"Of great gabasidy": Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

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Date: Spring 2015
From: Journal of Modern Literature(Vol. 38, Issue 3)
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,031 words
Lexile Measure: 1450L

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F. Scott Fitzgerald likely gleaned the title for his magnum opus The Great Gatsby from an enigmatic passage in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, in which the eponymous character is said to be "of great gabasidy"--a polyglot's pronunciation of great capacity. But the parallels between Conrad and Fitzgerald's novels go well beyond the title, most notably in the way that Fitzgerald fashions Gatsby in the image of Jim. Moreover, both Conrad and Fitzgerald meditate on Jims and Gatsby's "capacity," which they imbue with a romantic optimism that forestalls the traumas of the past. Fitzgerald utilizes Conrad and his protagonist as a model for how to place a conventionally romantic character within a text that is otherwise preoccupied with modernist forms and themes.

Keywords: F. Scott Fitzgerald / Joseph Conrad / transatlantic modernism / Lord Jim / The Great Gatsby


No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald labored over the title of his third novel, fretting that The Great Gatsby (1925) failed to capture the complex tone and themes of his project. Along with "The Great Gatsby" and "Gatsby," he flirted with naming the novel "Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires," "Trimalchio," "Trimalchio in West Egg," "On the Road to West Egg," "Gold-Hatted Gatsby," and "The High-Bouncing Lover" (Bruccoli 206-7). Although he was invested in the idea of alluding to Trimalchio's story in the title, Fitzgerald was persuaded away from the erudite allusion by his wife Zelda and his editor Maxwell Perkins. (1) Even in March 1925, just a month before publication, Fitzgerald was still trying to change the title of the novel, first to "Gold-Hatted Gatsby" or "Trimalchio" and then to "Under the Red, White, and Blue" (Bruccoli 216). By this time, however, Perkins told him that it was too late to make further alterations. Upon publication, Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins, saying, "The title is only fair, rather bad than good" (qtd. in Bruccoli 217). In contrast, Perkins writes that he "always thought that 'The Great Gatsby' was a suggestive and effective title" (qtd. in Bruccoli 191). While neither Fitzgerald nor Perkins explicitly lays claim to its origin, their correspondence suggests that the title was chosen first by Fitzgerald and then continually supported by Perkins. Moreover, neither of them comments on how and why it is an "effective title" or, more importantly, why is it "suggestive" and to what exactly it refers.

We contend that the title The Great Gatsby is a deliberate allusion to a passage in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1899) in which a businessman with a thick Swiss German accent tells the narrator Charles Marlow that Jim is "of great gabasidy" (143). This passage has been noted by one recent scholar, Peter Lancelot Mallios, in Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity (2010) (427). (2) But the connection is buried in a speculative endnote, and Mallios dismisses its significance: "My point here is not to identify ... individual Conrad texts that may have 'influenced' Fitzgerald, but to suggest why all the many attempts to engage in precisely this kind of critical endeavor have inevitably failed: lost, as it were, in a sea of 'possible' Conradian traces" (260). Mallios's unwillingness to construct a definite link with Lord Jim might simply result from his sustained attention to Conrad's novel Nostromo (1904). (3) But we believe that Lord Jim deserves a similar "critical cross-treatment" (Mallios, "Undiscovering" 358) because it provides as many, if not more, intertextual resonances with The Great Gatsby. Thus, our current aim in analyzing Lord Jim alongside The Great Gatsby is to augment Mallios's work; and our project, like his, "is intended as a means of opening up rather of closing down the greater question of Fitzgerald's relationship to Conrad" (Mallios, "Undiscovering" 359).

We examine the intertextual correspondences between the two novels in order to provide a transatlantic evaluation of the dismantling of romantic literary preoccupations as they are superseded by emerging modernist themes and formal techniques. Fitzgerald's overt allusion to Lord Jim in naming his protagonist and his novel suggests that The Great Gatsby is explicitly summoning Conrad's trope of the romantic dreamer who cannot survive in the modern world. Because Conrad's early modernist romance was foundational to the development of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's work should be read as a meditation on the difficulties of fusing romantic and modernist elements in artistic productions. Furthermore, both novels acknowledge the limited cultural capacity for romantic wonder that Fitzgerald, like Conrad before him, feared was an unavoidable product of postromantic modernity.

