The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (short story)
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, first published in Collier's magazine on May 27, 1922. It was subsequently anthologized in Fitzgerald's book Tales of the Jazz Age, which is occasionally published as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Jazz Age Stories. It also was later adapted into the 2008 film and into a musical in 2019.
- Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-coloured beard, which waved absurdly back and forth,fanned by the breeze coming in at the window. He looked up at Mr. Button with dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.
- There was no mistake—he was gazing at a man of threescore and ten—a baby of threescore and ten, a baby whose feet hung over the sides of the crib in which it was reposing.
- The old man looked placidly from one to the other for a moment, and then suddenly spoke in a cracked and ancient voice. "Are you my father?" he demanded. ..."Because if you are," went on the old man querulously, "I wish you'd get me out of this place—or, at least, get them to put a comfortable rocker in here,"
- Despite his aged stoop, Benjamin Button—for it was by this name they called him instead of by the appropriate but invidious Methuselah—was five feet eight inches tall.
- [T]he rattle bored him, and... he found other and more soothing amusements when he was left alone. ...Mr. Button discovered one day that during the preceding week be had smoked more cigars than ever before—a phenomenon, which was explained a few days later when, entering the nursery unexpectedly, he found the room full of faint blue haze and Benjamin, with a guilty expression on his face, trying to conceal the butt of a dark Havana. This, of course, called for a severe spanking, but Mr. Button found that he could not bring himself to administer it. He merely warned his son that he would "stunt his growth."
- He brought home lead soldiers, he brought toy trains, he brought large pleasant animals made of cotton... But, despite all his father's efforts, Benjamin refused to be interested. He would steal down the backstairs and return to the nursery with a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica, over which he would pore through an afternoon, while his cotton cows and his Noah's ark were left neglected on the floor. Against such a stubbornness Mr. Button's efforts were of little avail.
- [T]he outbreak of the Civil War drew the city's attention to other things. A few people who were unfailingly polite racked their brains for compliments to give to the parents—and finally hit upon the ingenious device of declaring that the baby resembled his grandfather... Mr. and Mrs. Roger Button were not pleased, and Benjamin's grandfather was furiously insulted.
- Several small boys were brought to see him, and he spent a stiff-jointed afternoon trying to work up an interest in tops and marbles—he even managed, quite accidentally, to break a kitchen window with a stone from a sling shot, a feat which secretly delighted his father.
Thereafter Benjamin contrived to break something everyday, but he did these things only because they were expected of him, and because he was by nature obliging.
- When his grandfather's initial antagonism wore off... [t]hey would sit for hours, these two, so far apart in age and experience, and, like old cronies, discuss with tireless monotony the slow events of the day.
- [H]is parents'—they seemed always somewhat in awe of him and, despite the dictatorial authority they exercised over him, frequently addressed him as "Mr."
- He was as puzzled as any one else at the apparently advanced age of his mind and body at birth. He read up on it in the medical journal, but found that no such case had been previously recorded.
- At his father's urging he made an honest attempt to play with other boys, and frequently he joined in the milder games—football shook him up too much, and he feared that in case of a fracture his ancient bones would refuse to knit.
- When he was five he was sent to kindergarten... He was inclined to drowse off to sleep in the middle of... tasks, a habit which both irritated and frightened his young teacher. To his relief she complained to his parents, and he was removed from the school. [They] told their friends that they felt he was too young.
- [O]ne day a few weeks after his twelfth birthday, while looking in the mirror, Benjamin made... an astonishing discovery. Did his eyes deceive him, or had his hair turned... from white to iron-gray... Was the network of wrinkles on his face becoming less pronounced? Was his skin healthier and firmer..? He could not tell. He knew that he no longer stooped, and that his physical condition had improved...
- He went to his father. "I am grown," he announced determinedly. "I want to put on long trousers."
His father hesitated. "Well," he said finally, "I don't know. Fourteen is the age for putting on long trousers—and you are only twelve."
"But you'll have to admit," protested Benjamin, "that I'm big for my age."
- Finally a compromise was reached. Benjamin was to continue to dye his hair. He was to make a better attempt to play with boys of his own age. He was not to wear his spectacles or carry a cane in the street. In return for these concessions he was allowed his first suit of long trousers...
- Of the life of Benjamin Button between his twelfth and twenty-first year I intend to say little. Suffice to record that they were years of normal ungrowth.
