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Critical Reviews

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

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Some critical essays of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby...

In the following excerpt, Trask asserts that The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's critique of the American dream and the outmoded values of traditional America.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is certainly more than an impression of the Jazz Age, more than a novel of manners. Serious critics have by no means settled upon what that "more" might be, but one hypothesis recurs quite regularly. It is the view that Fitzgerald was writing about the superannuation of traditional American belief, the obsolescence of accepted folklore. The Great Gatsby is about many things, but it is inescapably a general critique of the "American dream" and also of the "agrarian myth"—a powerful demonstration of their invalidity for Americans of Fitzgerald's generation and after.

The American dream consisted of the belief (sometimes thought of as a promise) that people of talent in this land of opportunity and plenty could reasonably aspire to material success if they ad

hered to a fairly well-defined set of behavioral rules—rules set forth in a relatively comprehensive form as long ago as the eighteenth century by Benjamin Franklin. In addition, Americans easily assumed that spiritual satisfaction would automatically accompany material success. The dream was to be realized in an agrarian civilization, a way of life presumed better—far better—than the urban alternative. Thomas Jefferson firmly established the myth of the garden—the concept of agrarian virtue and the urban vice—in American minds. During the turbulent era of westward expansion the myth gained increasing stature.

James Gatz of North Dakota had dreamed a special version of the American dream. Fitzgerald tells us that it constituted "a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing." When Gatz lay dead, his father told Nick Carraway that "Jimmy was bound to get ahead." As a child, Gatz set about preparing to realize his dream. He early decided that he could contemplate future glory so long as he scheduled his life properly and adhered to a set of general resolves—resolves quite obviously derivative from Poor Richard. "No smokeing [sic] or chewing." "Bath every other day." "Be better to parents." Yes, James Gatz was bound to get ahead, bound as securely to his goal as was Captain Ahab to the pursuit of the white whale. The Great Gatsby is the chronicle of what happened when James Gatz attempted to realize the promise of his dream.

Gatz thought himself different—very different—from the common run of mankind. We learn that his parents were "shiftless and unsuccessful” and that "his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all." He possessed a "Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God." As a son of God—God's boy—he "must be about His Father's business." What was that business? It was "the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty." Gatz plainly imagined himself a Christian of the anointed—born of earthly parents but actually a son of God. This is what Fitzgerald sought to convey in establishing that "Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself." That conception moved him to seek out goodness and beauty—certainly a prostituted goodness and beauty, but goodness and beauty nevertheless.

When his moment came—at seventeen James Gatz changed his name. The question of the name change has not received the attention it deserves. Some believe that Fitzgerald derived  

"Gatsby" from the slang term for pistol current during the Jazz Age-gat. Others see in the act of changing names an intimation of "Jewishness" in the hero, a view supported by the frequency of the name "Jay" among the Jews. Jay Gould comes immediately to mind as do Jay Cooke and J.P Morgan. Also, it is known that the inspiration for the novel came from Fitzgerald's chance encounter with a Jewish bootlegger.

It is, of course, conceivable that Fitzgerald had some or even all of these things in mind, and It is also possible that he had still another thought. Could it be, however unlikely, that he was rendering the literal "Jesus, God's boy" in the name of Jay Gatsby? (In ordinary pronunciation, the 't' easily changes to "d" as in "Gad.") This conjecture might appear hopelessly far-fetched, were it not for Fitzgerald's discussion of Gatz's "Platonic conception of himself," and his direct use of the phrase "son of God.", In any case, Gatsby began his pursuit of goodness and beauty when he changed his name, and that pursuit ultimately ended in tragedy.

Fitzgerald develops the tragedy of Jay Gatsby as the consequence of his quixotic quest for Daisy Buchanan. Daisy represents that "vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty" to which Gatsby aspired

When Jay met Daisy, he realized that he had "forever wed IDS unutterable visions to her perishable breath."' He knew that "his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.", when he kissed her, "she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete." What was the incarnation? In Daisy, Gatsby's meretricious dream was made flesh. He sought ever after to realize 'his dream in union with her.

The trouble with Gatsby's quest was that Daisy was completely incapable of playing the role assigned to her. She was as shallow as the other hollow people who inhabited Fitzgerald's Long Island. She could never become a legitimate actualization of Gatsby's illegitimate dream. Gatsby was himself culpable. He was not truly God's boy perhaps, but he possessed a certain grandeur, an incredible ability to live in terms of his misguided dream. Nick Carraway understood this, telling Gatsby at one point that he was "worth the whole damned crowd put together."'

Both Gatsby and Tom Buchanan, Daisy's husband, possessed wealth Gatsby at least used his wealth to seek out beauty and claim It for himself. Buchanan the lecher lacked any larger goals. In the end, Daisy chooses to remain with Buchanan, and

Gatsby is murdered by the deranged husband of Myrtle Wilson, Buchanan's mistress, who had been accidentally run down and killed by Daisy. Buchanan serves as Gatsby's executioner; he allows George Wilson to believe that Gatsby had killed Myrtle.

Gatsby was as alone in death as he had been in life. Of all the hordes who had accepted his largesse when alive, only one—an unnamed "owl-eyed man" who had admired Gatsby's books—appeared at the funeral. He delivered a pathetic epitaph' "The poor son-of-a-bitch."'

The tragedy is over; Fitzgerald speculates on ItS meaning through the narrator, Nick Carraway. Carraway notes that Jay and the others—Nick himself, his sometime girl frIend Jordan Baker, Daisy, and Tom—all were from the Middle West. It was not the Middle West of popular imagination, of the lost agrarian past, but rather the cities of the middle border. 'That's my Middle West," muses Carraway, "not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow," Carraway continues: Gatsby and his friends "were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common Which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life."' The East held many attractions, but the expatriate Westerner lived there at his peril. So Carraway went home. He could at least survive, though he might not prosper, in prairie cities.

Why had Gatsby failed? It was because the time for dreaming as Gatsby dreamed had passed. In what must be, in its implications, one of the most moving passages in American literature, Fitzgerald completes his commentary on Jay Gatsby: "His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp It. He did not know it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity behind the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

The future to which Gatsby aspired is indeed in the past. His dream—the American dream—had been nurtured in the agrarian past that was no more. Fitzgerald's symbolism is never more ingenious than in his depiction of the bankruptcy of the old agrarian myth. Tills task he accomplishes through the most haunting and mysterious of the symbols which appear in the book—the eyes of Dr. T. J Eckleburg. Here is one of the cruelest caricatures in the American novel. For Dr. T. J. Eckleburg is none other than a devitalized Thomas Jefferson, the pre-eminent purveyor of the agrarian myth.

What is it that Dr. Eckleburg's eyes survey? It is the valley of democracy turned to ashes—the garden defiled: "This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, WIth a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight ... [Dr. Eckleburg's] eyes, dimmed a little by many pointless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground" Fitzgerald thus presents a remarkably evocative description of the corruption that had befallen Jefferson's garden.

At the very end of the novel, Fitzgerald betrays his affection for the myth of the garden, despite his awareness that it could no longer serve Americans. His narrator Carraway once again serves as the vehicle for his thoughts: "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Alas, poor Jay Gatsby! "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning—" Alas, all of us! The novel ends on a desperately somber note: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

American writers in the Twenties were an entirely new breed—divorced from the literary tradition which had matured between the Civil War and World War I. That tradition culminated in the literary Establishment presided over by William Dean Howells in the last years before the outbreak of the

Great War. Henry F. May has summarized the basic tenets of Howells and his minions in The End of American Innocence: Howells "had always insisted that real truth and moral goodness were identical, and he had always held that politics and literature were both amenable to moral judgment. He had always believed that American civilization was treading a sure path, whatever the momentary failures, toward moral and material improvement."

What had outmoded Howells? It was the realization, anticipated before the Great War but complete only in the Twenties, that America had been transformed—transformed by the onset of an overwhelming process of industrialization and urbanization which had superannuated traditional American beliefs—beliefs nurtured in the bosom of the agrarian past.

In these circumstances, a revolution in manners and morals was inevitable. World War I augmented rather than inaugurated the trend. Postwar writers undertook a comprehensive critique of traditional faith. Some abhorred the change; others welcomed it. In any case, almost all of the great writers of the Twenties accepted the fact of the intellectual and emotional revolution deriving from the obsolescence of prewar standards. They launched a comprehensive critique of traditional faiths, and for their efforts they received much public notice and approbation.

What accounts for the success of these literary revolutionists? The answer resides in the fact that America was generally "new" in the Twenties. George Mowry and other recent historians have effectively documented the distinctive "modernity" of America in the wake of World War I—a modernity discernible in the mass culture as well as among the elite. The transitional years had passed; the change from the rural-agricultural past to the urban-industrial future was relatively complete, and readers as well as writers responded to this reality. To be sure, the defenders of the old America ensconced behind crumbling barricades in the Old South and the farther Middle West fought extensive rearguard actions—fundamentalist assaults on evolution, prohibitionist bans on spiritous liquors, and racist campaigns for the preservation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant America—but these were last desperate attempts to postpone the inevitable. The most important fact about reaction in the Twenties was that it failed. In each instance "modernity" ultimately triumphed over tradition.

Significant writers in the Twenties were above all dedicated to the imposing task of pointing out the error of living in terms of obsolete values—however useful those values might have been in the past. This effort is perhaps most obvious in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway wastes little time investigating the reasons why Jake Barnes, Lady Brett, Robert Cohn, and other characters in the novel must live differently than before. Hemingway's emphasis is on method—on how to live in the revolutionized context. Scott Fitzgerald dealt with the other side of the coin—the bankruptcy of the old way. Jay Gatsby's dream was patently absurd—however noble, however "American." Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were unsound guides to life in the modernity of the vast eastern Urbana, the East of West Egg, Long Island—and also for life in the new Midwest to which the chastened Carraway returned. The final irony of the novel is that Fitzgerald could discern no beauty in the city to compare with the beauty, however meretricious, inherent in Gatsby's Platonic conception of himself.

Source: David F. Trask, "A Note on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby," in University Review, Vol XXXIII, No 3, March, 1967, pp. 197-202.

 
 
The Great Gatsby and “Modern Times” 
(A few eclectic observations and notes)  
 

She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked.  “It’s full of ¾¾

I hesitated.

 

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly. (127)

 

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something¾an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago.  For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air.  But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever. (118)

No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock¾until long after there way anyone to give it to if it came.  I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared.  If that was true he must have felt that the had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.  He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves an shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass.   A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (169)

 Big Themes: 

§         American Idealism Corrupted by Materialism (a.k.a. Modernity)

§         The individual’s role in history in the face of the crowd (key terms here are also the idea of an American Self and the impact of modernity (crowds) on cultural, historical identity) 

Gatsby as main character. Whatever interpretive binaries you might come up with, it’s likely that you will find that Gatsby’s character embodies or occupies both sides of the binary ¾ on the one hand, he is, as the introduction suggest, truly perceived as “great” by Nick at times (the last true romantic in a corrupted modern world); on the other hand,  he’s also represented as the most thoroughly modern character in many of the cheapest ways (“The Great Gatsby” as a P. T. Barnum side show spectacle; his house compared to Coney Island and the World’s Fair, described finally by nick as “that huge incoherent failure of a house” (188).)  Whether or not Gatsby’s story is tragedy is another matter ¾ tragic loss of the American Dream, love lost, or loss of futuristic optimism itself in the face of the Wasteland of modern times.  

Nick as main character.  As a coming of age story, Nick’s narrative is about his realization of just how deeply implicated his story is in Gatsby’s story.  Nick learns in the end that the very idea of realizing his self in the mythic American dream landscape of the East (the city as an urban wilderness of possibilities once occupied by the West in American consciousness), that this future was already gone long before he headed east in the spring of 1922 to make his mark in the bond market.  This is also (or still) a story about loss, but perhaps one that is more deeply ironic, more detached, more explicitly literary in its stylistic expressions of melancholy lyricism.  The structure of the story and its non-chronological progression tends to emphasize Nick’s consciousness and the contrast between Gatsby’s belief in the green light and Nick’s introduction to the modern realities he comes to see lying beneath the glittering surfaces of such symbols. 

Modernity and Mass Culture 

            Fitzgerald (Nick) introduces in his story a remarkable amount of things ¾ things manufactured, advertised, and consumed.  These are signs of the new economy (the modern capitalism which Jake in The Sun Also Rises remarks with dead-pan irony as in the CINZANO scene).  But these are in many cases also, as in SAR, metaphors of the new materialistic mental landscapes of the “Jazz Age” which this novel seeks to document.

 

July 5, 1922: [chapter 4:p.65] In “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald dates the death of the Jazz Age as the summer of 1922, when, Fitzgerald imagines, the authentic Jazz moment of youthful rebellion and futuristic, expressive modernity has been co-opted by the mainstream power elites.  July 5, 1922 is the only precise date named The Great Gatsby, introduced near the middle of this novel, when Nick begins to document (on the back of a commuter train schedule) who came to Gatsby's parties and why/how: the decadent old money crowds of West Egg and the over-40 new rich from East Egg who come to Gatsby’s house to indulge in the new hedonism of the Jazz Age but do so with no real idealistic vitality (Gatsby and potentially Daisy), or no more thoughtful knowing irony (Nick and potentially Jordan).

Some Good Textual Moments to Explore:

§         Myrtle Wilson and her modern apartment as an attempt to turn herself into a Daisy-like modern society lady by mimicking what she has read in Town Tattle and trashy gossip novels.  Her pet dog, her party-mannerisms and behavior, her manufactured furniture and rugs with “tapestry scenes of Versailles” (42).

