A socio-historical critique of Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Winter Dreams’

Scott Fitzgerald’s well-crafted short story ‘Winter Dreams’ is set in the 1920s, which is also referred to as the Jazz Age in American history. Following the lull and chaos of the First World War, American society was primed to embrace a liberal and materialistic culture. The conventional structure of society was shaken up and new attitudes toward religion, morality and personal relations emerged. The widespread patronage of art and artists was central to this cultural upheaval. An important aspect of the short story is its masterly depiction of this changing cultural milieu.

The plot of the story serves as a narrative foundation and gives coherence to it. Alongside elements of fiction also lie historical facts about the 1920s America. In this respect, the story is both a well-crafted piece of art and a historical document. Through the characters of Dexter and Judy, Fitzgerald portrays the shallowness of the then American society. Judy Jones is a wealthy and attractive young woman. While Dexter is essentially from a working-class background, his sole goal in life is to mimic the material success of the country club members (where he makes a living by caddying). He reasons that once he attains a status of wealth, he could marry the woman of his choice, which in his case happens to be Judy.

Throughout the short story, the author presents various aspects of this superficial view of life and what constitutes happiness. When Dexter passes out from school, instead of choosing a more affordable college, he enrolls in a prestigious one. Once again, his emphasis is not quality of education but bragging rights for an Ivy League background. Dexter’s dream comes to a tragic end when Judy eventually loses her beauty and charm and chooses to marry an abusive man. It was at this point that he comes to realize the folly of his dreams, but it is already too late. Such disappointments were symptomatic of the Jazz Age America. While the country grew prosperous and people found new freedoms, they generally lost out on those aspects of life that offer real and enduring happiness. Although Fitzgerald does not mention it in those exact words, the implication is unmistakable.

In the 1920s, with advancements in technology, the motion picture industry was reaching more audiences. The escapist promise of glitz, glamour and freedom offered by the movie screen had affected the American audience at the subconscious level as well. They tried to adopt the fashion and lifestyle of the movie stars in their own personal lives. The erstwhile conservative American society started to lose its rigid moral fiber. Premarital sex no longer provoked rebuke. While some of these developments were not regressive per se, the attendant excesses and abuse were a cause for concern.

Some of the leading intellectuals of the Jazz Age, including T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound relocated to England as a result of the prevailing decadence. Even Scott Fitzgerald himself moved to Paris at the time – a move that could be described as seeking moral refuge from Jazz Age America. In this context, it could be asserted that the disillusionment felt by the character of Dexter in Winter Dreams is a reflection of the author’s own sense of despair and confusion. The title Winter Dreams could be interpreted as a take on the clichéd American Dream. In fact, in many of the classic works of American literature of the time, we see a recurrent reference to this disconnection between ground realities and fantastical dreams.

Hence, in conclusion, Fitzgerald employs the literary form of a short story to bring to light the apparent shallowness and superficiality of the 1920s American society. This sense of despair and gloom among the intelligentsia of the time (including Fitzgerald) would be vindicated in the subsequent decade, when America faced its worst episode of economic depression as a result of the Wall Street collapse. In a way, this sent a message to the American society that the materialistic excesses and moral decadence of the Jazz Age were unsustainable and too good to last.