Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Art as Woman's Response and Search: Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Art as Woman's Response and Search: Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz

Article excerpt

   If strange men come from the house    To lead her away, do not say    That she is happy being crazy;    Lead them gently astray;    Let her finish her dance,    Let her finish her dance,    Ah, dancer, ah, sweet dancer!     (William Butler Yeats, "Sweet Dancer," 11. 8-14) 

Zelda Fitzgerald's novel, Save Me the Waltz, published in October 1932, is still read nowadays, as it was then, for the wrong reason--that is, because Zelda was the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Moreover, after the publication of Tender is the Night, two years later, Save Me the Waltz was generally considered as a companion piece to that novel because, in Henry Dan Piper's words: "Together, these two chronicles of the same marriage seen from the wife's and the husband's points of view, form one of the most unusual pairs of novels in recent literary history." (1) When they do not completely ignore it, most contemporary literary critics look somewhat patronizingly upon Save Me the Waltz as a literary curio, seeing as its only value its relationship to F. Scott Fitzgerald's work and career. In his afterword to the present paperback edition of the novel, Matthew J. Bruccoli comments: "Save Me the Waltz is worth reading partly because anything that illuminates the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald is worth reading--and because it is the only published novel of a brave and talented woman who is remembered for her defeats." (2) And, again, in his preface to Bits of Paradise, he adds: "The blunt fact is that Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald's work is interesting today mainly because she was F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife." (3) Such an attitude, thirty years after her death, is sharply illustrative of what Zelda was trying to fight in her marriage, that which might be seen as the very raison d'etre of her novel: the fact that she was merely expected to be, to use Scott's own words, "a complementary intelligence," a wife concerned exclusively with the interests of her husband, (4) and whose life experience belonged to him to use as he saw fit in his novels and stories.

However, Save Me the Waltz is a moving and fascinating novel which should be read on its own terms equally as much as Tender is the Night. It needs no other justification than its comparative excellence. It impressed the well-known editor, Maxwell Perkins, so much that he was immediately willing to publish it. If Save Me the Waltz is artistically flawed, so are most truly moving works of art; so certainly is Tender is the Night. Among the claims to excellence of Zelda's novel are its searching portrayal of a woman's soul and of that complex tangle of selves within wedlock, its remarkable revelation of a gifted woman's struggle to fulfill herself in a traditional, male-dominated society [as Scott was fond of saying: "It's a man's world; a smart woman'll always follow a man's lead." (5)], and its outstanding portrayal of the world of the ballet, not from an esthetic point of view but from the human physical experience--that of the grueling training of the body. As Henry Dan Piper acknowledges, "It was one of the first and still is one of the best stories that has been written by an American about the career of a ballerina." (6) Save Me the Waltz is a complex novel, written for complex reasons, and, since it is largely autobiographical, the very reasons for writing it are mirrored and dramatized within the novel itself. It is simultaneously a response and a search: a response to a personal situation (an unhappy marriage), to the social role its author was expected to play as a famous writer's wife and as the model for his heroines, and to the universal condition that comes from simply being a woman. It is a search for identity, a justification of the self, and an affirmation of it. It is finally the cri du coeur of a woman who wants to exist on her own terms and who is claiming back her life experience as her own material.

Because of the very nature of the novel, it is useful to discuss it in relation to Zelda's life. …

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