Amazon Prime has a new show called Z which follows the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, starting from around the time she met her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I watched the pilot during the pilot season more than a year ago and was immediately hooked. It doesn’t hurt that Christina Ricci is an amazing actress and the Modernist time period is one of extreme interest. A few months ago, I read an article on the women behind the men whose names we all know, while the women, who actually did the work, are hardly known to most of us. Zelda was one of these women, and in the brief history of her life that was given, my whole world and my trust in all the American Literature courses I took in both high school and college was completely destroyed. Suddenly, I understood the social justice warriors’ need to force our schools to shape up. Because the truth behind the juggernaut that is F. Scott Fitzgerald destroys any enjoyment I ever had of his work. But this isn’t just about how horror music should play in Amazon’s show when Zelda meets Fitzgerald. It’s about how two real life couples, in the same time period, in the same creative business, with very similar personal hardships and backgrounds, resulted in two completely different outcomes, both tragic, but one absolutely outraging.
So many people hated Jim from Passengers and they hate the movie for forcing Aurora for forgiving him and they hate her for doing so. I love this movie and I love Jim and Aurora, and it’s not just because it’s interesting sci-fi or that Jim and Aurora are played by two of the hottest and funniest and, it turns out, most talented actors of our age, though that helps a lot. We all know that Jennifer Lawrence is an amazing actor. She kills all her parts. I was not expecting Chris Pratt to deliver the same level of skill in that movie. Now, I remember the trailers presenting the film as a sci-fi romance, and to some extent it is, but it is more of a satirical examination on romance and what some people consider romantic. Many people would say that that statement is a little too deep for such a film, especially because it just makes them so uncomfortable. But uncomfortableness from fiction is usually a sign of a theme that no one likes to think about. People often display outrage at satire that is totally justified but they aim at the creators of the piece and not at the idea they are showcasing as messed up.
We see this a lot on Swift’s A Modest Proposal. It happened when he wrote it, and it still happens today in our college classrooms. I don’t remember realizing that Swift wasn’t serious about eating Irish children. I just know that I knew that. Too often teachers have to explain to students that Swift is trying to create outrage in the English people against the mistreatment of the Irish by bringing that mistreatment to a ridiculous level. This happened in the last century again on the stage production of Caberet, which has a song wherein a man dances with a gorilla, saying how much he loves her and how everyone treats him like a pariah for his love. At the end of the song, he drops the bomb that she’s Jewish. There was a protest over this by a Jewish organization because they didn’t get the idea that the song was pointing out that that is how the Nazis thought about miscegenators, not how the minds behind the song felt, and wasn’t that just a messed up way of thinking about Jewish people and those who loved them. Sigh. I hate having to explain satire. It hurts to do so.
But I will explain how Passengers actually is satire here because I am tired of all the hate it gets. Most romance movies are under fire right now for showing stalking, harassment, and sexual assault as “chasing” or “courting” and thereby, acceptable. Passengers dives right into that debate with more vehemence than any journalist or debater is capable of. The trailers somewhat misled people into thinking that Passengers would be like any other romance movie: sweet, light-hearted, and sexy in it’s presentation of their relationship with a bit of disaster thriller thrown in there for conflict. The truth of the movie far more interesting. Jim, who wakes up alone ninety years early, tries his best to make the best of the worst possible situation. He has no way of fixing his situation and he holds out against his two only choices for as long as he can. Those two choices: kill himself or consign another person to his same fate. Being alone is only a choice in stasis. As long as he is alive, he is constantly going to be battling those two choices. He nearly kills himself. Then he becomes obsessed with Aurora, in a way of self-medicating his loneliness, much like any stalker does. But unlike a real stalker, Jim has no misunderstandings that waking up Aurora is wrong. Stalkers believe the other person loves them and they believe they have a relationship. Jim knows they don’t and knows he has no right to wake her up. There are several scenes wherein Jim debates doing it, shows extreme self-hatred for even considering it, and begs himself not to do it. But I argue that the movie showed Jim going through every possible other option of living in his situation for as long as he could before this was the only thing he could do to survive. I also argue that by showing Jim as a normal guy at the beginning, nervous and excited to meet the other passengers and even smiling at the second word he uttered upon waking up (“Friends”), that not only were they trying to show that anyone in his situation would choose to wake someone up but that Jim fought the urge as long as he could which was torture for him considering the fact that he is an extrovert. We would all do what Jim did. Only an actual hermit wouldn’t wake up someone else. We are all Jim, and we are all capable of this horror.