- When Benjamin was eighteen he was erect as a man of fifty; he had more hair and it was of a dark gray; his step was firm, his voice had lost its cracked quaver and descended to a healthy baritone. So his father sent him up to Connecticut to take examinations for entrance to Yale College. Benjamin passed...
- The registrar frowned and glanced at a card before him. ...The registrar pointed sternly to the door. "Get out," he said. "Get out of college and get out of town. You are a dangerous lunatic." ..."The idea!" he shouted. "A man of your age trying to enter here as a freshman. Eighteen years old, are you? Well, I'll give you eighteen minutes to get out of town."
- The word had gone around that a lunatic had passed the entrance examinations for Yale and attempted to palm himself off as a youth of eighteen. A fever of excitement permeated the college. Men ran hatless out of classes, the football team abandoned its practice and joined the mob, professors' wives with bonnets awry and bustles out of position, ran shouting after the procession, from which proceeded a continual succession of remarks aimed at the tender sensibilities of Benjamin Button.
- Safely on board the train for Baltimore, he put his head from the window. "You'll regret this!" he shouted. "Ha-ha!" the undergraduates laughed. "Ha-ha-ha!" It was the biggest mistake that Yale College had ever made...
- In 1880 Benjamin Button was twenty years old, and he signalised his birthday by going to work for his father in Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware. It was in that same year that he began "going out socially"—that is, his father insisted on taking him to several fashionable dances. Roger Button was now fifty, and he and his son were more and more companionable—in fact, since Benjamin had ceased to dye his hair... they appeared about the same age, and could have passed for brothers.
- "I like men of your age," Hildegarde told him. "Young boys are so idiotic. They tell me how much champagne they drink at college, and how much money they lose playing cards. Men of your age know how to appreciate women." ..."You're just the romantic age," she continued—"fifty. Twenty-five is too wordly-wise; thirty is apt to be pale from overwork; forty is the age of long stories that take a whole cigar to tell; sixty is—oh, sixtyis too near seventy; but fifty is the mellow age. I love fifty." ..."I've always said," went on Hildegarde, "that I'd rather marry a man of fifty and be taken care of than marry a man of thirty and take care of him."
- When, six months later, the engagement of Miss Hildegarde Moncrief to Mr. Benjamin Button was made known (I say "made known," for General Moncrief declared he would rather fall upon his sword than announce it), the excitement in Baltimore society reached a feverish pitch. The almost forgotten story of Benjamin's birth was remembered and sent out upon the winds of scandal in picaresque and incredible forms. It was said that Benjamin was really the father of Roger Button, that he was his brother who had been in prison for forty years, that he was John Wilkes Booth in disguise—and, finally, that he had two small conical horns sprouting from his head.
- The Sunday supplements of the New York papers played up the case with fascinating sketches which showed the head of Benjamin Button attached to a fish, to a snake, and, finally, to a body of solid brass. He became known, journalistically, as the Mystery Man of Maryland. But the true story, as is usually the case, had a very small circulation.
- [E]very one agreed with General Moncrief that it was "criminal" for a lovely girl who could have married any beau in Baltimore to throw herself into the arms of a man who was assuredly fifty. In vain Mr. Roger Button published his son's birth certificate in large type in the Baltimore Blaze. No one believed it. You had only to look at Benjamin and see.
- So many of the stories about her fiance were false that Hildegarde refused stubbornly to believe even the true one. In vain General Moncrief pointed out to her the high mortality among men of fifty—or, at least, among men who looked fifty; in vain he told her of the instability of the wholesale hardware business. Hildegarde had chosen to marry for mellowness, and marry she did...
- The wholesale hardware business prospered amazingly. ...the family fortune was doubled—and this was due largely to the younger member of the firm.
- Needless to say, Baltimore eventually received the couple to its bosom. Even old General Moncrief became reconciled to his son-in-law when Benjamin gave him the money to bring out his History of the Civil War in twenty volumes...
- Benjamin discovered that he was becoming more and more attracted by the gay side of life. It was typical of his growing enthusiasm for pleasure that he was the first man in the city of Baltimore to own and run an automobile. Meeting him on the street, his contemporaries would stare enviously at the picture he made of health and vitality.
"He seems to grow younger every year," they would remark.
- There was only one thing that worried Benjamin Button; his wife had ceased to attract him. ...[S]he had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anaemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. ...She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each of us one day and stays with us to the end.