There is no shortage of critical studies cataloguing the authors and texts that impacted Fitzgerald and the composition of The Great Gatsby. An examination of Fitzgerald scholarship in recent decades yields numerous comparative analyses of the novel with both canonical and non-canonical literary works. Those critical endeavors illuminate the highly allusive quality of Fitzgerald's fiction and show that he read widely; above all others, however, scholars emphasize the importance of Joseph Conrad. Robert Emmett Long argues, "There is no doubt whatever, judging by his letters, that Fitzgerald was familiar with Conrad's writing and that he had begun at an early stage of his own career to look to Conrad as a standard of excellence in art. In the five year period before The Great Gatsby, Conrad's name appears in the letters probably more often than that of any other author" (Long, "Part I" 257). In 1920, the Chicago Tribune asked Fitzgerald to compile a list of the ten most important novels ever written. In response to this query, he wrote that "he considered Conrad's Nostromo 'the greatest novel since "Vanity Fair" (possibly excluding "Madame Bovary")'" (qtd. in Stallman 5). (4) In the spring of 1923, when Fitzgerald was beginning to design the novel that would become The Great Gatsby, Conrad appeared on the cover of Time magazine, an honor that coincided with the Anglo-Polish writer's first trip to the United States. While Fitzgerald was undoubtedly aware of Conrad's works prior to his inaugural US visit, the occasion seems to have intensified his interest in the older writer's fiction. Fitzgerald's artistic investment in Conrad was so strong that in a letter to H.L. Mencken in 1925, he insists that, in writing The Great Gatsby, he was an "imitator" of Conrad (Long, "Part I" 258).

Conrad provided a model for skepticism that Fitzgerald was increasingly drawn to, especially in the wake of the First World War. In a letter written in 1920 to John Grier Hibben, the president of Princeton, Fitzgerald declares, "My view of life, President Hibben, is the view of the Theodore Dreisers and Joseph Conrads--that life is too strong and remorseless for the sons of men" (qtd. in Bruccoli 126). Fitzgerald's sense of disillusionment was not uncommon among post-World War I modernist writers. John G. Peters explains, "The First World War was certainly a war unlike any preceding it in the physical devastation and moral disillusionment it left behind. Furthermore, the fact that it appeared to contradict so violently the dominant Western idea of civilization's evolutionary progress brought about a widespread loss of faith in the claims of Western civilization" (34). (5) Peters contends that while most British and American modernist writers developed this sense of skepticism of Western cultural superiority during and after World War I, Conrad possessed a similar skepticism as early as the late nineteenth century (34-35): "Any illusions he may have held about the progress of civilization or the perfectability of humanity in general had long since disappeared, and the events of the war could only reinforce his already existing and profound skepticism" (43). Conrad's pre-existing disillusionment can be understood, according to Peters, by examining his biography because his life experiences were so vastly different from other British and American writers of the period. Peters notes that Conrad endured exile to Russia with his parents as well as their early deaths from illness; and the Polish uprising in 1863 brought additional turmoil and violence to his family and friends. "Conrad," he writes, "who had seen so much tragedy at so young an age, and who had experienced so much of the world during his maritime career, found it difficult to look optimistically at the progress of civilization or its future in the years prior to the war. What the First World War made clear to others had long since been painfully apparent to him" (43).

Thus, Conrad's disillusionment, which was firmly established prior to World War I, may clarify why his works did not become widely popular until after the war, and it certainly explains his appeal to modernist writers. For Fitzgerald and others like him, Conrad's work was significant because in it he was able "to perceive the cultural idealism of a class whose chivalric illusions were to founder in the trenches" (Berthoud xxxi). Because romance and its accompanying and inevitable investment in imaginative wonder became increasingly difficult to maintain after the war, many writers began to question romantic forms and themes, and in some cases, they turned to older examples of texts that had wrestled with similar conflicts. For Fitzgerald, Conrad provided a literary model that deployed romantic forms and tropes while also highlighting their inherent limits.

When writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald turns to Conrad's version of romance, which Kenneth A. Bruffee describes as "elegiac romance" and which Tracy Seeley refers to as "modernist romance." Bruffee argues there is a category of narrator in early twentieth-century romance that is traceable back only to Conrad's early works (30). Engendering later bystander-storytellers like Nick Carraway, Ford Madox Ford's John Dowell, and Thomas Mann's Serenus Zeitbloom, the Marlow figure is an updated version of the common squire narrator and echoes the nineteenth-century shift in narrative perspective from the questing knight to the squire who explains the hero to the audience. This narrative shift "makes possible the fundamental structural change necessary for modern writers to adapt the quest romance tradition to the needs of twentieth-century fiction" (37). The common man could tell his own story, participate in the hero's drama, or even "replace the knight as the dramatic focus of attention" (37); therefore, a critique of hero worship, and the values that underlie it, became possible.

Critics tend to base their readings on the perspective of the squire-narrator, but the knight figure is not dismissed when the squire takes the spotlight. He too enjoys a reinvigorated purpose. In the Conradian version of quest romance, which Bruffee calls "elegiac," the knight becomes an "observed hero" in the past rather than an active, living one in the present. This figure is "alive only in the vivid memory of the squire," conjured to remind the reader of an outdated heroic tradition that must be "brought to the surface now from the deep recesses of [the observer's] emotional life" before it is then "exposed, confronted, and cast aside" (37). Elegiac heroes are "temporary point[s] of reference in the face of unavoidable, catastrophic loss, change, or uncertainty" (46). The form's purpose--from Conrad forward--is to "undertake through an aesthetic act an imaginative 'research' into the past, a recherche du temps perdu, to discover the roots of the fundamental structure of meaning that each of us has grown up with" (46). This preservation in amber, so to speak, of the modern world's foundation frees us, along with the author and the narrator, to form new values and adjust to a modern world without heroes. This formulation may seem counterintuitive, but Bruffee argues that the gesture both "acknowledges that what is lost is lost, finally and irrevocably--the hero is dead," while also suggesting that this loss can give meaning to the present (46).

What Bruffee labels as "elegiac," Tracy Seeley reformulates as "modernist" romance. Drawing upon Harold Bloom's conception of gnostic romance, she argues that modernist romance is preoccupied with the lessons of the journey rather than with a harmonious resolution, yet it tends to leave us with something other than a sense of loss. Like Bruffee, she uses Conrad's early career to illustrate the genre and draws from Lord Jim in particular. Seeley argues that there is "a connection between the generic designation 'Romance' and Conrad's modernism, a link suggested by his observation that it is both high tragedy and inestimable privilege for mankind to aspire to the impossible" (496). For him, the most compelling romance is the one which "admits the limits of its aims," when "self-consciousness" and "epistemological doubt ... converge on the idealist's vision" (497). He peoples his novels with characters whose idealistic visions are challenged, deflated, or unattainable.

Fitzgerald imports this embrace of futility into The Great Gatsby. If Conrad's Jim is what you get when "an unselfconscious romantic ... wanders into that most exotic locale, a modernist novel," as Seeley quips (496), so too is Gatsby, whose grand schemes are as beautiful as they are unsound, and whose future is as promising as it is doomed. "Fitzgerald's romantic idealism and satiric detachment are patterned upon the characteristic Conradian ironic combination employed in the creation of Jim, Nostromo, and Kurtz. Deluded idealists!" writes Stallman. "Fitzgerald's romantic dogma fits equally Gatsby and Jim: 'No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart'" (9-10). The stalwart romantic is strangely unchanged by the sensations and realities of the modern world, with all its "fire" and "freshness." But though the "ghostly" romantic heart remains pure, the complexities of modern life render such purity anachronistic and, ultimately, untenable.


