By Emily D. Irvine: 3-18-12
This is the term paper I wrote for a Comparative Literature class. The class analyzed the “bildungsroman,” which translates to “the novel of development.” We were asked to analyze as work of literature, film, or television as a bildungsroman and I choose “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” If you haven’t seen the film, this paper makes no sense whatsoever. Maybe it makes no sense even if you have seen it, what do I know? Anyway, I spent many late nights writing it and I am actually quite happy with it. I got an A- in the course and it was the hardest class of my college career to date (knock on wood) so I must have done something right!
The process of aging and the prospect of death have been the subjects of perpetual unsettlement among mankind, resulting in a tremendous fascination with the manipulation of time. In David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the upturning of the aging process does not illustrate a charming alternate reality, but one of complication, completely depriving an individual of the most meaningful episodes of development. Though the most constant of life’s quandaries is fundamentally altered, Benjamin’s story is still one of human development, moving from birth to death with special attention to middle age, the point in life, no matter its sequence or direction, where an individual must reflect on where they have been and where they are going, cherishing his or her thus-far achievements or mourning their loss. The experiences that result from Benjamin’s aging process are driven heavily by appearance, with the age Benjamin’s outward appearance suggests acting as the driving influence in how he is treated and perceived by others. His life is one of complication and reflection, a theoretical exploration of the trials and blessings of aging. In the simplest of terms, Benjamin’s story is that of the development of a social outcast, the attempts and ultimate inability of an individual to reconcile their differences to belong with those who can be called “normal.”
In defining the bildungsroman, Susan L. Coacalis describes the need for a hero who “finds himself in conscious opposition to existing forms of society or to his particular social class and who therefore embarks on a mission to ameliorate the situation after a period of passive exposure to the world.” Benjamin’s story deals little with class struggles on a surface level, but more so with individuals’ dissatisfaction by circumstances of choice and chance. Benjamin’s lack of contentment is a result of his existence in a micro-society to which he does not intellectually belong, spending his childhood in a retirement home, surrounded by death and decay while children play in the streets below, unencumbered by arthritis and cataracts. Benjamin later leaves home to see the world, his “passive exposure,” finding meaning in his encounters with others rather than within himself.
David Fincher opens Benjamin’s story with a frame tale, a sequence involving a blind New Orleans clock maker given the name Mr. Gateux, who builds a clock that runs backwards with the solemn symbology of resurrecting the sons lost in the Great War through the reversal of time. J.M. Tyree calls The Curious Case of Benjamin Button a national epic, “unfolding against the sweeping backdrop of America’s involvement in two world wars… tragedies rather than triumphs, reasons to mourn not to celebrate.” This melancholy introduction accentuates the not so idyllic circumstances of the soon to be introduced protagonist’s life. Fincher’s audience is not prepared for a light fantasy, but a drama of poignant reflection treating the passage of time as an unalterable constant. The reversal of the fundamental principals of aging cannot reverse time, rather deprive the individual of life’s most important and cherished milestones. Tyree’s analysis of Gateux’s clock is that it is entirely fantasy, even within the fantasy of the story, stating, “this crazy clock, like all projects concerned with recapturing lost time, can’t work. When separated lovers Benjamin and Daisy are reunited, time remains time and all too quickly slips away.”
The reality of aging in reverse requires childhood to be sacrificed in favor of enjoying youthful and vibrant senior years, a trade off shown to be an extreme emotional hardship. Benjamin’s youth is spent as a captive in his own body, the experiences of normal childhood a physical impossibility. Benjamin’s solemn, yet curious glances out the window at other children illustrate his desire to be unbridled and to join in the uninhibited play of his peers (Audio). The proverbial wasting of youth on the young does not apply to this story, which portrays a tragically disabled childhood and empty, unfulfilled “golden years.” At an age when most people reflect on missed opportunities, things not seen and roads not traveled, Benjamin is riding a motorcycle across India. But for all of the romanticism, all the appeal associated with spending the twilight of one’s life in the unstoppable body of a teenager, Benjamin spends this episode of life writing postcards to the daughter he couldn’t raise, culminating in the plaintive declaration: “I wish I could have told you not to chase some boy. I wish I could have held you when you had a broken heart. I wish I could have been your father. Nothing I ever did can replace that” (Curious). This is nearly the last we hear from Benjamin’s diary until the film’s final narration, accentuating the importance this film places on parenthood as an essential part of development. To move physical youth from adolescence to waning adulthood is to sacrifice the experience of raising children, a moment a sequentially developing individual can relive though a healthily vicarious relationship with the next generation.
