By R J Askew
ST. ALBANS, Jan 19 – What is it about F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby that suffuses it with such enduring fascination? I took my scalpel to it recently with a view to finding out – or trying to, at least.
First, a few who-does-what-to-whom reminders of what happens beyond the universally remembered fact that Gatsby gives such gorgeous parties, dahling! Working backwards.
Gatsby – James Gatz – dies while floating in his own swimming pool, shot by Wilson, “one of those worn out men”, who then shoots himself in Gatsby’s garden. Wilson mistakenly thinks Gatsby killed Myrtle Wilson, his sensuous and adulterous wife and suspects Gatsby of being her lover.
Myrtle is in fact mown down accidentally by Daisy – Gatsby’s unworthy muse – while she is at the wheel of Gatsby’s car after an emotionally turbid time one stifling afternoon in New York. Daisy’ is married to Tom Buchanan, a polo-playing, self-serving hypocrite who is Myrtle’s real lover. Tom suspects Gatsby is a lying bootlegger, yet himself breaks Myrtle’s nose during a drinking spree at their love nest.
And so most of the more luckless players end up dead while the “careless people”, Tom and Daisy, survive the wreck to retreat “back into their money…their vast carelessness”.
How arch that Daisy – note the name – sends neither word nor flower to Gatsby’s funeral, which only Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbour our narrator, attends – along with one mysterious former party goer apart, about whom more anon.
The pathos, bathos and bitterness of the final three of the novella’s nine chapters are underscored by Gatsby’s “purposeless splendour”, which is in turn emphasised by his shocking downfall after “Jay Gatsby had broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice”.
The story is an ebbing from dream to reality, with Chapter 3 the high fantasy mark from whence we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” as Gatsby succumbs.
How fitting that Nick retreats to his mid-west when all’s done, a state of mind more than a place.
Of the 236 passages I underlined in my 1979 Penguin Gatsby this is the one, this, for me, is the story’s beating hear, literally in fact:
“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, 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.”
Later, Daisy gets up, goes over to Gatsby, pulls his face down in public, “kissing him on the mouth,” prompting her friend Jordan to call her “a low, vulgar girl.”
Poor old Gatsby.
JAZZ AGE CLASSIC
Of course he is in love, in an odd way: “there was a change in Gatsby that was simply confounding. He literally glowed; without a word or gesture of exhulation a new well-being radiated from him.”
Yes, Daisy ends in tears and is driven into a corner where she declares to Tom that she has never loved. She vacillates as Gatsby and Tom struggle to possess her one unbearably hot afternoon. “You love me…you never loved me…did you love me?”
She fails Gatsby, tumbles short of his dreams, “not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion.” which had “gone beyond her, beyond everything.”
His parties cease when Daisy attends one and he meets her and senses she does not like them.
Yet, his infatuation with her make Nick observe, “he came alive to me delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour.”
Many of us have a bit of the Gatsby in us, dream of this and that, sustain grand and unrealistic hopes for years. It is a human trait, at the root of much of our creativity. Others are happier in the Dreamless Tyranny of Fact Based Reality. Perhaps this is why we find Jay Gatsby so compelling. We see our own hopes in his hopes and the way the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock sustains him.
He did his bit in France in 1917, pushing his machine gunners beyond the line. We warm to him. (150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby are distributed to American service men in WW2, such is his popularity.) His parties are legendary. Sometimes his guests – we readers among them perhaps, “came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission.”
Perhaps the same may be said of America.
Chapters 3, 6 and 9 are the vital chapters, with Chapter 3 boasting the most ornately magnificent passages of the entire story, reflecting Gatsby in his full pomp and circumstance.
That said, our eyes are also led brilliantly in Chapter 1. The distinctive shape of the Long Island’s Eggs, East and West are “…a source of perpetual wonder to the gulls that fly overhead.”
And then there’s our first view of Gatsby’s (unnamed) mansion, “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walls and burning gardens – finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”
And our first marvellous encounter with the man himself, seen through the eyes of Nick: “The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and, turning my head to watch it, I saw that i was not alone – fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbour’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pocket regarding the silver pepper of the stars.”
We see Gatsby through Nick’s eyes and the stars through Gatsby’s. It is as if we are looking at the origin of Gatsby’s dream, and the universal origin of all our dreams, if dream we do.
GENIUS OF F.SCOTT FITZGERALD
So, too, there is Great Wit: “I enjoyed the counter-raid (WW1) so much that I came back restless.” And this, “I asked what I thought would be sedative questions.” This: “the consoling proximity of millionaires.” Ahh, the consoling proximity of F.Scott Fitzgerald, moving our emotions around much as Tom moves his guest Nick around, “like moving a checker to another room.” We are, of course, more than happy to be moved by such a master.
But then there is this, on Gatsby’s business partner of the astonishingly named Swastica Holding Company: “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two find growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. After a moment I discovered his tiny eyes in the half-darkness.” Wolfsheim, “the man who fixed the world series in 1919”, aka Shylock, is a stock hate figure, the usurer of old, money. Just like Tom is money. Daisy is money, too. Money is money. America is money. Is that what Gatsby craves the most, to kiss the money? To be himself, money? There is a corrupting terrible hatred in all this, an irreconcilable contradiction in Gatsby’s mid-west soul. Money is all, ugly money beauty.
Yet we are fascinated by him, because we see something we recognise in him and something of him in us, too.
The world displays “a ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny.” Oh how we, too, know that feeling.
And then, as his dream fades, he becomes James Gatz. We learn his back story. “I turned towards Mr.Gatsby, but he was no longer there.” Each chapter peels back his past until at the end we have his humble, confused father revealing his beloved boy’s ‘SCHEDULE’ for self-improvement written in the fly-leaf of ‘HOPALONG CASSIDY’, 1906.