Scholars have explored numerous points of contact between The Great Gatsby and Conrad's early fiction, and many of them involve looking at Fitzgerald's indebtedness to Conrad's style of narration. As early as 1957 James E. Miller concluded in The Fictional Technique of F. Scott Fitzgerald that Nick's ability to be simultaneously involved and detached from the narrative is a technique that Fitzgerald developed by studying Marlow. (6) Miller's work has encouraged further examination of how Nick's irony, indirection, and fragmented chronology derive from Conrad's techniques. Bruffee, for instance, extends Miller's project by noting how the presence of narrative detachment ironically belies a productive obsession for both Marlow and Nick, who use their task of tale-teller to work through their troubling perceptions of the world (28-30). Other comparative Fitzgerald-Conrad studies have turned from the narrators to the characters, including insightful examinations of Kurtz and Gatsby, Kurtz and Tom Buchanan, and Nostromo and Gatsby. (7) Yet studies of Jim and Gatsby, despite the fact that they are both eponymous protagonists, are rarely sustained. Nick and Marlow's perspectives are our inescapable filters of the worlds of each novel. But it is also important to study their objects of perception. Seeley argues that "something besides Marlow's account is at stake in Jim's drama," and her work demonstrates the value of considering Jim separately from Marlow's evaluation, however "naive" that might seem (498). To consider Jim and Gatsby, not just Nick and Marlow, allows us to see that Fitzgerald planned a more substantial intertextual connection than critics attentive to the formal framework of the stories have yet realized.

The act of naming in these two novels is significant. Both characters are named James. Jim is referred to as "James" twice; Gatsby's real name is "James Gatz" (98), and his father even calls him "Jimmy" (167). Both Jim and Gatsby conceal or alter their last names in order to flee from past endeavors of which they are not proud, and both characters' successes require that they remain incognito. For instance, in Lord Jim, Marlow reports, "When the fact broke through the incognito [Jim] would leave suddenly the seaport where he happened to be at the time and go to another--generally farther east" (4). Unlike Gatsby, who is known almost exclusively by his last name (albeit an altered one), Jim's surname is never given. Marlow consistently refuses to provide the young man's full name, instead referring to him as "James So-and-so" both times we would expect the full name to appear. (8)

As protagonists, both Jameses seem underdeveloped, but their elusiveness does not just stem from the perceptual limits of the Marlow/Nick narrative lens. The fundamental absence of a substantive persona is deliberately cultivated in both cases. Mallios argues that Fitzgerald admired Conrad's "worldview" that "people were fundamentally unknowable," an epistemological stance wherein what begins as "truth" in the novel is transposed "into removed, blocked, central and strategically elusive character sites" like Kurtz, Jim, Karain, or James Wait (Our Conrad 240). These "absent character centers" function as a "fundamentally vacant projective tableau, a vague surface and phantasmal mirror" (236). An assessment by Fitzgerald's editor Maxwell Perkins anticipated that analysis. After he had read the first draft of the novel, he wrote to Fitzgerald saying,

One [criticism] 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, (qtd. in Bruccoli 208)

The fact that Gatsby remains ambiguously formed and so far removed from Nick and the reader suggests that Fitzgerald purposefully retained his elusiveness despite Perkins's criticism. Fitzgerald's stubbornness on this front preserves the parallel presentations and characterizations of Jim and Gatsby.

Jim and Gatsby are the first significant incarnations of the imaginative youthful hero figure in each author's body of work (Long, "Part 1" 268), and their histories bear striking resemblance to one another. Neither character receives much formal education when they are young. More fitting for heroic youths, they are educated mostly at sea; however, their sea tales involve more work and less adventure than they had imagined or read about in books. (9) Marlow says, "After two years of training [Jim] went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure" (8). Similarly, Gatsby leaves home at seventeen and matures while working on a wealthy man's yacht: "He was left with a singularly appropriate education; the vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man" (100-1). Gatsby's sea adventures are not the stuff of legend either; much of his time is spent controlling the drunken misbehavior of the yacht's owner, Dan Cody. Moreover, both Jim and Gatsby benefit from the mentorship and careful tutelage of older, world-weary seafarers (Marlow for Jim; Cody for Gatsby), and advance their careers by working for unconventional businessmen (Stein for Jim; Wolfshiem for Gatsby).

