Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Cut-Glass Bowl

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922


F. Scott Fitzgerald infused his stories with his first-hand observations of the optimism and glitter, the excesses and despair of the Jazz Age—a decade he called “the greatest, the gaudiest spree in history.” Published in 1920 as part of the collection Flappers and Philosophers, “The Cut-Glass Bowl” gives us Evelyn Piper, a New York housewife whose domestic tragedies and disappointments are connected by a single, insidious object. “Unlike Henry James’s golden bowl or even the pickle dish in Wharton’s Ethan Frome,” observes critic Alice Hall Petry in Fitzgerald’s Craft of Short Fiction, the “punch bowl is an ordinary serving bowl that sees plenty of mundane use in a middle-class household,” but it is also a reflection of its troubled owner. This important early work anticipates many of Fitzgerald’s later themes.

There was a rough stone age and a smooth stone age and a bronze age, and many years afterward a cut-glass age. In the cut-glass age, when young ladies had persuaded young men with long, curly mustaches to marry them, they sat down several months afterward and wrote thank-you notes for all sorts of cut-glass presents—punch-bowls, finger-bowls, dinner-glasses, wine-glasses, ice-cream dishes, bonbon dishes, decanters, and vases—for, though cut glass was nothing new in the nineties, it was then especially busy reflecting the dazzling light of fashion from the Back Bay to the fastnesses of the Middle West.

After the wedding the punch-bowls were arranged on the sideboard with the big bowl in the centre; the glasses were set up in the china-closet; the candlesticks were put at both ends of things—and then the struggle for existence began. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click the right button at the top of the reader to view the story in Google Docs or click here (PDF) to read it—free!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This went on my RSS feed instantly. Such a great idea, and a wonderful story to begin with. This is why you're my favorite publisher.

Roberta SchulbergGoro said...

Not worth the skim in insight..

mel said...

enjoyed the themes in the story...thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

What a startling horror story. Somehow I had missed it down the years, so thank you, Library of America.

Fitzgerald is an old favorite of mine, a status that I always feel needs a little jusifying, on one hand, while on the other hand, shouldn't. "The Cut-Glass Bowl", despite its richly fermented Fitzgerald flavor, may not quite succeed--we all have ungenerous postmodern taste buds--and Fitzgerald may not quite have pulled off the climactic metaphor in which the domestic object stands in for the force and cruelty of accident on human lives in the absence of all divine benevolence, but he gets his point across! And who's to argue with it? Well, a lucky few, but being lucky, they are making his point. When we remember that Fitzgerald wrote this story in his early twenties, his telepathic insights into the mutations of a marriage over time, among other things, are a reminder to the rest of us that he was a prodigy and we're not.

Then there is the opening sentence of "The Cut-Glass Bowl": fabulously funny and as modern as Twitter but not infatuated with inconsequence--a point (even if deriving from my wisecrack) that is useful, since a barrier between a reader and Fitgerald's work can be a reader's distrust of this author's attraction to the lives of useless social butterflies. It seems to me they aren't his topic, though, they are just his setting.

He also, at that young age, put himself inside a female mind. Male writers have always taken that license--why ever not?--but Fitzgerald, unusually, seemed to have a feel for women, however incompletely. Evylyn Piper stays with me.