Sure, the fact that “Winter Dreams” is a short story and not a book means I’m fudging the rules a little bit for today’s entry in 15 Books, but such is life. Hit the jump for reflections on what is quite possibly my all-time favorite short story, plus a link to the full text. (This entry is pretty heavy on the autobiography, so I apologize in advance. Bear with me, and I’ll have something lighter for you tomorrow.)
12: “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ten years ago today, I became an atheist. “Winter Dreams” is a big part of why that didn’t stick. The short story may not be one of Fitzgerald’s greatest works, and I certainly don’t think it’s his best, but it caught me at just the right moment to be completely arresting. Even though I know I should probably find its message heavy-handed, “Winter Dreams” is proof to me that a good story really has the power to do more than just entertain–it can sway a person’s thoughts and shape their opinions. And though that is a fact that advertisers, marketers, public relations professionals and politicians all know and use, the best and most honest stories often work to completely unexpected effects.
“Winter Dreams” is one of those stories.
While I liked Stephen King and Michael Chrichton as much as any teenaged guy, I think that by the time I was 16 I had also been exposed to a relatively fair amount of timeless narrative art: I had loved Beowulf from the age of 10 (more on that later in the list), Casablanca was already well on its way to supplanting The Crow as my favorite movie, and I had seen just enough Shakespeare to have a favorite production of As You Like It (a Connecticut-based community theater troupe in a small classroom surrounded by the audience with no props, sets or seats). But until I was 16, I only knew F. Scott Fitzgerald as “the guy who wrote that book that Andy Kaufman read at Arizona State.”
I was sitting in English class when I read “Winter Dreams,” during one of those time-wasting stretches where a teacher pads out their lesson plan by assigning in-class reading under the pretense that when everyone is done we will discuss what we read, with everyone tacitly promising the teacher to ignore the fact that we all know half the class won’t be able to finish reading that quickly. The story follows the aspirations of Dexter Green, and the way in which his pursuit of a beautiful, capricious young woman is driven by his class envy and social insecurities. As a boy, he is embarrassed to have to caddy a golf course for pocket money; as a young man, a moderate success allows him to play the fields he once caddied, and makes him one of a dozen suitors entertained by Judy Jones.
I identified fairly strongly with Dexter–even though the outer shapes of our ambitions were very different I felt some kind of affinity at the cores. Did I feel some form of Dexter’s class insecurity? Maybe a shadow of it. More resonant with me was his intellectual ambition, as I had always suspected that I wasn’t as smart or insightful as my closest friends. (I’ve long-since learned to relish that fact, but as a teenager, it made me nervous.)
Eventually, Dexter gets engaged to another girl, but breaks it off at Judy’s behest, only for Judy to leave him a month later. That would have been stinger enough of an ending, but Fitzgerald took things a decade further: Dexter leaves his business, fights in World War I, and then comes back and finally finds success in New York. In the end, a thirty-something Dexter learns offhandedly that Judy Jones’ life is now what he would consider “ordinary,” and her beauty has faded. That’s when Fitzgerald unleashes a fairly blunt four paragraphs that nonetheless achieve something almost alchemic:
He had thought that having nothing else to lose he was invulnerable at last–but he knew that he had just lost something more, as surely as if he had married Judy Jones and seen her fade away before his eyes.
The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. In a sort of panic he pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes and tried to bring up a picture of the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck’s soft down. And her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why, these things were no longer in the world! They had existed and they existed no longer.
For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.
“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
It felt as though something I didn’t realize I had been leaning on had been taken away. I looked up from my big Norton anthology and tried to steady myself in my seat, as I had suddenly become dizzy. I had identified with Dexter so easily, and yet everything he had built his life and heart on was made to collapse by something as inevitable as youth fading. That scared me.
It was around that time that I started to make the journey away from atheism through eastern religions toward theism that eventually led me to the gospel, and in hindsight that fact makes perfect sense. But in the moment, that was all subtext. My only thought at the time was that I needed to learn how to do whatever it was Fitzgerald had just done to me.