Since their histories are so similar, it is unsurprising that Jim and Gatsby possess analogous flaws and vulnerabilities. Neither Jim nor Gatsby can let go of their youthful dreams as they age, and consequently both of them deny the incidents that resoundingly shatter them--Jim's fateful leap off of the Patna and Daisy's decision to marry Tom. While Jim is serving as the first mate of the Patna, a ship transporting Muslim pilgrims to Mecca, the crew is led to believe that the ship is sinking. In a moment of panic, Jim follows his crewmates into a lifeboat as they abandon the ship and the lives of their passengers. The crew's scandalous conduct comes to light and Jim's navigation command certificate is revoked in a sensational and highly publicized court case. The young Gatsby's life is similarly disrupted by a single event, when the woman he loves marries a wealthier man while he is off fighting in the war. Long argues that each of these crucial events serves as the "central symbolic scene" for the characters' lives ("Part 1" 270). Both Jim and Gatsby refuse to accept the derogations of their worth and spend their lives trying to correct their principal misfortunes.

After their conceptions of themselves are threatened, the men respond to the trauma of the past by treating it as if it could be outrun (Jim) or rewritten (Gatsby). Both of their careers "proceed from the illusion of a second chance, or as Jim puts it, the possibility of beginning with a clean slate'" (Long, "Part 1" 270; Lord Jim 134). A "clean slate" is crucial to both characters, for they are free to reinvent themselves as long as their surrounding societies remain ignorant of their pasts. Long explains: "Like Jim, Gatsby appears to have come out of nowhere, to have no past; and also like Jim, he is the subject of rumor and apocryphal legends.... In Patusan and West Egg, where their pasts are unknown, Jim and Gatsby live out a dream life of their own making; their identities, like their names, are assumed" ("Part 1" 272). The possibility of redemption for these youthful figures depends upon their ability to defy the logic of time, as it were--to erase the past entirely, or else to repeat it until they get it right.

Lord Jim displays Jim's concern over time, particularly his inability to control its passage. When he arrives in Patusan, Jim is briefly imprisoned by the Rajah Tunku Allang, the despised leader of one of the island's bureaucratic factions. The rajah asks Jim to fix a "nickel clock of New England make," which Jim tinkers with out of boredom before dropping it "like a hot potato" when it dawns upon him how much danger he is in (183). The clock, an exemplar of time, prompts his escape across the prison yard and into a muddy creek with silt so dangerous that "It seemed to him he was burying himself alive ... [The mud] fell on his head, on his face, over his eyes, into his mouth" (184). To be buried is what Jim wants for his past disgrace: "this thing must be buried," he frantically declares to Marlow (137). But, ironically, when he is threatened with the reality of burial, the terror of suffocation makes him yearn to be back in his prison shed "mending the clock. Mending the clock--that was the idea" (183). To voice regret for refusing to "mend the clock" is perhaps a natural reaction to the threat of death; but in this dire moment, Jim seems to defer to the symbolic supremacy of time. Yet the lesson is not permanent. When at last Jim frees himself from the mud and crawls up the bank, he makes his way to Doramin's hold, a territory over which he eventually becomes "Tuan" (Malaysian for "Lord") as he had always aspired to be.

"Mending the clock" is more suggestive of Gatsby's relationship with the past than Jim's, so it is not surprising that Jim's insight is fleeting. The methods by which each man attempts to control time are starkly different: "To reinstate the past, that is Gatsby's illusion; to obliterate the past, that is Jim's illusion"; in other words, "time is what Gatsby cannot repair nor Jim escape" (Stallman 9). Gatsby manufactures an entirely new life so that when he approaches Daisy a second time, she will leave Tom and accept his offer of marriage. When Nick scoffs, "you can't repeat the past," he famously protests, "Can't repeat the past? ... Why of course you can! ... I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before" (110). Although both men struggle to compensate and correct for their deficiencies, neither protagonist is allowed to reinvent himself, despite each one's dogged pursuit of transformation--Jim by means of fleeing the past and Gatsby by means of recreating and reanimating it. As Bruffee and Seeley have shown, the quest of the modernist romantic hero is doomed to fail.


Lord Jim and Gatsby the Great share a name, an exaggerated epithet, an education at sea, a penchant for itinerancy, mentorship by an attentive older gentleman, entrepreneurial success, a refusal to abandon youthful dreams, and a traumatic misfortune that drives their monomaniacal quests for self-reinvention. But the most significant connection that links these two characters is the passage from which Fitzgerald gets the title for his masterpiece. The observation that Jim and Gatsby each possess a "great capacity" echoes throughout each narrative, illustrating the evolution of the romantic hero and clarifying Conrad's and Fitzgerald's attempts to hold romance and modernism in the same synoptic vision.

