Incompatible Arrows, IV: F. Scott Fitzgerald

By Sean Carroll | April 3, 2008 10:46 pm

Fewer people are probably familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” than they are with the reversed-time novels by Martin Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Lewis Carroll. But don’t worry, you will be!

In this case, the protagonist is born as an old man who grows younger with time, eventually dying as a baby. His father, not to mention the hospital staff, are somewhat nonplussed at his birth.

Mr. Button’s eyes followed her pointing finger, and this is what he saw. Wrapped in a voluminous white blanket, and partly crammed into one of the cribs, there sat an old man apparently about seventy years of age. His sparse hair was almost white, and from his chin dripped a long smoke-coloured beard, which waved absurdly back and forth, fanned by the breeze coming in at the window. He looked up at Mr. Button with dim, faded eyes in which lurked a puzzled question.

“Am I mad?” thundered Mr. Button, his terror resolving into rage. “Is this some ghastly hospital joke?”

“It doesn’t seem like a joke to us,” replied the nurse severely. “And I don’t know whether you’re mad or not—but that is most certainly your child.”

The cool perspiration redoubled on Mr. Button’s forehead. He closed his eyes, and then, opening them, looked again. There was no mistake—he was gazing at a man of threescore and ten—a baby of threescore and ten, a baby whose feet hung over the sides of the crib in which it was reposing.

No word of what Mrs. Button had to say about the whole affair.

Fitzgerald’s story takes a different approach to running the arrow of time backwards: Benjamin Button has experiences and memories that are completely conventional (although, for expository purposes, he is born with a full vocabulary), while his physical body ages backward.

brad-pitt-fat-suit-09.jpg The reason why I know everyone will be hearing about the story is that “Benjamin Button” is being made into a feature film, directed by David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Major photography has been completed, and it’s currently in post-production, scheduled to be released late in 2008. Major Oscar buzz.

Leaked photos seem to indicate that the film will portray Benjamin as being born baby-sized (albeit old and wrinkly), rather than as a full grown human being. Different actors will be used to portray Button’s reverse aging at different stages of his life, while CGI effects insert Brat Pitt’s face onto each body.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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