(Originally read the book and wrote this post April 5th, 2008.)
My second re-read of the year is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I always enjoyed the prose of this novel and its 1920s atmosphere, yet my re-read this time brought to my attention how very complex the language happens to be despite its deceptively simple appearance that I hadn’t noticed the first time I read it. The story also is superficially simple. Nick leaves the West to come East to New York and Long Island to try his hand as a bond salesman. There he meets up with his rich and stereotypically masculine schoolmate, Tom Buchanan, and his shallow wife, Daisy Buchanan. At the mansion, Nick meets Jordan Baker who tells him about his enigmatic neighbor, Jay Gatsby. Nick watches as Gatsby holds lots of opulent parties, and eventually gets invited to one. Gatsby befriends Nick. It turns out that Gatsby had a fling with Daisy in the past, but was unable to marry her because he was only a poor soldier and had lied to her about his social class. With his newfound extravagant wealth he hopes to steal Daisy from her husband. He eventually makes contact with her with the help of Nick. Somewhere in all this Nick starts dating Jordan Baker. The parties end when Daisy disapproves of them. The truth of their affair soon becomes known to Tom. The party of characters go to the city where Gatsby and Tom fight over Daisy. Tom wins the fight, essentially killing Gatsby’s dream. Daisy and Gatsby leave and accidentally run over Tom’s mistress. The husband of said mistress, George Wilson, thinks that Gatsby killed his wife, goes to his mansion and kills him. Nick breaks up with Jordan. He considers what the corruption of the Bunchanans, the East, and Gatsby’s life all means.
But what does it all mean?
A superficial glance reveals Gatsby to represent nothing less than the American Dream itself, a living embodiment of the immigrant crossing distant shores for economic success, of the poor surpassing his or her class to enter the hollowed halls of the upper-class elite. More importantly he represents the willingness to dream big, dream beyond us mere mortals, to search for and hunt the impossible ideal. Tom Buchanan criticizes Gatsby as a low individual who probably made his money from bootlegging liquor; in these words, we see that Gatsby’s dream is a failure from the start, even with money the true American aristocracy will not allow him access to their world. Nick also judges Gatsby multiple times as morally repugnant and a liar, an aspect I hadn’t noticed the first time I read the novel. Gatsby’s entire dream is based off a lie, not just the false idealized dream of Daisy which the real Daisy could never live up to that is commonly talked about in critical circles, but literally Gatsby misrepresents himself as being more prestigious and wealthy than he actually is to attracted Daisy those many years ago when they first met. He lies about who he is and where he comes from. But don’t most Americans? Is that the point Fitzgerald is getting at? Before answering that question it might be useful to think about some of the images and motifs used throughout the novel.
The image of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in the valley of ashes functions as an empty signifier (representing abandonment, advertising, crass marketing, and even God at one point, but the real point of these shifting meanings is that the image itself is meaningless). It’s initial introduction tells us that the Doctor who posted the sign has since retired or left his business, while the advertising sign still stands. The sign is the central symbol of the valley of ashes, standing in for the abandonment of the poor living in this gray wasteland, this void between New York and Long Island. Since the novel focuses mainly on the American wealthy, Fitzgerald I think is suggesting through his imagery that the poor who live in this void of ashes never really have a voice, that their voices are meaningless to those in power like a Tom Buchanan because they lack money or status. We see this in the few interactions between Tom and George Wilson; Tom only interacts with George because he is interested in sleeping with his wife. Otherwise, he probably never would deign to enter the valley of ashes or speak to someone like George Wilson. The silence of the valley of ashes throughout the novel is very telling as to what Fitzgerald is trying to say.
This also situates Tom Buchanan as the central antagonist of the novel. He destroys both Gatsby’s and George Wilson’s dreams. Both the bootlegger who rose out of poverty and the man still living in poverty are crushed by this American aristocrat. In fact, George Wilson and Gatsby share the same dream in many ways, both having an idealized version of their true loves, and want to live in a private world with only them. Yet, Tom is the only one who wins. Tom is the one who ends up with Daisy. Tom is the one who has the heart of Myrtle Wilson, until she dies (as her own death signifies when she tries to escape her husband by running towards what she believes to be Tom’s car). Tom is the one that lives in the end, while the other two die (George kills Gatsby and then himself). Tom is protected by his money, his status, and always comes out on top. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made. . . .” (179). Tom never has to face consequences for the dreams he destroys.
Even more enigmatic are the numerous references by Tom Buchanan to The Rise of the Colored Empires by Goddard and the coming racial struggle between blacks and whites as he talks about it within the novel. Yes, this is meant to show us that on top of Tom’s patriarchal class snobbishness we can also include racism. But I feel like there is more to these references than a superficial racism. What does one make for example of the one image in the novel of the rich black man being driven around by a chauffeur? It is such a fleeting image that one might miss it if they aren’t paying close attention. My gut instinct tells me the image is attached to what Fitzgerald is trying to say about the American dream. Perhaps that a rich black man isn’t going to be accepted by the upper-class establishment represented by Tom anymore than a bootlegger immigrant like Gatsby. Fitzgerald might even be saying that the materialism this brief character is mimicking is itself corrupt–a sophisticated class critique. He adopts all the snobbishness of his white brethren in the upper-class, haughty, and seemingly uncaring for his black brothers who suffer at the bottom of the totem poll.
Jordan Baker represents the newly independent woman of the 1920s. She is depicted as a selfish liar who never thinks anything beyond how an event affects her. For Jordan it’s all about images and me, me, me. Nick recalls a rumor that when Jordan first started playing golf she cheated and moved her ball to get a better shot, which consequently propels her into a golfing career of sorts and into the acquaitance of the rich and famous. She likes Nick because he represents an honesty that she herself lacks; it’s her own cunning power of discernment that attracts her to Nick because she realizes she can trust him in a world and environment where everyone else is a liar. She tells him during their very last meeting “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person I thought it was your secret pride” (177). Nick calls Jordan “wise.” It is important to remember that wisdom doesn’t automatically equate to morally good.
