‘I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
Daisy, The Great Gatsby
Is it better to be a beautiful fool or to be plain and clever? Who is happier? Who feels more fulfilled? Daisy’s example seems to imply that beautiful women attract the sort of men that only fools could be happy with. And conversely then, do plain women necessarily attract men with whom they can form more meaningful relationships? That is, if they attract any man at all. And is the situation truly hopeless for the clever, beautiful woman? Shouldn’t a woman with two of humanity’s most admired traits be happy?
Perhaps a survey of 19th century literature can shed some light on this question. Much of 19th century fiction (and most fiction before that period) was meant to demonstrate some moral lesson. Generally, the clever and virtuous triumphed and the foolish and cruel came to a bad end, regardless of physical beauty. This is certainly true of authors like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens but less so of Gustave Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary was intended to be a story written objectively, devoid of moralizing. Even his heroine, however, is punished for her foolishness.
Here’s a quick rundown of some famous 19th century heroines, their smarts/beauty quotient, and their fate.
Elizabeth Bennett – Clever and Beautiful – Ends up happy
Lydia Bennett – Foolish and Beautiful (?) – Ends up happy
Jane Eyre – Clever and Plain – Ends up happy
Catherine Linton – Foolish and Beautiful – Ends up unhappy/dead
Madame Bovary – Foolish and Beautiful – Ends up unhappy/dead
Emma Woodhouse – Clever and Beautiful – Ends up happy
Marian Holcombe – Clever and Plain – Ends up happy (though not married)
Dorothea Brooke – Clever and Beautiful – Ends up happy
Rosamund Vincy – Foolish and Beautiful – Ends up unhappy
In most cases, the foolish are punished and the clever rewarded, regardless of physical beauty. The one (I’d say pretty famous) exception that perfectly fits Daisy’s definition of a beautiful fool is Lydia Bennett. I’m not sure if she’s noted in the book as actually being particularly beautiful, but she clearly has charms enough to attract a cad like Mr. Wickham. Luckily for her, she has a quality Daisy does not. She is foolish enough that she has no idea she has married a scalliwag, and she may never figure it out. She will live her life blissfully ignorant of her husband’s poor character. This is Daisy’s dream for her daughter and by extension, herself – to be beautiful enough to marry comfortably and foolish enough to be ignorant of her husband’s flaws and failings.
Twentieth-century fiction departs dramatically from the moralizing of the 19th century. Daisy’s statement (and by extension, Fitzgerald’s) sounds like a reaction to modernism, to the type of world where even in fiction the bad guy can win (he certainly does in The Great Gatsby) and the fool can come out on top. But what about in real life? Real life is so diverse and varied, it’s impossible to prove that one or the other type of woman is happier or more successful. I have known examples of all kinds, though I can say from personal experience the only women I know who bothered to consider this question were the smart ones.
I can say for myself, beyond a doubt, that I would rather be smart and plain than sexy and stupid. Most of us would probably characterize ourselves as somewhere in the middle on both traits anyway. How about you, dear readers? Who is happiest, and which would you prefer to be?