Re-reading The Great Gatsby felt like revisiting an experience that made a good impression on me first time round, only to find the new experience empty of pleasure, meaning or purpose. There are beautiful sentences, a blizzard of expensive and colourful shirts and a bevy of selfish, wealthy people, none of whom managed to elicit a jot of sympathy from me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella is considered an American tragedy. Gatsby is considered a tragic figure. It, and he, are not. Gatsby is a conman and a crook. The novella is a romantic melodrama, sensational and sentimental, with an ironically happy ending, shepherding the wealthy home to their mid-western cities, away from the decadence of the eastern seaboard of the U.S.A.. All except Gatsby, who lies murdered in his swimming pool. George Wilson, one of the only truly tragic figures in the story, lies dead nearby. He was previously cuckolded by the boor, Tom Buchanan, and later duped by him into getting rid of Gatsby, who, after all, is nouveau riche at best and, in the eyes of Buchanan and his coterie, no more than ‘white trash’ with bling.
The narrator, Nick Carraway, is an entry-level bond dealer in New York’s financial services sector. He is learning to become a hifalutin usurer, making loans to corporations and governments, usually on fixed terms advantageous to the issuer of the bond. Very large sums of money are involved. Great debts ensue on default. Cue the financial crash in 1929, which follows after the action of the novella.
In a sense, Carraway is a white-collar conman, Ivy League college-educated, thus immune from the whiff of criminality with which F. Scott Fitzgerald infuses Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald conjures more than a whiff of criminality, spiced with anti-semitism, in his presentation of Wolfsheim, Gatsby’s business associate. Carraway says that Wolfsheim’s assistant, a ‘lovely Jewess’, scrutinised him with ‘black, hostile eyes’.
Nick Carraway tells the story in an ‘I’ voice for the most part, shifting to a journalistic 3rd person voice in reporting the final crimes (hit and run, with the driver not stopping; a murder-suicide), until the narration returns to the 1st person voice for the lyrically-described train journeys westward. They cross a snow-covered landscape, somehow more real than that of eastern regions of the U.S.A..The snow-filled journey feels like a lift from the ending of James Joyce’s story The Dead, in particular the resonant lines about another journey westwards:
snow was general over Ireland … faintly falling … upon all the living and the dead
This is not the only allusion to major texts of English literature’s modernist period. T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is often cited as a touchstone for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novella. Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Heart of Darkness, is cited as a source for narrative structure and form. Is Carraway modelled on Marlow, the rudderless young man with a well-connected aunt (replaced by Yale University, in Carraway’s case), through whom Conrad presents a tale with no heart and only dim light?
Carraway is a not an unreliable narrator. He is naive and unbelievable. I found his easy acceptance of Gatsby’s backstory hard to credit. What did his years at Yale prepare him for if he readily swallows the guff Gatsby offers him? Gatsby muddies his story at each turn to get Carraway to do his bidding. Gatsby pimps Carraway, who readily falls in love with him.
It is clear that Carraway has a commanding grip on poetic English. Did he get that at Yale, a very expensive university, noted for its academic work in science and economics? Perhaps he majored in Classics. His story-telling is littered with telling passages, such as:
I sat on the front steps while they waited for their car. It was dark here; only the bright door sent ten square feet of light volleying out into the soft, black morning. Sometimes a shadow moved against a dressing-room blind above, gave way to another shadow, an indefinite procession of shadows, that rouged and powdered in an invisible glass.
‘Volleyed’ is quite the literary rally for a trainee bond-dealer, Yale-educated or not.
The Yale education and the ostentatious wealth of the main characters validate the disdain with which working people – drivers, butlers, caterers, mechanics, police officers and others – are treated. Carraway refers to them as ‘ordinary people’, elevating his own milieu onto the extraordinary plain inhabited by the wealthy and the celebrated. This elevation of celebrity continues into cultural work today. Gatsby lives in New York’s version of Downton Abbey, on a bay on Long Island. He appeals to a craving for an old-world aristocracy.
Critics, notably Lionel Trilling, suggest that the novella highlights the social fissures of 1920s America, illustrated by Carraway’s waspish observations. Carraway describes George Wilson, the mechanic, as ‘spiritless’ and ‘anaemic’. Myrtle Wilson, the victim of the hit-and-run, is introduced as a ‘thickish figure of a woman’, in sharp contrast with Daisy Buchanan who, in Carraway’s accounts, is a breathy waif. Most of the ‘ordinary people’ are not given names.
