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Benjamin Button: funny, miraculous ... and victim of prejudice?

December 24, 2008 |  4:16 pm

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John Fox joins our discussion of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."

As far as the discussion between humorous/harrowing, my non-pregnant self found the story quite funny. The humor is dry. It's humor spoken in an elevated tone that doesn't wait for a laugh. Other than the Yale line (no, I didn't think of Bush, but that’s good) and puns involving mistaking "love" for "lugs" (as in lug nuts), there are also these:

the high gods of medicine have decreed that the first cries of the young shall be uttered upon the anesthetic air of a hospital, preferably a fashionable one.

This was their first experience with the charming old custom of having babies.

But perhaps Fitzgerald added the humor because of the harrowing nature of the tale. Humor's needed to leaven the heavy mood, in the same way that some depressing song lyrics are balanced with sprightly melodies. Single-note content -- especially rather depressing content -- exhausts the reader fairly quickly. The humor's also appropriate given that Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the story came from a Mark Twain wisecrack to the effect that "it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end."

Carolyn, I think you have to question the absence of the mother, if only because this is a story about a miraculous birth. So where’s the womb? It's a familiar mythological motif -- the hero has an unusual birth that shows his uniqueness -- but imagine the story of Jesus' birth without Mary. It's a strange move, this father-only patriarchal birth.

But then again, we might not want to see the mother after she's given birth to a full-grown man. That's one hell of a cesarean.

After the jump, questions about perspective and prejudice.

Other than the obvious topic of age, Fitzgerald also dishes out zingers about race. It’s not so easy to gloss over lines like this one, when Mr. Button first retrieves his son from the hospital:

And then the old man would gather his blanket around him and they would plod on, past the bustling stores, the slave market--for a dark instant Mr. Button wished passionately that his son was black--

(What, so he could sell him?!)

Or when the young geriatric is routed from Yale by an insult-yelling crowd:

He must be the wandering Jew!

The author mainly focuses on Mr. Button trying to force his newborn into age-appropriate activities. But with Fitzgerald’s other hand, using literary sleight of hand, he’s slipping in how certain ethnicities are similarly pigeonholed, with black slaves and wandering Jews. So it’s not only ageism here (if ageism is the right term for this type of thing), but also about other assigned roles.

-- John Fox

Photo by Steve Longus via Flickr

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