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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The most poignant of Benjamin Button’s difficulties is his struggle to belong. Other characters in the story have their careers, their positions in society, and their families, which give them a sense of belonging. Indeed, they cling so fiercely to these things that any threat to reputation or status is perceived as dire and to be avoided at all costs because it means being cast out. Therefore, the threat Benjamin poses to the reputations of the people in his life causes them to ostracize Benjamin or to keep him at a distance. Ironically, it is others’ need to belong that keeps Benjamin from having a stable cohort of his own. Benjamin does manage to find happiness in belonging for short stretches in life. There is a time when he finally becomes considerably younger than his father, which allows his father to finally treat him as a son.
When Benjamin joins the army and performs well, he becomes a member of an honored group. At Harvard, Benjamin excels at football and has a group of colleagues that admire him. However, these stints of happiness and belonging are extremely brief. Benjamin is moving through time in one direction, while everyone else around him moves in the opposite direction. Even when Benjamin and some other person or people’s existence in time aligns, it is cut especially short. Rather than making friends, finding a group, and growing and changing with them, Benjamin rapidly grows apart from them. Benjamin’s need for belonging dictates many of his actions in the story, but he is fated always to change in the wrong direction and lose the companionship of those he loves.
Benjamin Button’s life spans a time of rapid change in America and its unfolding highlights the inherent instability of customs and tradition. Benjamin’s birth in Baltimore on the eve of the Civil War signals early on that his life will see fundamental changes to the traditional social order, perhaps several times over. The Civil War and the Industrial Revolution would change nearly every aspect of American life. Benjamin himself is a symbol of this societal shift. He represents an unforeseen event, such as the aforementioned Civil War and Industrial Revolution, that upends assumptions and requires a new way of thinking or living. Moreover, Benjamin’s condition and the times he lives through expose the fragility of tradition. The characters in the story cling to conformity and tradition, but Benjamin is there as a reminder that unexpected things happen which one cannot control. While Benjamin cannot force people to understand or accept him, those very same people have no choice but to accept the reality of the changing world around them. Slavery will be abolished. The South will be destroyed and remade. The once majority-agrarian U.S. economy will change to one of primarily industrial production. Wars will be fought and won or lost. Each of these seismic changes renders the customs and the traditions of the past obsolete and proves that no tradition or custom is completely immune to modern social change.
In “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” life goes by in the blink of an eye and change is the only constant. Two factors contribute to this effect. The first is the short story form. Fitzgerald tells the story of a man’s seventy-odd-year journey from life to death in the space of a few dozen pages. The other is Benjamin Button’s backward aging process. As he moves through life in one direction, everyone else moves in the opposite. Not only do people grow older, but Benjamin grows younger and falls in and out of the age ranges of those around him. Change is less noticeable when it is slow and gradual, but for Benjamin, and for the reader following along, it seems doubly fast. The rush of events is bewildering, and before one can gain footing in any particular spot in the timeframe, the story is over.
Benjamin’s condition helps to highlight change as the only constant in life, but in many ways Benjamin’s life is just like the rest of ours. For instance, a person might be a star athlete until one day they have suddenly grown too old to play; Benjamin grows too young to be able to compete any longer, but the end result is the same. Growing too old to play sports as one once did is a normal and expected part of the human condition. That Benjamin grows too young, however, is surprising and strange. Like many of the other transformative moments in Benjamin’s life, this one forces the reader to reflect on life as transitory, and change as the only constant one can truly rely on.