Raised among the elderly and infirm, Benjamin skips any developmental stage that allows him to live like life has no end, his childhood spent assuming each day is his last. Upon finding the infant Benjamin on her doorstep and being told by a doctor that the child is “on his way to the grave,” Queenie calls Benjamin a miracle, “just not the kind of miracle one hopes to see” (Curious). When Benjamin exceeds expectation and reaches childhood, he is still extremely aware of the prospect of mortality, asking Queenie when he is going to die and being told, “Just be thankful for what you’re given, hear? You already here longer than you supposed to” (Curious). This philosophy, which should ring true to all souls in every stage of life, carries Benjamin throughout his early life with a kind of paradoxical, melancholy optimism. His personality is not gregarious, but subdued and reflective. David Fincher describes Benjamin as a “wallflower,” a protagonist who does not drive action as much as he allows the action to surround him, relishing all experiences like they could be his last. He is indiscriminate, though not reckless, impulsive, but not impetuous. When asked to join a tugboat crew, he says, “I’ll go,” and when asked to go to war, he goes. When asked to be part of an affair, he agrees. These are decisions not so terribly different from those of a teenager experiencing a linear development, but Benjamin’s physical age and understanding of mortality cause him to gain from them a perspective uncharacteristic of a youth, expediting his intellectual maturation. He will greatly surpass Daisy in maturity by their twenties, prolonging their eventual reunion.
A Bildungsroman is brimming with donor figures, characters whose influence, be it for good or for ill, is essential in shaping the protagonist’s adolescence. Benjamin’s most influential donor figures are Captain Mike and Elizabeth Abbot, two relationships that teach him valuable lessons about life and aging. Captain Mike is Benjamin’s gateway to the world beyond New Orleans, the catalyst that will begin his “passive exposure to the world,” as stated by Cocalis. Captain Mike, the artist at heart, advises Benjamin to, “never let anyone tell you what to do. You have to do what you’re meant to do. And I am a goddamn artist!” (Curious). Needless to say, Captain Mike is not an artist, he’s a tugboat captain, a fact that Benjamin confusedly voices. Captain Mike chooses to define himself as an artist, all the while living a life that allows him to do whatever he damn well pleases, most notable in his definition of Sunday, as meaning, “I was very drunk last night” (Curious). But as he is dying, Captain Mike teaches Benjamin to accept the lot given by life, not dwell on wrongs and missed opportunities: “You can be as mad as a mad dog at the way things went. You can swear, curse the Fates. But when it comes to the end, you have to let go” (Curious).
Benjamin’s affair with Elizabeth Abbot introduces him to the concept of regret, specifically the regret that accompanies middle age. Like everyone else, Elizabeth interacts with Benjamin as if he is the age appears, the same age as her. She at least subliminally soaks in Benjamin’s intellectual youth, remarking, “You make me feel younger. I wish I was. I would undo all my mistakes. Such as waste. You never get it back. Wasted time” (Curious). This statement of regret, spoken to the object of an extramarital affair, reveals a soul burdened by what it perceives to be poor choices. What Benjamin learns is that just because he ages in reverse does not mean he has time to waste. He too will experience regrets, the feelings of missed opportunities that accompany the waning years of life. Benjamin recalls Elizabeth’s wisdom of time wasted when he chooses to miss an opportunity to become romantically and sexually involved with Daisy, realizing “our lives are defined by opportunities. Even the ones we miss.”
Benjamin’s love life is as complicated as it is tragic, his early romanic episodes wrought with confusion and his deep connection with Daisy ultimately destroyed by time. As a child, Benjamin’s fascination with Daisy is one of immediate infatuation, one could even argue immediate love. His appearance, that of a men well in his eighties, puts him at extreme odds with expectations on appropriate behavior. When Daisy’s grandmother discovers Benjamin under the sheets with her granddaughter, she unleashes an understandable furry on Benjamin, adding to an already uncomfortable scene laced with undertones of pedophilia solely on the grounds of appearance. Benjamin turns to Queenie for comfort, tear stricken by his inability to understand what he has done wrong. Appearance cannot change the fact that he is a child, but appearance fundamentally alters the perceptions of others, turning the most innocent of sheet forts into something obscene, denying Benjamin the right to the innocence of childhood.
