The Great Gatsby (novel, 1925)

I don’t remember when I first read The Great Gatsby.  It may have been in high school, or my first year in college.  I hadn’t thought about the novel much in the intervening decades.  I opted not to see the Baz Luhrmann movie (2013), although I did watch Z: The Beginning of Everything back in 2015.  (It was unceremoniously canceled after one season.)  Then, on January 1, 2021, a singular event caught my attention.  I noticed it listed among those works no longer under copyright protection.  After sheepishly realizing that the novel was almost one hundred years old, I found myself wanting to read it again.  Since my reading habits are undeniably slothlike, I accomplished that goal a year-and-a-half later.

Elements of the narrative rushed forth in my consciousness after reading the initial pages, an experience akin to hearing a long-forgotten song.  West Egg and East Egg.  Jay Gatsby’s all-consuming pursuit of his former love, Daisy Buchanan.  The brutish nature of Daisy’s husband, Tom.  The valley of the ashes.  The billboard of Doctor T.J Eckleburg with its immense yet eternally blind eyes.  The green light at the end of the pier.  The drunken parties Gatsby threw but never enjoyed.  How Daisy blossomed like a flower at Gatsby’s kiss.  Meyer Wolfsheim as corruption personified.  Nick Carraway’s bleak realization that he’s turned thirty.  Gatsby’s sad, sparsely attended funeral.  That closing line, one of the most memorable closing lines in American literature:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (180)

That I recognized those elements so long after last reading them is a testament to Fitzgerald’s craftsmanship.

When I read the novel years ago, I was a much younger man than I am today.  Back then, I probably was taken by Jay Gatsby’s doomed romanticism.  I loathe hasty generalizations, but I believe every young person has a tragic love hidden away in a secret compartment in their mind.  Yes, I count myself as a member of that secret society.  Fortunately for me, time brought another opportunity for lasting happiness, the ideal prescription for a youthful heartbreak.

As an older and possibly wiser man, I found Gatsby and Daisy particularly superficial, their  behavior alternating between confounding, annoying and irritating.  Instead, I felt a kinship with Carraway, the observant and acerbic narrator of the story.  At the outset, he confides that he’s drifted East in the hope of finding his way.  He settles on trading bonds as a career, something he neither likes or dislikes.  When not at work Carraway casually partakes in the obscene luxuries made available to him, first by his cousin Daisy and then from Gatsby.  At first, Carraway is fine with coasting along on the largess of others.  By the end of the story, however, he’s no longer able to wave away his feelings of contempt or disgust over the behavior of his rich friends and wants nothing to do with them.  He may be only thirty, but he’s definitely a curmudgeon.

I found it humorous at how Carraway–and by extension, Fitzgerald, considered being thirty years-old as being officially “old”.  How I would love to be a thirty year-old man again.  Of course  back in the 1920s, life expectancy was only fifty-three, much less than at any point during my lifetime.  Fitzgerald died at forty-four, so in hindsight his apprehension was warranted.

Regarding the protagonist of the story, I didn’t sympathize with Gatsby’s urgent machinations to regain Daisy’s affection at all costs.  He’s a rich, handsome man who has had no problems attracting the opposite sex.  The idea that he would spend four years of his life doing unsavory things for the sole purpose of rekindling a long-dead relationship is preposterous.  The fact that she is married and has a child shows that he’s not just myopic, he denies reality whole cloth.  As he later finds out, the Daisy he once knew is gone, replaced by a woman who he doesn’t understand.  This is proven out by her reactions when she attends one of his parties.  If Gatsby ever really knew her at all, he would have known that she wasn’t motivated by extravagance.  (To be fair, Fitzgerald never makes Daisy’s motivations clear.)

The fulcrum of the story (Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy) is even more ridiculous because Daisy certainly is not worthy of Gatsby’s undying affection and devotion.  She’s a person of no discernible character throughout the story, never saying or doing anything of consequence.  The only remarkable characteristic that Carraway attributes to her is her voice.  Granted, a beautiful voice in and of itself can have a singularly intoxicating effect.  However, I was not convinced that a man of Gatsby’s worldly experience would risk everything for a woman who, as Nick routinely mentions, is little more than a sexy whisper (more on this later).

An aspect of the novel that I did not remember was how Carraway–and by extension Fitzgerald,  were so openly anti-semetic.  One possibility is that I’ve completely forgotten my teacher covering this topic during the classroom discussion of the novel.  Another possibility is that my awareness of anti-semitism and the ways it is expressed in art has grown over of time.  In any event, I was horrified at how Carraway described Meyer Wolfsheim upon their mutual  introduction:

A small, flat-notes Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in either nostril. (p. 69)

Carraway is oddly preoccupied with Wolfsheim’s nose, as if his face has no other features to it.  Carraway’s repulsion with Wolfsheim isn’t confined to his physical appearance, however.  He also mocks how he talks, drawing attention to his use of “gonnegtion” and “Oggsford”.  Fitzgerald steps in to complete Wolfsheim’s transformation into a grotesque monster by adorning him with cufflinks made from human molars.  As if that weren’t enough to make his feelings towards Jews clear, he states that Wolfsheim works at “The Swastika Holding Company”.

To be fair, Fitzgerald was not the first author to use Jews as a shorthand for a character they wanted the reader to immediately recognize as detestable or morally deficient.  I noticed the same pattern while reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) earlier this year.  I never realized how comfortable some writers were during that time with expressing their anti-semetic sentiments in their works.