Does that make it okay? Of course not, and the movie says so. When Aurora finds out that Jim woke her up, the cinematography and music shift dramatically from low-key romance to thriller and horror styles. The point of view of the shots also focus on her instead of him, in contrast to the previous scenes of the film. The movie makes no bones about whose side you should be on: hers. As such, the film does a brilliant job of showing how typical film romance tropes are in real life dangerous and sometimes violating. You are meant to be outraged, revolted, and uncomfortable. And frankly, you should feel that way when you watch a bunch of other romance movies. If the man lies, stalks, harasses, or manhandles (something Jim never does) the woman, you should feel that way. Regardless of the tone the film presents. Passengers sets the romantic tone before she finds out to juxtapose it with the reality which is horrifying, and when that tone flips with her new knowledge of his lies and stalking, near murder and some would argue rape through misleading circumstances, it is drastic and we all feel it viscerally. It is in the movie. The shot does that Hitchcock move that throws the layout off kilter, her face is a silent scream, and the music warps from smooth, caressing notes into discordant and painful sounds. The following scenes show her fear and her anger. When he tries to explain himself over the PA and she screams that she doesn’t care, we all get it, and so does Jim who stops trying to explain himself. When she attacks Jim, we all get it, and so does Jim who doesn’t even defend himself. She is now the center of the movie and his violation of her is the focus. The only reason we and Aurora don’t want him dead is because he doesn’t defend himself from her. He acquests in that moment that what he did was worthy of death and she has every right to do it to him. He already hates himself for what he did, and he is completely prepared to die in reprepration. Some may argue that because he did date her and have sex with her that he only hated himself after he was caught. I counter that the dating period allowed him to forget on a conscious level what he did, but because he was doing everything he could to be the most movie perfect romantic boyfriend ever wasn’t just a way of the film again playing off romantic tropes but also from a character standpoint, born out his extreme guilt. As if he could offset what he did by being absolutely perfect in every possible way for her.
Jim again proves that he is ready to die to make up for what he did at the climax of the movie. Why does Aurora try so hard to save him? She says she can’t live without him. I believe when she realized that he was possibly going to die, that she also realized that if he did, she would have to live the rest of her life alone, the prospect of which was more terrifying than living with him. This fear also made her further realize that that was what Jim faced and what he did was completely understandable, not justifiable, but also irresistible. Why does she forgive him? That’s easy. He found a way to fix what he did. Jim found that he could put Aurora back to sleep, and then he told her about it. He let her choose whether or not she would do it. It wasn’t that he saved the ship or was willing to die to save the ship. It was that he was willing to go back to being alone, meaning he would let her go, and die (probably within a year because he would commit suicide) without her all based on her choice alone. That’s why Passengers is a real romance. It’s not perfect. It is in fact painful and hurtful at times. But it is truthful, and Jim learns that it is about letting Aurora make her own decisions. This makes Passengers better than most romances.
On a side note, I found the final point of decision to be contrived and flawed. The idea that there is only one Autodoc for 5500 people is insane. There was a way to create this same point of decision without that flaw: someone had to be outside the Autodoc to activate it. Voila! Problem solved and impact intact.
But why is Passengers so important to how I feel about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Leonard and Virginia Woolf? It’s because it showcases a troubled relationship in a perfect balance and in a way, Leonard and Virginia Woolf are similar to Jim and Aurora, only often the roles were reversed. While the Woolfs make me think of how similar the Fitzgeralds’ situation was and how perverted their relationship was. The Fitzgeralds’ relationship is the way most people see Passengers. Only, in my opinion, even worse than people see Passengers. So I guess we should get to it.
Virginia Woolf née Stephen born in 1882 suffered many nervous breakdowns since she was a young teenager and was even institutionalized. Her mental health issues, which were often manifested as depressive episodes, were thought to be caused by sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brothers and brought to the forefront by the loss of family members, such as her mother, a brother, her father, etc. It is believed that Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder as opposed to major depressive disorder. But before her marriage to Leonard Woolf was not entirely a time of unhappiness for Woolf. She, in fact, took part in a hoax, along with Leonard Woolf. Leonard also happened to be a writer, though he would never reach the notoriety that Virginia would. I have heard, however, that before they married no one told him that Virginia had suffered multiple breakdowns, preventing her unstable mental health from scaring him off. If true, it is a serious lie, but given the times, also understandable. To read Woolf’s journal entries pertaining to him though, one clearly understands how much she loved him.
Zelda Fitzgerald née Sayre was born on the other side of the Atlantic, eighteen years after Woolf. Zelda was always a very outgoing person. She liked parties and often lead the charge of her social groups in the changing ways of her times. She very much liked being the center of attention, shown in her long-running relationship with the ballet. She also liked to flout social conventions and started rumors about herself skinny-dipping. Her life very much encapsulated carpe diem. All this along with what would become of her later, however, has led many people both in her personal and professional life and those looking back on her biographically to believe that she was mentally disturbed in someway. This actually seems unlikely to me. Many people who are simply different or just don’t like the way society wishes them to act are erroneously considered mentally ill. Though I do believe that the circumstances of Zelda’s life led to mental instability, though so did F. Scott Fitzgerald’s.
