F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thank You for the Light”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Thank You for the Light” was originally published in the August 6, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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I was very surprised when I opened up this week’s issue of The New Yorkerand found a story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Looking at the issue’s list of contributors, it has this to say about Fitzgerald and this story: “F. Scott Fitzgerald was first published in The New Yorker in 1929. This story, written in 1936, was recently found among his papers.”

I must say, it’s always fun to find something new by a long-gone master. It’s also usually disappointing when we come to understand just why the piece was forgotten in the first place.

“Thank You for the Light” is a short piece, taking up merely one page — just three columns — of space in this issue. You can read it all online at the link above in just a few minutes. In fact, in that time you can read it twice, as I did.

Mrs. Hanson is the story’s protagonist, a “somewhat faded woman of forty.” She is a travelling saleswoman in the Mid-west; her product is corsets and girdles. She used to work out east, and she thoroughly enjoyed the tradition of concluding a deal with a drink or a cigarette. In her new area, smoking is shunned.

Not only was she never asked if she would like to smoke but several times her own inquiry as to whether anyone would mind was answered half apologetically with “It’s not that I mind, but it has a bad influence on the employees.”

Consequently, this hard-working woman is missing her comfort, and she feels even more lost since everyone seems to look down on her for her habit.

After a particularly grueling day with no escapes to smoke in private, she wanders into a church. And for me, the story barely gets over its rather unclever play with the title. In whatever bit of time Fitzgerald took to write this, he did manage to instill it with the frenetic energy of someone dying for a cigarette. The tone is just right. But I can’t say there was much more than that. Am I missing something?

17 thoughts on “F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thank You for the Light””

  1. Jon says:

    I like this story but hoped for more from the ending. I was expecting the story to either wrap up with an incisive comment on the woman’s loneliness and perhaps overall spiritual condition, or with some over-the-top humorous incident.
    As it was, the humorous incident seemed a bit slight to me–the grace bestowed not meaning so much (though perhaps I’m missing something about the era or catholicism.)
    Still, how incredibly avant-garde of the New Yorker to publish a story with clear, fluid prose, a conventional third-person omniscent narrator, and a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end.

  2. carole vopat says:

    I also was first excited (at seeing a ‘new’ FSF story), and then perplexed–what was the point? smoking brought her to God? God performed a miracle by lighting a cigarette? (that’s hardly the burning bush.) should it have been published? maybe it will help a dissertation writer or untenured prof.find a good footnote….

  3. Trevor says:

    I didn’t read it as smoking bringing her to God, though I see that interpretation. I felt it more likely that “thanks for the light” was a bit sardonic; the lighting of the cigarette is comforting her, not the lighting of her soul.

  4. carole vopat says:

    thanks for the insight.

  5. Joanne says:

    I wasn’t very sure of the ending too but I think Trevor’s interpretation is really good. I’m not very good with literatures and stumble across this on my friend’s facebook page but that explaination seems to fit considering it was written during the great depression and lighting that cigarette releases the stress and perhaps people lost hope in religions. Maybe something like that. But it’s just suprising that they decided to publish this now rather than before.

  6. Trevor says:

    But it’s just suprising that they decided to publish this now rather than before.

    It’s to sell copies of course! News outlets that never remark on what fiction the magazine pubilshes have been headlining this (if not on the front page).

    I was interested to find out that Fitzgerald did consider this finished and actually submitted it to The New Yorker back in the day. However, according to a small post at The Atlantic Wire, the magazine then deemed it “too fantastic” and send around an internal memo that said, “It seems to us so curious and so unlike the kind of thing we associate with him.”

    The story was recently discovered among Fitzgerald’s papers by his grandchildren.

  7. Joe says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but as I was reading this I kept thinking it reminded me of Alice Munro. Of course, if it had been Alice Munro, the story would have gone on for another ten pages and the ending would have been more graceful.

    As for the ending we have, I’m not sure it would have been possible to do much more in such a limited amount of space. It felt like a bit of a letdown, but I liked everything leading up to the ending so much that it didn’t much matter to me.

  8. Ken says:

    I am also puzzled by the ending. It seems a genuine miracle and yet that hardly seems to fit with the rest of the story, even if it’s ironic as Trevor suggests. Otherwise, this was a pretty good view of the restrictions placed upon women at this point in time and interesting in that respect.

  9. Jon says:

    @Joe: We often seem to have the same reaction to pieces, but I’m starting to realize that the difference is simply that you take a “glass half full” perpective. Food for thought….

    @Ken: I also took the ending as a sort of an ironic witticism. But it’s helpful to hear your point that it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the story. Perhaps that contributes to the sense of it being a let-down and not of a piece with the quality of writing.

  10. Michael says:

    I thought the message was quite clear that this somewhat past her prime woman of forty, displaced and uncomfortable, found what she was looking for- her comfort – in a higher power. Too simple?

  11. Ken says:

    Michael, yes, I would call it too simple. Perhaps if the story was by an inspirational writer like Lloyd C. Douglas or today’s equivalent but I hardly would see Fitzgerald as an advocate for higher powers granting comfort.

  12. Aaron says:

    I didn’t find the smoking to be ironic, though I’ll confess that I haven’t read much of Fitzgerald’s work. I took the entire one-page story as sincere: a woman looks to smoking to ease the burdens of her traveling and her hard work, and she finds some of that peace at the foot of an approving God, who recognizes and accepts her and her “drug fiend” habit. This smallest of miracles, of kindnesses, is the sort that’s enough to sustain a person for a lifetime, and while I’m not a religious person — especially when it comes to organized religions — I think that if coffee, cigarettes, or faith can help you through a rough day, then by all means indulge. A little more here, though really, how much can one write about a story so short and seemingly direct? http://bit.ly/Uvh2EK

  13. Betsy says:

    Addiction was a fact in Fitzgerald’s own life. This little story seems more a personal meditation than a serious story, in that here addiction is reduced to something that can be almost controlled. The most beautifully wrought thought in the story being when Fitzgerald poignantly remarks, “…smoking had come to be an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road.”

    Pair this with smoking in the church, and you get the meditation taken up a notch: as if in the inspiration of the smoke, the woman felt temporarily lifted of her burdens. Fitzgerald struggled with addiction; I read this more as a page of serious memoir than a page of serious fiction.

    But as always, I admire the way he captures women. He sees so clearly that, in his world, women have to be tough. This woman is no Daisy, and she is no Jordan. But she is stable and she is dependable. And there’s another deep desire where fiction fulfills what memoir can only wish. So it is in that area of the writer’s dream-life, rather than his completely wrought art, that this story exists.

    I think it is important that the New Yorker published this piece.

  14. Wilson White says:

    Nothing special.
    Only the finest short story ever written.

  15. W White says:

    Is there another short piece of fiction that deals so well and succinctly with ease and fortitude, East and West, men and women, addiction and the fight against it, war and peace, light and dark, life and death?

  16. As this story, W White? It’s been a while since I read this story, but I seem to have thought it rather light. I’d love some more of your thoughts on that.

    In the meantime, I’ll see if any stories come to mind that respond to your question. Probably not, as that’s quite a checklist :-) .

  17. Greg says:

    Hi Wilson – Another great piece of fiction that deals with these themes is by Scott’s friend Ernest: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”

    Do you agree?

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