The shift from the ethereal dream in motion in Chapter 3 to the grim corporeality of a group of bickering people in Chapter 7 one hot New York afternoon is captured when narrator Nick says, “I have a sharp physical memory that , in the course of it, my underwear kept climbing like a damp snake around my legs.”
The outcome is hinted at, again by Nick who is thirty now and dreading the decade ahead. “So we drove on towards death through the cooling night.” So, too, he says when Tom is excoriating his love rival, “The words seem to bite physically into Gatsby.” Bullets anon.
Tom the libertine-turned-prig who, during and earlier flight of vanity takes Nick to meet Myrtle his lover, gets drunk and then “with a short deft movement with his open hand”, breaks her nose in a petty row.
Poor Myrtle, “carries her flesh sensuously” and whose nerves are “continually smouldering”. Tom buys her a puppy on a whim, which in a way symbolises all she is to him.
Meanwhile, her dreamless cuckold of a husband mingles “immediately with the cement colour of the walls.”
Poor Myrtle, hemmed in by her suspicious lump of a husband, her own suspicion and jealousy in turn drive her to run from her house and into the path of Daisy speeding along at the wheel of Gatsby’s car as she flees the scene of her own love trauma.
‘SMILING AT YOU, OLD SPORT’
Poor Gatsby, in Chapter 3 Nick says of his smile, “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.”
But that was at the apex of Gatsby’s pomp, when at one of his parties we read,”…her remark was addressed to the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket.”
Ach, the magic that was Gatsby, the very sight of his yellow coupe brings joy, even to a passing funeral. “I was glad,” Nick observes of said sepulchral moment, “that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their sombre holiday.”
How arch that that same carriage becomes the cause of Myrtle’s death as the illusion of Gatsby unravels anon.
Are we, I wonder, in the funeral party watching Gatsby pass? Is life death? Are our reading eyes the faded eyes of Doctor T.J.Eckleburg on the advertising hoarding overlooking the ashpits where Mertle Wilson lives and dies?
James Gatz is now walking “a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favours and crushed flowers,” the dream of Daisy included.
Nick again, “What had amused me then turned septic on the air now.”
As Tom’s athletic frame fills a door, blocking out the light, in an early chapter, Myrtle’s sensuous frame blocks out the light in another door in another chapter. Intimations. Premonitions. Gatsby, whose imagination latches onto “a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing…” Gatsby the stargazer is thwarted by the banality of how we are, physical, banal.
His only real moment of joy with Daisy is when he strews his perfectly folded English shirts before her and Nick as he shows them round his mansion and she buries her face in them … and cries. His craves to hear her tell Tom that she never loved him, is hardly devoted to her happiness.
Yet, old sport, he did well in the war, moved his machine guns up, held the line. And he is willing to take the rap for Daisy, to say he was driving, that he mowed Myrtle down.
Nick stands by him to the end, too. And we have come to trust Nick, “one of the few honest people I have ever known.”
“They’re a rotten crowd,” Nick shouts across the lawn to Gatsby, his last words to him. “You’re worth the whole damn lot of them together.”
And so to Gatsby’s funeral.
DRUNK IN THE LIBRARY
No one turns up, save Nick and one other, the owl-eyes drunk encountered by Nick in Gatsby’s library at one of his revelries. The drunk is admiring a book with a sense of dumbfounded drunken awe. The book, to the drunk’s maudlin astonishment, is real. Is that all that is really real in a worthwhile way, the book, the story? Is the drunk in the library the author examining the reality of his existence?
F.Scott Fitzgerald was a drinker. Was the drunk the author writing himself into a role at the funeral of his creation, The Great Gatsby? Was the non-drinking Gatsby something of how the author might have preferred himself to be? Did the author romp with the mind of God through his creation? I think yes.
There is little left of Gatsby in the end. Nick, tells us, “I had talked with him perhaps half a dozen times in the past month and found, to my disappointment, that he had little to say.” A weakness in the story perhaps. A player as accomplished at Gatsby would surely always have another thread to spin. But maybe this failure makes him a little more human, as if he too is trapped in a creation that is far bigger than can cope with. And maybe he is troubled by his sham: “He hurried the phrase ‘educated at Oxford’, or swallowed it, or choked on it, as though it had bothered him.”
Gatsby’s dream dies before he does, leaving him floating in his pool for the first and only time in, “A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding doward hin through the amorphous trees.” Wilson, his killer, a man “so dumb”, according to Tom, “he doesn’t know he’s alive”.
The story ends for me almost as it began, with the lawn, which is now, as Nick tells us “grown as long as mine.” At the outset said lawn was a live thing racing up from the beach leaping over sundials and becoming vines on Gatsby’s mansion through its sheer momentum. We see it being mown prior to Gatsby’s meeting with Daisy at Nick’s place. Nick and Gatsby’s lawns are conjoined, there is neither fence nor hedge between them.
Ach, the sentiment of Nick’s final withdrawal! “I went over and looked at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more. Then I wandered down to the beach and sprawled out on the sand.”
There follow thirty more closing lines. The lights are going out and there is a ferryboat across the Sound, which could be the Styx, and the “inessential houses” melt away as NIck ponders the dreams of the Dutch sailors who first set eyes on the place and the greatest of all human dreams: “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent.” Ach, the wonder of it!
And the wonder of Gatsby The Great Dreamer, when he first saw “the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” Ach, and then Nick sees what Gatsby failed to see, that his dream was already in his past, back in the mid-west, where, he Nick, now returns as the current bears him, too, “back ceaselessly into the past.”
If only Gatsby had never kissed Daisy. But he did. And for half a decade the dream of Daisy sustained him and made him Petrachian in his servitude to it, inspired and inspiring, a fabulous failure who dies a ridiculous death.
by R J Askew