well the South, Hollywood, Paris, and New York. He wrote about these places and the people thereon. He conveyed how much place shapes character. In “The Ice Palace,” Fitzgerald revealed how strong the hold that place has upon us. The Southern girl and Northern boy cannot live happily ever after because the climates and rhythms of their youth will not unravel to admit a new thread.

In “The Jelly-Bean,” Fitzgerald once again explores the power of place. His protagonist once lived among the landed gentry, but his father’s love affair with alcohol cost the family their dignity and all they possessed. Now Jim, the Jelly-bean, shoots dice and lives above a garage in exchange for occasional mechanical work. His friends still live without the dire consequences of bad decisions and poverty while the Jelly-bean, inconsequential, soft in the middle, has surrendered to his.

Nancy re-enters Jim’s life and tempts him to dream once more. We're told she “had a mouth like a remembered kiss and shadowy eyes and blue-black hair” ("The Jelly-Bean." The Short Stores of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Macmillan: New York, 1989. 145. Print.); she drew to her Jim and men in general. She drew them with purpose and sometimes malice aforethought. Jim cannot imagine deserving her, cannot envision a time when she would turn to him, but she's a modern girl who will not be held by social norms. Like Jim, she gambles with dice, but when her touch on the dice fails her, Jim intercedes, using the only armor he possesses, his own skill with the dice, and he wins for her.

Faded Glory
Photo by Al Griffin
Jim’s mistake lay in thinking that winning for her could transform his life. He thinks about leaving that room above the garage and moving in with his uncle to earn and learn a work ethic. He would return to claim the lovely Nancy, but she’s already moved on. Jim resigns himself to stay, his marred past in that place nevertheless holds him there:

The street was hot at three and hotter still at four, the April dust seeming to enmesh the sun and give it forth again as a world-old joke forever played on an eternity of afternoons. But at half past four a first layer of quiet fell and the shades lengthened under the awnings and heavy foliaged trees. In this heat nothing mattered. All life was weather, a waiting through the hot where events had no significance for the cool that was soft and caressing, like a woman’s hand on a tired forehead. Down in Georgia there is a feeling--perhaps inarticulate--that this is the greatest wisdom of the South--so after a while the Jelly-bean turned into a poolhall on Jackson Street where he was sure to find a congenial crowd who would make all the old jokes--the ones he knew. ("The Jelly-Bean." The Short Stores of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Macmillan: New York, 1989. 158. Print.) 

Fitzgerald’s description of place suggests how oppressive the light of day in the South can be. It also reveals how comforting are the shadowy places. The Jelly-bean will endure the light waiting for the shade, hoping for little more, little else.

Reading Challenge:

Read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Jelly-Bean.”

Writing Challenge:

Write of a place and its power.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach