“Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of 80 and gradually approach 18.” (Mark Twain)

About the story: Youth is wasted on the young; isn’t that what they say? Inspired by Mark Twain’s quote, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s amusing and imaginative short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button proves just that. The story was first published in 1922 in Collier’s Magazine. Along with ten other stories, it is also a part of Fitzgerald’s short story collection titled Tales of the Jazz Age.

Summary: When Mr. Button rushes to the hospital to see his new born baby, he is greeted by an angry doctor, who wishes never to see the Buttons again. Just like the doctor, the nurses inside the hospital seemed to be spooked by Roger Button’s child. When Mr. Button insists on seeing his baby, a flustered nurse leads him inside a room. Instead of a baby, however, there appears to be an old man squeezed into the crib.

“Where in God’s name did you come from? Who are you?” burst out Mr. Button frantically.

“I can’t tell you exactly who I am,” replied the querulous whine, “because I’ve only been born a few hours – but my last name is certainly Button.”

“You lie! You’re an impostor!”

The old man turned wearily to the nurse. “Nice way to welcome a new-born child,” he complained in a weak voice. “Tell him he’s wrong, why don’t you?”

The Buttons pretend to be oblivious to the fact that their baby is a disgraceful old man. They decide instead, to raise him as a normal little boy called Benjamin Button, send him to school and make him play with the other little boys. Not wanting to disappoint his father, Benjamin Button obliges. As he grows up, he seems to become younger. In his fifties, Benjamin falls in love and marries a certain Hildegarde Moncrief. It is the fact that he is the only such person on the earth, creates problems for the guy. As everyone around him ages, Benjamin goes from a responsible father, to a moody little teenager, to a child who remembers very little of his life.

My thoughts: I saw the movie version (very loosely based on the book) of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett about two years ago when it was released, over-discussed and awarded three Academy Awards. I thought that movie was ridiculous! They took the idea and turned it into a sad, romantic love story. What I actually loved about the book was the humour.

The glaring difference in the book and the movie is that, in the book, an entire fully grown old man is born; over the years, he grows in reverse, that is, he becomes younger physically and mentally. In the movie, what is born is a baby-sized baby with the appearance and features of an old man; he grows in size but becomes physically younger and mentally older… OR something like that. Now, why would you want to complicate such a perfectly good story!?

A young man trying to pass off as an older guy and an old man going to kindergarten gives the book its dark-ish comedy. When made to play with little children, the old man pretends to break neighbours’ windows. Later, when Hildegarde believes she is falling in love with a mature man in his fifties, Benjamin has been alive for hardly more than fifteen years.

The story shows the relationships between different generations of men (which may be one reason why there are startlingly few women in the plot; the other being the time when this was written.) The main premise, of course, is how great it would be to age in reverse. After experiencing the drawbacks of old age, Benjamin is able to appreciate his youth that much more. Beyond that, it’s a touching story; sad, because, Benjamin is the only one who experiences this strange order of things. The story deals with many themes, of which the most significant are the passage of time and all that is inevitable.

“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.”