- At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 his home had for him so little charm that he decided to join the army. With his business influence he obtained a commission as captain, and proved so adaptable to the work that he was made a major, and finally a lieutenant-colonel just in time to participate in the celebrated charge up San Juan Hill. He was slightly wounded, and received a medal. ...[B]ut his business required attention, so he resigned his commission and came home. He was met at the station by a brass band and escorted to his house.
- [H]e looked now like a man of thirty. Instead of being delighted, he was uneasy—he was growing younger. He had hitherto hoped that once he reached a bodily age equivalent to his age in years, the grotesque phenomenon which had marked his birth would cease to function. He shuddered. His destiny seemed to him awful, incredible.
- Hildegarde... appeared annoyed, and he wondered if she had at last discovered that there was something amiss. ..."Well," he remarked lightly, "everybody says I look younger than ever."
- [H]e found, as the new century gathered headway, that his thirst for gaiety grew stronger. Never a party of any kind in the city of Baltimore but he was there, dancing with the prettiest of the young married women, chatting with the most popular of the debutantes, and finding their company charming, while his wife, a dowager of evil omen, sat among the chaperons, now in haughty disapproval, and now following him with solemn, puzzled, and reproachful eyes.
- His social activities... interfered to some extent with his business, but then he had worked hard at wholesale hardware for twenty-five years and felt that he could soon hand it on to his son, Roscoe, who had recently graduated from Harvard.
- He and his son were... often mistaken for each other. This pleased Benjamin—he soon... grew to take a naive pleasure in his appearance.
- One September day in 1910... a man, apparently about twenty years old, entered himself as a freshman at Harvard... He did not... mention the fact that his son had been graduated from the same institution ten years before.
- [I]n the football game with Yale he played so brilliantly, with so much dash and with such a cold, remorseless anger that he scored seven touchdowns and fourteen field goals for Harvard, and caused one entire eleven of Yale men to be carried singly from the field, unconscious. ...[I]n his... junior year he was scarcely able to "make" the team. The coaches said that he had lost weight, and it seemed to the more observant among them that he was not quite as tall as before. He made no touchdowns... In his senior year he did not make the team at all. He had grown so slight and frail that one day he was taken by some sophomores for a freshman...
- His studies seemed harder to him—he felt that they were too advanced. He had heard his classmates speak of St. Midas's, the famous preparatory school... and he determined after his graduation to enter himself at St. Midas's, where the sheltered life among boys his own size would be more congenial to him.
- "Say," he said to Roscoe one day, "I've told you over and over that I want to go to prep, school." ..."I can't go alone," said Benjamin helplessly. "You'll have to enter me and take me up there."
"I haven't got time," declared Roscoe abruptly. ..."you'd better not go on with this business much longer. You better pull up short. You better... turn right around and start back the other way. This has gone too far to be a joke. It isn't funny any longer. You—you behave yourself!"
- Benjamin looked at him, on the verge of tears.
"And another thing," continued Roscoe, "when visitors are in the house I want you to call me 'Uncle'—not 'Roscoe,' but'Uncle,' do you understand? It looks absurd for a boy of fifteen to call me by my first name. Perhaps you'd better call me 'Uncle' all the time, so you'll get used to it."
- Benjamin wandered dismally upstairs and stared at himself in the mirror. He had not shaved for three months, but he could find nothing on his face but a faint white down with which it seemed unnecessary to meddle.
- America had joined the Allied cause during the preceding month, and Benjamin wanted to enlist, but, alas, sixteen was the minimum age, and he did not look that old. His true age, which was fifty-seven, would have disqualified him, anyway.
- [A] letter bearing a large official legend in the corner... informed him that many reserve officers who had served in the Spanish-American War were being called back into service with a higher rank, and it enclosed his commission as brigadier-general... with orders to report immediately. ...Benjamin was measured, and a week later his uniform was completed.
- Saying nothing to Roscoe, he left the house one night and proceeded by train to Camp Mosby, in South Carolina, where he was to command an infantry brigade.
- The colonel came up, drew rein, and looked coolly down at him with a twinkle in his eyes. "Whose little boy are you?" he demanded kindly." I'll soon darn well show you whose little boy I am! "retorted Benjamin in a ferocious voice. "Get down off that horse!"
- "Here!" cried Benjamin desperately. "Read this." And he thrust his commission toward the colonel. The colonel read it, his eyes popping from their sockets. "Where'd you get this?" he demanded, slipping the document into his own pocket. "I got it from the Government, as you'll soon find out!" "You come along with me," said the colonel with a peculiar look. ...Two days later... his son Roscoe materialised from Baltimore, hot and cross from a hasty trip, and escorted the weeping general, sans uniform, back to his home.