§         Gatsby’s mansion and the way the novel draws an analogy between his house, car and his character.  (see especially our first view of his house (p.9) and the first descriptions of his parties (pp.43-44)

§         The power of images over realities, of packaged stories in Hollywood films, news stories, novels, pictures, etc. to shape people’s perceptions. Gatsby’s Ben Franklin idealism scrawled on the back of a pulp fiction western novel (p.181); Gatsby’s self-mythologizing story as a pastiche of cheap magazine stories (p.53, pp.68-72); Henry Gatz as one who’s more drawn to the photograph of his son’ s mansion than the house itself, and his naïve belief that Gatsby would have been a man like James J. Jill (pp.175-181);

§         Owl Eyes and Nick’s views of Gatsby’s interiors and the analogy the novel draws between the eclectic rooms in Gatsby’s house and the interior consciousness of modernity more generally (pp.49-50; pp.96-98). Owl Eyes shows up twice, once in Chapter Three which is our introduction to Gatsby’s extravagant parties and once at the end to deliver Gatsby’s eulogy: “The poor son-of-a-bitch” (p.183).

§         “Roaring Noon” (p.73) and Manhattan as expression of Gatsby’s house and Gatsby’s belief in infinite possibilities.  (see also p. 85: "Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," I thought; "anything at all . . . ." / Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.)

Modernism and the Novel’s Style or Structure 

Nick’s implication in Gatsby’s story (his naïve rush out East to make a name for himself and his own family’s self-created mythological history), but also, and most importantly, his detached, ironic observations and insights and his overtly literary musings; the melancholy lyricism for which this novel is so famous.  How exactly is this a modernist sensibility that tells the story, that reports and describes the symbolic landscape of the novel?

            Some textual moments:

§         The valley of ashes as Wasteland (pp. 27-28)

§         The Eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg (p. 27)

§         Nick’s description of the Queensboro Bridge and Manhattan (p.85) [see also the commentary on the cover art for this novel commissioned especially for this novel’s publication, pp. 196-197]

§         The comparison to the night scene by El Greco (p. 185)

§         Nick’s wry reactions to the “news” of Gatsby’s death (p.144 “the death car” as the newspaper referred to it; pp.171-172 Nick’s paragraph on the untruth of most of the sensationalized news reports)

§         Just about every other sentence in the novel!  It all always already comes back to Nick’s modernist sensibility and his eloquent literary musings (which we located in Chapter two during our first day of discussion, where Nick reflects on his experience looking out the window of Myrtle's and Tom's Manhattan apartment, feeling both inside and outside the spectacle of the vertical city skyline and its "line of yellow windows"; as someone in class astutely observed, there's an idea here in this scene that shows up in Hemingway's novel, but Hemingway (and Jake) would never have written these sentences.)

Nostalgia for the Pre-modern / Primitivism 

It is important to distinguish between the terms Primitive, Primitivism, and Nostalgia for the present; though they may be related, each has a distinct and specific meaning.  Though related, the terms primitivism and nostalgia are not synonymous.  Primitivism refers to a specific tradition in Western European thought and writing of comparing the modern “civilized” present against some imagine pre-modern “primitive” life.  Not all nostalgic thinking involves a primitivist paradigm, but all primitivist writing does, by definition, invoke a nostalgic way of seeing and imagining the world.  It is possible, therefore, to interpret nostalgia as a character trait and as a part of the vision of the novel more generally and not address primitivism as one mind-set or world view informing either a particular character’s way of looking or the novel’s way of representing modern life in the so-called “roaring Twenties" (though, after we read Home to Harlem and confront McKay's complex engagement with primitivism and modernism, we may want to return to Fitzgerald and Hemingway's nostalgic impulses as in fact more complex and problematic instances of primitivism too).

§         Tom’s nostalgia for images of landed gentry and his anti-modern sentiments (see p. 11, pp. 17+; p.137 his final repudiation of “the modern world”), while posturing himself as thoroughly at home in the East.

§         Nick’s own nostalgia for the “Midwest” (pp.183-184).  Here Nick explicitly confesses his nostalgia, but it may be lurking beneath the surface of his narrative in other places as well.

§         Gatsby’s belief in “Daisy” as a timeless, enduring value, and his belief that he can in fact repeat the past. (see pp. 104-105; pp.116-117)  Daisy's own nostalgia for Daisy?

§         Are there any characters who are not nostalgic for a past different from their modern present? Owl Eyes?  Jordan?  Myrtle?  Wilson naively thinks he can “go west” and start anew, but Myrtle wants nothing but a modern future, one which the novel seems to somehow know in advance that she can’t attain.

New Woman Feminism, Modern Women, and/or Questions of Gender

Before launching into this terrain, it might be helpful to return to the handout on The Sun Also Rises and look again at Wendy Martin’s distinction between “New Women” and “Flappers” as two different kinds of modern women.  Many readers of Hemingway’s novel read Brett as a sympathetic modern woman character who struggles against the desire of the modern men in the novel to posses her or otherwise fix her in some kind of static, non-threatening role. 

§         What’s Fitzgerald’s implicit views of modern women in this novel?  Daisy and Jordan dress the part of flappers, yet Daisy also plays the role of the Louisville rich girl debutante. A good question to ask is perhaps just how much Daisy realizes this is a “role,” and whether her recognition of that would in any sense make her a modern woman character. 

§         How significant is Nick’s final repudiation of Jordan Baker to the novel’s larger critique of modernity? 

§         Why is the novel so intrigued by Myrtle Wilson’s “immediately perceptible vitality” (30), on the one hand, yet almost viciously cruel in its mockery of her upper class pretension on the other hand? (see for example, pp.29-35 where Nick contrasts Myrtle’s “intense vitality” with her and her sister Catherine’s laughable attempts to posture themselves as modern society women.  Indeed, Nick twice remarks Catherine’s plucked and redrawn eyebrows as affronts to her “nature” (see p.34, and again at the very end on pp.171-172).  What’s up with that?)

In the following essay, Hermanson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto, examines the roles of the major characters in The Great Gatsby and how the novel both depicts its own time and deals with timeless issues of ambiguity and tragedy.

Published in 1925, The Great Gatsby became an immediate classic and propelled its young author to a fame he never again equalled. The novel captured the spirit of the "Jazz Age," a post-World War I era in upper-class America that Fitzgerald himself gave this name to, and the flamboyance of the author and ills wife Zelda as they moved about Europe with other American expatriate writers (such as Ernest Hemingway). However, Gatsby expresses more than the exuberance of the times. It depicts the restlessness of what Gertrude Stein (another expatriate modernist writer) called a "lost generation." Recalling T. S Eliot's landmark poem "The Wasteland" (1922), then, Gatsby also has its own "valley of ashes" or wasteland where men move about obscurely in the dust, and this imagery of decay, death, and corruption pervades the novel and "infects" the story and its hero too. Because the novel is not just about one man, James Gatz or Jay Gatsby, but about aspects of the human condition of an era, and themes that transcend time altogether, it is the stuff of myth Gatsby's attempts to attain an ideal of himself and then to put this ideal to the service of another ideal, romantic love, are attempts to rise above corruption in all its forms. It is this quality in him that Nick Carraway, the novel's narrator, attempts to portray, and in so doing the novel, like its hero, attains a form of enduring greatness.

The novel is narrated in retrospect; Nick is writing the account two years after the events of the summer he describes, and this introduces a critical distance and perspective which is conveyed through occasional comments about the story he is telling and how it must appear to a reader. The tune scheme of the novel is further complicated as "the history of that summer" of 1922 contains within it the story of another summer, five years before this one, when Gatsby and Daisy first courted. This is the story that Jordan tells Nick. As that earlier summer ended with Gatsby's departure for the war in the fall, so the summer of Nick's experience of the East ends with the crisis on the last hot day (the day of mint juleps in the hotel and Myrtle Wilson's death) and is followed by Gatsby's murder by George Wilson on the first day of fall This seasonal calendar is more than just a parallel, however. It is a metaphor for the blooming and blasting of love and of hope, like the flowers so often mentioned. Similarly, the novel's elaborate use of light and dark imagery light, darkness, sunshine, and shadow, and the in-between changes of twilight) symbolizes emotional states as well.

In-between time (like the popular song Klipspringer plays on Gatsby's piano: In the meantime / In between time / Ain't we got fun?) is described by Nick as the time of profound human change. While this can describe Daisy's change between her affair with Gatsby and the couples' reunion, it may also characterize the general sense of restlessness and profound changes happening in these first years after World War One. Daisy (the days eye, or the sun) is dressed in white and is associated with light and sunshine throughout the novel, and she is very much a seasonal creature. It is impossible, then, for Gatsby to catch this light and fix it in one place or one time. Daisy's constant quality is like the light in the novel, she is always changing. Gatsby's own devotion to her has a permanence that Daisy Cannot live up to, yet Gatsby seems committed to an idea of Daisy that he has created rather than to the real woman she is. Daisy's changeability is not at fault in Gatsby's failure. Although she is careless in the way that people like Tom are careless in their wealth and treatment of   other people, Daisy is naturally not able to renounce time itself in the way Gatsby does in order to meet him again in the past.

Gatsby is gorgeous and creates a sense of wonder m Nick for the daring nature of his impossible but incorruptible dream. It is the attempt itself and the firm belief that he can achieve the impossible that makes Gatsby more than the sum of his (somewhat shabby) reality. As a seventeen-year-old he transformed himself from plain James Gatz, to Jay Gatsby for whom anything is possible. As he rowed out to Dan Cody's sumptuous yacht off the shore of Lake Superior, he was crossing towards opportunity, and a Platonic conception of himself (based on the Greek philosopher Platos' theory of perfect forms, which interprets everything on earth as a better or worse copy of these forms, as well as the conception of a new self-identity). Gatsby conforms to an ideal of himself that transforms reality into possibility. This audacity and disregard for ties binding him to his own past is his apprenticeship for loving Daisy. In defiance of the class difference separating them, he aspires high to this girl m a golden tower, the "king's" daughter, whose voice is full of money. Gatsby does not seem to realize that his idea of Daisy, whom he weds With a kiss one Summer night has as little bearing on reality as Jay Gatsby does.

Gatsby is a romantic, but he is also made up of romantic stories by other people who speculate and rumor about his unknown past. Nick takes it upon himself to tell the story and thus to tell Gatsby's story as he pieced It together from different sources, and Nick characterizes himself as someone who understands Gatsby better, who wants to set the record straight, and who sides with Gatsby against the world that made him up and then deserted him. It is Nick alone who arranges Gatsby's funeral and meets with his father, and the bitterness of the lesson about humanity that Nick learns from this experience affects the way he tells the story. Certainly, Nick is also romanticizing

Gatsby. He contrasts the wondrous hope winch Gatsby embodied against the corruptness of his bootlegging business (Gatsby's fortune in fact came from illegal alcohol sales) and against the more corrupt society which preyed on Gatsby. Against the background of the times and of upper-class society like that represented at his parties, Gatsby's extraordinary gift for hope and his romantic readiness stand out as transcendent.

Nick's own role in the novel shares much of the nature of paradox and ambiguity which characterizes the whole. The novel is as much about Nick as it is about Gatsby and his colossal dream of Daisy. Nick is an involved outsider, privileged or burdened with the role of witness and recorder of events. While he protests often of his unwillingness to participate in other's embroilments and is frequently irritated or exasperated by them, he participates nevertheless. He is implicated in Tom's relationship with Myrtle by virtue of his presence with them (and the uncomfortable period he spends in the living room of the lovers' apartment while they are in the bedroom together implicates him further as a passive accomplice) while he retains his sense of distance through moral superiority. Similarly, Nick performs the service of go-between (or pander) for Gatsby and Daisy; the couple reunite in his house, and he invites Daisy there for this purpose. At Gatsby's party he acts as lookout, keeping a watchful eye for Tom while the couple slip over to sit on Nick's own porch. This ambivalence in his character undermines his statements about himself as being one of the few honest people that he has ever known, and has led to many critics considering him a kind of smug voyeur. However, Nick's own sense of being both enchanted and repelled by his experiences is at the source of the novel's larger depiction of a meretricious society both enchanting and repelling, and It is this quality winch enables Nick to find Gatsby both the representative of everything for which he has an unaffected scorn, and at the same time the embodiment of gorgeous hope. In this way, a story often marked by sordid dealings and dismissed by Nick in one breath (writing two years later) as the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men can also be a holocaust or fully developed tragedy.

In considering the novel as tragedy, the role of fate (or fortune m its other sense) figures large. The novel is conspicuous in its lack of a religious belief system, God is absent from the skies over East and West Egg. Part of the restlessness of a postwar generation may describe the quest for a belief that can fill the void created by this loss, or the results of a hedonistic lifestyle that will distract people from it altogether. Nick clings to his declared preference for honesty and being a careful driver in a world of metaphorically careless drivers. Daisy is one who lives for the moment, and for whom glimpses of tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that are terrifying lapses of a willful blindness to such matters (and blindness is one of the novel's themes). Gatsby has his own willful blindness in the form of Ins enduring Ideals and the dreams these Ideals have created. In classical mythology, which the novel draws on heavily, the goddess Fortune is also blind in that she favors no one (she is often figured with one eye open and one eye closed, winking like Daisy herself) as she turns her wheel about, thereby deciding the fates of human beings. One question of the novel, then, is who (or what) is at the wheel? The blind eyes that watch over the world of the novel are those of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg on an old billboard in the valley of ashes. After Myrtle's death, her husband George is looking at these when he says God sees everything. Nothing seems able to intervene in Gatsby's own inexorable fate, as Wilson tracks him down to murder him in the mistaken belief that Gatsby was driving the death car that killed Myrtle. This sense of predetermined destiny contributes to the novel as tragedy.

For all characters, the relationship between the past and the future is at issue, as well as personal responsibility for the choices they make in navigating the present between these. Nick appears to believe that being careful will keep him out of harm, but he is more of a careless driver than he realizes, as Jordan comments to him after Gatsby's death and after their affair is over. Gatsby himself recalls another careless driver. In Greek mythology Phaeton tried to harness Ins chariot to the sun and suffered for his presumption. Similarly, Gatsby tries with his yellow car (and all that it symbolizes) to catch Daisy, and fails just as surely The many echoes of classical mythology recall to the novel a much more distant past (and a mythical kind of narrative) m order to make sense of the New World of America The novel ends by uniting Gatsby's dream born from his past With the American dream from another past, a dream that is as incorruptible and unreal, indicating the way m winch the future of this story may be found m the past: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Source: Casie E. Hermanson, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997

 
 
 

Fitzgerald's 'Radiant World'

By Thomas Flanagan

1.

