“The Sensible Thing” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1924
The magic trick:
Punishing the protagonist by giving him what he wants
Fitzgerald was operating at a very high level when he wrote this, his boyish optimism and angry bitterness finding a perfect balance just before things in his life went south.
The Matthew Bruccoli-edited collection in which I read this compares ‘The Sensible Thing’ to The Great Gatsby, which Fitzgerald was writing at about the same time. So I certainly don’t mean to take credit for the Bruccoli’s connection, but I will write about it nonetheless because I find it very interesting.
Consider that Gatsby strives to recreate the past in order that he might win back his true love. Spoiler alert: he fails on both counts. Now, in ‘The Sensible Thing,’ George is trying to do the same thing. And you know what? He succeeds…. Kind of. (The quote marks in the title should be a clue that nothing is without irony here.)
George succeeds in winning back his true love. But even as he does so, he fails. He realizes, like Gatsby, that he can’t recreate the past. He can’t ever go back. He can’t remake the passion and romance that was once there. He can only win her heart now with finances and sense. There’s no mystery in that.
So, George’s end may not seem quite as bleak as the end Gatsby meets. But it’s not far off. And that’s quite a trick on Fitzgerald’s part.
The house loomed up suddenly beside him, and his first thought was that it had assumed a strange unreality. There was nothing changed — only everything was changed. It was smaller and it seemed shabbier than before — there was no cloud of magic hovering over its roof and issuing from the windows of the upper floor. He rang the door-bell and an unfamiliar colored maid appeared. Miss Jonquil would be down in a moment. He wet his lips nervously and walked into the sitting-room — and the feeling of unreality increased. After all, he saw, this was only a room, and not the enchanted chamber where he had passed those poignant hours. He sat in a chair, amazed to find it a chair, realizing that his imagination had distorted and colored all these simple familiar things.
Then the door opened and Jonquil came into the room — and it was as though everything in it suddenly blurred before his eyes. He had not remembered how beautiful she was, and he felt his face grow pale and his voice diminish to a poor sigh in his throat.