Beauty and Madness: Caesar’s Things, a Christian Novel by Zelda Fitzgerald

By Sharon Kim

Like The Great Gatsby, which is dedicated to her, Zelda Fitzgerald is an icon of the Jazz Age: blithe, glamorous, fearlessly modern. A coveted guest at parties, she was the woman who danced on table tops and drank more than her husband Scott. Her beauty was described as un-photographable, too luminous for a static image, while her youth, wit, and irreverence made her the “It” girl of the 1920s. During the spring of 1930, however, she suffered a severe mental breakdown. She hallucinated voices and experienced terrifying nightmares. She became deeply anxious, suicidal. For the rest of her life, she would undergo long stays at psychiatric hospitals, receiving treatments that helped her recover but never fully restored her. In the mid-1930s, after a third breakdown, Fitzgerald became a devout Christian, and during the 1940s, she wrote a religious novel called Caesar’s Things.

This later phase of her life is not commonly known or celebrated. In those later decades, Fitzgerald would pray and read the Bible intently, sometimes for hours. She faithfully attended an Episcopal church. She wrote several religious tracts and even sent missionary letters to friends like Gertrude Stein. So different was this Zelda from her younger self that her conversion has seemed unbelievable to most of her friends, family, and biographers. The difference alone was striking, but Fitzgerald’s mental illness made it harder to take her faith seriously. Her husband viewed her religion as a psychosis, something the real Zelda would not have adopted if she were in her right mind.

Scholars have taken a similar view of Caesar’s Things, treating it as the sign of her mental disorder, not as a literary work. For this reason, Caesar’s Things initially vanished into a sort of Bermuda’s triangle among them. When faced with difficult passages in the manuscript, scholars explained them in terms of Fitzgerald’s illness: the novel did not make sense because the author had lost her mind. As logical as this approach might be, it short-circuited the process of interpretation a little too hastily. What is more, this attitude among critics was likely underwritten by the ancient association of women and madness, along with the equally ancient association of religion and madness, in which disrespect for the first item in a pair facilitated placing it into the category of the second. These three elements of Fitzgerald’s identity—female, mentally ill, and religious—made her manuscript unintelligible to the modern critics who first read it. They often used words like “incoherent” and “chaotic” to describe Caesar’s Things.

This novel, however, while unfinished and unpublished, is not genuinely incoherent. Fitzgerald worked on Caesar’s Things from 1940-1948, the years when she was released from psychiatric care. Doctors judged her well enough to live at home in Alabama, with only occasional returns to the hospital. Her letters and notes reveal a rational concept for Caesar’s Things, along with deliberate planning for its structure and tropes. The manuscript itself, housed at the Princeton Rare Book and Special Collections Library, shows many signs of revision, in distinct draft stages. Caesar’s Things is a crafted novel, not an unfiltered expression of insanity.

Loosely autobiographical, Caesar’s Things focuses on a woman named Janno: her childhood in the American South, her marriage to a celebrity artist, and their cosmopolitan life in New York, Paris, and the south of France. The novel’s theme and title come from the words of Jesus: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21; Luke 20:25). Writing about herself in third person, the narrator confesses her mistake in giving to Caesar what should have been God’s. In portraying Janno as one of Caesar’s things, Fitzgerald aims to point the way out of Caesar’s domain and into the kingdom of God.

This narrative has a clear symmetry: three chapters on Janno’s childhood and three on her adult life, with a transitional chapter in between. Both halves of the novel follow a distinct theological pattern: an arc of creation, fall, and redemption. They both begin with descriptions of edenic newness— a “garden” or “paradise”— then focus on a central sin: misuse of money in the novel’s first half; misuse of human love in the second, following the two-part structure of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Both halves also contain a redeeming vision or epiphany.

Such intentional design comes with a parodic twist. Fitzgerald presents an explicit theological re-evaluation of the 1920s, recognizing its beauty but characterizing it as a form of madness: a glittering world attempting to separate itself from God, when only God provides true coherence and meaning. In presenting this critique, Fitzgerald re-purposes the techniques of modernist experimentation, using non-linear temporality, stream-of-consciousness, and dream-like surrealistic images in prophetic sequences. These experimental features leave Fitzgerald vulnerable to the charge of mental illness, yet her point is that the excesses of the 1920s were the real madness. The fragmented strangeness of Caesar’s Things reveals the mental and spiritual disorder of a modern world that had defined itself apart from God, while the biblical and theological patterns provide a stabilizing structure for the whole. 

Caesar’s Things is Fitzgerald’s effort to create a religious modernism, fusing the aesthetic forms of the post-World War I era with the biblical teachings she came fervently to believe. Her novel, although unfinished, achieves enough of its intended goal to make it visible: modernist beauty infused with faith in Christ.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “The Brokenness of Caesar’s Things: On the Unfinished Religious Novel by Zelda Fitzgerald” published in Christianity & Literature 68.2 (March 2019). Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.