Just finished F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s short story “Jacob’s Ladder” and was really taken with the opening. This is the story of an older man falling in love with a very young lady (sixteen at the start of the story) and what strikes me as a relationship of dependence—first she, Jenny, depending on him, and, after he gets her into the movies as an actress, and she’s successful, he, Jacob, depending on her. The story starts with the trial of Jenny’s sister having killed her lover, and Jenny caught in the flash of the newspaper sensation. Interesting how the murder trial has nothing to do with the story except bring the two together, but the flash of lights and severed lover project into the future of the story. The lights serve as a motif and perhaps symbol, and the severed lover serves as a metaphor for Jake’s failure to get Jenny to love him. It’s a good story, and you can read the entire story online, here.
It was a particularly sordid and degraded murder trial, and Jacob Booth, writhing quietly on a spectators’ bench, felt that he had childishly gobbled something without being hungry, simply because it was there. The newspapers had humanized the case, made a cheap, neat problem play out of an affair of the jungle, so passes that actually admitted one to the court room were hard to get. Such a pass had been tendered him the evening before.
Jacob looked around at the doors, where a hundred people, inhaling and exhaling with difficulty, generated excitement by their eagerness, their breathless escape from their own private lives. The day was hot and there was sweat upon the crowd — obvious sweat in large dewy beads that would shake off on Jacob if he fought his way through to the doors. Someone behind him guessed that the jury wouldn’t be out half an hour.
With the inevitability of a compass needle, his head swung toward the prisoner’s table and he stared once more at the murderess’ huge blank face garnished with red button eyes. She was Mrs. Choynski, née Delehanty, and fate had ordained that she should one day seize a meat ax and divide her sailor lover. The puffy hands that had swung the weapon turned an ink bottle about endlessly; several times she glanced at the crowd with a nervous smile.
Jacob frowned and looked around quickly; he had found a pretty face and lost it again. The face had edged sideways into his consciousness when he was absorbed in a mental picture of Mrs. Choynski in action; now it was faded back into the anonymity of the crowd. It was the face of a dark saint with tender, luminous eyes and a skin pale and fair. Twice he searched the room, then he forgot and sat stiffly and uncomfortably, waiting.
The jury brought in a verdict of murder in the first degree; Mrs. Choynski squeaked, “Oh, my God!” The sentence was postponed until next day. With a slow rhythmic roll, the crowd pushed out into the August afternoon.
Jacob saw the face again, realizing why he hadn’t seen it before. It belonged to a young girl beside the prisoner’s table and it had been hidden by the full moon of Mrs. Choynski’s head. Now the clear, luminous eyes were bright with tears, and an impatient young man with a squashed nose was trying to attract the attention of the shoulder.
“Oh, get out!” said the girl, shaking the hand off impatiently. “Le’ me alone, will you? Le’ me alone. Geeze!”
The man sighed profoundly and stepped back. The girl embraced the dazed Mrs. Choynski and another lingerer remarked to Jacob that they were sisters. Then Mrs. Choynski was taken off the scene — her expression absurdly implied an important appointment — and the girl sat down at the desk and began to powder her face. Jacob waited; so did the young man with the squashed nose. The sergeant came up brusquely and Jacob gave him five dollars.
“Geeze!” cried the girl to the young man. “Can’t you le’ me alone?” She stood up. Her presence, the obscure vibrations of her impatience, filled the court room. “Every day itsa same!”
Jacob moved nearer. The other man spoke to her rapidly:
“Miss Delehanty, we’ve been more than liberal with you and your sister and I’m only asking you to carry out your share of the contract. Our paper goes to press at — ”
Miss Delehanty turned despairingly to Jacob. “Can you beat it?” she demanded. “Now he wants a pitcher of my sister when she was a baby, and it’s got my mother in it too.”
“We’ll take your mother out.”
“I want my mother though. It’s the only one I got of her.”
“I’ll promise to give you the picture back tomorrow.”
“Oh, I’m sicka the whole thing.” Again she was speaking to Jacob, but without seeing him except as some element of the vague, omnipresent public. “It gives me a pain in the eye.” She made a clicking sound in her teeth that comprised the essence of all human scorn.
“I have a car outside, Miss Delehanty,” said Jacob suddenly. “Don’t you want me to run you home?”
“All right,” she answered indifferently.
The newspaper man assumed a previous acquaintance between them; he began to argue in a low voice as the three moved toward the door.
“Every day it’s like this,” said Miss Delehanty bitterly. “These newspaper guys!” Outside, Jacob signaled for his car and as it drove up, large, open and bright, and the chauffeur jumped out and opened the door, the reporter, on the verge of tears, saw the picture slipping away and launched into a peroration of pleading.
“Go jump in the river!” said Miss Delehanty, sitting in Jacob’s car. “Go — jump — in — the — river!”
The extraordinary force of her advice was such that Jacob regretted the limitations of her vocabulary. Not only did it evoke an image of the unhappy journalist hurling himself into the Hudson but it convinced Jacob that it was the only fitting and adequate way of disposing of the man. Leaving him to face his watery destiny, the car moved off down the street.
“You dealt with him pretty well,” Jacob said.
“Sure,” she admitted. “I get sore after a while and then I can deal with anybody no matter who. How old would you think I was?”
“How old are you?”
She looked at him gravely, inviting him to wonder. Her face, the face of a saint, an intense little Madonna, was lifted fragilely out of the mortal dust of the afternoon. On the pure parting of her lips no breath hovered; he had never seen a texture pale and immaculate as her skin, lustrous and garish as her eyes. His own well-ordered person seemed for the first time in his life gross and well worn to him as he knelt suddenly at the heart of freshness.
“Jacob’s Ladder” has much in common with Fitzgerald’s future novel, Tender is the Night, which he would publish in 1934, seven years after the publication of this story. I stopped the quote on that last paragraph because that last paragraph is so delicious and it’s so Fitzgerald. He is just one of the best prose stylists in English in the past century, but not without complaint. A phrase like the one here “out of the mortal dust of the afternoon” is the type of phrase that either brings admiration or scorn. Let’s look at that entire sentence more carefully:
Her face, the face of a saint, an intense little Madonna, was lifted fragilely out of the mortal dust of the afternoon.
How many metaphors are in that sentence? First you have the two qualifiers on “face”: “of a saint” and “Madonna.” Second, “her face…was lifted fragilely,” as if her face were an egg or made of ceramic. Third, “her face…was lifted out of…the dust,” as if her face were a small loose item on an ash heap. Fourth, the dust was “of the afternoon” and, if that’s not stressed enough, was “mortal.” The rule books tell you not to mix metaphors, but so much of great writing breaks with the rule books. The only part of that sentence that grates on my sense of good prose style is the adjective “mortal” modifying “dust.” That’s a non sequitur, and best avoided, though here it lifts the image into the sublime. Still I think it would have been just as great a sentence without it, but perhaps not as eye-catching.
What do my readers think? Do you like that sentence? How about the entire passage? The entire story, if you go on to read it? If you do read it, what do you think the story has to do with the Biblical story of Jacob's Ladder?