Scott Fitzgerald conceived of the story which would become The Great Gatsby on Long Island, where man, in the person of a crew of Dutch sailors, was placed "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." That was in the spring of 1924. He wrote most of it, though, in a villa above St. Raphaël on the Riviera, with Roman and Romanesque aqueducts within sight, and beneath a skyline that reminded him of Shelley's Eugenean Hills. There was a beach where he and Zelda swam daily, and came to know a group of young French naval aviators. Otherwise, he worked steadily at what he jokingly spoke of to friends as "a novel better than any novel written in America." By late October the manuscript was ready to be mailed to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner's.

He knew very well that the book in hand was far finer than anything he had attempted before. In April, on the eve of his departure for Europe, he told Perkins that "I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I am capable of in it or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I am capable of." He would not be alone in that feeling; Perkins himself would say that the novel possessed the Fitzgerald glamour, but also "a kind of mystic atmosphere at times." He may have been remembering Fitzgerald's words in that April letter: "So in my new novel I'm thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world."

He had first, however—and this would become a recurring problem—to clear himself of debt. He was at the beginning of a decade in which he would be one of America's best-paid writers of fiction, but money kept vanishing as though at the command of an evil sorcerer. Renting a mansion on Long Island Sound could not have helped, of course, nor could driving into Manhattan for parties and hotels, or living next door to his friend Ring Lardner, a notorious alcoholic. Or a staff that included a live-in couple, a nurse for the baby, and a laundress. When he had dug himself out of the hole, he wrote an insouciant account of the matter for The Saturday Evening Post, which he had come to think of as his guardian spirit. "Over our garage is a large bare room whither I now retired with pencil, paper and the oil stove, emerging the next afternoon at five o'clock with a 7,000 word story."

By April, he had sold enough commercial fiction to clear himself of debt, and to take himself and Zelda to France, where he would be free to write the novel. "I really worked hard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart and my iron constitution." But they were going to the "Old World to find a new rhythm for our lives, with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind forever—and with a capital of just over seven thousand dollars." Arthur Mizener, his second and perhaps most subtle biographer, after quoting this passage, suggests that, like Gatsby, he "wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving [Zelda]. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was."[1] Mizener deliberately borrows Nick Carraway's language to suggest similarities of circumstance between Gatsby and his creator.

The comparison was irresistible, if only because we keep looking for themes that connect Fitzgerald with his greatest work of fiction. Certainly Fitzgerald had reached a crossroads of sorts, but not one that had anything to do with Zelda. That, ironically, would be reached later that summer, when he was writing productively in France. It had much to do, however, with money and with "some idea of himself."


The sensational public success of This Side of Paradise in 1920, when he was twenty-three, had established him as a figure on the literary scene, and he had gone on to secure that reputation with enough commercial short fiction to fill two volumes—Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age. Those stories, even the slenderest of them, display with careless grace his uncanny ability to evoke atmospheres, moods, energies, through his deployment of sounds, colors, lights, shadows. But a few stories written later, and he knew which ones—"Winter Dreams," "Absolution," "The Sensible Thing," "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz"—had more than inborn grace and developing skill. Later, these would be the stories singled out by critics as signaling the tentative stirring of The Great Gatsby within his imagination. This may or may not be the case, but they may have reminded him that it had been his plan to become something more than the chronicler of flappers and playboys.

Fitzgerald himself had given currency to neither of those words; very few of his short-story women are flappers in the John Held sense of the word, and certainly not the young ladies, however liberated, in his novels. He did later admit ruefully to some responsibility for that phrase "the Jazz Age," and at one of Gatsby's parties a "Jazz History of the World" would be performed. He had shaped the literary image of that world, and it had been decided, in those quarters where such things are decided, that he was not merely the prophet of a new, reckless generation, with new songs to sing, but its living embodiment, with the looks of a movie star and a gift for outrageous public behavior. "The other evening at a dancing club," one of numberless journalists reported, "a young man in a gray suit, soft shirt, loosely tied scarf, shook his tousled yellow hair engagingly, introduced me to the beautiful lady with whom he was dancing and sat down." Mizener offers the familiar verbal snapshots: "They rode down Fifth Avenue on the tops of taxis because it was hot or dove into the fountain at Union Square or tried to undress at the Scandals, or, in sheer delight at the splendor of New York, jumped, dead sober, into the Pulitzer fountain in front of the Plaza. Fitzgerald got in fights with waiters and Zelda danced on people's dinner tables." They were already drinking far too much, especially Fitzgerald.

They were a well-known couple, Fitzgerald and his "barbarian princess from the South," creating a rotogravure legend which still exists, wavering, in our cultural memory, decorated with anachronistic stills of Astaire and Rogers dancing against a montage of top hats and champagne bottles. If they went broke every couple of years, there were always those fountains of eternal replenishment, The Saturday Evening Post and Red Book, and Liberty and Woman's Home Companion. But that isn't how he had planned it. He had planned to become the best novelist of his generation, somehow or other.

This Side of Paradise had had a success which was almost freakish, capturing the aspirations of a generation and especially of those within that generation who, like its author, aspired to be great writers. Reading it today, one blanches at its emotional and rhetorical excesses, and yet, as Matthew Bruccoli says, it was received as "an iconoclastic social document—even as a testament of revolt. Surprisingly, it was regarded as an experimental or innovative narrative because of the mixture of styles and the inclusion of plays and verse." It was the autobiographical first novel of a very young writer who took himself very seriously, and who had not provided for his hero those escape hatches of irony which Joyce had built into A Portrait of the Artist. But it was not, by any stretch, the work of a man who planned a career as a writer of commercial fiction.


H.L. Mencken, who turns out, rather surprisingly, to have been the most perceptive of Fitzgerald's early critics, was the gentlest of them when writing of Fitzgerald's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, when it appeared in 1922. For Edmund Wilson, the Princeton friend whom he would one day call his "literary conscience," Fitzgerald "has been given imagination without intellectual control of it; he has been given the desire for beauty without an aesthetic ideal; and he has been given a gift for expression without very many ideas to express." Wilson unkindly quoted Edna Millay as saying that he resembled "a stupid old woman with whom someone has left a diamond." But Mencken, who could wield a heavy saber when he wished, wrote differently. After the first novel, he wrote, Fitzgerald's future seemed uncertain and the "shabby stuff" collected in Flappers and Philosophers changed uncertainty into something worse, but the new novel has "a hundred signs in it of serious purpose and unquestionable skill. Even in its defects there is proof of hard striving."

Perhaps Mencken had been too easily impressed by the novel's pretentious chat about Spengler (who had not yet been translated), and perhaps Wilson had not placed proper value upon his friend's uncanny ability to evoke atmospheres, moods, emotional energies. Fitzgerald would never be an intellectual in the sense that Wilson already was, but he was beginning to learn that one uniquely novelistic gift which Wilson never quite mastered, the ability to translate ideas into art. It is at work, if falteringly and at times embarrassingly, in The Beautiful and Damned.

The sudden leap forward into the exquisite mastery of The Great Gatsby is likely to remain one of art's abiding mysteries, but readers of Fitzgerald may be forgiven their speculations. The story called "Absolution," which Mencken published in the American Mercury in June of 1924, just as Gatsby was being finished, is a case in point. In a letter to a fan, he tells us that the character of Gatsby

was perhaps created on the image of some forgotten farm type of Minnesota that I have known and forgotten, and associated at the same moment with some sense of romance. It might interest you to know that a story of mine, called "Absolution," in my book All the Sad Young Men was intended to be a picture of his early life, but that I cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.

This surely cannot have been literally the case—there seems little connection between Jimmy Gatz, who, as we learn in the novel's final pages, had grown up a Lutheran, and Rudolph Miller, a Catholic boy who makes a boastful confession to a half-mad priest. There is, to be sure, a thematic connection: both boys live, dangerously, within the imagination, with the priest providing a creepy warning. As Fitzgerald explained to another reader, "The priest gives the boy a form of Absolution (not of course sacramental) by showing him that he (the priest) is in an even worse state of horror and despair."


The case with the story called "Winter Dreams" is stronger. Stylistically, it is fully on a level with Gatsby—well, almost—and it displays the same control of material. Young Dexter Green is a middle-class boy who works for pocket money each summer as a caddy on the local golf course, and each winter, in the fierce Minnesota cold, roams the frozen fields, imagining himself in scenes of local and imperial glory, swinging his arms to bring armies onto the field. He, or perhaps the authorial voice, has an ability to quicken both kinds of landscape into quiet, lyrical life. One day, this glory is entered by a girl, Judy Jones, a rich man's daughter, flirtatious, perhaps wanton, desirable, fickle, self-obsessed. And by a subtle alchemy, she comes at first to dwell with the glory of wealth, then to embody, at last to replace it in Dexter's increasingly eroticized imagination. He imagines the splendors of her mansion's floor of bedrooms, in words which Fitzgerald (ever a thrifty husbandman of his own prose) moved bodily into an equivalent scene in Gatsby.

As Dexter enters manhood, the complex dream in which Judy and her world of social grandeur and illimitability remains with him, while he takes steps to transcend his own limited life, persuading his father to send him east to the Ivy League, where, with a subtle blend of dream and hard-headedness, he acquires the clothes and the mannerisms of Judy's class, while realizing that he can never himself fully enter it. "His mother's name had been Krimslich. She was a Bohemian of the peasant class and she had spoken broken English to the end of her days." As Fitzgerald tells us, Dexter was at bottom a practical man, and he becomes rich by a touchingly imaginative blend of dream and reality, building up a chain of dry-cleaning and laundry shops, specializing in the proper treatment of the imported tweeds of upper-class men and the delicate French lingerie of the wives. At last, years later and by chance, after he is established in a New York skyscraper, he learns that Judy is married now, with a thick and unfeeling husband, tied down with the children. And she has lost her looks.

"Winter Dreams" is a kind of rough sketch for the novel which Fitzgerald did not yet know he wanted to write. It is more rooted in social reality than Gatsby would be, and for that reason it has problems that Gatsby does not have, but also, as we shall see, it avoids problems that would in Gatsby loom formidably. We don't know what Dexter did in the war, beyond learning that, like Gatsby, he "went into the first officers' training camp." It is most doubtful though, if, like Major Jay Gatsby, he had held off the enemy for two nights with a hundred and thirty men and sixteen Lewis guns, winning a decoration from every government, even little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea. That sounds more like his adolescent imaginings on the frozen fairways. But then it is even harder to imagine Jay Gatsby as the proprietor of a dry-cleaning shop in Black Bear.

"Long ago," Dexter says at the story's close, "long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more." Like Gatsby, he has lived too long with a single dream, and when it shattered, he entered, as Gatsby would, a community of loss, "material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about."

2.

Fitzgerald completed The Great Gatsby in the villa at St. Raphaël, had the typing completed, and sent it off to Perkins at the end of October. Soon after, Scott and Zelda drove to Rome, apparently because Zelda had been reading Roderick Hudson but perhaps also because the Riviera held complex and troubling memories for her. They settled into a hotel in the Piazza di Spagna, perhaps because it held associations with the dying Keats, whom Scott worshiped this side idolatry, but came swiftly to loathe the city and its inhabitants. "Pope Siphilis the Sixth and his Morons," muttered the ex-Catholic, whom scholars tell us retained to the end something called "a Catholic sensibility." He got drunk and was beaten up by the police.

On December 6 and 30, the galley proofs arrived from New York, and he set to work on his revisions. This may seem an odd way of proceeding, but in those primitive days of publishing, Scribners was in the fortunate position of owning its own printing plant, on West 43rd Street, close to its Fifth Avenue editorial offices. Perkins's decision to have Fitzgerald's novel set immediately into type presumes that he did not expect extensive revisions, and he was in any case following his customary practice: Fitzgerald's earlier books were treated similarly, as Hemingway's would be. More astonishingly, he "had the novels of Thomas Wolfe typeset before he and Wolfe got down to serious work on them." Letterpress composition, back then, we are told, would not have cost much more than having a stenographer make a typescript.

We are now in the fortunate position of having available to us, and in two forms, the text as Perkins had it set into type, both of them bearing the word Trimalchio as title.[2] This is the title which Fitzgerald was insisting on at the time, and it is the running head on the galleys. The first is a facsimile publication of the proofs themselves, limited to five hundred numbered copies on laid paper, resting handsomely and snugly in a box of royal blue, with more or less the proportions, although of course not the size, of a coffin. There is an afterword by Professor Matthew Bruccoli, the dean of Fitzgerald scholars, to whose work on Fitzgerald and other writers of the period we are all of us in debt. His is the one biography which can be said to supercede Mizener's, although its title, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, may suggest that his admiration sometimes surges over the top.[3] We also have Professor James West's Trimalchio, described by Cambridge University Press as "An Early Version of The Great Gatsby." It is a bound volume, one in the Cambridge Edition of the Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it is therefore easier to use than the reproduced galleys, although much less fun.

Unless you are a scholar of bibliography, which is not a fun profession, there are two reasons which make instructive a comparison of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby. Cambridge tells us that reading the "early and complete version" is like listening to a familiar musical composition—but played in a different key and with an alternate bridge passage. It is the same work and yet a different work." I myself am tone-deaf, unfortunately, but this seems fair enough: maybe a bridge passage is like a transition, at which Fitzgerald, as we shall see, was a master.


In the years that had followed his first publications, Fitzgerald had become a thoroughgoing professional, and the way in which he managed a major revision simply (!) by moving materials from various chapters to other chapters, on the galleys, is breathtaking, and he did it without diminishing, but rather intensifying the required moods and tonalities. He did it in two months, while turning out potboilers to cover expenses—they were broke again—and getting into more mischief with the Romans. Most of the revisions were addressed to a specific problem, which Perkins had raised with him, but there was another, more fundamental problem, which he could not quite define, not even in a well-known letter to Wilson, who had written to congratulate him:

The worst fault in it I think is a BIG FAULT: I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy from the time of their reunion to the catastrophe. However, the lack is so astutely concealed by the retrospect of Gatsby's past and by blankets of excellent prose that no one has noticed it—though everyone has felt the lack and called it by another name.

