Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. "The Rich Boy".
I. The Narrator’s Introduction: The story is told by a first-person narrator who is a friend of the protagonist, the rich boy of the title. The narrator states that there are many lies which the poor tell about the rich and which the rich tell about themselves. There is also one fact about the rich. They think themselves better than other people no matter what happens to them. The narrator starts to tell the story of Anson Hunter, the rich boy.
II. Anson’s College Years: Anson, the eldest of six children, was born into an established and fashionable New York family of fortune and status. The family spent summers in a large estate in Connecticut to protect the children from ‘the snobbish and formalized vulgarity of the Gilded Age’ (p. 153). Anson however soon developed a sense of his superiority. At eighteen he went to study at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut. He was not exactly handsome but he possessed ‘a confident charm and a certain brusque style, and the upper-class men who passed him on the street knew without being told that he was a rich boy’ (p. 154). His superiority prevented him from being a success at Yale and so he shifted the centre of his life to New York. His aspirations were conventional, he was not burdened by any ideals or illusions: ‘Anson accepted without reservation the world of high finance and high extravagance, of divorce and dissipation, of snobbery and of privilege’ (p. 154). The narrator met Anson for the first time in the summer of 1917. Anson had just graduated from Yale and entered the naval aviation forces. Being of a bawdy and jovial character and always in pursuit of pleasure, Anson surprised everyone by falling in love with a conservative and serious girl. Her name was Paula Legendre and she was from California. The couple spent their time together by leading a long, serious dialogue, though about nothing in particular. After some time they agreed to marry and the next day Paula told Anson that she was rich, too.
III. The Drinking Incident: Paula and Anson were engaged but it was to be kept secret until after the war. In April Anson got his leave and spent it with Paula. They stayed at the Ritz together with Paula’s mother and cousin. The cousin, a severe and bitter girl of twenty-five, received Anson in the parlour of their suite when Paula was late with dressing for a party. Anson had been drinking steadily with friends at the Yale Club before. Unable to speak for drunkenness, he made the cousin believe that he was brought up in France and spoke no English. Driving to the party, Paula felt shame and distaste for her drunk fiancé. The cousin happened to mention the incident to Mrs Legendre who called Paula to the party and warned her not to come home with Anson. The party did Anson no good and he had to be carried upstairs to bed. On their way back to the hotel, Anson and Paula began their old serious dialogue again. Paula suggested that they were perhaps not suited to each other. The next day Anson had a long talk with Mrs Legendre. It was agreed that Paula would think about the incident for some time and then accompany Anson in Pensacola, Florida, if she should think it proper. Three weeks later the couple was reunited.
IV. Breaking up with Paula: Paula was the more submissive of the couple. She perceived two personalities in Anson. When they were alone, he was strong, paternal and attractive, but when in company, he was gross and reckless. The armistice and the end of the war sent Anson back home from the front. When they were together, their passion made the old serious dialogue impossible. It continued only in letters. Later the dialogue was replaced by a prolonged quarrel. Anson got drunk and missed an engagement with Paula, on which Paula made demands on his conduct: ‘His despair was helpless before his pride and his knowledge of himself: the engagement was definitely broken’ (p. 161). They still kept on exchanging passionately affectionate letters. Paula started drifting around and meeting new men. Anson ‘plunged vigorously into all the movement and glitter of post-bellum New York, entering a brokerage house, joining half a dozen clubs, dancing late’ (p. 161). Besides that he worked diligently in Wall Street and soon made a considerable fortune of his own. He took pleasure in helping people, mostly his former classmates in New York, and became a popular figure among them. When he learned that Paula had a serious affair with one Lowell Thayer, a Bostonian of wealth and position, he felt that he might lose her after all. He went to Florida to see her. She looked wan and tired, having been in society for some four or five years. He had known her for three, now being the year 1920. Paula and Anson were passionately reconciled but Anson failed to propose to her. Tired with waiting for so long, she married Thayer that April. On learning the news, Anson acted as usually: ‘But one thing he could not help––for three days, in any place, in any company, he would suddenly bend his head into his hands and cry like a child’ (p. 164).
V. The Affair with Dolly: In 1922 Anson reached the age of twenty-seven and was taken into the firm. He was liked and trusted in his job. He paid attention to appearances, on Sunday mornings he taught in a fashionable Episcopal Sunday-school. Still he continued in his bursts of rough conversation and habit of getting drunk whenever he felt like it. His attitude to women was protective but he certainly knew how to make use of the chance when a girl was willing to succumb. He started an affair with Dolly Karger, daughter of a publicist who had married into society. Dolly was wild and unrestrained, she was often in love and often abandoned her lovers when they started to bore her. She sought both the abandoned indulgence and protective strength which Anson had to offer. With Anson she was first intent on securing herself a good match but later she got overwhelmed by love. At a certain point Anson recognized that he must either accept the responsibility and marry Dolly or break up with her. He wrote her a farewell letter but a note by Dolly reached him before he could send his own. Dolly was cancelling the planned weekend trip because her admirer, Perry Hull from Chicago, arrived unexpectedly to the town. Anson saw that the letter was calculated to arouse his jealousy. It aroused his stubbornness and self-indulgence instead. He tore his own letter and went to see Dolly. He scolded her and she eventually apologized for her note and accompanied him to the trip. They were supposed to spend the night together and the occasion was perfectly planned. When they were left alone, Dolly clung to Anson, told him she loved him and demanded him to say the same, even if it should not be truth. Anson recollected himself when a picture of Paula came to his mind. He left Dolly alone and told her to wait for someone to love her because he did not.
