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Re-posting Blog on Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams
F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1917

 

This is one of my earliest blogs, from 2009.  I'm still getting comments on it, so I'm re-posting.  

Even if it weren't initially written as a preface to The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Winter Dreams" would continue to be widely anthologized and  read.  Matthew Bruccoli describes the story as Fitzgerald's "meditation on mutability."  The theme of disillusionment is made manifest when Dexter feels a major disappointment:  a woman he loved, Judy Jones, is fading.  This disappointment makes the narrator lose interest in life.

            The first several readings of "Winter Dreams" evoke a story that concentrates on the more ephemeral aspects of male / female relationships; Judy Jones, the object of Dexter's winter dreams, is a light spirit.  In further readings, though, Judy becomes a dramatically physical presence; sensual, even sexual.  Fitzgerald's prose may have disclosed more sexuality than he'd intended.  This is revealed when he introduces her into the story at a very tender age:

. . . The little girl who had done this was eleven--beautifully ugly as little girls are apt to be who are destined after a few years to be inexpressibly lovely and bring no end of misery to a great number of men. The spark, however, was perceptible. There was a general ungodliness in the way her lips twisted down at the corners when she smiled, and in the--Heaven help us!--in the almost passionate quality of her eyes. . . .

When she's introduced a second time, she's older, playing golf.  She hits one of the men with a golf ball.  We're in Dexter's mind as he describes her and how she's changed:

The quality of exaggeration, of thinness, which had made her passionate eyes and down-turning mouth absurd at eleven, was gone now. She was arrestingly beautiful. The color in her cheeks was centered like the color in a picture--it was not a "high" color, but a sort of fluctuating and feverish warmth, so shaded that it seemed at any moment it would recede and disappear. This color and the mobility of her mouth gave a continual impression of flux, of intense life, of passionate vitality--balanced only partially by the sad luxury of her eyes.

The men react in different ways to this very young girl:

"My God, she's good-looking!" said Mr. Sandwood, who was just over thirty.

"Good-looking!" cried Mr. Hedrick contemptuously, "she always looks as if she wanted to be kissed! Turning those big cow-eyes on every calf in town!"

It was doubtful if Mr. Hedrick intended a reference to the maternal instinct.

"She'd play pretty good golf if she'd try," said Mr. Sandwood.

"She has no form," said Mr. Hedrick solemnly.

"She has a nice figure," said Mr. Sandwood.

The observed sensuality of this conversation can't be ignored.  Not only does her mouth always look like it wants to be kissed, when one of the foursome makes a comment about her form, another says bluntly that she has a nice figure.

            Her lips are an invitation a when she had Dexter over to her father's house.

. . . During dinner she slipped into a moody depression which gave Dexter a feeling of uneasiness. Whatever petulance she uttered in her throaty voice worried him. Whatever she smiled at--at him, at a chicken liver, at nothing--it disturbed him that her smile could have no root in mirth, or even in amusement. When the scarlet corners of her lips curved down, it was less a smile than an invitation to a kiss.

A page later Dexter gets his first taste of those lips.  The description seems sexless at first but grows a bit steamier on rereading.  He's rewarded for telling her he has money.  The first line is Judy's:

"Are you poor?"

"No," he said frankly, "I'm probably making more money than any man my age in the Northwest. I know that's an obnoxious remark, but you advised me to start right."

There was a pause. Then she smiled and the corners of her mouth drooped and an almost imperceptible sway brought her closer to him, looking up into his eyes. A lump rose in Dexter's throat, and he waited breathless for the experiment, facing the unpredictable compound that would form mysteriously from the elements of their lips. Then he saw--she communicated her excitement to him, lavishly, deeply, with kisses that were not a promise but a fulfillment. They aroused in him not hunger demanding renewal but surfeit that would demand more surfeit . . . kisses that were like charity, creating want by holding back nothing at all.

Writing for the popular magazines, this is about as far as Fitzgerald could go on the passion scale.  Later in the same section we learn what Dexter perceives to be her motivation:

Whatever Judy wanted, she went after with the full pressure of her charm. There was no divergence of method, no jockeying for position or premeditation of effects--there was a very little mental side to any of her affairs. She simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physical loveliness. Dexter had no desire to change her. Her deficiencies were knit up with a passionate energy that transcended and justified them.