And that is what everyone did. Mencken "said that the only fault was that the central story was trivial and a kind of anecdote (that is because he has admiration for Conrad and adjusted himself to the sprawling novel) and I felt that what he really missed was the lack of any emotional backbone at the height of it." As for the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.

When Perkins read the typescript of—let us call it Trimalchio—he was shaken. "I think the novel is a wonder," he wrote back. "I'm taking it home to read again, and shall then write my impressions in full—but it has vitality to an extraordinary degree, and glamour and a great deal of underlying thought of unusual quality."

The novel has rarely had a better reader, so generous yet judicious as to restore what may be a waning awe for Perkins as a great editor. His remarks focus precisely upon the book's method and the scenes which are the most memorable and signifying. They deserve quotation at length:

You adopted exactly the right method of telling it, that of employing a narrator who is more of a spectator than an actor: this puts the reader upon a point of observation on a higher level than that on which the characters stand and at a distance that gives perspective. In no other way could your irony have been so immensely effective, nor the reader have been enabled so strongly to feel at times the strangeness of human circumstances in a vast heedless universe. In the eyes of Dr. Eckleberg various readers will see different significances; but their presence gives a superb touch to the whole thing: great unblinking eyes, expressionless, looking down on the human scene. It's magnificent!
…I have only two actual criticisms:—
One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital—I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him—Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus upon him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn't he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn't you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase "old sport," not verbal, but physical ones perhaps…. The other point is also about Gatsby: his career must remain mysterious, of course. But at the end you make it clear that his wealth comes through his connection with Wolfsheim…. The total lack of an explanation through so large a part of the story does seem to me a defect;—or not of an explanation, but of the suggestion of an explanation…. There is one other point: in giving deliberately Gatsby's biography when he gives it to the narrator you do depart from the method of the narrative to some degree, for otherwise almost everything is told, and beautifully told, in the regular flow of it—in the succession of events or in accompaniment with them….
The presentation of Tom, his place, Daisy and Jordan, and the unfolding of their characters is unequalled so far as I know. The description of the valley of ashes adjacent to the lovely country, the conversation and the action in Myrtle's apartment, the marvellous catalogue of those who came to Gatsby's house,—these are such things as make a man famous. And all these things, the whole pathetic episode, you have given a place in time and space, for with the help of T.J. Eckleberg and by an occasional glance at the sky, or the sea, or the city, you have imparted a sort of sense of eternity. You once told me that you were not a natural writer—my God! You have plainly mastered the craft, of course; but you needed far more than craftsmanship for this.

All that Perkins singled out for praise—the narrative method, the individual scenes, are of course carried forward intact from Trimalchio to Gatsby and so too is that light dusting upon existence for which Perkins could find no better word than "glamour" and neither can anyone else.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. There was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.


There is no need, surely, to rehearse the plot of "probably the most widely read novel written by an American in the twentieth century." The opening chapters of Trimalchio and The Great Gatsby are pretty much the same, barring the kind of fussing every writer does with galleys. The chief changes come in Chapters Six and Seven of Trimalchio, and the long, late chapter, as Gatsby and Nick sit by the open French windows in Gatsby's house, the dawn after Myrtle's killing, when Gatsby breaks out "exuberantly": "I'll tell you everything. The whole story. I've never told it to anyone before—not even Daisy. But I haven't told many lies about it, either, only I've shifted things around a good deal to make people wonder." And shifting things about is what Fitzgerald, his creator—one of his surrogate fathers, like Cody and Wolfsheim—now proceeds to do. Perkins had surely been right: Gatsby's story comes to us much more persuasively measured out among chapters. And it has effects that could not have been anticipated. It is right, for example, that we should learn, much earlier, that "Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that."

In a jubilant, indeed cocksure letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald reported that he had brought Gatsby to life, accounted for his money, fixed up the second party scene and the climactic scene at the Plaza, and successfully broken up the long, autobiographical scene at Gatsby's French windows. In brief, by an act of stylistic legerdemain, he had addressed all of Perkins's concerns. What he had not addressed were his own misgivings about the novel's emotional center, or rather, its lack of one.

There is a moment in Trimalchio at one of the parties, when Daisy and Nick are dancing and Daisy, leaning backward to look into his face, tells him that she just wants to go, and not tell Tom anything. She is afraid of the riskiness of Gatsby's world, afraid of "some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion." A few weeks later, the lights failed to go on one Saturday night, and "as obscurely as it had begun his career as Trimalchio suddenly ended." "I'm very sad old sport," he tells Nick a few days later. "Daisy wants us to run off together. She came over this afternoon with a suitcase all packed and ready in the car." In other words, Nick tells him, understandably if a bit brutally, you've got her—and now you don't want her. What Gatsby wants, as far as he had figured things out, is that he and Daisy should go back to Louisville and be married in her house and start life over. The bewilderment which this bizarre enterprise might cause in that conventional household seemed to him of no concern. As he walks frantically up and down, he seems to be in some fantastic communication with time and space. With a bit more experience, Nick could have pointed out to him that when you mess around with an excitable young married woman, you are buying yourself a peck of trouble.


It is at this point that there occurs the passage that, when carried over from Trimalchio into Gatsby, has caused much spilled ink. Gatsby remembers the time, five years before at the change of the year, when he kissed Daisy, and knew that now his mind would never romp again like the mind of God: "So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete."

The extremity of the language is necessary, though, if the relationship of these star-crossed lovers is to be grasped, and it is at least possible that Fitzgerald has conjured into being sets of feelings that run on different tracks. Daisy lives in the world we like to call real, in which women, real women, stuff their suitcases with real silks and drive real cars over to a lover. A bit headstrong, perhaps, but none the less real for that. But Gatsby lives in the world of romantic energies and colors, a world shaped as a conspiracy between himself and the writer who has been creating him. It is the world of Emma Bovary and Julien Sorel and Balzac's heroes. How it was wandered into by a cornball from the shores of Lake Superior must remain, no doubt, a mystery. But there you are.


As Fitzgerald wrote to his other literary friend from Princeton, John Peale Bishop, "You are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear myself—for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself—the amalgam was never complete in my mind." But that would happen always with his central figures—Amory Blaine and Anthony Patch, Dexter Green, Dick Diver, Monroe Stahr. It is a common affliction of the romantic sensibility and still more of romantic aspiration. Small wonder that Keats was his favorite poet—perhaps his favorite writer—or that he wrote to his daughter that The Eve of Saint Agnes "has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare." It would be somewhere within his mind when Gatsby begins throwing his London-made shirts before Daisy in multicolored disarray, "shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue." Small wonder that when the single romantic dream shatters, the world disassembles itself, uncreates itself, drains off its colors and names for things. "He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found out what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass."

Fitzgerald—and Zelda too, in her different way—had received a raven's wing of that terror of the suddenly unreal in that summer when he was writing Gatsby, and Zelda either became infatuated with or fell desperately in love with a young French naval aviator named Édouard Jozan. He would appear, variously renamed, in Tender Is the Night and in Zelda's Save Me the Waltz. "Everybody knew it but Scott," Sara Murphy said. But he found out. They always do. Even Tom Buchanan did when he heard Daisy say to Gatsby: "You always look so cool." Apparently the jury is still out on whether Zelda went to bed with Jozan, but it might not have much mattered in view of the enormous, the almost Gatsby-like investment which Fitz-gerald and Zelda had made in each other.

Back in 1920, a young woman friend of Fitzgerald's, bearing the somewhat improbable name of Isabelle Amorous, heard that the engagement had been broken off, and wrote to tell him that from all she had heard he was well out of it. She got an earshot in reply, which is what such people deserve:

No personality as strong as Zelda's could go without getting criticisms and as you say she is not above reproach. I've always known that. Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has "kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more," cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and it's these things I'd believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn't all that she should be.
But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that's the beginning and end of everything. You're still a Catholic but Zelda's the only God I have left now.

So much for this "lapsed Catholic sensibility" nonsense. He ends the letter with admirable restraint, perhaps because he is writing from Princeton's Cottage Club: "And don't reproach yourself for your letter. My friends are unanimous in frankly advising me not to marry a wild, pleasure-loving girl like Zelda so I'm quite used to it." To speak of Zelda, then at least, as what he has instead of God (which is eerily prophetic of something Brett says to Jake in The Sun Also Rises) is more than a lover's rhetoric; it is something closer to the fact.

Now, from the Riviera in August, a month after he has confronted Zelda, and as he is finishing the novel, he writes to another old friend, Ludlow Fowler, the model for Anson Hunter in "The Rich Boy": "That's the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don't care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory."

3.

There remains now only the hygienic task of clearing up a misconception about this novel which has grown mushroomlike beside it, and threat-ens at times almost to replace it. This is the belief that The Great Gatsby is about something called "the Ameri-can Dream." Scholars exchange their learned articles on the subject, and generations of college freshmen are told about it. If you whispered into a reader's sleeping ear the words "Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby," she would murmur drowsily "and the corruption of the American dream." By the time Mizener was at work on his biography, he was writing with confidence of "Gatsby's embodiment of the American dream." Subsequent libraries of Gatsby criticism are elaborations of the theme. There probably is an American dream, and it probably deserves some of the things that are said about it. (How else could we have wound up with Gore and Bush—such things are not accidents.) But this is not the subject of Fitzgerald's wonderful novel, which is "about" our entrance into the world "trailing clouds of glory" until

At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Wordsworth was not in a particularly American mood when he wrote the Immortality Ode. And he even went out of his way to tell us in a long note what he took his own poem to be about. Many times when going to school, he tells us, "have I grasped at a wall or tree to recall myself from this abyss of idealism to the reality." In his poem, he chooses to regard this "as resumptive evidence of a prior state of existence," an idea "not advanced in revelation" but with "nothing there to contradict it." And, if one would want some more recent speculations upon the subject, one might study what Nick feels after Gatsby's fear that his mind will not romp again like the mind of God:

Through all that he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there were more struggling on them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

That memory came to a first European life in a Platonic dialogue, and since then we have been listening to fragmentary echoes from the Cave. Of course, Fitzgerald has much to tell us about the life and the history of American culture, about the textures, the richnesses and thinnesses of our national life—because after all, as we've been told, poetry must have a local habitation and a name. And maybe we have persuaded ourselves that all American novels are really about America, and not about love and eros and death.

Notes

[1] Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Houghton Mifflin, 1951).

[2] In the Satyricon by Petronius, Trimalchio is a vulgar and rich ex-slave who gives gaudy banquets to derisive guests. Gatsby scholars who specialize in clocks (and there are some: Time and all that) should note Trimalchio's water-clock.

[3] Harcourt Brace, 1981.

 
 
 

