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Social status and reputation are hugely important to the characters in the story, and the threat of losing one’s status forms much of the story’s conflict. The inciting event, Benjamin being born as a seventy-year-old man, threatens the reputation of the hospital and its staff. The doctor wants nothing more to do with the Buttons, and the nursing staff wants Mr. Button to remove Benjamin from the premises immediately, lest word get out about Benjamin and the hospital’s reputation be tarnished. Of course, this is completely absurd. There may be no explanation for Benjamin’s condition, but it certainly isn’t anyone’s fault. However, because it is so out of the ordinary, strange, and even grotesque, the hospital staff is afraid the incident will make them look bad. So Benjamin, rather than being cared for and accommodated, is cruelly cast out in nothing but a white blanket. Similarly, Roger Button is not nearly as worried about Benjamin’s health as he is about his own reputation. Instead of embracing his son or welcoming him into the world, he immediately scrambles to try and make Benjamin look like a normal baby, or at least a small boy. But dressing the full-grown, elderly-looking Benjamin in boy’s clothing is as cruel as it is absurd. The pattern continues throughout the book. Many of the characters, including Hildegarde and Roscoe, prioritize their reputation above Benjamin’s well-being and angrily blame him for his condition.
The actions of all the characters in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” reveal the ways in which people tend to behave according to their nature. If one expects a father to love his son unconditionally, Mr. Button’s early treatment of Benjamin may seem odd or cruel. In fact, Mr. Button is a man who is simply not equipped to deal with the particular challenge that Benjamin’s condition presents. Benjamin’s condition requires a certain amount of adaptability and creativity, and an open mind. Mr. Button, however, is a mainstream social conformist who seeks to do what society deems proper. In fact, the one decision he makes that is out of step with greater society is having Benjamin delivered in a hospital, and the narrator implies this may have something to do with Benjamin’s backward aging. Mr. Button’s conformist nature dictates that this is the last such “mistake” he will ever make. He subsequently avoids nonconformity at all costs, and this leads him to absurdly treat Benjamin like a child instead of what he is: a grown man.
Benjamin also makes decisions based on his fundamental nature. Though his nature changes subtly as his body grows younger and younger, each action is in line with Benjamin’s fundamental nature as a seventy-, fifty-, and so on year-old man. When Benjamin steals his father’s cigars and sneaks off to read the encyclopedia against his father’s wishes, he feels a bit ashamed. He can’t help it, however. It is not in his nature at this time in his life to be entertained by baby rattles. When Benjamin has grown younger, he finds that he is no longer attracted to the now-much-older Hildegarde. This saddens Benjamin. He wants to still feel attracted to his wife, but their accelerating age difference makes this impossible. This pattern throughout the story shows the futility of trying to be something that is not in your nature.
It is striking that over the course of the entire story there is absolutely no attempt from anyone to investigate or understand Benjamin’s strange condition. It simply goes unexplained. The only thing that seems to matter to anyone is how embarrassing it is. The doctor and hospital staff worry about their reputation. Roger Button worries about his social status. Roscoe is embarrassed by how “perverse” it looks. No one attempts to understand what is happening and grapple with the truth of it because it is so strange, and therefore embarrassing. Instead, the people in Benjamin’s life turn to deception, lies, and concealment. Roger Button tells the tailor half-truths in order to find clothes for Benjamin. He even lies to himself in order to believe his son is normal. Benjamin experiences the consequences of telling the truth when he shows up at the Yale registrar looking like a fifty-year-old man. So when he meets Hildegarde, Benjamin hides the truth about his real age. For her part, Hildegarde is perfectly happy to believe that Roger has come to the dance with his “brother.” The people of the story are so afraid that the truth might implicate them somehow or otherwise affect their reputation that they prefer to believe in lies.