I would suggest Nick calls her wise because he recognizes Jordan’s extreme pragmatism. Jordan isn’t so much a liar in the same exact way all her rich comrades tell themselves lies. They lie when events go bad because they want to maintain the order and illusion of their insular world. Jordan instead lies as an effective tool for her own ends to maintain a particular image in the minds of these very same American aristocracy. In other words, Jordan lies because she exists in a world of liars where image is everything and needs to be maintained at all costs.
A comparison to Tom might help illuminate the differences between the two. Nick makes the following observation about Tom’s conduct “I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified” (179). Jordan, I would suggest, might recognize what she did was bad or harmful to another, even immoral, but she probably would not care, whereas Tom wouldn’t be able to understand that what he did was wrong in the first place. He wouldn’t be able to see beyond his class and his own personal values, functioning much like a robot who cannot transcend the limits of its programming. Unlike Tom, Jordan can see the truth of the world around her beyond her little insular circle, then like a true animal caring only for its own survival, is able to pick the course that will have the most positive outcome for herself. Tom is unable to see an objective right from wrong, but only the mandates of right and wrong from his society; Jordan thumbs her nose at right and wrong, despite recognizing it, and does only what helps Jordan the most. Jordan knows what she is doing; Tom is like a wild animal. She is wise because she recognizes the illusion of her entire world unlike the other characters, but in some ways this makes her an even more malevolent character than Tom who comes off more as a stupid oafish animal who doesn’t know any better. Meanwhile, everything Jordan does is extremely calculated.
On another level, this entire story is about the West experiencing the corruption of the East. “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all–Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (176). The East chews and spits out the innocent Westerners, transforms them, corrupts them. More importantly this dichotomy is maintained because i think Fitzgerald is warning these values might spread to the West. Instead of being the corrupt East, these values threaten to become the corrupt United States of America–manifest destiny of the morally corrupt.
The most interesting observation in my re-read that I failed to notice the first time I read the story was Nick’s role. It is commonly accepted that Nick is an innocent bystander, a set of innocent eyes to view the morally deficient characters around him, and make moral judgments about their behavior. However, Nick comes to realize that all this observation makes him complicit in the story’s events, that he himself is guilty for the events that unfold by not speaking up. After Jordan Baker accuses him of being “another bad driver” (a metaphor that plays throughout the novel both literally and figuratively), Nick responds: “I’m thirty . . . I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor” (177). He feels guilty for Gatsby’s and Myrtle’s death. Nick never says anything that might defuse the situation. He never uses his agency, but observes without much comment. Instead he is content to observe the world around him; it is this very inaction that makes him complicit to what befalls the characters, and leads him to the epiphany that he himself is not innocent in the story’s event and thus why he makes that comment to Jordan Baker about his own innocence and honor. Nick tells us right at the beginning of the novel that “in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician” (1). And what do politicians do? They play all the sides, and try never to make enemies with anyone, usually at the cost of failing to do the right thing. It is precisely Nick’s nature to sit around and observe that makes Gatsby so attractive to him (in addition to an underlying homoerotic tension). Gatsby is willing to dream big–it’s not what he dreams, which Nick condemns as corrupt–but that he is willing to dream in the first place and take action to transcend the status quo of his own life. Nick just sits around listening to immoral people like Tom and Daisy discuss morals, listens to Tom pontificate on racial eugenics, merely watches as Tom meets up with his mistress. He never objects to any of this. He never makes any choices that could have prevented George Wilson’s, Myrtle Wilson’s, or Jay Gatsby’s death like telling George about Tom; not doing anything to stop the events is itself a choice.
Nick tells us in the very last lines of the novel that:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Gatsby’s entire story past and present can be summed up in that final observation of Nick. You’ll notice the image cuts off from ever reaching the dream. We run and run, chasing after that elusive American dream, until one fine morning–what? The text provides no answer. The dash that follows the line is ominous and powerful. Do we run after money and wealth? Do we run after status? Do we run after sentimental love? But to what purpose? Daisy could never live up to Gatsby’s dreams, yet what Nick finds appealing is his willingness to dream in the first place–even if doomed to endlessly relive the past that never was and never could be. Gatsby’s dream ends when Tom defeats him in New York. A part of his dream, his idealized dream of true love, was that Daisy would renounce Tom and that she would announce she had always only loved Gatsby. While it may be true that she did always love Gatsby, she also loved Tom. Daisy cannot say she only ever loved Gatsby.
Could that be Fitzgerald’s vision of the American dream? Pathetically doomed to repeat the sins of the past poisoned by slavery and stealing the land of the Native Americans and class struggles, but worth dreaming anyway because of what we at least believe it represents and what it could be if we just managed to reach the green light at the end of the current? Or maybe Fitzgerald is being more nihilistic by suggesting that all our dreams are hollow and empty, that they are not worth dreaming, but we’ll dream them nonetheless because what else are we supposed to do while we are alive (we’re all just a bunch of George Wilsons, Jay Gatsbys, Tom Buchanans playing around in illusory dreams of love, fame, money, and some elusive transcendental final meaning that doesn’t exist to help give our meaningless lives some sort of existential purpose). Maybe Fitzgerald with his dash wants to suggest that there are in fact dreams worth having, but he as the author isn’t sure what those might be. Gatsby’s fault then would be not that he dared to dream, which would in fact be a good thing and perhaps his only admirable quality, but that he dreamt the wrong dreams.