THE GREAT GATSBY, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
 

        In retrospect it is perhaps not surprising that contemporary reviewers mainly missed the mark in their appraisals of Fitzgerald's masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. His first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), a novel of growth, was thinly disguised autobiography written in the third-person, a viewpoint that numerous reviewers saw as flawed. The Beautiful and Damned (1922) was marred by a self-conscious preoccupation with the deterministic philosophy that undergirds American literary naturalism. By 1925 he was known primarily as the historian of the Jazz Age (which he named) and chronicler in slick American weeklies and monthlies of the American flapper (which, in fiction, he invented). His best artistic efforts had appeared in middlebrow, mass-circulation magazines like The Saturday Evening Post or had been buried in H.L Mencken's sophisticated but low-circulation Smart Set before their appearance in two slightly publicized collections with flashy titles, Flappers and Philosophers(1920) and Tales of the Jazz Age (1922).
        Critics and reviewers were understandably caught off-guard when Fitzgerald published at the height of the Roaring Twenties a novel which, after its apotheosis (circa 1950), would, not infrequently, be cited as the Great American Novel. Typical of the early reviews of The Great Gatsby was the first, whose spirit is caught in its headline: "F. SCOTT FITZGERALD'S LATEST DUD." Even Mencken, who noted some of the book's redeeming qualities, saw it finally as "a glorified anecdote." In the minority was T.S. Eliot, who was deeply moved by the novel and hailed it as "the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James," an opinion that has now been echoed and elaborated upon in scores of books and more than a hundred journal articles dealing with The Great Gatsby.
        Fitzgerald's ambitious goal as he approached the composition of The Great Gatsby was to "write something new--something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned." And it is indeed largely because of his concern with matters of form aimed at simplicity and intricacy of pattern that the novel succeeds on so many levels: the simplicity, or apparent simplicity, of Nick Carraway's first-person viewpoint, allows the reader, on the one hand, to see how the narrative is being constructed and, on the other, to participate in Nick's sense of discovery as the separate strands of the narrative take on meaning at various levels of abstraction in such a way that they seem, both to Nick and to the reader, to have been inseparably linked from the beginning. There was, of course, nothing new about first-person narration in the 1920's. It had a long history in the English novel dating back to the mid-18th century. In America, two distinguished first-person narratives, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, preceded The Great Gatsby, as did scores of first-person narratives by Edgar Allan Poe. But Fitzgerald, who was reading and studying Joseph Conrad during the composition of The Great Gatsby, was interested in exploring subtle uses of narrative viewpoint. On the novel's most superficial level, that of Jay Gatsby's all-consuming love and pursuit of Daisy Buchanan, Nick, in service of Fitzgerald's goal of simplicity, becomes a logical choice as narrator. His physical proximity to the main characters and his trustworthiness situate him ideally to serve as a kind of Jamesian confidant on several fronts, one who can, in fact, know details of the story from many points of view and observe much of the action firsthand.
        Obviously, the creation of a reliable narrator of the Gatsby-Daisy story at the heart of The Great Gatsby was central in Fitzgerald's achieving verisimilitude. However, the simple love story was merely the foundation for a narrative structure that would accommodate Fitzgerald's ideas about irreconcilable contradictions within the American Dream and ultimately about the ideal quest itself. Young Jay Gatsby, through the discipline of Benjamin Franklin-like charts and schedules, has prepared himself to receive all that America has to offer and believes naively that he can have the embodiment of it, the wealthy Louisville debutante Daisy Fay, the only "nice" girl he has ever known, if he can but find the currency to buy his way into her life. It is Nick, the middle-class everyman without particular allegiance to either the privileged or working class, who has enough objectivity to comprehend the awful irony that Gatsby's dream has been futile from the beginning: he will never be accepted into the world of old money that Daisy could never leave. At this level the love story approaches allegory, and because Nick, like all of the main characters in the novel, is a Westerner, he is credible as narrator of the allegory, which he calls "a story of the West, after all." He knows about the infinite hope of the frontier spirit, and he also has witnessed the corruption of the American promise of equality for all.
        On the second level, therefore, Fitzgerald transcends the novel of Jazz-Age, bull-market manners that it could have been in the hands of a less ambitious craftsman, and ascends to the level of the great 19th century French novelists, who, in Lionel Trilling's words "take the given moment as a moral fact." But beyond this, Nick's narrative must carry the burden of the novel's more abstract concern with idealism in the real world. Gatsby "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself." He creates "the Great Gatsby" from the raw material of his early self, James Gatz, and from a boundless imagination, an embodied spirit capable of anything it chooses to do. But when, at last, Gatsby kissed Daisy and "forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God." The ideal world, in Gatsby's case, shatters in the face of the real one. It has, of course, happened before with Dutch sailors who "for a transitory and enchanted moment" contemplated the "fresh green breast of the new world." And, as Nick knows, it will happen as long as there is a human spirit to contemplate mystery.
        The intricate weaving of the various stories within The Great Gatsby is accomplished through a complex symbolic substructure of the narrative. The green light, which carries meaning at every level of the story--as Gatsby's go-ahead sign, as money, as the "green breast of the new world," as springtime--is strategically placed in chapters one, five, and nine. The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg "brood on over the solemn dumping ground," which is the wasteland that America has become, and their empty gaze is there at crucial moments such as that of Tom's visit to his mistress in the Valley of Ashes and before and after her death, a reminder that God has been replaced by fading signs of American materialism. The sustained good driver/bad driver metaphor, through which Fitzgerald hints at standards of morality and immorality, is evident at virtually every turn of the novel: Daisy runs over Myrtle and will not stop to accept responsibility; Jordan Baker (whose name combines two brands of automobile from the 1920's) wears her careless driving as a badge of honor; Owl Eyes, the drunken philosopher in Gatsby's library who shows up at his funeral to informally eulogize him as "the poor son of a bitch," is involved in an accident leaving Gatsby's party. With these symbols and motifs, Fitzgerald imparted, in the words of his editor, Maxwell Perkins, "a sort of sense of eternity."
        It is difficult to assess the enormous influence of The Great Gatsby. John O'Hara and J.D. Salinger are two of many American authors who have proclaimed Fitzgerald's brilliance, and Salinger's first-person narrative, The Catcher in the Rye, shares thematic and formal concerns with The Great Gatsby. However, as has been noted, Fitzgerald's is "a fiction that is difficult to imitate but from which much can be learned." While The Great Gatsby undoubtedly advanced the novel form in the tradition of Henry James, as Eliot maintained, its primarily legacy is perhaps its affirmation of Fitzgerald's hope that in the age of great experimentation which Modernism was, the traditional novel, guided by simplicity and used with care, could still contain, in his words, "something new--something extraordinary and beautiful."

Bryant Mangum
Virginia Commonwealth University 

[bibliographical information modified from original]
Further Reading

    Bruccoli, Matthew J., Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1981
    Eble, Kenneth, F. Scott Fitzgerald, New York: Twayne, 1963
    Lehan, Richard D., F. Scott Fitzgerald's Craft of Fiction, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966
    Miller, James E., Jr., F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Art and Technique, New York: New York University Press, 1966
    Mizener, Arthur, ed., F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963.
    Sklar, Robert, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967
    Stern, Milton R., The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970

    Bryant Mangum, "The Great Gatsby," Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. Paul Schellinger, London and Chicago: Fitzroy-Dearborn, 1998, pp. 514-515. 

From the Dream to the Womb:
Visionary Impulse and Political Ambivalence in The Great Gatsby

Chris Fitter

It seems hard to believe in our period, when a three-decade lurch to the political Right has anathematized the word, but F. Scott Fitzgerald once, rather fashionably, believed himself to be a socialist. Some years before, he had also, less fashionably, tried hard to think himself a Catholic. While one hardly associates the characteristic setting of Fitzgerald's novels, his chosen kingdom of the sybaritic fabulous, with either proletarian solidarity or priestly devotions, it will be the argument of this essay that a tension between Left and religiose perspectives structures the very heart of the vision of The Great Gatsby. For while Gatsby offers a detailed social picture of the stresses of an advanced capitalist culture in the early 1920s, it simultaneously encodes its American experience, at key structural moments, within the mitigating precepts of a mystic Western dualism.

Attempting both a sustained close reading of the novel, and the relocation of that reading within wider philosophic and political contexts, this essay will therefore consider the impact of a broad mystical strain of Western thought upon Fitzgerald's political analysis. For while it is a commonplace that Fitzgerald was fascinated, throughout his life, with what is variously conceived as the "ideal," "the Dream," "inspiration," the "visionary," or "Desire," a tradition with which this essay opens, the political uses of the ideal have largely escaped notice. Fitzgerald's excitably visionary sensibility, nourished in high school years by Catholic mysticism, fashioned him into a superbly perceptive critic of the appropriation of human need of the ideal by developments in American capitalism in the 1920s. In response to economic crisis in the early years of this decade, the national advertising media developed and promoted a new cult of glamour, seeking through its allure to create a mass consumer market and revivify the foundering work ethic. Fitzgerald's entrancement by the suggestive power of beauty sensitized him both to the spell and the mendacity of that mass promise: to the cruel contradiction between the fostered impulse of ecstatic outreach and the terminal drudgery in which the many were entrapped, a drudgery ideologically occluded by the national imagery of a "vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty" allotted the glamorous few. It sensitized him, too, to the crunch choice, in a polarized yet paralyzed legitimate economy, between poverty and crime.

But if at one level the novel works to demystify North American society in the Roaring Twenties, at another it redeploys the ideal to absolve the system from its inequities, aligning the failure of economic and cultural aspiration with a tradition of high metaphysical defeatism. The ancient creed of the unattainability of the Dream thus functions in theological exculpation of a social formation in crisis, conferring apotheosis on pessimistic quietism. Fitzgerald's remystification of social values, and the ambivalent, uneasy conservatism that asserts itself as the novel's ultimate position, are confirmed, finally, in Gatsby's construction of gender relations and of the lower classes. Woman, in Gatsby, is the exquisite vehicle of solipsistic disengagement from a social order in crisis: not only at the obvious level of Romantic transcendentalism but as offering, on a subliminal plane, through a submerged and recurrent maternal imagery of sanctuarizing womb and suckling breast, a yearning for regressive, infantilizing retreat from the relentless pressures of competition. Conversely, the spectral underclass, simultaneously invisible and obtrusive, marginalized and central, wreaks the novel's horrific climax, emerging as the apocalyptic assassin of that ideologically saturated "ideal" order. In summary, we shall find that, in a sterile dialectic of demystification and prompt remystifying, the "Marxian" critical perception so powerful in The Great Gatsby, rather than generating progressive impulse, becomes, by anxious turns, metaphysically annulled, sexually eschewed in regressive libido, and climactically demonized in proletarian displacement.


It is commonly acknowledged that at the heart of the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald there runs a poetry of desire, an unshakable process of quest set in motion by beauty. The youthful reveries of Gatsby, for instance, effect perhaps what Greek philosophy called a metanoia or conversion of vision to a further dimension of truth or destiny: "a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing" (100). Ineluctably compelled by visitations of a transfiguring beauty, oriented round a field of transcendence, the novelist who in the 1920s styled himself the trumpeter of the Jazz Age would in an earlier age have articulated his ravishing disturbances in the discourse and dyad of a mystic. Listening to the "tuning fork struck upon a star," Fitzgerald stands squarely in an ancient and Western tradition of inescapably frustrate enchantment. "Only I discern / Infinite passion, and the pain of finite hearts that yearn," wrote Browning; and these lucid terms of Romantic formulation recapitulate a metaphysical tradition common to two millennia of idealist aesthetics. In this tradition, the cravings set in motion by inspiration reach upward towards an ideality ontologically far removed in splendor from the quotidian material realm, which the ideal haunts nonetheless with a kind of incalculable and aesthetic gravitational pull. The ecstatic outreach this inspires may be interpreted as towards the immaterial world of First Forms (Plato) or an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover that "calls like a lover" (kinei hos eromenon); it may be towards a transcendent Christian Creator, upon whose natural forms play, in the discourse of Christian Platonism, dazzling beams or enargeiai that draw back the contemplative observer into their divine source; or it may be that the raptus draws poets into a pantheistic Romantic world-spirit, into "a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused." However construed, structural to the entire tradition is a shining higher order by which mortals mired in a corrupt, contingent realm become, in Fitzgerald's language, "for a transitory enchanted moment compelled into an aesthetic contemplation" (Gatsby 182), and "gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder" (112). Fitzgerald, then, and his Gatsby experience intimations of what was once conceived as the "beatific." Daisy, as the inexpressible exquisite disclosing the radiant higher kingdom (here, indefeasible wealth), necessarily remains descriptively discarnate, in contrast to the sexually profiled Jordan and Myrtle (11, 25). Daisy "gleams like silver," like "the silver pepper of the stars," exists as a voice, "a singing compulsion," "an incarnation," educing the marriage of "unutterable visions to her perishable breath" (150, 21, 9, 112).

But Daisy is, precisely, perishable: tragically inadequate to the inspiration she kindles. For Fitzgerald, the terms the world affords for the instantiation of ideality are inadequate; yet the ideal remains indefinable in terms of any other order, any specifiable transcendent origin. Fitzgerald thus diverges from the classic Western dualism that offers a transcendent situating of inspiration: for him, it has neither "ground" nor viable instantiation. Displaced and demystified by contemporary secular cynicism, Fitzgerald's relation to the ideal is precisely Nick's:

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever. (112)
The traditional sacramental instinct endures, internalized yet alien, an elevated profundity fast fading into unintelligibility. As a liminal reflex persisting within modern America's metaphysical amnesia, its wording proves illegible to a society whose telos is the vulgarity of private profit.

If beauty lacks a transcendent "ground," personality's springs become problematic, impossible of final judgment: there may, reflects Nick, or there may not be more to the lifestyle of romantic grace and aspiration than "an unbroken series of successful gestures"; and conduct may ultimately be "founded on the hard rock or wet marshes" (2). Given the disappearance of an Absolute, the emotional triad on which Gatsby is built is decisively distinct from that of Christianity and Platonism. In the latter, awakened desire, colliding with a resistant phenomenal world, can yet remain assured of some ultimate translation to immutable and perfect transcendence. But in Fitzgerald's secular narratives of desire, the impetus of lyric promise is decisively disintegrated by the world's crude bathos and despoliation; and the Dream lacks sanctuary beyond the sphere that resists it. Lyricism, proceeding thus to frustration, must always revert to nostalgia, to elegy: "Can't repeat the past? . . . Why of course you can!" (111). In the tragic chiming of these three tones — lyric promise, its failure, elegy — is composed all Fitzgerald's work. In Gatsby they are found from the outset in the opening meditation, where "romantic readiness" issues only in a "foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dreams," but where, in retrospect, "[o]nly [dead] Gatsby was exempt from my reaction"; and they form a pattern pursued to the final page, where the "green light" and "orgiastic future" turn out "year by year [to] recede before us," our boats being "borne back ceaselessly into the past," yet where the mind consolingly retrieves from a half-enchanted past the Dutch sailors and their magnitude of wonder. The triad structures, too, the essential outline of the narrative and the mood-modulation of the parties. Those parties which open with blue gardens, where "men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars" (39), but falter into violence, drunken stupor, screaming wives, and cars in the ditch, close upon the glance backward to Gatsby alone on his lighted porch bidding courteous farewell. Missing its final triumphant harmonic, the beat of a sacramental rhythm becomes the pulsing headache of private tragedy; Fitzgerald the mystic turns nostalgic drunk.

As this brutally condensed outline suggests, Gatsby, on one crucial plane, is a religious, almost a crypto-theological narrative, displaced thoroughly and with explicit, ironic inadequacy into the secular discourse of a sharply portrayed social formation. And within this particular society, "the unutterable visions" of this "son of God" (112, 99) may no longer figure and excite an assimilation to the universal, a passage from epiphany to serene contemptus mundi. They are socially conditioned, on the contrary, to kindle a strife for merely personal and financial achievement, to seek a "vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty" (99).

I have emphasized this "religious" dimension at length because I think it vitally important to appreciate the power, centrality, and dignity of this rapturous pull toward the ideal — its "colossal vitality," as Fitzgerald puts it: "no amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart" (97) — in order to understand both Fitzgerald and ourselves. The Platonic and medieval worlds — though doubtless deluded in their metaphysics, which they moreover betrayed in their social practice — could affirm that, in some bedrock ontological sense, the real was the radiant and the radiant was the real. The substance of joyous and visionary beauty was not the delusion of a youthful libido or abnormal temperament but rather possessed the stature of noesis: it was, that is to say, the momentary experience of authentic insight into the ultimate nature of reality as ineffably glorious. Against this, we have the society of Daisy and Tom, whose crabbed credo is "I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything. . . . Sophisticated — God, I'm sophisticated!" (18). Fitzgerald's novel thus stands as a locus classicus of the affective impoverishment, the crippled cynical sensibility, of the twentieth-century West, which has shriveled and discredited the ideal, peripheralizing the human faculty of wonder to the misfit status of the merely "aesthetic."