While it may be inappropriate to overemphasize the word ‘affairs' in the passage above, her charms were clearly less spiritual than physical.  This is emphasized quite specifically a few paragraphs later:

. . .  if any of these assailed her too strongly she would immediately resolve the affair to a physical basis, and under the magic of her physical splendor the strong as well as the brilliant played her game and not their own. She was entertained only by the gratification of her desires and by the direct exercise of her own charm. Perhaps from so much youthful love, so many youthful lovers, she had come, in self-defense, to nourish herself wholly from within.

Succeeding Dexter's first exhilaration came restlessness and dissatisfaction. The helpless ecstasy of losing himself in her was opiate rather than tonic. It was fortunate for his work during the winter that those moments of ecstasy came infrequently.

            Is there really more than one way to explicate a phrase like "the gratification of her own desires"?  This is mixed up in Dexter Green's mind with marriage.  While the words he has to describe her are sensual, and it appears that he's been intimate with her, he still can't "have" her . . . furthermore her shortcomings as a wife make it difficult for him to know exactly what he wants:

When autumn had come and gone again it occurred to him that he could not have Judy Jones. He had to beat this into his mind but he convinced himself at last. He lay awake at night for a while and argued it over. He told himself the trouble and the pain she had caused him; he enumerated her glaring deficiencies as a wife.

Given this reading, it appears that Dexter's dilemma is as much trying to solve the strange calculus of sex-vs.-practicality as it is the ephemeral loss of dreams.  This is underscored by his spending one last night with Judy before he returns to his practical choice of a mate.  This is brought up when, with his fiancée ill, he and Judy negotiate where he will stay:

. . .fire and loveliness were gone, the magic of nights and the wonder of the varying hours and seasons . . . slender lips, down-turning, dropping to his lips and bearing him up into a heaven of eyes. . . . The thing was deep in him. He was too strong and alive for it to die lightly.

"I'm more beautiful than anybody else," she said brokenly, "why can't I be happy?" Her moist eyes tore at his stability--her mouth turned slowly downward with an exquisite sadness: "I'd like to marry you if you'll have me, Dexter. I suppose you think I'm not worth having, but I'll be so beautiful for you, Dexter."

A million phrases of anger, pride, passion, hatred, tenderness fought on his lips. Then a perfect wave of emotion washed over him, carrying off with it a sediment of wisdom, of convention, of doubt, of honor. This was his girl who was speaking, his own, his beautiful, his pride.

"Won't you come in?" He heard her draw in her breath sharply.

Waiting.

"All right," his voice was trembling, "I'll come in."

These words end the penultimate section of the story.  In case the reader be confused as to where Dexter stood on this dalliance-while-engaged, Fitzgerald clears it up with the first sentence of the next section:

IT WAS STRANGE that neither when it was over nor a long time afterward did he regret that night.

Fitzgerald set up Dexter Green as a stereotypic Midwestern American hero.  This required a deep understanding of the culture from which his hero arose.  Some of the attributes of this kind of hero are: a) a self-made man, rising from the middle class, b) hard-working and not overly self-analytic, and c) master of his economic fate, a Midwesterner who can "make it in New York."

With the story's first two sentences, Fitzgerald begins pinpointing the precise sociological class from which Dexter springs.

"Some of the caddies were poor as sin and lived in one-room houses with a neurasthenic cow in the front yard, but Dexter Green's father owned the second best grocery-store in Black Bear--the best one was "The Hub," patronized by the wealthy people from Sherry Island--and Dexter caddied only for pocket-money.

In the fall when the days became crisp and gray, and the long Minnesota winter shut down like the white lid of a box, Dexter's skis moved over the snow that hid the fairways of the golf course. . . ."

While poor enough to caddy rather than play golf-a major difference in the American Midwest-Dexter carries members' clubs ‘for pocket-money,' and, in the winter, he skis.  Sociologically, he starts in the upper lower class or the lower upper class.  Fitzgerald has him start life right where we like our Midwestern heroes to begin-in the middle.  Note also the use of detail for mimetic purposes:  the second-best grocery store in Black Bear.

But the characterization that quickly delineates Dexter as something special is contained in the comments made about him by Mortimer Jones.  Rather than have the protagonist describe himself as a carrier of Midwestern values, Fitzgerald has one of the elite club members do his descriptive work. 