The provocative reference to Jim's "great gabasidy" appears approximately a third of the way through Lord Jim, when Marlow is most desperate to help Jim reinvent himself. Unlike the rest of the nautical community, who largely condemn Jim's actions, Marlow becomes fixated on the young man, whom he frequently insists is "one of us," and he refuses to spurn him for his dereliction of duty. After hearing Jim tell the account of his actions on the Patna, Marlow takes it upon himself to find him future employment, all the while justifying and diagnosing Jim's case to a variety of acquaintances, including the sailors to whom he is speaking for most of the book. At this point, Jim has just left two occupations after coworkers had come close to discovering his disgraceful past. Marlow criticizes Jim's abrupt departures as the act of "fling[ingj away your daily bread so as to get your hands free to grapple with a ghost" (142). He is deeply disturbed by Jim's frequent running away, noting that although it could be regarded as "prosaic heroism" (142) by some, he could never decide if this pattern of flight was the result of courage or fear. In Bangkok, Jim's luck seems to be changing, and one night, while Marlow is docked there and drinking at Schomberg's, he overhears Siegmund Yucker, a Swiss businessman "ravaged by a cruel dyspepsia ... declare appreciatively that for one so young [Jim] was 'of great gabasidy,' as though it had been a mere question of cubic contents" (143). This declaration rekindles hope in Marlow, who loses no time asking Yucker to find work for Jim. Yucker's response is ambiguous: "Es ist ein Idee. Es ist ein Idee," he muses to himself ["It is an Idea. It is an idea"] (143). From this odd reply, are we to assume that to him Jim is more of an idea than an actual person, or is he simply implying that it is a good idea to offer him employment? What is clear, however, is that Jim is perceived by others to possess some sort of capacity, ability in an abstract sense. For Yucker, this capacity is explained with the alienating logic of a businessman assessing the corporeal qualities of a prospective worker ("a mere question of cubic contents"), and the alienation is further reinforced by the polyglot's heavily accented pronunciation of the word, so that "gabasidy" is barely recognizable in English. (10)

Not only does Marlow correct Yucker's pronunciation--"If he has capacity, as you say, he will soon get hold of the work. And physically he is very fit. His health is always excellent" (143)--he eventually corrects Yucker's simplistic understanding of Jim's character. As he continues to puzzle over Jim, Marlow leaves Yucker's commercial context further and further behind, gradually coming to understand Jim's "great gabasidy" as a measure of his imaginative capability rather than his value as a laborer. Though Marlow admits his own "want of imagination" (162), he asserts that Jim possesses a great deal of it, a quality that the older man fears will be undervalued in the prosaic world's mechanical, commerce-driven measure of men according to their physical abilities.

The third and final iteration of the word capacity in the novel appears in a dense passage in which Marlow, preparing to sail home to England for a stint, is trying to understand his fear of being associated with Jim:

   Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face
   its truth, one must return [home] with a clear conscience. All this
   may seem to you sheer sentimentalism; and indeed very few of us
   have the will or the capacity to look consciously under the surface
   of familiar emotions. There are the girls we love, the men we look
   up to, the tenderness, the friendships, the opportunities, the
   pleasures! But the fact remains that you must touch your reward
   with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns in your
   grasp. (161; emphasis added)

Marlow laments the rarity of those who possess either the desire or the ability to see beyond familiar surfaces and illusions. Such vision can be unsettling because it requires one to confront past transgressions and, in the process, find oneself unfit to return home. This final iteration of capacity is contextualized by Marlow's guilt over not fully subscribing to Jim's unusual worldview: "I was about to go home for a time; and it may be I desired, more than I was aware of myself, to dispose of him--to dispose of him, you understand--before I left. I was going home, and he had come to me from there, with his miserable trouble and his shadowy claim, like a man panting under a burden of a mist" (160).