At the age of twenty-three, however, Fitzgerald had written to a Catholic friend: "I can quite sympathize with your desire to be a Carthusian. . . . [I am] nearly sure that I will become a priest" (quoted in Bruccoli 109-10). The Catholicism of his upbringing, in which Monsignor Fay had confirmed him as a teenager, was subjected to gnawing doubt in his Princeton years and finally rejected the year after leaving: the sublime cravings of Catholic mysticism had been routed by one for the freshly encountered Zelda; but a form of religious sensibility never left him. Indeed three stories ("The Ordeal," "Benediction," and that section on the early life of Gatsby which was to become excised from the novel and form an independent story, "Absolution") center on the pain, fervor and self-consecration of visionary religious experience. Fitzgerald had been attracted to Catholicism in the first place by the way that Fay had revealed in the "church a dazzling, golden thing," and by the fact that Fay "loved the idea of God enough to be a celibate." He was drawn in Fay, as in Gatsby, to "the faith shining through all the versatility and intellect" (Bruccoli 40-41). "There's that gift of faith that we have, you and I," Fay had told him, "that carries us past the hard spots" (quoted in Allen 44). Like the young Gatsby in "Absolution," Fitzgerald outgrew Catholicism but not his sense of the ideal, which he relocated in the City of the World: in a mysterious "something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God" (Fitzgerald, "Absolution" 150). It was, one might comment, a worthy translation, for the great city, at least in one of its aspects, summons the immense poetry of the possibilities of the future, imaging transformation, joy, prosperity and beauty. Musing on the great towering cities, Raymond Williams reflects, "This is what men have built, so often magnificently, and is not everything then possible?" (6).

It is precisely as a kind of dislocated mystic, surveying North America with the paradoxical eyes of an atheist thirsty for a visio dei, that Fitzgerald becomes, as it were, sub specie aeternitatis, acutely sensitized to what, in his period and ours, replaces the traditional teleological sublime: the allure but also the fraudulence, the "spectroscopic gaiety" and "foul dust" (Gatsby 45, 2), of capitalism's transaction with the ideal. Transposed into more sociological terms, I hope to demonstrate that Fitzgerald's deracinated, incorrigible, vocational aestheticism positioned him, in a secular age, as a superlative critic of capitalism's appropriation and concentration of beauty in a new and historically unique institution: glamour, which Fitzgerald knows as thoroughly as a martyr his Bible. Fitzgerald's more-than-aestheticism makes possible, in a dialectic of addiction and contempt, a searching demystification of capitalist society and its debased teleology of glamour — which, by the same token, he can never quite renounce. Anti-capitalistic, yet ultimately reactionary, throwing upon the commodity the devotional light of a vanished absolute, The Great Gatsby recalls Lukács' dictum that the characteristic form of the bourgeois novel is that of "the epic of a world abandoned by God" (88).


Although Gatsby has often been exposited in terms of its tragic paradox of corrupt hero and "incorruptible dream" (154-5), nearly all such readings have been conceived in the very general, sometimes even universalizing, "cultural" terms of an erosion of the "American Dream" by "materialism."1 We need, however, to impart economic and class specificity to such hazy generalities — for so Fitzgerald's novel did — and one such welcome case is the work of Michael Spindler. My own essay, while it agrees with Spindler's that Gatsby is "particularly expressive of that ideological conflict which the rise of the leisure class and the growth of consumption-oriented hedonism was generating in American society in the 1920s" (167), will attempt a textually and psychologically fuller reading than Spindler's shrewd, cogent but very brief study allows. Further, I do not agree that Fitzgerald repudiates and distances himself from Nick's constant romanticizing of Gatsby's love of Daisy and of wealth: Nick's ambivalence is precisely Fitzgerald's, as his essays, "My Lost City," "Echoes of the Jazz Age," and "Early Success" make clear. Such ambivalence can rather be traced, I feel, to the coexistence in Fitzgerald of the cool "Marxian" eye with the fervent "dislocated mysticism" of his Catholic inheritance, though I must also disagree sharply with the sancta simplicitas of Joan Allen's conclusion in her pious study of "the Catholic Sensibility of F. Scott Fitzgerald" that the novels project an Augustinian antithesis of matter and spirit by which the fate of the world and its revelers is one simply of damnation for sin (44, 103). A properly historicist reading of Gatsby is one true, perhaps, not only to the tension we shall see between the work ethic and the ethos of consumption but to the fullness of bathos between the meretricious ideal hymned by capital and the ideal of a joyous, stable and beautiful integrity of being, adumbrated in older traditions: an ideal whose very violation suggests so hauntingly that infinitely richer structures of human social life and feeling are both necessary and possible.


That "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" (Fitzgerald, Gatsby 2) which drives Gatsby and its hero is pervasively conditioned by the economic structure of the Roaring Twenties themselves. The "riotous excursions," the buoyant energy and hope, were the product not only of a pleasure-seeking postwar reaction but of a rapacious and excitative hedonism assiduously fostered by contemporary capitalism. The "American Dream" had become the capitalist imperative of upward social mobility, a giddy dynamic of apparently infinite possibility, massively stimulated by the images of glamour in the mass media and objectified in the new skyscrapers of New York and elsewhere (400 were built in the 1920s): "The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world" (69). The institution of glamour — the mass marketing of images of entrancing wealth and style — is historically unique to capitalism, as an economic formation whose enticing pinnacle is theoretically open to individual achievement; and glamour becomes in the 1920s the engine of popular capitalism, a structurally indispensable economic motivator, vital supplement to a work ethic whose traditional nineteenth-century values of industry, abstinence, thrift, and impulse-renunciation are dramatically eroded. ("Most of my friends drank too much — the more they were in tune to the times the more they drank. And so effort per se had no dignity against the mere bounty of New York in those days" [Fitzgerald, "My Lost City" 28].) Generating this situation was a new imperative originating in the infrastructure of American capitalism. For by 1920, as Spindler documents in his brilliant essay, mass production techniques had developed to so high a level that a new mass market had to be created to accommodate excess capacity and forestall stagnation. The effect was a new phase of capitalism, marked by intensive advertising strategies and the introduction of consumer credit to stimulate sales, and ensuring the replacement of heavy industrial manufacture by consumer goods as the leading characteristic of the economy. In this new era of "high mass consumption," the total volume of expenditure on advertising rose from nearly 1.5 billion dollars in 1918 to nearly 3.5 billion by 1929 (Spindler 101).

Further, a qualitative change in the character of advertising ensued, with advertisers drawing on J. B. Watson's behavioral psychology to manipulate the consumer subconsciously, using lavishly pictorial and irrational, rather than informative, advertising display. Companies began hiring "image" consultants; "style-features" in new consumer commodities promoted rapid turnover for fashion reasons; and a new "ideology of consumption," exhibited above all by an emerging national leisure class of millionaires who flaunted pleasure, idleness and gratification as the highest lifestyle and were accorded high media prominence, clashed with the "stern" older values of the Protestant ethic (Spindler 101-2, 108-11). To this novel climate of intensive consumer tantalization, seeking purposefully (or "meretriciously") to enchant the public by a kind of lyric engineering, The Great Gatsby is unforgettable testimonial.

The superb recurrent synesthesia of the novel, deployed to evoke lyric promise — "the yellow cocktail music," "the blue honey of the Mediterranean," "the sparkling odor of jonquils and the frothy odor of hawthorn" (Gatsby 40, 34, 92) — is surely correlative, as a counter-natural heightening of sensory gratification, to a new, technologically accomplished mood of delectable control over nature: one conveyed in the magical production of blue gardens with their constantly changing light, the nightingale that has arrived on the Cunard Line, the human dispensation of starlight to casual moths, and "the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer's basket" (39, 40, 16, 80, 43). The mood of advanced, magical affluence, of clever luxury, seems mediated from the euphoria over new gadgetry — autos, telephones, radios, alarm clocks, refrigerators — transforming the lives of those who can afford them. "Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge," thinks Nick, "anything at all" (69). True to this tone of the dreamy fabulous, of omnipotent artifice, Daisy wishes to put Gatsby in a pink cloud she spies above the sea and push him about in it (95).

The tone of the fabulous and the energizing of aspiration are promoted above all in advertising. Although in the 1920s, according to historian Merle Curti, "only the upper ten per cent of the population enjoyed a marked increase in real income," this reality was kept muted by "the fact that almost all the chief avenues to mass opinion were now controlled by large-scale publishing industries" (quoted in Zinn 374). "Not for nothing," remarks Eric Hobsbawm, "were the 1920s the decade of psychologist Emile Coué, who popularized optimistic autosuggestion by means of the slogan, constantly to be repeated: 'Every day in every way I am getting better and better'" (100).2 Fitzgerald himself worked for an advertising agenc, in New York City in 1919 ("We keep you clean in Muscatine") and wrote hopefully for fashionable magazines. A check from The Smart Set allowed him to send silk pajamas south to Zelda, which made her, she said, "feel like a Vogue cover" (quoted in Bruccoli 6, 110-11). Casually, ironically, Gatsby acknowledges the ubiquity of the medium as a vital aesthetic ground of cosmopolitan imagination. At Myrtle's party, Tom sends out "for some celebrated sandwiches, which were a complete supper in themselves" (36). Gatsby's dissembling tale of his past drops into a discourse whose "very phrases were worn so threadbare" that they evoked a "'character' leaking sawdust at every pore. . . . [I]t was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines" (66-7). Myrtle's first action in escaping the garage with Tom is to buy "a copy of Town Tattle and a moving-picture magazine" (27). "You always look so cool," Daisy tells Gatsby. "You resemble the advertisement of the man. . . . You know the advertisement of the man —" (119). Supremely conspicuous are the eyes of Doctor Eckleburg, "their retinas . . . one yard high," set up to "fatten the practice" of "some wild wag of an oculist" (23).

At the summit, of course, of capitalist glamour, along with the movie star — "'Perhaps you know that lady,' Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white plum tree" (106) — is the millionaire. Nick's house, though "an eyesore," enjoys "the consoling proximity of millionaires" (5), a frank reaction reminiscent of Schwartz in The Last Tycoon, "who stare[s] with shameless economic lechery" as super-rich Stahr walks by (Fitzgerald, Tycoon 8). To aspiring beginners in the bond business, Nick's volumes "promise to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew" — a gaily sardonic hubris whose unconscious nemesis, perhaps, we find in the three "Mr. Mumbles" whom Nick meets at his first Gatsby party (Gatsby 4, 43). Daisy, of course, compels by a voice "full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. . . . High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl . . ." (120). Gatsby himself embodies the full-dazzle glamour of the ultimate capitalist success story: the ever "restless" self-made man, soaring into a plutocratic stratosphere sufficient to buy his waterfront palace in just three years, he woos Daisy through epiphanies of conspicuous consumption in his home, hydroplane and Rolls Royce, through a shared commodity fetish pitched to the level of sublimity: "'They're such beautiful shirts,' she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds" (92).3

Fitzgerald's genius for evoking this fierce magnitude of glamour, this national hunger for a scenery of leisured opulence transfigured by champagne and by advertising "into something significant, elemental and profound" (47), is often celebrated. Less celebrated, however, is his acute and clear-sighted demystification of all that mass-marketed hope: Gatsby offers almost a diagram of the fraudulence of specifically capitalist promise. Fitzgerald not only knows, he very clearly presents the injustice and the failure of capitalism. The poet of doomed enchantment proves intensely sensitized to the world of doomed competitiveness.

The competition is desperate. The hungry-seeming Englishmen, talking in earnest voices to prosperous Americans at Gatsby's party, are "agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity" (42). Chester Mckee turns on Tom a throbbing yet modest economic longing that is significantly reminiscent of Wilson: "I'd like to do more work on Long Island," he says, "if I could get the entry. All I ask is that they should give me a start"; whereafter he falls "asleep on a chair with his fists clenched in his lap" (33, 37; emphasis added). In a poignant counterpoint to Daisy's tears of joyous possession, triggered by Gatsby's shirts, Myrtle weeps the more familiar tears of the heartbreak of dispossession. Discovering that her husband had borrowed the very suit in which he married her, she weeps as its owner carries it away (35), to find herself mired still in a poverty she thought to have escaped. Huddled thereafter above a dusty garage for eleven years, the first, and perhaps the only, significant things she ever takes in about Tom are "his dress suit and patent leather shoes" (36). In a deft symbolic touch, Fitzgerald has her avoid Tom's gaze on the train by pretending to stare at an "advertisement over his head"; but the strong allure of that institution has already effected his persuasion for him. "You can't live forever; you can't live forever" beats in her surrendering materialist mind, just as Nick pulls up Jordan to his face to the beating phrase, "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired" (81). Restlessness, in this frenetically competitive success society, is indeed a key term, recurring throughout the novel and applied successively to Tom and Daisy (6, 7, 179), Jordan (18), Nick (3, 59) and Gatsby (64).

But excited monetary pursuit, Fitzgerald shows, goes hand in hand with personal anxiety: under the strain of competition, social life has become a medium of unease. The correlative of incessant tantalization by glamour is a corrosive sense of personal inadequacy. Back home, Nick recalls, social events were "hurried from phase to phase . . . in sheer dread of the moment itself" (13). "Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me," he remarks (9), and he is on his way to getting "roaring drunk from sheer embarrassment" at Gatsby's party when Jordan rescues his equanimity (42). "You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy," he confesses (13), but this is precisely the function of the new national leisure class, whose vocation is to display a condition beyond such anxiety and gaucherie, to conduct lives of literally inimitable elegance levels: "gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor" (150). Daisy and Jordan are persistently figured in an imagery of ease and stasis, immobile in floating dresses (8, 115), cool in white or silver, at home in a "bantering inconsequence" (12) whose point is the superior grace of a languid sufficiency. Symptomatically, the most magical quality in the smiles of both Gatsby and Daisy is the imparting of unconditional reassurance (9, 48). Yet even the super-rich, in this political economy of competition for poise, secretly lack self-confidence. Tom is stung to envy by Gatsby's wealth and glamorous guests, and "no longer nourished" by "sturdy physical egotism" (21), while Jordan lies and fears clever men, being unable "to endure being at a disadvantage" (58).