This experience does nothing to change Benjamin’s love for Daisy, but forever changes how he approaches it. He leaves Daisy and New Orleans behind, not reopening the possibility for romance until appearance deems it fitting. Daisy makes an attempt to engage Benjamin in a sexual encounter when both return to Queenie’s home in their twenties. He refuses for unstated reasons, as his unspoken love for her is well established. Daisy’s phrase of choice in this sequence is, “I’m old enough,” asserting her opinion that she has reached her final maturation into womanhood and her promiscuous decisions are warranted and appropriate. Perceived age again becomes essential, with Daisy’s false perception of her age and maturity counteractively accentuating her puerility. It could be argued that Benjamin’s caution stems from his childhood encounter with Daisy’s grandmother, the accusations of inappropriate behavior continuing to inhibit his ability to act on his desires. Neither Benjamin nor Daisy are virgins at this point in the film, Benjamin having visited a brothel and had an affair with Elizabeth Abbot, while Daisy speaks of being pursued by lesbian dancers while describing sex as being an essential part of building trust among her dancing group. Daisy asks Benjamin if it bothers him that other people want to have sex with her, to which he securely replies, “you’re a desirable woman.” Benjamin’s refusal to admit to wanting to have sex with Daisy seems to be a question of her immaturity and his appearance. Though he has de-aged considerably since their last meeting, he is still far older, and mentally, Daisy is uninhibited, lost in her clouded perception of her enduring youth and vitality, the prospect of aging as far as it could possibly be in the mind of any vibrant twenty-something. Daisy’s normal development, that of an individual with a youth unclouded by the prospect of waning beauty and eventual death, clashes with Benjamin’s development of uncertain termination, the life that was supposed to end when it began but continues to progress toward and uncertain end. They cannot fall in love yet, at least not actively, not until each reach the middle, the only age they will share together, and for Benjamin and Daisy, the age with the greatest, yet shortest happiness.
In “The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman,” Charlotte Goodman describes works that chronicle the lives of a male and female protagonist as following a strict pattern of shared childhood, separation in adolescence, and reunion in adulthood. Benjamin and Daisy follow this pattern, unable to converge until middle-age, where they meet in the middle, both broken by harsh experiences. Daisy’s traumatic leg injury and Benjamin’s involvement in the second world war drive each of them back home, back to the comfort and protection of the familiar. Here they meet, finally have sex, and reembark together, into the “honeymoon sequence” as described by Fincher. This sequence is plagued by a melancholy score, a symbol of the harsh reality that “nothing lasts, and what a shame that is” (Curious). Both are faced with the realization that growing old together is an impossibility. Their romance is confined to a few fleeting years, a second separation inevitable.
When Daisy announces she is pregnant, an all but unbearable wave of melancholy overtakes Benjamin’s story. Daisy faces the situation with an optimism only an expectant mother can have, naively believing that the situation is possible to reconcile. Fincher places great importance on the loss of fatherhood and accentuates the drama by having the film’s narration pulled from the pages of Benjamin’s diary in the hands of his daughter. Just after Caroline’s first birthday, Benjamin leaves, right in front of Daisy, who’s eyes reveal a feeling of betrayal and abandonment. It is in this moment that Benjamin’s life reaches its climax, transitioning from a puzzling, theoretical quandary to emotionally tragic. The prospects of fatherhood and love slip away from Benjamin forever. Cocalis asserts that the ending of a Bildungsroman should be ambiguous, able to “resolve the loose threads of the plot without recourse to a finite happy or tragic ending.” The last words of Benjamin’s diary, addressed to the daughter he left behind, are as poignant as they are ambiguous, leaving the audience uncertain of the meaning Benjamin managed to find in the remainder of his life, but never the less confirming that the lessons he learned from Captain Mike and Elizabeth Abbot never left him, and his love for Daisy and Caroline never waned with the waxing of his age:
“It’s never too late, or in my case too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find that you’re not, I hope you find the strength to start again” (Curious).
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is the story of one man’s development from birth to death and the people who shape his life. Benjamin’s story teaches us the importance of cherishing the best and the worst parts of development, and to look at all of life’s stages as essential for appreciating the milestones they accompany. Benjamin’s story is both tragic and uplifting, recanting one man’s ability to somehow find peace when forced to abandon what he loved most. Benjamin’s life, like everyone’s life, is one shaped and guided by the contributions of others, and one still governed by the consistency of time. Fincher’s film ends with the clock, the hands of time on Gateux’s creation continuing to tick through Katrina’s flood. Time will always chase us all, no matter which direction we travel. A full life, a life worth living, is one that uses the time allotted to enrich the lives of others, learning as much as teaching, forgiving the unforgivable, letting go and loving long. Benjamin dies without a grudge, meeting his end as he began, “alone, and with nothing,” nothing but a lifetime of experiences, the attestation of a life worth lived.
“Audio Commentary with Director David Fincher” (supplementary material on DVD release of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). DVD. Paramount Home Video, 2008.
Cocalis, Susan L. “The Transformation of ‘Bildung’ From an Image to an Ideal.” Montashefte. 70.4 (1978): 399-414. Print.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt, and Cate Blanchett. Paramount, 2008. Film.
Goodman, Charlotte. “The Lost Brother, the Twin: Women Novelists and the Male-Female Double Bildungsroman.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 17.1 (1983): 28-43. Print.
Tyree, J.M. “Against the Clock: Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Film Quarterly. 62.4 (2009): 34-37. Print.