In these passages, Marlow is struggling to understand Jim's capacities, limitations, and the relationship between them. Jim's "great gabasidy" is for intuitive understanding, which is enabled by imaginative, rather than rational, faculties. Marlow seems to possess both of these strengths, Seeley argues: "Jim hasn't mastered Marlow's trick of living in both realms--of dreaming and waking--at the same time.... Conrad surely had this in mind: that dreamers like Jim, whose reach exceeds their grasp, must learn to live in two worlds at once" (502). Like Stein, Marlow admires Jim's capacity, which Marlow explicitly links with being "romantic" (162) by referring to Stein's earlier remark that "[Jim] is romantic--romantic ... that is very bad--very bad.... Very good, too" (155). Both men concur that his romantic capacity can be productive: "your imaginative people swing farther in any direction," comments Marlow, "as if given a longer scope of cable in the uneasy anchorage of life" (162). Yet they also understand that imagination is incongruous with regard to life in the modern world. Jim's capacity is a deficiency--"very bad"--because a modern life of employment often requires one to balance antithetical sides, to counter the dreamer in order to survive.

The ambivalent Marlow concludes the passage about Jim's capacity with a flight of romantic rhetoric. He argues that Jim had "achieved greatness" (163) but questions whether his audience of sailors, and by extension the novel's readers, have the capacity (in the sense of both will and ability) to comprehend it:

   ... the thing would be dwarfed in the telling, or rather in the
   hearing. Frankly, it is not my words that I mistrust but your
   minds. I could be eloquent were I not afraid you fellows had
   starved your imaginations to feed your bodies. I do not mean to be
   offensive; it is respectable to have no illusions--and safe--and
   profitable--and dull. Yet you too in your time must have known the
   intensity of life, that light of glamour created in the shock of
   trifles, as amazing as the glow of sparks struck from a cold
   stone--and as short-lived, alas! (163)

While admitting that it is "respectable" to be unromantic, Marlow reminds listeners how prosaic a life devoid of romance can be. You were romantic too, once, he implies to the men; and his speech is deeply conflicted. While acknowledging the inevitable passing of romantic sensibility, Marlow also articulates his sorrow for its loss in highly-charged romantic language. To privilege the rational capacity to sustain life must in turn starve the imaginative capacity. This metafictional turn expresses Marlow's--and by extension Conrad's--apprehension about the reception of a character who is romantic by an audience that has largely foregone imaginative wonder.

Fitzgerald imports the word capacity from Marlow's description and manipulates it in several of The Great Gatsby's key passages. Like Marlow, Nick deploys the word three times: twice in a passage about Gatsby's employment as a young man, and once in a later passage that is, also indirectly, about his ability to see the world in an imaginative and unconventional manner.

Fitzgerald includes the word capacity when Nick narrates James Gatz's transformation into Jay Gatsby. At seventeen, Gatz embarks on a tour of itinerant occupations, much like Jim after the Patna incident: "For over a year [Gatz] had been beating his way along the south shore of Lake Superior as a clam-digger and a salmon-fisher or in any other capacity that brought him food and bed" (98; emphasis added). The phrase "food and bed" echoes the "daily bread" that Marlow uses to describe the "dull" life of employment at sea. Gatz's itinerant status ends abruptly when he meets Cody, who has made his fortune mining precious metals in the American West. Nick tells us that the Gatsby persona is invented when the young Gatz decides to row out to Cody's yacht, docked in the shallows of Lake Superior, to warn him about an approaching storm. Gatz introduces himself to Cody as Jay Gatsby, creating the alter ego that he would assume for decades as he amasses his wealth and cultivates his image as an affluent, debonair host of outlandish Jazz Age parties: "I suppose he'd had the name ready for a long time, even then ... he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end" (98).

Cody takes the boy as a sort of first mate on board the Tuolomee, a name that echoes Jim's title of "Tuan" ("Lord") bestowed upon him by the native community of Patusan. For Gatsby, the yacht represents what being a ruler of a small island represents to Jim: "all the beauty and glamour in the world" (Fitzgerald 100). During their travels, Gatsby "was employed in a vague personal capacity--while he remained with Cody he was in turn steward, mate, skipper, secretary, and even jailor, for Dan Cody sober knew what lavish doings Dan Cody drunk might do" (100; emphasis added). Like Marlow in Lord Jim, Nick uses capacity in reference to Gatsby's past, and the word suggests a measurement of Gatsby's efforts to work his way up through the world. Moreover, capacity is a flexible term, and even early on we understand that it has the potential to signify more than physical labor. It also hints at Gatsby's abilities to imagine, and then to create, an entirely new life, with a career and social position springing forth from "a Platonic conception" (98) of what a successful life should be. Similar to Jim earning the title of "Tuan," Gatsby's stint on the Tuolomee represents the grandeur and high status is seeking, and signals the beginning of his new life.