In the struggle for fashionable acquisition and emulation, the collective existence of other people is apprehended, counter-democratically, as a fatiguing, even repellent plurality. Gatsby frequently associates cheap public transport, and thus the masses, with oppressiveness and the thwarting of personal purpose. The nadir of Gatsby's early fortune in the loss of Daisy is presented as an almost martyring passivity aboard a hot day-coach that pulls him penniless from Louisville, raced by a yellow trolley lined with unfamiliar faces (153). The "harrowing scene" between Gatsby and Tom anticipated nervously by Nick begins with a train ride to Long Island, again in the heat, in which the passengers are irrationally suspicious of honestly extended courtesy (114). Myrtle's tedious party culminates in drunken gloom in "the cold lower levels of the Pennsylvania Station" (38). And uneasy undertones of the precariousness of Gatsby's dream are struck in the eerie sketch of elements and commuters interposed in Klipspringer's song: "Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home in the rain from New York" (96). Not only the presence of the mass public but the very existence of perspectives alternative to one's own forms a kind of threat, demystifying the primary narcissism of self: "Life is much more successfully looked at from a single window," insists Nick (4); and "it is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment" (105), a passage that recalls Gatsby's loss of "the old warm world," displaced from the illusion of special cosmic favor (162). Where young and romantic male hopefuls like himself are concerned, however, Fitzgerald can extend sympathy, and the novel crafts tenderly that sad knowledge of lonely outsiderhood inescapable in a society magnetized by glamorous insiders. "High over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life" (36). Nick defensively eschews the pathos of "young clerks in the dusk" at Gatsby's party by positioning himself at the cocktail table, the only place where a single man can linger without looking "purposeless and alone" (57, 42).

As familiar as the desperate competitiveness, fear of personal inadequacy, and pathos of outsiderhood that float in the wake of capitalism's dream, is the casually coarse greed and hypocrisy it spawns. "'He's a bootlegger,' said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. . . . 'Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass'" (61). Nick, with his traditional middle-class values, seeks fastidiously to avoid such complicity in tainted money, insisting on paying for the lunch with Wolfsheim; yet he knows that New York's very skyscrapers are founded upon it, and he can only fantasize ruefully of "the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money" (69). Behind millionaires lies an implacable possessive drive, he knows, and in his first glimpse of Gatsby he imagines his opulent neighbour "come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens" (21).

Yet the most striking element in Fitzgerald's demystification of the world of the capitalist ideal is not the human insecurity and moral ugliness bred by the fever of glamour but the absolute failure of the work ethic quite literally to deliver the goods. Only the upper ten percent of the population enjoyed markedly increased income in the 1920s, for as Spindler notes, by 1929 perhaps 50,000 individuals received half of all national share income (166). In 1921, Zinn records, 4,270,000 Americans were unemployed, two million people in New York City lived in tenements condemned as firetraps, and six million families (42 per cent of the US total) made less than $1,000 a year (373); Gatsby opens in the spring of 1922. "Shocking to tell," records Ann Douglas, "71 percent of American families in the 1920s had annual incomes below $2,500, the minimum needed for decent living; in New York in the years just after the war, the average worker earned only $1,144 a year" (18). In addition to the dramatic new polarization of wealth, corporate mergers between 1919 and 1930 swallowed up some 8,000 businesses (there were 80 bank mergers in 1919 alone), in a momentum of monopolistic concentration of wealth and power at the very top that rendered the traditional entrepreneurial dream a hollow fiction for virtually all. By 1929, the 200 largest non-financial companies held nearly half of all corporate assets and over one-fifth of the entire wealth of the nation (Spindler 103). In view of such developments, it is no wonder that Nick finds Tom and Daisy "remotely rich" and feels "a little disgusted" (20), a resentment of privilege shared by the cottagers of the old West Egg fishing village who refuse the offer by the original owner of Gatsby's mansion to pay five years' taxation if they will thatch their roofs. ("Americans . . . have always been obstinate about being peasantry" [89].) Their pride does not save them, however: a few years later even Daisy will feel offended by the "too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants from nothing to nothing" (108). For the truth of this economy gives the lie, as Fitzgerald firmly shows, to glamour's promise. Wilson, worn away by a decade's straining at the gasoline pump, pitied even by Tom (138), knows better than Klipspringer that the economy's real law is unavailing drudgery: "one thing's sure and nothing's surer / The rich get richer while the poor get — children" (96). In this society, where the "stern" names of "the great American capitalists" find no contemporary exemplars save the "gray old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller" and sold mongrel pups on the sidewalk (63, 27), there is only one way from rags to riches, and that is crime. The choice is a simple one between drudgery and a "gonnegtion." The reach of official corruption suggested in the successful "fixing" of the 1919 World Series is re-echoed on a more mundane plane in the white card sent Gatsby annually by the Police Commissioner for doing him "a favor," a card that sends policemen accelerating apologetically away on their motorcycles. Lack of further options is again suggested in the fact that even Tom's friend, Walter Chase, turns to crime to repair his fortunes. As Gatsby explains, Walter "came to us dead broke. He was very glad to pick up some money, old sport" (135). There were, in the telling new binarism of the 1920s metropolitans, only "suckers" and "racketeers" (Douglas 20).

Gatsby turns to crime only when, though covered in war medals, he becomes literally half-starved in the search in New York for even a menial job. "He hadn't eat anything for a couple of days. . . . He ate more than four dollars' worth of food in half an hour" (172). For, very strikingly, we are nowhere shown in this novel of defeated aspiration — Nick, Myrtle and Gatsby are all failed climbers — a sphere of legal and effective self-betterment. In this landscape of bleak class-entrapment and dead-end labor, wherein rich and poor are frozen in polar extremes (Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires had been Fitzgerald's first title for the book), Gatsby could never have even have met and wooed Daisy without the imposed, momentary egalitarianism of uniform. Tom's contemptuous slash lacerates because it is true: "I'll be damned if I see how you got within a mile of her unless you brought the groceries to the back door" (132). In circumstances of ineluctable paralysis for the masses, of blocked economic ascent, Nick realizes that he himself — "one of the few honest people that I have ever known" (60) — might also have surrendered to a "gonnegtion" at Gatsby's offer, had it been only more diplomatically timed: "I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life. But, because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there" (83-4).

The legitimate economy, where we glimpse it, conveys the very essence of alienated labor. There the senses become, in a condition directly opposed to that of the synesthesia of the parties, starved, dulled and oppressed. Wilson's garage is a dim and almost bare expanse of dust "approached by a trail of ashes," where work has left him "spiritless, anaemic" (25). Up in the city, Nick falls asleep at his swivel chair, attempting "to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock" (155). The oppressiveness of broiling heat on the train to Long Island is subliminally clinched by association with industry: "As my train emerged from the tunnel into sunlight, only the hot whistles of the National Biscuit Company broke the simmering hush at noon" (114). (The association may remind us again of the rich, "safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor" [150].) The work ethic is in crisis, its cruel bluff exposed. Fitzgerald's demystification of capitalist promise could hardly be more thoroughgoing. Or so it might seem.


The failure of the novel's aspirers — Myrtle, Wilson, Nick, and Gatsby — to find the better life each seeks is, however, assimilated to a putative inner law of the human psyche, and even to a spent momentum within history itself. "There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of [Gatsby's] dreams," insists Fitzgerald. "No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart" (97). This is apparently also our own condition, as, incorrigibly illusioned, we "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past" (182). With the colonization of the US, "the last and greatest of all human dreams" is apparently also behind us; its revelation to the Europeans was "the last time in history" for "man" to experience "something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." The grandeur of the sweep universalizes defeat, generalizes failure to a sacred and eternal tristesse; it was Fitzgerald's achievement, testifies Zelda, that he "offered the reconciliation of the familiarities of tragedy" to his generation, "persuaded them . . . to attitudes of a better-mastered Olympian regret"
(quoted in Bruccoli 709, 711). This is not because, as Leslie Fiedler wrote, America is "a nation that dreams of failure as a fulfillment," so that Fitzgerald "hoarded his defeats like his truest treasures" (71, 72) — although he did. Rather, the insistence upon defeatism as noesis, upon ideality as uninstantiable in the world of time, is one that, as I have argued above, is a primary and defining metaphysical tenet of the Western tradition from Plato through Christianity to Romanticism. Themselves part of this tradition, critics write of "impossible idealism trying to realize itself, to its utter destruction in the gross materiality" (Raleigh 101), or of the "tragedy" that links Gatsby with "the general lot of mankind" as "a symbol of the disenchantment of mankind as a whole" (Dyson 119, 123).

The elision of socio-economic specificities with allegedly transcendent and ineluctable truths of the heart has been long familiar as the posture of the Arnoldian "sage," dominating "aesthetic" assumptions well past the point of Fitzgerald's death and into the latter half of this century (see Eagleton 39-43, 60-65). But it is not, as Marius Bewley noted, the only tradition. "I join you," wrote Thomas Jefferson, 

in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating, and their friends here reechoing; and applying especially to religion and politics; "that it is not probable that anything better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers." . . . But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened to listen to these impostures, and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde. . . . To preserve the freedom of the human mind . . . every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom. (Quoted in Bewley 126)
Jefferson's historical moment was the "heroic" phase of the bourgeoisie, denouncing with Enlightenment ire and vim the metaphysical toils of political paralysis with which the ideological overlords of feudalism had roped the limbs of their countrymen. The contrast could hardly be clearer with the later, industrial bourgeoisie, passed from progressive fire into reactionary dogma, fugitive from history and seeking to "transcend" threatful political motion. It is into precisely such conservative arms that Fitzgerald ultimately rushes, in just the embrace traditional critics celebrate. Yet there is nothing "natural" or even organic about Gatsby's closing meditation and the critics' sonorous confirmations that indeed disillusion and defeat compose the eternal human condition. On the contrary, such patterning, I would argue, exhibits an arbitrary foreclosure of the novel's social consciousness that is one hallmark of ideology. When Gatsby extrapolates a full-blown metaphysical absolute from a contingent economic impasse, it can do so only through an ideological process of drastic reductivism, imposing on its model of social cause and effect a response of fatalistic acquiescence cloaked as sublime wisdom. For the novel, we have seen, establishes accurately enough the social and ideological realities of an economic system that parades glamorous promise, launches energy and appetite, then thwarts that promise and wrenches that ideal into pain. Gatsby recognizes that the stark choice between drudgery and crime, the dearth of legitimate self-betterment for the talented, and the dead end of the work ethic, are determinate economic circumstances. It shows clearly that both Wilson's reckless exhaustion and Gatsby's need to turn, in a success culture paradoxically predicated on unreachable monopolistic capital, to a criminal life that re-alienates his lover, are circumstantial. Yet Fitzgerald assimilates these particularities of structural frustration and class ambivalence to eternity, abandons his superb sociological instincts for a misty melancholia. Throughout most of the narrative, social observation and psychological comment proceed entwined, the latter manifestly developing from the former; but at an altar of venerable dogma, of political shibboleth, they fly wide apart. Gatsby, accordingly, stands revealed as a novel about capitalist mass society and its dynamic — one of the better novels on this subject ever written — which, horrified by its own revelations, seeks refugee status among the stars. Sketching clearly the hegemonic code of glamour that newly romanticizes capitalist mass production, the novel recoils from this cruel class bluff by dissolving into a religiose mystification. Spurious spiritual inevitability is thus accorded to a precise moment of failure in the capitalist system, Gatsby becoming thereby not only a supreme Romantic classic but also one of the most powerful writings of reactionary conservatism ever penned. The swing here, this extraordinary, architectonic double-action — demystifying the character of the capitalist dynamic only to remystify it, "misleading theory to mysticism" in essentializing a particular moment of crisis — shows luminously once more the crypto-theological status of the novel, assimilating despairing political quietism to high spiritual knowledge in an Augustinian and Christian tradition.

When Gatsby remystifies aspiration as inevitably tragic, retreating from injustice and frustrated promise to sprawl, like Nick, in moonlit sands and seek the "reconciliation" of tragic reverie, a pattern is established of something like political schizophrenia, one that seems to distinguish modern political consciousness in the US from that in the European democracies. An extreme of nationalist declamation, in which the American continent represents "the last and highest of all humans dreams" (apparently democratic triumphs in European capitals or across, say, the continents of Africa or Asia would axiomatically be less "great"), falls supine without struggle before a posture of cynicism proclaiming that tragic unachievement is inevitable. Such oscillation between poles of tearful patriotic frisson and unofficial gut cynicism is puzzling to a non-native: where, one asks, is the cautious objectivity of the middle ground, acknowledging modest progress to be feasible? Is there not rather more to political reality than these histrionic extremes of spellbound Dutch mariners and Gatsby's rotating corpse? History, of course, shows not only that there can be but that there has been: just three years before Fitzgerald sat down to compose Gatsby, women won, for the first time in history and against great opposition, the right to vote in political elections. This world-historical breakthrough of 1920, a boat long beating against the current and most manifestly not borne back ceaselessly into the past, shows up Fitzgerald's elegant remystification of America for the reactionary dogma that it is.


The deep-seated conservative quietism that circumscribed Fitzgerald's temperament, for all his vaunted brawls and flamboyant public misdemeanors, takes also one other and subtler form of nostalgia and retreat than those proclaimed in his nostrums: one evident in his presentation of women. We have seen that Fitzgerald's metaphysics of defeat stipulates high political gloom; and, despite some sharp ambivalence toward the elite, we shall see that his perspective on the underclass is marked by a fearful alienation. In these tense conditions, Fitzgerald opts (one might say opts out) for the solace of a purely individualist gratification.

