Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Fitzgerald’s short story “The Rich Boy” (like his novel The Great Gatsby) utilizes an outside narrator to tell the story of a wealthy protagonist in a sympathetic but still somewhat distanced way. Here the protagonist is Anson Hunter, a well-to-do young New Yorker, who would seem to have the whole world ahead of him and the streets paved in gold.
By his early twenties, he has found his ideal woman as well: the exquisite—and very rich— Paula Legendre. On the surface, Paula would not seem to be the type of girl that would exert such a pull on Anson. Anson seems to have a lot of oats to sow, and Fitzgerald describes Paula as being “conservative and rather proper.” But he is, nonetheless, obsessed by her, not because she represents the money he wants—after all, he already has enough of his own—but because she represents the social system that justifies his existence. In his world, responsible older men (like his uncle Robert) hold the reins of government and business; chaste and proper women (like Paula and her mother) maintain the rules of propriety and etiquette; and, until they get old enough to assume the mantle of responsible older manhood, playboys like Anson play. That is all Anson thinks he is doing right now. Just as he sees in himself the undeveloped kernel of a future leader, he sees in Paula the kernel of a future society matron. He thinks they would make a good pair.
What he doesn’t realize, however, is that his virtually unlimited wealth has within it the power to corrupt him, and it’s already doing a good job. His first problem is that he sees himself as superior. He carries himself that way; Fitzgerald says that “…He had 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 and had gone to one of the best schools…. Anson accepted without reservation the world of high finance and high extravagance, of divorce and dissipation, of snobbery and of privilege.”
Anson doesn’t see any reason why, being young and rich, he has to play by anyone else’s rules. If he wants to drink himself under the table, why shouldn’t he have the right to do that? And regardless of where or with whom he happens to be when he acts drunkenly, or obscenely, or boorishly, why should he apologize for his behavior? He’s rich, and the rich make the rules, don’t they? People should just accept his natural superiority, regardless of how he behaves.
It would seem very difficult to sympathize with a character who holds these beliefs and acts upon them so wholeheartedly; but we do, because we sense that he is headed for a fall. His first mistake lies in his inability to commit himself to Paula. Fate gave Anson every opportunity to take Paula as his own. In doing so, he would be asserting his adulthood; he would be taking his place alongside the other well-to-do movers and shakers of New York. But, true to his status as a tragic hero, he constantly tries to defy fate. The role ordained for him is to be a wealthy, responsible scion of business, a lord of some suburban manor, the benefactor of deserving charities; for far too long, he refuses. Anson doesn’t want to grow up. He gets a job, “entering a brokerage house, joining half a dozen clubs, [and] dancing late.” Even as he moves up the corporate ladder, there is still that part of him that is unable to give up the schoolboy carousing, the indifference toward the responsibilities that fate has laid upon his shoulders as the wages of being rich.
His second mistake is in self-righteously condemning his aunt Edna for having an affair. Anson, of all people, ought to be the last person to condemn anyone for moral lapses, and certainly not lapses of the heart; Anson’s heart is far more lapsed than Edna and Cary’s. He himself had just broken up with Dolly Karger, whom he dated all the while knowing she meant nothing to him, and her careless behavior merely mirrored his own. He has no right to threaten to expose Edna and Cary, and he is thus directly responsible for Cary’s suicide. But “Anson never blamed himself for his part in the affair [because he believed] the situation which brought it about had not been of his making.” But there, of course, he is wrong.
His third mistake lies in the belief that when he is ready, Paula will be waiting. He is disturbed when he hears she has married someone else, but, as we have pointed out, Anson lives in a world characterized by “divorce and dissipation,” and he seems to feel Paula will come around on his timetable. What this basically amounts to is a belief that fate is on his side; it must be, because he was born rich. But the overriding lesson of Anson’s life is that of those to whom much is given, much is asked. Anson does not seem to realize that payback is a lifelong process.
Paula gives Anson every opportunity to claim the birthright that should have been his. She even gives him a second chance when she divorces the man she married on the rebound; Anson— who certainly should have been mature enough to “grow up” by then—does nothing, and Paula goes on to marry someone else. His fate is sealed when she reports to him that she is happy with her new life, and finally, when he learns she has died. She lived a whole lifetime in the period that Anson spent trying to grow from a rich boy to a man.
In this tragic but accurate depiction of the flip side of the American Dream, “The Rich Boy” is one of Fitzgerald’s most poignant stories.
“The Rich Boy” can be found in the collection The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection.
It is available in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon here.
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