Asymptotic autobiography : fairy tales as narrative map in the writing of Zelda Fitzgerald

McKetta, Elisabeth Sharp
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When a writer, usually a woman, uses fairy tales as a veil through which to narrate a story of her life, I call this practice asymptotic autobiography. In mathematics, the asymptote is a straight line that a curve approaches increasingly closely, but never actually touches. I define “asymptotic autobiography” as a term for discussing any personal narrative that deliberately employs fiction in order to tell truth. In this inquiry, I examine the use of fairy tale language in giving voice to women writers’ autobiographical representations, using Zelda Fitzgerald’s novel and letters as the focus for my analysis. My research and critical analysis will examine how Save Me the Waltz, which Zelda Fitzgerald wrote while she was a psychiatric patient in the Phipps Clinic, uses fairy tales to provide a mapping of the many performances that autobiographical selfhood entails. By experimenting with open-ended fairy tale conventions instead of being limited by clinical truths, and by contextualizing her personal history in the realm of the imaginary, Fitzgerald removes her story from the psychiatric ward and places it safely in legend.

The first three chapters of this dissertation show how, in sequence, the autobiographical self becomes free through the use of fairy tales in three stages: once the autobiographer has worked to separate herself from being bound by illness or clinical reality (Chapter One), she is free to make the decision of which self or selves she wishes to narrate and perform (Chapter Two); only once she has established her sense of self can the autobiographer then locate her plot, her map, and her narrative (Chapter Three). In Chapter Four, I offer an example of asymptotic autobiography in the form of a one-person play script that I wrote and performed about Zelda Fitzgerald’s life and hospitalization, using as a frame the fairy tale “The Swan Maiden.” This hybrid essay-performance combines the play script itself with personal writing of my own in which I describe the difficulties I had approaching and performing the rich material of Zelda’s life.