In the central story, revolving around Dexter's winter dreams, he fantasizes himself as a great golfer or diver, awing an audience which includes club members, one of whom is Mortimer Jones.  The narrative moves from this reverie directly into an interlude with the real-life Jones.  This is the only quoted narration that integrates the major story with Fitzgerald's background characterization work.  (Each of the other paragraphs Fitzgerald uses to create a Midwestern American hero is highly omniscient and separate from the ongoing narrative.)  This is the text that immediately follows Dexter's fantasy as a great golfer or diver:

"And one day it came to pass that Mr. Jones--himself and not his ghost--came up to Dexter with tears in his eyes and said that Dexter was the----best caddy in the club, and wouldn't he decide not to quit if Mr. Jones made it worth his while, because every other caddy in the club lost one ball a hole for him-- regularly----

"No, sir," said Dexter decisively, "I don't want to caddy any more." Then, after a pause: "I'm too old."

"You're not more than fourteen. Why the devil did you decide just this morning that you wanted to quit? You promised that next week you'd go over to the State tournament with me."

"I decided I was too old."

Dexter handed in his "A Class" badge, collected what money was due him from the caddy master, and walked home to Black Bear Village.

"The best----caddy I ever saw," shouted Mr. Mortimer Jones over a drink that afternoon. "Never lost a ball! Willing! Intelligent! Quiet! Honest! Grateful!"

The little girl who had done this was eleven. . . ."

Note the detail:  the "state tournament and the 'A Class' badge."  The narration is omniscient, even though, because the narration's point of view is so very close to that of Dexter Green, a reader might expect the point of view to be limited to Dexter's perspective.

Matthew J. Bruccoli, in Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), notes that the quality of narration sets this story apart:

One distinction of "Winter Dreams" is Fitzgerald's control of the narrative voice.  The story is told by the third-person omniscient author, who freely comments on the action but whose sensibility is scarcely distinguishable from the hero's; Fitzgerald thereby achieved the effect of immediacy while retaining the impression of perspective.  As Dexter Green's meditation on mutability demonstrates, "Winter Dreams" is one of the stories in which Fitzgerald strikingly achieved what is the mark of his best work: the multiplication of meaning through style and tone." (p.173).

Had Fitzgerald written a first-person narrative, it might have been difficult to allow the character enough self-awareness to realize he was filling a hero's shoes.  Through omniscient narration, Fitzgerald (and one of the ancillary characters, Mortimer Jones) can paint the heroic fable.

Fitzgerald ends his first section with a series of scenes from the main story line in which, because of the hauntingly attractive eleven-year-old daughter of Mr. Mortimer Jones, like Updike's narrator in "A & P, years later, he quits his caddying job.

In the second paragraph of the second section, Fitzgerald continues the Midwestern-heroic mythology of Dexter Green.

He made money. It was rather amazing. . . . Dexter borrowed a thousand dollars on his college degree and his confident mouth, and bought a partnership in a laundry.

It was a small laundry when he went into it but Dexter made a specialty of learning how the English washed fine woolen golf-stockings without shrinking them, and within a year he was catering to the trade that wore knickerbockers. Men were insisting that their Shetland hose and sweaters go to his laundry just as they had insisted on a caddy who could find golf balls. A little later he was doing their wives' lingerie as well--and running five branches in different parts of the city. Before he was twenty-seven he owned the largest string of laundries in his section of the country. It was then that he sold out and went to New York. . . .

After this summary narrative, Fitzgerald flashes back to two encounters between Mortimer Jones' daughter and Dexter Green, but it is in the two paragraphs above that, through specific mimetic career details, we see that self-made set of values, proclivities, and character that comprise a Midwestern American hero.  He earned a college degree from a respected university-but this is touched upon lightly, and, rather than being portrayed as an intellectual accomplishment, is described as a step toward building a laundry empire.  He borrows "a thousand dollars on his college degree and his confident mouth."  His success is based on doing things in the real world-finding golf balls and laundering Shetland hose and sweaters and "their wives' lingerie as well."  With ever more success under his belt, Dexter took the most catapulting of Midwestern career steps-he moved to New York.                       

