*This is an essay that I wrote for my American Literature class in the Fall of 2012*
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) was an American author known for his novels and short stories, whose works are classic representations of the Jazz Age, a term he coined himself. He is widely regarding as one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century. Fitzgerald often wrote stories dealing with youth and promise along with despair and age. One of these short stories, “Winter Dreams,” has even been described as a first draft of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.” In “Winter Dreams,” Fitzgerald attempts to show the darker side of the American Dream by illustrating how Dexter’s quest for material success ultimately leaves him with an empty life.
In “Winter Dreams,” Fitzgerald criticizes the materialistic attitude of the roaring twenties by showing how Dexter’s own materialism does not bring him satisfaction in life. “Winter Dreams” is set during the early decades of the twentieth century, from the middle of the first decade to the early 1920s. The so-called roaring twenties were times of economic growth as well as unchecked hedonism among the affluent. The protagonist, Dexter, comes from humble beginnings, because his mother was an immigrant from Bohemia who constantly struggled with the language of her new homeland (Fitzgerald pg. 1060). Dexter comes from a middleclass family, and his father owns the second best grocery store in Dillard, Minnesota. He starts off as a teenaged caddie working at a golf club at Lake Erminie, Minnesota, for pocket money (pg. 1010). Unlike the dismal spring, the autumn and winter seasons empower Dexter and invigorate his imagination. He imagines himself as a professional golfer, besting the golf club’s most esteemed members, such as Mr. T.A. Hedrick. One day, while he is working as a caddy, he meets an eleven-year old girl named Judy Jones. He is only fourteen at the time, and finds himself strangely attracted to this upper class girl. Perhaps knowing that a middle-class boy such as himself could never be with such a girl, he impulsively quits his caddying job and decides to follow his “winter dreams” to become the kind of man that would be worthy of Judy Jones (pg. 1012). Dexter declines attending the state university his parents wanted him to go to, and chooses to attend a more famous university in the East. After college, he borrows a thousand dollars on his college degree and buys a partnership in a laundry, which soon grows to the largest chain in the northeast. Dexter soon becomes financially successful and is soon socializing with the upper class of society, including T.A. Hedrick and Mr. Hart (who once used Dexter as his caddy). Dexter feels superior to these men on one hand, while also feeling like he doesn’t belong in their world (pg. 1013). Dexter once coveted a life of wealth and affluence, “He wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people–he wanted the glittering things themselves,” (pg. 1012) but when he finally reaches his goal he feels like an outsider because he had to work for his money. Dexter, dissatisfied with becoming the richest young man in the upper Midwest, starts to pursue other goals, such as the possession of Judy Jones. Some critics feel that Fitzgerald is attempting to isolate one aspect of Dexter’s life in order to expose the hollow core of a world that has become obsessed with material success, and that the story serves as a cautionary tale to the reader not to make the same mistakes that Dexter has in his pursuit of material success (SparkNotes Editors).
Reality and idealism are in conflict, as Dexter’s obsession with Judy Jones enslaves him to his adolescent fantasies, and blinds him to the reality of their relationship. When Dexter first meets Judy they are only adolescents, he is fourteen and she is eleven. He is instantly captivated by her smile, and can already tell that she will one day become a beautiful woman (Fitzgerald pg. 1011). His prediction is proven right when he runs into her nine years later at the Lake Erminie Club golf course, and he is taken by her beauty. Dexter’s enchantment with Judy is symbolized by the color and sparkle Fitzgerald uses to describe her. Dexter instantly notices the blue gingham dress, rimmed with a white edging that accentuates her tan. Later in the afternoon, Fitzgerald describes the sun setting “with a riotous swirl of gold and varying blues and scarlets,” (pg. 1014) and describes the water of the lake as “silver molasses.” The fact that Dexter swims out on the lake and reclines on the “wet canvas of the spring board,” taken together with Fitzgerald describing the color of Judy’s face like the color of a picture, leads some critics to say that Judy’s beauty and charm is all really “superficial artifice,” (Gidmark pg. 1-3). Judy and Dexter soon begin a fling in which Judy is habitually unfaithful to Dexter. Judy seems to only care about a man if he is financially able to provide for her hedonistic lifestyle, as evident from the fact that she point-blankly asks Dexter if he was poor (Fitzgerald pg. 1017). The relationship only lasts a few months, and Dexter later manages to have a nice relationship with a girl named Irene, and he is well liked by her family too. He plans to marry Irene, but whenever he runs into Judy again he cannot resist the temptation to sleep with her. This renewed relationship only lasts a couple of months before Judy is once again off with another man. Seven years after he last saw Judy, he once again hears about her from a man named Devlin, who comes to see him about some business matters. Dexter learns that Judy has married and become a housewife, and that her beauty has faded away. Her transformation ultimately shatters Dexter’s dreams and ideals, and he is left feeling hollow and empty inside (pg. 1025).
In addition to the characters, the style and structure of “Winter Dreams,” with its episodic nature and flashbacks, indicate a fracturing of the American Dream. Fitzgerald structures the story in a way that reflects his critical view of the world in which Dexter and Judy live. Like the section divisions, Fitzgerald’s characters lead fractured, broken lives as they continue their search for wealth and pleasure. The story begins with a scene depicting young Dexter meeting Judy for the first time, but the next section shows the two of them meeting after several years have passed (pg. 1013).This is the first major fracture in the story, because we see Dexter as a teenager one moment before seeing him again as a young adult. We see a second fracture appear when the story once again jumps from Dexter and Judy being together to Dexter and Irene being engaged eighteen months later. Dexter’s engagement doesn’t last long, however, because the story then shifts to him getting back together (albeit briefly)with Judy (pg. 1020). Fitzgerald’s view of Dexter and Judy’s on and off again relationship is evident in the way their story is structured, completely fractured and broken, with no stability whatsoever. Fitzgerald uses distinct shifts in narrative voice to further convey the message of a fractured life, but two dominate. The first voice uses richly romantic prose that is commonly associated with Fitzgerald. This poetic voice is primarily used to depict Dexter and his point of view. This voice is used to describe and show things, and to present the youthful side of Dexter. When Fitzgerald needs a more adult voice, naturalistic almost, he switches over to a more neutral and rational tone that tells the reader something. According to Pike, Fitzgerald uses the two voices to convey the paradox of his own world view, his “cynical idealism” as he depicted it through Amory Blaine (from “This Side of Paradise”) two years before “Winter Dreams” (Pike pg. 317).
In conclusion, “Winter Dreams” is a story that seeks to criticize the materialistic attitudes of the time period in which it was written. The main characters, Dexter and Judy, lead lives driven by materialism and a lust for life, with the result that both of them end up miserable and empty. It serves as a timeless warning for a capitalist society that the American Dream has a darker side to it, which ultimately leaves a person with empty and broken dreams.
“SparkNote on Winter Dreams.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. 2007. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Winter Dreams.” Baym, Nina, Wayne Franklin, et al, et al. The Norton Anthology Of American Literature, 1865 To The Present. Shorter Seventh Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. . Print.
Gidmark, Jill B. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition; January 2004, p1-3. Literary Reference Center. Web. Nov. 18 2012.
Pike, Gerald. Studies in Short Fiction; Summer86, Vol. 23 Issue 3, p315, 6p. Literary Reference Center. Web. Nov. 21 2012.