I wondered if I might have found Michaelis, the immigrant owner of the café next door to Wilson’s garage, a more interesting narrator of this thin tale. Or perhaps a telling by the ‘pale well-dressed negro’, who witnessed the incident, might present a more enlightening account of the fissures in American society in the 1920s. And today. But that wouldn’t do. They are merely ‘ordinary people’.
Critic Lionel Trilling suggests that a ‘modern reader’ knows that ‘in literature the interest in social position must never be taken seriously’. I found that strange, as it immediately set me as an un-modern reader. I am not ‘wholly immune from all ignoble social considerations’.
Trilling acknowledges that ‘Gatsby is said by some to be not quite credible’. He says he is divided between power and dream and thus comes to stand for America itself. Trilling then trumpets a well-worn tune of American exceptionalism.
Ours is the only nation that prides itself upon a dream and gives its name to one, ‘the American Dream.
This is an attempt to aggrandise Gatsby, by affording him noble and Platonic virtues. He can, nonetheless, be read as a duplicitous chancer, who never really grew up.
I hesitate to wonder if this may be a description of Donald Trump. Events in his presidency have shown that there are more than one ‘American Dream’. Dreams, American and otherwise, are multiple rather than singular, coming as nightmares for many, many people. The social schisms deepened by Trump’s presidency clarify that a singular dream will not suffice, certainly not one which sees a small cadre of wealthy and powerful people, mainly white men, stir a fever of discontent and neglect among the bulk of a population sold short by Gatsby’s version of the ‘Dream’.
Trilling notes a much-reported spat between Fitzgerald and Hemingway, two writers who enjoyed significant financial success and celebrity in their time. One version of it has Fitzgerald remarking that ‘The rich are different from us’ and Hemingway replying ‘Yes, they have more money.’ A society that divides power from dreams and affords the former only to a wealthy elite destroys the dreams of everyone else.
Other versions of the ‘Dream’ were available in Fitzgerald’s time. The work of Theodore Dreiser, notably Sister Carrie (1900) and An American Tragedy (1925) and novels like Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1925) presented different dreams and tragedies. They were well-regarded and prize-winning. They do not have the same hold on ‘modern readers’. Too many ‘ignoble social considerations’ perhaps?
Fitzgerald’s novella is famed as a grand romance between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby is obsessed with re-igniting it, going to extreme lengths to get closer to Daisy, yet always too timid to make a direct assertion of his love. I found it hard to believe that, in a social scene where bacchanalian carry-on was in full swing at the parties in his house, Gatsby was intimidated by the prospect of breaking up a marriage or of Daisy having an extramarital affair. Perhaps, like much about his life and behaviour, his passion was a chimera. Gatsby’s ardour is thwarted by his immaturity and, latterly, by Daisy’s venality and materialism. She follows the money in the end. Their mutual dismissal of ‘ordinary people’ enables them to dismiss each other, with the aid of Tom Buchanan’s self-serving chicanery.
I sensed, on this reading, that the core romance is between Carraway and Gatsby. It is a chillingly modern bromance. The beloved, Gatsby, is not aware of the ardent affection coming his way, as he is too possessed by his selfish need to make Carraway do his bidding.
I almost stopped (re-)reading about a third of the way into the book. I grew fed up of the vain hero, the incredible narrator and all the dreadful people. I ploughed on, through the snobbery and the sometimes glorious sentences, aware that literary style is rarely assigned to books featuring the poor or powerless, regardless of the wonders of Margaret Atwood and Charles Dickens. Writing possessed of style is sometimes no more than a cover for books about rich people.
I enjoyed the ending, when it seemed the narrative voice grew more resonant and mature, as if Carraway, now thirty years old, had finally grown up. At the cost of three lives.
I didn’t go as far as to take up a suggestion by a friend of Fitzgerald’s, essayist, short-story and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, Dorothy Parker. I don’t know if she was referring to The Great Gatsby, when she said
This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
Would I recommend you read/re-read The Great Gatsby? A muted ‘yes’, if only for its fame and brevity.