- In 1920 Roscoe Button's first child was born. During the attendant festivities, however, no one thought it "the thing" to mention, that the little grubby boy, apparently about ten years of age who played around the house with lead soldiers and a miniature circus, was the new baby's own grandfather. ...Five years later Roscoe's little boy had grown old enough to play childish games with little Benjamin under the supervision of the same nurse. Roscoe took them both to kindergarten on the same day, and Benjamin found that playing with little strips of coloured paper, making mats and chains and curious and beautiful designs, was the most fascinating game in the world.
- Roscoe's son moved up into the first grade after a year, but Benjamin stayed on in the kindergarten. He was very happy. Sometimes when other tots talked about what they would do when they grew up a shadow would cross his little face as if in a dim, childish way he realised that those were things in which he was never to share.
- The days flowed on in monotonous content. He went back a third year to the kindergarten, but he was too little now to understand what the bright shining strips of paper were for.He cried because the other boys were bigger than he, and he was afraid of them. The teacher talked to him, but though he tried to understand he could not understand at all.
- He was taken from the kindergarten. His nurse, Nana... became the centre of his tiny world. On bright days they walked in the park; Nana would point at a great gray monster and say "elephant," and Benjamin would say it after her, and when he was being undressed for bed that night he would say it over and over aloud to her: "Elyphant, elyphant, elyphant." ...And when the long day was done at five o'clock he would go upstairs with Nana and be fed on oatmeal and nice soft mushy foods...
- There were no troublesome memories in his childish sleep; no token came to him of his brave days at college, of the glittering years when he flustered the hearts of many girls. There were only the white, safe walls of his crib and Nana... and a great big orange ball that Nana pointed at just before his twilight bed hour and called "sun." When the sun went his eyes were sleepy—there were no dreams, no dreams to haunt him.
- The past—the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill; the first years of his marriage when he worked late into the summer dusk down in the busy city for young Hildegarde whom he loved; the days before that when he sat smoking far into the night in the gloomy old Button house on Monroe Street with his grandfather—all these had faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been.
- He did not remember clearly whether the milk was warm or cool at his last feeding or how the days passed—there was only his crib and Nana's familiar presence.
- And then he remembered nothing.
- When he was hungry he cried—that was all.
- Through the noons and nights he breathed and over him there were soft mumblings and murmurings that he scarcely heard, and faintly differentiated smells, and light and darkness.
- Then it was all dark, and his white crib and the dim faces that moved above him, and the warm sweet aroma of the milk, faded out altogether from his mind.
Quotes about The Curious Case...
- According to Fitzgerald, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” was written as a response to a quip by Mark Twain “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”...
- Michael Basseler, A Normal Biography Reversed: The Temporalization of Life in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, Journal of the Short Story in English (Spring 2015) Special Section: The Modernist Short Story, and Varia.
- Fitzgerald’s famous short story... is a work of magical realism... The principle is simple... an old man and “grew up” in reverse... It’s a wonderful idea, rife with comic potential and also allegorical possibility. ...[T]he story succeeds with a sense of gentle satire and no need for much in the way of flash. ...The tale is most touching at its end, where it even triggers an element of longing in the reader. ...Benjamin ...loses his memories in the way one sponges away the writing on a blackboard; it’s as if the life he lived hasn’t happened. ...The flippancy of Fitzgerald’s style maintains an emotional distance ...that treats the absurd and uncanny as plausible. ...Fitzgerald ...seems mainly interested in the reversal of the natural order and... in finding a way to thematize time’s relativity in a linear narrative. Oddly, “Benjamin Button” seems both of its time and ahead of it. Oddly, “Benjamin Button” seems both of its time and ahead of it.
- Noah Charney, "Story Playlist 7: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", New Haven Review (August 8, 2013)
- Why are fiction writers so regularly engaged by the conceit of a back-to-front life? ...Of his mother nothing is heard except that she is "all right" after the prodigious delivery. Her absence reflects the chilly bloodlessness of this account...
- Jane Housham, Review: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", The Guardian (Dec 19, 2008)
- "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", Collier's magazine, (May 27, 1922) @HathiTrust.org.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald unabridged audio read by Alan Davis Drake @Archive.org
- Dramatic Reading Scene and Story Collection, Volume 002 audiobook (see No.8 for Benjamin Button) @Librivox.org