I also didn’t remember Carraway as being a general racist.  His feelings towards African Americans may not be as repugnant as those towards Jews, but it’s a difference by degrees.  Take this passage, for example, which appears just prior to Carraway’s introduction to Wolfsheim:

As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. (page 54)

At least Fitzgerald delegates the more overt racist beliefs to Tom, who professes his deep concern for colored races replacing whites.  Before rereading this book, I had no idea that the Great Replacement Theory was over a hundred years old.  Which makes me ask: if people of color have been intent on replacing whites for this long, wouldn’t it have happened by now?

I’m not bringing all of this up to suggest that Fitzgerald and/or his works should be canceled.   Fitzgerald is a significant contributor to the canon of Western Literature, which includes several of his novels.  I’m essentially disappointed at how someone so brilliant, who created such an important and lasting piece of fiction, had these ugly sentiments inside him.  Regardless, I do not believe in enforcing present-day morality upon the past.  Labeling Fitzgerald and/or The Great Gatsby as “problematic” may be accurate, but yields nothing in terms of gaining a critical understanding of the work itself, or its author.

From the standpoint of Fitzgerald’s writing style, nearly every page of The Great Gatsby features at least one memorable phrasing.  I realized this when I started taking notes of the text.  Consider the following ten-page sampling:

  • His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one. (93)
  • The rain was still falling, but the darkness had parted in the west, and there was a pink and golden billow of foamy clouds above the sea. (94)
  • He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. (95)
  • No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (96)
  • …he didn’t live in a house at all, but in a boat that moved secretly up and down the Long Island Shore. (97)
  • His brown, hardening body lived naturally through the half-fierce, half-lazy work of the bracing days. (98)
  • A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. (99)
  • I remember the portrait of him up in Gatsby’s bedroom, a gray florid man with a hard, empty face–the pioneer debauchee, who during one phase of American life brought back to the Eastern seaboard  the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon. (100)
  • Moreover he told it to me at a time of confusion, when I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him. (101)
  • Mr. Sloane didn’t enter into the conversation, but launched back haughtily in his chair; the woman said nothing either–until unexpectedly, after two highballs, she became cordial. (102)

Fitzgerald certainly was a master wordsmith.  What I found incredible was how his descriptions could be simultaneously lush and succinct.  I’m biased here, but I suspect that nearly every modern writer strives to achieve this level of artistry in their work.  They need far more than The Great Gatsby’s 180 pages to do so, however.

Fitzgerald also was particularly adept at characterization.  I was amazed by how much detail he devotes to even minor characters like Klipspringer the in-house piano player, Myrtle’s sister Catherine, owl-eyes the library inspector, Gatsby’s mentor Dan Cody and so on.  Fitzgerald also gives the insignificant party-goers hilarious names to make them memorable.  For example:

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all. (61-2)

Of the primary characters in the novel, I found myself paying the most attention to the two ladies in Carraways’ life, Jordan Baker and Daisy.  At first, Fitzgerald depicts them in a way that leads Carraway to presume they were both members of the uber-rich.  When Carraway initially meets the two, they’re both dressed in white playing some sort of game where they’re paralyzed.  As the story progresses, however, Carraway learns that the two come from much different societal backgrounds.

Fitzgerald expertly uses the character’s names to help us delineate between the two.  Daisy, as is revealed later, is a delicate flower who wilts in the heat.  Jordan Baker, earns a living as a professional golfer.  She sports a tan from her days spent playing in the sun, while Daisy is presumably white as the namesake flower.  Jordan’s surname (baker) also connotes that she might be from a working-class family.

Carraway’s description of Jordan gave me the impression that she wasn’t particularly handsome.  He never refers to as being objectively beautiful.  Instead, his attention is drawn to her “gray, sun-strained eyes” (11) and her “wan, scornful mouth” (80).  Instead, he describes her as having the physical and emotional attributes of a man:

She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face. (11)

Like a stereotypical man, Jordan is aloof and never displays any emotions.  She’s learned how to compartmentalize the awful behavior of the Buchanan’s, to a point where she is able to suggest having dinner after Tom’s mistress has died.  When she meets Carraway for the last time to relay her feelings over their unspoken breakup, neither her behavior nor her words betray any sadness or sense of loss.  Her announcement that she’s engaged is done matter-of-factly, as if she were recounting her score from her last round of golf.  Speaking of which, she has been accused of cheating, an action that is stereotypically attributed to men.

As for Daisy, Carraway primarily describes her via her voice.  Since they are cousins, I wouldn’t have expected him to provide us with an inventory of her physical attributes.  Instead, he repeatedly describes how Daisy’s voice holds him and every man in the story in its thrall.  (I’ve included a collection of evidence below.)  Gatsby famously tells Carraway that the source of her voice’s power is that it is “full of money”.  Based on how Carraway frequently describes it with carnal overtones, I don’t completely agree with Gatsby’s explanation.  (The correlation between money and sexual desire is too simplistic for me.)

While it may seem incredible that Daisy is able to wield this much power over men with only her voice, I can think of several women who could order me overboard at the sound of their voices.  Off the top of my head, a short list would include Scarlett Johansson, Cate Blanchett and  Jennifer Lawerence.  In the real world, however, the only woman whose voice has complete authority over me is that of my wife’s.

The Power of Daisy’s Voice

I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour. (9)

…her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened. (14)

She was only extemporizing, but a stirring warmth flowed from her, as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words. (14)

As if his absence quickened something within her, Daisy leaned forward again, her voice glowing and singing. (14)

The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain. I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone, before any words came through. (85)

Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy. (89)

…Daisy’s voice was playing murmurous tricks in her throat. (104)

Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose, her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air. (108)

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