VI. Aunt Edna’s Affair: Dolly married the next autumn, and Anson felt that the history was repeated. He stopped drinking for a year because of his health. He continued helping people in need of advice. He started doing so out of pride and superiority but gradually it became his habit and passion. He was especially fond of assisting young couples. Paula divorced and soon remarried another man from Boston. Anson thought he would never marry himself because he saw too much of strained marriages and divorces in his life. At twenty-eight he considered marrying without romantic love, realizing that a marriage for love was unlikely to happen to him: ‘He even wondered if he should have married Dolly. Not even Paula had love him more, and he was learning the rarity, in a single life, of encountering true emotion’ (p. 173). At this time he was reached by the gossip that his Aunt Edna, the wife of Uncle Robert, was having an affair with a dissolute youth named Cary Sloane. He was disturbed by the news and worried about his three young cousins, the offspring of the eighteen-year-long marriage. Robert Hunter had married Edna when she was penniless, and the couple owed their present fortune to his own father’s effort. Anson warned Edna to stop the affair or he would do it himself. Naturally, Edna at first denied all, but then Anson’s arguments broke her. She confessed and complained of her husband’s neglect. Anson had a talk with both Edna and her lover together and made them accept his conditions. Sloane was to leave the town for six months and after his return Edna could seek a legal divorce if she wished so. Or, if Edna was ready to leave her children, she could elope with her lover. The lovers chose the first option. Anson felt proud of himself when he drove his aunt back home, the matters having been arranged: ‘This was his city, he thought, where his name had flourished through five generations. […] Resourcefulness and a powerful will […] had beaten the gathering dust from his uncle’s name, from the name of his family, from even this shivering figure that sat beside him in the car’ (p. 177). The following morning Sloane was found dead under a bridge.
VII. Feeling Lonely: Anson had fixed Edna’s affair but lost Uncle Robert’s cherished friendship. Anson’s mother died and ‘with her passing the quiet, expensive superiority of the Hunters came to an end’ (p. 178). Anson became the head of the family. Anson’s younger siblings were not to continue the grand tradition of the family as ‘[h]is own feeling of precedence was not echoed in them’ (p. 178). Anson agreed to sell the summer mansion in Connecticut because it was not profitable to keep it any more. At twenty-nine Anson started to experience loneliness. His former friends withdrew into their own family circles and having been already well established, they needed Anson no more. A week before his thirtieth birthday Anson attended the wedding of his last single friend in his usual role of the best man. After the ceremony he had nowhere to go: ‘for almost the first time in his life he had nothing whatever to do’ (p. 181). The Yale Club which he used to frequent was almost empty. A friend whom he wanted to visit was out of town and did not even let him know. Anson went to see Nick, once a fashionable bartender demanded at private parties, now a common waiter in a hotel: ‘‘Nick,’ he said, ‘what’s happened to everything?’ ‘Dead,’ Nick said’ (p. 181). The two reminisced for a while. Anson then tried a telephone-booth, calling whomever might be in the town. He did not succeed. Back in the street he came across a pregnant woman who turned out to be Paula, now Mrs Peter Hagerty. She invited him for dinner at their home. She had three children from her first marriage but the child she was pregnant with at the moment was the first that she was looking forward to. Only now she was happy and in love. Paula and Anson started their old serious dialogue and Anson admitted that he never loved anyone but Paula. ‘I could settle down if women were different,’ Anson reflected (p. 185). ‘If I didn’t understand so much about them, if women didn’t spoil you for other women, if they had only a little pride,’ he mused (p. 185).
VIII. Concluding: At thirty Anson fell into a deep depression. His age was his chief preoccupation. The older members of the firm made Anson go abroad for the summer because his relentless pessimism started to affect his performance at work. Anson resisted at first, claiming that if he left, he would never return to work again. Anson learned that Paula had died in childbirth. Strangely enough, it did not evoke any emotion in him. The narrator observes how striking the change in Anson was. The narrator accompanied Anson on his trip. He did not see much of him during it because Anson soon picked a girl and started to flirt with her. The narrator was however pleased that Anson became himself again: ‘I don’t think he was ever happy unless some one was in love with him’ (p. 187). The narrator believes that what Anson needed for his existence were such ‘women in the world who would spend their brightest, freshest, rarest hours to nurse and protect that superiority he cherished in his heart’ (p. 187).
The story opens in the the Gilded Age (1865 – 1912), the times of vulgar ostentatiousness and superficial glitter. It continues to the Jazz Age (1920s), the post-war decade characterized by a sense of rootlessness and lack of a serious purpose. The setting determines the atmosphere of the story as much as its plot. The story focuses on a protagonist from the traditional ‘old money’, as opposed to the ‘new money’, and it also touches on the lesser respectability of the new tycoons in the eyes of the old rich. It suggests the devaluation of the once firmly fixed social status, as newly rising entrepreneurs come to one level with the traditionally established families and the two groups gradually cease being distinguished from each other.
The story includes all of Fitzgerald’s favourite subjects: the lives of the very rich, strained relationships, drinking and dissipated behaviour. The character of Anson Hunter perfectly illustrates a common shortcoming of the world of the rich, that is the lack of sincere emotion and consequent loneliness. Anson’s problem is his deeply rooted conviction of his own superiority. This seems to hinder him from loving anyone more than himself. He may have loved Paula, as he claims, but still he loved his independence more when he failed to propose to her. This seems to be in accord with the opinion of the first-person narrator, who assumes the position of an uninvolved observer in the story, but gives his comment on Anson in the concluding sentences of story.
AuthorFitzgerald, Francis Scott. (1896 - 1940).
Full Title"The Rich Boy".
Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. ‘The Rich Boy’. 1926. Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.