The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A life lived backwards, with events happening in reverse order forms the strange and unexpected framework of one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s rare short stories.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was published in Collier’s in 1927 and the idea came to Fitzgerald apparently from a quote of Mark Twain’s in which he regretted that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst at the end. Fitzgerald’s concept of using this notion and turning the normal sequence of life on its head resulted in this delightful, thought provoking fantasy tale. The story was later incorporated in a Fitzgerald anthology, Tales of the Jazz Age.

The story opens with a young, high society couple who are shocked beyond belief when they discover that their much awaited first born child resembles an elderly gent of seventy, complete with a white beard and whiskers, sitting up and querulously demanding to know, “Are you my father?” Their young son is born to live out a peculiar destiny. And so begins a grotesque journey through life, with the child, Benjamin “growing down” instead of up.

Set in the Baltimore of the 1860s the story is also a satire of contemporary American society of the time. Though Fitzgerald maintains a cool and light tone throughout the story, it is in fact, deeply reflective and a very interesting take on the human condition.

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As long ago as 1860 it was the proper thing to be born at home. At present, so I am told, the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anaesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one. So young Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were fifty years ahead of style when they decided, one day in the summer of 1860, that their first baby should be born in a hospital. Whether this anachronism had any bearing upon the astonishing history I am about to set down will never be known.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself.

The Roger Buttons held an enviable position, both social and financial, in ante – bellum Baltimore. They were related to the This Family and the That Family, which, as every Southerner knew, entitled them to membership in that enormous peerage which largely populated the Confederacy. This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies – Mr. Button was naturally nervous. He hoped it would be a boy so that he could be sent to Yale College in Connecticut, at which institution Mr. Button himself had been known for four years by the somewhat obvious nickname of “Cuff.”

On the September morning consecrated to the enormous event he arose nervously at six o’clock dressed himself, adjusted an impeccable stock, and hurried forth through the streets of Baltimore to the hospital, to determine whether the darkness of the night had borne in new life upon its bosom.

When he was approximately a hundred yards from the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen he saw Doctor Keene, the family physician, descending the front steps, rubbing his hands together with a washing movement – as all doctors are required to do by the unwritten ethics of their profession.

Mr. Roger Button, the president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, began to run toward Doctor Keene with much less dignity than was expected from a Southern gentleman of that picturesque period.

“Doctor Keene!” he called. “Oh, Doctor Keene!”

The doctor heard him, faced around, and stood waiting, a curious expression settling on his harsh, medicinal face as Mr. Button drew near.

“What happened?” demanded Mr. Button, as he came up in a gasping rush. “What was it? How is she” A boy? Who is it? What -”

“Talk sense!” said Doctor Keene sharply, He appeared somewhat irritated.

“Is the child born?” begged Mr. Button.

Doctor Keene frowned. “Why, yes, I suppose so – after a fashion.” Again he threw a curious glance at Mr. Button.

“Is my wife all right?”

“Yes.”

“Is it a boy or a girl?”

“Here now!” cried Doctor Keene in a perfect passion of irritation, “I’ll ask you to go and see for yourself. Outrageous!” He snapped the last word out in almost one syllable, then he turned away muttering: “Do you imagine a case like this will help my professional reputation? One more would ruin me – ruin anybody.”

“What’s the matter?” demanded Mr. Button appalled. “Triplets?”

“No, not triplets!” answered the doctor cuttingly. “What’s more, you can go and see for yourself. And get another doctor. I brought you into the world, young man, and I’ve been physician to your family for forty years, but I’m through with you! I don’t want to see you or any of your relatives ever again! Good – bye!”

Then he turned sharply, and without another word climbed into his phaeton, which was waiting at the curbstone, and drove severely away.

Mr. Button stood there upon the sidewalk, stupefied and trembling from head to foot. What horrible mishap had occurred? He had suddenly lost all desire to go into the Maryland Private Hospital for Ladies and Gentlemen – it was with the greatest difficulty that, a moment later, he forced himself to mount the steps and enter the front door….

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