F. Scott Fitzgerald had an economical way of including important detail in his stories: the who, what, where, why and when of storytelling that readers expect. Yet, Fitzgerald could be efficient while also maintaining melodic prose. A writer who wrote during extremely difficult, tragic times as well as during times of excess and extravagance, Fitzgerald seemed to be at the center of a worldly hub, and he had the drive and the energy to write about it in the genre of fiction.
In the newly discovered short story, “Thanks For The Light,” Fitzgerald consistently begins a paragraph with a fresh idea to keep the reader interested:
“Eastward, she had known her clientele chattily and had often been offered a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded. But she soon found that in her new district things were different.”
The story is about a woman, Mrs. Hanson, who works as a traveling saleswoman, selling lingerie to appointed buyers in her district. Mrs. Hanson’s initial challenge lies in the adjustment of being assigned to a different district. A smoker, it seems at first that Mrs. Hanson’s anxieties are all hinged around her, rather modest, habit of cigarette smoking. Utilizing this trope, Fitzgerald demonstrates the ways people falter from being rigid to casual and from intolerance to compassion. For example, Mrs. Hanson runs into a friend from her old district who tells her that the client she is about to see would never tolerate smoking. The friend points out that the younger men would not mind if a person smoked but an older man usually would detest it:
“…nobody who was in the war would ever object to anyone smoking.”
Compassion enters into the story: those who have experienced life’s horrors, as in a war, will have compassion, but a man who hasn’t experienced things beyond the mundane business world, will usually not be compassionate. Fitzgerald tugs at our human empathy and infuses the main character with vulnerability. To further win the reader’s approval, Mrs. Hanson’s character is always genuinely humble, politely conforming, using temperance and even gratitude. Fitzgerald applies nice detail in depicting a surprisingly young man, “the exception to the rule,” who disapproves of Mrs. Hanson’s cigarette.
“He seemed a pleasant young man but his eyes fixed with so much fascination on the cigarette that she was tapping on her thumbnail that she put it away.”
In a milieu of post war callousness along side the march of progress on the mean streets, Mrs. Hanson suffers a spiritual crisis. She feels “a vague dissatisfaction,” no matter how successful her business calls have been, and she attaches this to the fact that she hasn’t been able to have a single puff of a cigarette. As she stands suddenly in front of a Catholic cathedral; “it seemed very tall,” and goes inside, she ponders over her smoking habit, “I’m getting to be a drug fiend,” and she wonders whether God would approve. It is here that we start to realize this isn’t all about cigarettes.
Inside the cathedral, Fitzgerald juxtaposes darkness and light, the tremendous height of the cathedral, inside and out, to Mrs. Hanson’s relative smallness and her remarkable humility, yet the writer brings into alignment the very essence of the Virgin Mary and Mrs. Hanson, herself. – the two women are alike:
“In her imagination, the Virgin came down, like in the play,The Miracle,
and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired,
just as she was.”
Though she is not Catholic, or even particularly religious, Mrs. Hanson awakens, inside the cathedral of ever- burning candles, from her lucid nap, to a kind of emancipation in the form of a very personal miracle.
Hence, Fitzgerald quickly and skillfully renders an epiphany with enough emotion and mystery to satisfy his readers!
("Thanks For The Light," by F. Scott Fitzgerald, appeared in The New Yorker, August 6th, 2012)