Although at one level the "fast" life of his heady, competitive success culture is elating (Nick enjoys "the racy, adventurous feel of [New York] at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye" [57]), the cumulative strain is telling. "It was borrowed time," Fitzgerald later wrote, "the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls. . . . A classmate killed his wife and himself on Long Island, another tumbled 'accidentally' from a skyscraper in Philadelphia, another purposefully from a skyscraper in New York. One was killed in a speak-easy in Chicago; another was beaten to death in a speak-easy in New York and crawled home to the Princeton Club to die. . . . [M]oreover these things happened not during the depression but during the boom" ("Echoes" 18, 16). Cold shadows of violence flicker over the names of the partygoers on the blue lawns: "Civet, who was drowned last summer[,] . . . Edgar Beaver, whose hair they say turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all[,] . . . Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife[,] . . . Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square,"and so on (Gatsby 61-3). Following his education from the "pioneer debauchee" Cody, Gatsby feels instinctively that he can preserve his dreams only if he flees community, perserving his immaculate disengagement: "Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees — he could climb to it, if he climbed alone" (112).

When, however, he weds his visions to Daisy's perishable breath, his quest for a trophy-wife, a clinching credential of wealth and glamour attained, reveals a perspective on the feminine that pervades the novel. "It excited him . . . that many men had already loved Daisy — it increased her value in his eyes" (148). "It's a man's book," Fitzgerald later admitted (quoted in Bruccoli 250), and the construction of Daisy precisely as the glittering prize awarded the sharpest sword dominates her characterization: gleaming like silver, her voice full of money, excitingly redolent "of this year's shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered" (Gatsby 148).4

An exquisite object of male consumption, Daisy has internalized male values. Weeping that her baby is a girl, Daisy is dependent on men to make her key decisions for her (133, 151): secure in and yet remote from male ownership and ardor, "making only a polite, pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained" (12-13), she radiates a carefully girlish charm of irrationality and whimsy: "Do you want to hear about the butler's nose?" (14). Woman, it appears, is presented only as romance, in the restless world of glamour where there are only the pursued and the pursuing. As the flip side to such narrow pedestalization, an implicit morosity appoints Daisy as the traitor to Gatsby's ideal and as the killer of Myrtle who won't even stop the car; but "dishonesty in a woman is something you never blame deeply" (59).

Gatsby's women are primarily young women, who, "slenderly, languidly, their hands set on their hips," precede us onto rosy-colored porches for candlelit dinners, and correlative with this perspective of pursuit goes a certain recurrent antipathy to domesticity and motherhood. The over-enlarged photo of "a hen sitting on a rock" in Myrtle's apartment turns out to be "a stout old lady beaming down": Myrtle's mother, who "hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall" (29). The glowing sunshine on Daisy's face "deserted her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk" (14). Long Island Sound, no sooner than described as "the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere," becomes a "great wet barnyard" (5; emphasis added). The final curse on poverty is that "the poor get — children" (96). The perspective typifies, in fact, the revolt of the 1920s modernists against the Victorian matriarch and her moralistic middle-class values, positing Daisy's slenderness against Myrtle's plumpness: as Ann Douglas explains, "The 1920s put the body type of the stout and full-figured matron decisively out of fashion" (8).

Yet if domesticity is a joke and motherhood a curse, the immense pressures of a competitive, performance-oriented culture secretly reinstate the reverse valorization: driving the narrative of Gatsby is not only a rapacity that would part delectable young women from respectable mothers but a subconscious maternal yearning that would reinsert a mother within the mistress. On the dustjacket on which Fitzgerald had insisted for Gatsby, a pair of sorrowing beautiful eyes, presiding above orgiastic neon, bears a foetus. And in this novel, high above the urgent, suave contestings, like an adult far removed from the fevers of sibling rivalry, a craved symbolic mother, strikingly absent in a world only of belles, haunts the upreachings of the narrative: sanctuary of security as the bestower of an unconditional love. Truest intimacy with Daisy is evoked not through orchids, ballroom, or kiss but through a "maternal" relation, a binding, protective gentleness: "she used to sit on the sand with his head in her lap by the hour, rubbing her fingers over his eyes and looking at him with unfathomable delight. It was touching to see them together — it made you laugh in a hushed, fascinated way" (78). Of Daisy and Gatsby, Nick writes, "They had never been closer in their month of love, nor communicated more profoundly one with another, than when she brushed silent lips against his coat's shoulder, or when he touched the end of her fingers, gently, as though she were asleep" (150). Gatsby, we recall, has no mother.

In a defining gesture, echoed in the book's closing lines, Gatsby stretches out his arms, "in a curious way" (21), towards the symbol of Daisy, just as Daisy holds out her arms to her child ("Come to your own mother that loves you"), who rushes across the room to "root" into her dress (116). But Daisy, traitor to the Dream, proves a negligent mother; and Myrtle, whose cheapness can only parody the Dream and motherhood, dies with her breast torn loose and "swinging . . . like a flap" (138). The feeding breast surfaces and fails, like "the fresh, green breast of the new world" revealed to the Dutch seamen, and like that where Gatsby "could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder" (112).

Fitzgerald's girls offer, as their profoundest appeal, a sense less of glamour and conquest in the "restless" world of conditional status than of its veritable cancellation: some dim, deep fullness of peace in release from competition, in transcendence of performance. Nick, fantasizing about romantic women on the streets of New York, longs not for reciprocated flirtation, elegant partying or boisterous carnality but rather to "fade" with them "into warm darkness" (57). His aspiration arcs backwards, yearns from the stresses of the Dream to the stasis of the womb. For that haunting womb is the safe antithesis of action: Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy had "delivered [him] suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour" into a restlessness that would destroy him (79). And his loss of her is rearticulated in terms suggestive of an expulsion from the womb: "he must have felt he had lost the old warm world. . . . [H]e must have shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass" (162).

The Fitzgerald belle thus appeals to the hero through containing in her slender person a significant optative contradiction, a structure of paradox that parallels the self-abrogating logic of the fast eroding work ethic. As potential grand-prizewinner's trophy, she motivates intense competitive performance and pursuit, yet she parallels too the motivation of alienated labor whose hope is to work sufficiently hard to need never work again. As thus a kind of self-negating telos, female glamour, like the glamour of the leisure class that re-energizes the work-ethic, induces a self-activation whose end is the bliss of inaction. For when "won," woman annuls that old agonistic order, displacing it in a maternal, "suckling" or womb-like condition of blissful inaction, self-loss in ease and union. In the last analysis, then, woman haunts the novel as the lost and craved womb: refuge from economic injustice and political tension, solace of quietistic individualism. Ascending from the seductive to the maternal, she confers sublimity upon opting out.


We have seen so far how a "progressive" Fitzgerald who unmasks the mendacity of an economy that seemed in crisis in the very early twenties, impeding the very aspirations it instilled, then apparently declares for conservative quietism. Climaxing his book in a classic declamation of anti-Jeffersonian paralysis and defeatism, he seeks antidote to competitive fevers in the purely personal sanctuary of maternal, unconditional love. But though Daisy may have seemed "safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor" (150), and the riotous super-rich invulnerable, as they "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness" (180), the early postwar years were stamped by rebellions all over the world (Russia, Ireland, Egypt, India, Korea); and The Nation could comment in 1919, "The common man . . . losing faith in the old leadership, has experienced a new access of self-confidence, or at least a new recklessness" (quoted in Zinn 371). Wave after wave of mass strikes hit Washington, Seattle, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Boston, New Jersey, and New York (368-73), and in 1922 — the year that Nick comes East — a US Senator, visiting striking miners and railroad workers, reported: "All day long I have listened to heartrending stories of women evicted from their homes by the coal companies. I heard pitiful pleas of little children crying for bread. I stood aghast as I heard most amazing stories from men brutally beaten by private policemen. It has been a shocking and nerve-racking experience" (quoted in Zinn 376). Eugene Debs, socialist candidate for President, had garnered almost a million votes in 1912, and only police beatings and jailings were now breaking up the "Wobblies" (see McClellan 316; and Zinn 370, 376-7). Fitzgerald felt some sympathy with the plight of the poor and called himself a socialist in the twenties. He intended to make Dick Diver a communist when he projected Tender Is The Night (Bruccoli 407). When later he read Marx and annotated The Communist Manifesto, he noted of his novels, in contrast with those of D. H. Lawrence, "I am essentially Marxian," since he felt himself to perceive and present society in substantially class terms (quoted in Sklar 325). Yet when he wrote, in 1934, "I've given up politics. For two years I've gone haywire in trying to reconcile my double-allegiance to the class I am part of, and the Great Change I believe in" (quoted in Bruccoli 408), it is hard to believe that, caught between his conscience and his aestheticism, he could ever have chosen differently. Seduced by the intensity of leisure-class glamour from principled progressive alignment, Fitzgerald had always been committed to the priorities of individualist fulfillment; and his attitude toward the proletariat was mingled, I suggest, with definite fear of insurrection, as Gatsby makes clear. A pervasive unease toward the lower classes in the novel climaxes in a literally unthinkable scene of horror.

Servants, we note, while being deferential to the rich (the smooth butlers who draw Tom to the telephone and Jordan to Gatsby in his library), supplying them with humorous material (the butler's/chauffeur's nose), and proving a snobbish delight to derogate ("Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders" [32]), are shown also to lack morality: one recalls the caddy who retracts his statement implicating Jordan (58), the butler complicit in Tom's adultery (whispering in his ear [14]), and the waiter, "a funny look" on his face, who faithfully delivers Rosy Rosenthal the message that draws him to slaughter (71). When the novel's priceless Golden Girl has become a murderer hiding behind a lie, Fitzgerald proletarianizes the setting of our last glimpse of her. As Gatsby holds his sacred "vigil" outside in the summer night, Nick peers through the window of the pantry, to find Daisy and Tom sitting at a kitchen table, "with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale" (146).

To the middle classes, the lower class is snappy ("Keep your hands off the lever!" [38]), alien (Nick's domestic "made my bed and cooked breakfast and muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove" [3]), and a source of intelligence: "My Finn informed me that Gatsby had dismissed every servant in his house and replaced them with . . . others, who never went into West Egg Village to be bribed by the tradesmen" (113). For in a key structural paradox, the working classes are simultaneously marginal and central — inescapably, unavoidably in our constant midst. Ever a kind of black hole for Fitzgerald, lightless and spectral, the lifestyle of the poor is an unreal world, aptly depicted in the Valley of the Ashes as a phantasmagoric wasteland, "contiguous to absolutely nothing" (24). The emphasis reminds us of the former West Egg inhabitants, led "along a short-cut from nothing to nothing" (108). Wilson, proletarian, veiled in white ash, characteristically "mingles immediately with the cement color of the walls" (26). It is his duty, as it were, to become invisible, like the servants at Gatsby's parties where apparently "a tray of cocktails float[s] . . . through the twilight" (43), or a guest "seizes a cocktail out of the air" (41). In the same spirit of contemptuous eclipse, Jordan drives so close to "some workman" that her fender flicks a button on his coat, without apology or concern (59). Yet if discontiguous and insubstantial, the workers are also a vital ground even of the aesthetic: "On Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before. . . . At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas" (39). In an appropriately industrial image, "There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb" (39). From an underworld of concealed proletarian energy arises the caravansary of glamour — even "the premature moon" is "produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer's basket" (43). Ideally invisible yet structurally indispensable, the very incarnation of demystification, the proletariat stirs fear and offense in the instance of a "too obtrusive fate" (108), as when its "world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about," comes calling at the mansion of the rich, "like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees" (162). The ensuing climactic action — Gatsby's presumable alarm, the raised gun, the expression, the aim, the shot — is denied enactment in the narrative: perhaps it is literally unfocusable for Fitzgerald's mind, since the text does not even refer to that ashen figure's weapon. Like an eruption from the tormented political unconscious, the very embodiment of proletarian suffering has come for rough justice to the enchanted blue lawns, and from the "holocaust" (163) wrought by that "unreal" world, the novel averts its gaze.

Fatalistically presented hitherto as unbeatable, the status quo now plunges into a final tension, unassailable yet imperilled, absolute but eliminable ("He was crazy enough to kill me if I hadn't told him. . . . His hand was on a revolver in his pocket every minute he was in the house" [180]). The identification of the working class as kind of spectral enemy goes deep for Fitzgerald, for the identical conjunction recurs in The Last Tycoon, where once again the destructive alliance of a philistine millionaire with proletarian insurrection sends to his doom the Fitzgerald hero — a personification of a shining beauty distilled from personal riches. In this final reflex of conservative reaction, Fitzgerald's response to the poverty and frustration that his novel exposed so clearly has been to blame the victim. ("It's essentially cleaner to be corrupt and rich than it is to be innocent and poor," insists Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise [230]). Temperamentally incapable of identification with the poor because of their unpoetical indigence, the surreal aesthetic destitution imposed by poverty, Fitzgerald sides, to the end, with the exploitative, privileged magic of a glamour whose conditions he had so lucidly demystified.

Notes

  1. See Trilling; Piper; Bewley; and Raleigh. Back to text.

  2. Also quoted ironically by Fitzgerald, "Echoes" 19. Back to text.

  3. On commodity fetishism in Gatsby, whereby "[t]hings, not human beings, seem to possess a nearly magical power of legitimation" and dominate consciousness, see Posnock 205-9. Back to text.

  4. Judith Fetterley puts the point well: "Daisy is that which money exists to buy. . . . Thus, women, who have themselves no actual power, become symbolic of the power of moneyed men" (75, 83). Fetterley's is a fine interpretation of Fitzgerald's misogyny and the double standard scapegoating Daisy. But Fetterley ignores class relations (curiously able thus to see Myrtle as achieving "final transcendence" [91]) and conceives Gatsby's/Fitzgerald's "investment" in the Daisy figure almost timelessly, as self-regarding male "romanticism," rather than defining the broad philosophic and contemporary economic contexts by which Daisy is constructed to figure and to fail as the bearer of the ideal. Back to text.

Works Cited
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Chris Fitter is an Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University-Camden. He is the author of Poetry, Space, Landscape:Toward a New Theory (Cambridge UP, 1995) and a variety of articles on English and American literature.

 

"A big man has no time really to do anything but just sit and be big."