The Woolfs married, and I wish I could say, they lived happily ever after, but that was not to be. Virginia and Leonard started a publishing company together that often did not do well financially. Then they met a popular writer of the time, Vita Sackville-West, who loved Virginia and helped boost her self-confidence, pushed her to write more, and starting publishing with the Woolfs’ company as a way of helping support them financially. Not only was she there for them in those ways, but Virginia and her started a romantic liaison of sorts. Leonard knew about this and didn’t take issue with it. In fact, the couple set their relationship as an open one. To many people, this would appear to mean troubled waters in a relationship, but Virginia and Leonard never expressed any bitterness or resentment over their extramarital relationships. This is obvious in Virginia’s diary and her suicide note to Leonard, expressing nothing but love for him and guilt over her illness and how it affected him. Some may argue that the guilt was a sign that he blamed Virginia for her illness, but depressed people often feel like they are dragging down their loved ones and that their death would free them. It doesn’t seem to matter how much their loved ones express the falsehood of this belief. As such, I don’t believe that Leonard ever truly pushed Virginia to believe her illness or herself were an albatross in his life. I don’t believe her expressions of love for him could be so heartfelt if that were true.
The Fitzgeralds married once he got his first novel published (a common occurrence for couples to wait for financial success of the man at the time) and moved to New York. The two blazed through the party scene, surprising everyone with their antics. The two drank to excess and only slightly slowed down once she became pregnant. Even then though, the two didn’t let parenthood stop the party. During this time Zelda no longer performed in any ballet and really only wrote sporadically, though she continued to write in her diary regularly, as many women and writers, such as Virginia Woolf, did at the time. This diary became a point of contention between the Fitzgeralds, not for anything that Zelda wrote, but because F. Scott would steal entries from the diary to include in his novels. Parts of The Great Gatsby are taken straight from her own writing about her life. Zelda was even once asked to write a review of her husband’s latest novel, upon which she discovered the bits of her diary in the novel and stated that Fitzgerald believed that plagiarism began in the home. While written in a flippant tone, one could understand the underlying resentment that would begin to fester. Once the two moved to France, F. Scott met Ernest Hemingway, who did not get along with Zelda, and spent less time with her. In this period, Zelda grew close with another man and asked for a divorce. F. Scott’s reaction was nothing less than abusive and mentally unstable: he locked Zelda in their house until she gave up. Let me restate that: he imprisoned his wife who was asking for a divorce until her will was worn down. The two of them, at this point, really couldn’t stand each other. I’m not sure why F. Scott resented her so much, when she was the one with all the cause for feelings of resentment, except to say that he didn’t like that he couldn’t control her, which her wildness is what attracted him to her in the first place. At one point, the two went back to the States because Zelda’s father was dying. F. Scott did not stick around for his passing, instead, going off to Hollywood to begin writing scripts. After her father passed, Zelda was in and out of mental hospitals with F. Scott barely around. During one of these hospital stays, Zelda was inspired to begin writing seriously. Upon getting out, she wrote a novel: it was highly autobiographical and included her attempts to get back into the ballet and her father’s death. She even got a publishing deal; however, F. Scott was furious and demanded that she change many parts of the novel, removing whole sections of it, which he wanted to include in a novel he’d been working on. The result is a very broken novel that has never garnered much attention from the public. F. Scott even berated Zelda’s writing and her will to do so. Zelda’s fragile self-confidence was even further shaken. This whole time F. Scott was drinking more and more and his own self-worth was damaged by a lack of further success, but he had also started a long-term affair with another woman.
Through the Years
At one point a lit-crit writer published a book about how Leonard Woolf never supported Virginia emotionally in her endeavors and actively worked against her until she killed herself. This writer is an idiot. A lot of people also disagreed with her. I say if she wanted to write about a creative woman who was driven into an early grave by a horrible mistake of a marriage, she should have written about Zelda Fitzgerald, who sadly died in a fire when the asylum she was checked into burned down. We have work by Woolf, lots of work, enough to fill a grad level course all on its own. We have one novel by Zelda, we have no ballet performances by her, we have barely anything by her. Obviously, she was the one of the two women who was actively and successfully silenced by her spouse and the world around her. And still some people look upon Zelda’s wild lifestyle as the reason behind or a symptom of her mental illness and downfall, even though F. Scott was just as crazy. Without knowing which sections of Fitzgerald’s novels are word for word from her diary, we should be printing them as novels “by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald”. So far this is the only instance wherein I feel like “correcting” history, but as a writer, I can’t help but think that if people were to quote from my blog or my private journal and pass it off as their “fiction”, I would want my freaking credit!
We have so much outrage over the satirical depiction of romance in Passengers, but way less people know about the horrible reality that was Zelda’s life. We have a TV show depicting her life now for a wide audience, and my hope is that it shows F. Scott for the theif and controlling jerk that he was. If they try to show his kidnapping of her as somehow romantic, hopefully the Passengers outrage will carry over. But if they try to do it satirically, I’m okay with that, and then hopefully, the outrage will be focused on F. Scott Fitzgerald as it should be.
What do you think? Should Zelda be recognized in the lit classrooms of our colleges and in the English classrooms of our high schools? We don’t teach Woolf much here in the US, but we do teach The Great Gatsby all across the country in high schools. Shouldn’t our teachers be telling the students that pieces of this work are straight from her mind? Shouldn’t it be obvious by the print on the cover of the book?