Roscoe’s son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin
stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other
tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would
cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realized that
those were things in which he was never to share.
The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to
the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the
bright shining strips of paper were for. He cried because the other
boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher
talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not
understand at all.
He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana, in her starched
gingham dress, became the center of his tiny world. On bright days
they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and
say “elephant,” and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was
being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud
to her: “Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant.” Sometimes Nana let him jump on
the bed, which was fun, because if you sat down exactly right it would
bounce you up on your feet again, and if you said “Ah” for a long time
while you jumped you got a very pleasing broken vocal effect.
He loved to take a big cane from the hat-rack and go around hitting
chairs and tables with it and saying: “Fight, fight, fight.” When
there were people there the old ladies would cluck at him, which
interested him, and the young ladies would try to kiss him, which he
submitted to with mild boredom. And when the long day was done at five
o’clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice
soft mushy foods with a spoon.
There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token
came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when
he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe
walls of his crib and Nana and a man who came to see him sometimes,
and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his
twilight bed hour and called “sun.” When the sun went his eyes were
sleepy–there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
The past–the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the
first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk
down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days
before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old
Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather-all these had faded
like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been.
He did not remember.
He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his
last feeding or how the days passed–there was only his crib and
Nana’s familiar presence. And then he remembered nothing. When he was
hungry he cried–that was all. Through the noons and nights he
breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he
scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and
Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved
above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether
from his mind.
It is not a secret that Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about the boy who ages has got somewhat forgotten in the shade of his most famous story, The Great Gatsby. Even so, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (1922) provides an insightful look to some ways in which authors have approached the idea of the end. Most prominently, the extract comments on the process leading up to the end of one’s mortal life. This process is not only communicated through the thematic content, but it is also an integral part of the structural fundament of the story. Suitably, this extract that is placed at the end of the story simultaneously depicts the end of Benjamin Button’s life.
The extract begins with the descriptive sentence: “Roscoe’s son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten”. This somewhat factual tone permeates the story as the omniscient, third person narrator is dethatched from the content. Nevertheless, the story is built on intertwining contrasts, and thus, in spite of the factual descriptions, there is gentleness in the tone. To some extent the story focuses superficial matters, and initially the exterior serves as a gateway to Benjamin’s emotions and thoughts, as exemplified through the following quote:
“Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realized that those were things in which he was never to share.”
We understand that he realizes that his fate is different than those of the other children, but it is the description of his exterior that suggests that he is troubled. Even so, there is no indication of anger, suggesting that he has accepted his path, and how it will cease. It is also worth noting that the story is told in retrospect, so these events have already taken place, which suggests the narrator has gathered the information of Benjamin’s story and retold it in their own way, much like the reader constructs their own story from the impressions they are given.
Throughout the extract, Fitzgerald ties together the ideas of infancy and elderliness. It is a fantastical story, but if read as an allegory, it remains closely connected to reality. Benjamin lives in a retirement home with his nurse, ‘Nana’. The simplified speech reminds us of that of a baby and, “Nana” resembles the word “Nanny”, a term closely associated with childcare. Yet the setting is a retirement home – naturally associated with old age. Furthermore ‘Nana’ feeds him “nice soft mushy food”, which once again is something that can be related to both child and eldercare. It suggests that the distinction between the beginning and the end of one’s life are not as different as they seem.
Another technique used to bring these seemingly polar states together is the use of adjectives. We learn about Benjamin’s “tiny world” and his ”childish sleep”. It also comes through via his repetitive speech such as when with childlike excitement exclaims the misspelled words “Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant”. The literal image of Benjamin becoming a child is depicted, but there are clear connotations to an elderly person falling into dementia. Benjamin thus is returning to the beginning. Subsequently, the end is portrayed as something circular. This further demonstrates the paradoxical idea of the ending as something definite, yet infinite, as it returns to the beginning.
Benjamin’s life resembles a circle, but the events leading up to the ending is depicted as a slow and steady ‘monotonous’ journey of degeneration. He goes through the stages of growing up, but in reverse, and a clear process can be outlined. Like a toddler he enjoys playing energetic games, making the old ladies ‘cluck’, while welcoming their kisses and cuddling with ‘mild boredom’. The younger he gets, the shorter and less reflective his thoughts become. Instead, Benjamin becomes reliant on sensations such as the ‘white, safe walls of his crib’, or the ‘warm sweet aroma of the milk’ as ‘no troublesome memories’ from his ‘glittering years’ can haunt him any longer. And in the very end, there is nothing left but basic instincts until, finally, it is all goes ‘dark’. Fitzgerald’s use of a vivid and poetic language gives rise to sense of a bittersweet ending. The language used creates a beautiful image, and speaks to many of our senses, while the content is discouraging, as Benjamin is forgetting who he once was. Fitzgerald unifies the ideas of youth and but still challenges the idea of the end, as there is a tension between language and content. Thus, the ambiguity surrounding the idea of the ending shines through.
To intensify that bittersweet nature of the ending, the narrator illuminates some of Benjamin’s most ‘loved’ memories that have ‘faded’ from his mind. Benjamin seems rather content with his seemingly careless existence, but there is a tension created by the narrator as the reader becomes aware of what he is losing. The bulk of paragraph six depicts fond memories from his life, including his marriage and memories of his grandfather. This lengthy reflection is juxtaposed to the very short sentence “He did not remember”. This once again comments on the ambiguous and intricate idea of the ending, in relation to both death and fiction. There is a conflict between the characters’ and the audience’s experience since those who remain left after the ending is left with their thoughts.
Ultimately, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is an excellent example of an ending that seems to agree with Eliot’s view that in many cases, the ending is in a return to the beginning. It embodies the paradoxical nature of the ending since the closing of a circle one the one hand symbolizes just that – a closure, yet simultaneously infinity since it never will cease to circulate. The story may not have received, as much attention as Fitzgerald’s other stories, but it is beautifully crafted piece of fiction that gives rise to many ideas about life and the inevitable journey into the afterlife.