Although Fitzgerald advances his narrative line concerning Judy Jones and her effect on Dexter Green in the third section of the story (see Part I), he once again uses the second paragraph of the section to go into more detail on the specific kind of American hero Dexter Green is:

When the time had come for him to wear good clothes, he had known who were the best tailors in America, and the best tailors in America had made him the suit he wore this evening. He had acquired that particular reserve peculiar to his university, that set it off from other universities. He recognized the value to him of such a mannerism and he had adopted it; he knew that to be careless in dress and manner required more confidence than to be careful. But carelessness was for his children. His mother's name had been Krimslich. She was a Bohemian of the peasant class and she had talked broken English to the end of her days. Her son must keep to the set patterns.

Reams of real-world social analysis are contained in the last four lines of this paragraph, or even in two sentences, "But carelessness was for his children. His mother's name had been Krimslich."  This, in the America Fitzgerald grew up in and seemed to know so well, was all that needed to be known-coming from such a disadvantaged background, Dexter must keep himself in check.  This revelation is interesting for two reasons.  First, it is the only blemish on the created hero's otherwise-perfect complexion.  Secondly, it is revealed to the reader only after the protagonist is a financial success.  If this blemish had been mentioned earlier, it would have created a different sort of hero, one who was overcoming the prejudice of class distinctions.  But the way Fitzgerald mentions it late, it seems to be merely a minor attribute to keep Dexter from going off the deep end.

The remainder of the third section and the fourth section advance the main story by delineating how Judy and Dexter progress-or don't progress-as a couple.  It isn't until the second paragraph (once again, the second paragraph) of the fifth section that we have further outside character development of Dexter:

Dexter was at bottom hard-minded. The attitude of the city on his action was of no importance to him, not because he was going to leave the city, but because any outside attitude on the situation seemed superficial. He was completely indifferent to popular opinion.  . . .

He went East in February with the intention of selling out his laundries and settling in New York--but the war came to America in March and changed his plans. He returned to the West, handed over the management of the business to his partner, and went into the first officers' training-camp in late April. He was one of those young thousands who greeted the war with a certain amount of relief, welcoming the liberation from webs of tangled emotion.

This furthers the portrait of the straight, hard-working businessman.  Of tangential interest is the unexpected reaction to the war, as a liberator of men's emotions.

In introducing the story's final section, Fitzgerald takes the first two paragraphs to give the reader further perspective on Dexter Green.  As carefully as Fitzgerald has built his character, he almost dismisses him, lightly apologizing to the reader for taking up so much time with Dexter Green:

This story is not his biography, remember, although things creep into it which have nothing to do with those dreams he had when he was young. We are almost done with them and with him now. There is only one more incident to be related here, and it happens seven years farther on.

It took place in New York, where he had done well--so well that there were no barriers too high for him. He was thirty-two years old, and, except for one flying trip immediately after the war, he had not been West in seven years. A man named Devlin from Detroit came into his office to see him in a business way, and then and there this incident occurred, and closed out, so to speak, this particular side of his life.

The most quoted lines of "Winter Dreams" come at its ending.   While the lines resonate with the major story, the disappointment of a man who fell in love with a ghost who disappeared, the lines are also dependent upon the reader's acceptance that Dexter Green had emotions worth caring about.  ". . . "Long ago," he [Dexter] 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."

DEC.11.2009 - 5:42 AMComment Bubble TipThis is indeed an amazing

This is indeed an amazing quote: "Long ago," he [Dexter] 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 spooked me. I felt it expressed something I have written in my journals for a long time. To be moved. To relate. To just know. All make for self-reflection. As if I haven't done much of that!

Wonderful read and looking forward to more.

brenden-allen's pictureBrenden AllenMAR.09.2012 - 6:25 PMComment Bubble TipSir,Kudos to you for this

Sir,

Kudos to you for this exceptionally insightful analysis of Fitzgerald's classic story.  Having come from humble midwestern origins and risen to a more comfortable lifestyle and social status through education and hard work myself, I find it easy to identify with Dexter as one who moves from naivete to more self-awareness and loss of innocence if not jadedness.  

 Since Fitzgerald's own life evolved in a similar pattern, of course, this story has  obvious autobiographical implications for him that resonate in my own consciousness as well.  So the simple line "That thing will come back no more" has a personal meaning too profound and sobering for  mere words to adequately capture or express.