Nick's third use of the word capacity occurs on the final page of the novel, when he visits Gatsby's house for the last time. Sitting on the beach and looking out over the water, Nick imagines how Dutch explorers would have first seen the shores of Long Island:

   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 sailors' 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. (180; emphasis added)

Nick suggests that imagination died when the world stopped being wild, when the trees were felled and forests cleared to make Gatsby's grand house. That settlement is tied up with aesthetic contemplation. The ability to appreciate art and beauty was also lost after the fresh, flowering world was populated and possessed by European settlers. In the sentence that follows, Nick quickly moves from the "capacity for wonder" of the Dutch explorers to "Gatsby's [capacity for] wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it" (180). By hoping that Daisy is "something commensurate to his capacity for wonder," Gatsby has the eyes of the Dutch sailors, and her green light is tantamount to the "green breast" of the new continent. Because he is romantic, he has retained an ability to see a life of limitless possibilities, and Nick implies that this vision is unique:

      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--tomorrow 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. (180)

When Marlow writes that Jim was given "a longer scope of cable in the uneasy anchorage of life," he seems envious of Jim's greater capacity for imaginative possibility. Fitzgerald uses a similar nautical metaphor that contrasts the firm anchorage of life against a current of force that moves its vessel. For Fitzgerald the boat is traveling forwards and backwards on the current, while for Conrad, it is loosely anchored against the tidal flow. Yet both of their protagonists fight the current by projecting their imaginations into "the orgastic future," while the rest of us are tightly tethered or else swept away.

If the goal is for both Jim and Gatsby to be "blank slates," overwriting or rewriting the traumatic past to their liking, why would Fitzgerald reverse Conrad's major tropes, so that Gatsby is obsessed with reliving the past instead of burying it, and the passage of time is envisioned as a running river instead of a tidal ebb and flow? Fitzgerald is reinventing the late Victorian colonial speculator in a Jazz Age context. It is not difficult to see the bootlegging entrepreneur as the "Tuan" of 1920s New York society: dashing and adventurous, a proprietor who makes his home where he chooses, and whose success is made possible by complex ethical calculations and a touch of selective blindness. But this new "Tuan" requires a new poetic signature--the unidirectional river--because his quest for reinvention is further forward in time. Gatsby's dream is separated by the unbridgeable gap of war from a social context in which audiences could embrace romance with fewer qualms. Even if Conrad is testing the limits of romance, his novel reflects an artistic milieu in which its conventions are still present. Gatsby's world is too far downstream from Jim's romantic vision; thus, Gatsby must create it anew, as he does with his own life. Similarly, Fitzgerald's evocation of romance appears to come from nowhere and must beat harder against the artistic currents of the 1920s in order to be contained within a modernist vision. Putting these two iconic novels into direct conversation illustrates the vexed inheritance of romantic epistemology in the Anglo-American context after the First World War.

Jessica Martell and Zackary Vernon

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Appalachian State University

Jessica Martell (jmartell@unc.edu) has a PhD in English from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Her first book explores the impact of imperial food politics on the emergence of literary modernism in Britain and Ireland. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Nineteenth-Century Literature, Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies, and the edited collection Fifty Years after Faulkner (2015).

Zackary Vernon (zackaryvernon@gmail.com) is an assistant professor of English at Appalachian State University. He has articles published or forthcoming in several journals and books, including Studies in the Novel, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Journal of American Studies, Mississippi Quarterly, Appalachian Journal, Fifty Years after Faulkner (UP of Mississippi, 2015), and The Bohemian South (U of North Carolina P, 2016).


(1.) One reference to Gatsby as a Trimalchio figure remains in the novel (Fitzgerald 113). Trimalchio is a character in Petronius' Satyricon. A self-made freeman, Trimalchio is famous for hosting lavish banquets for the Roman nouveau riche. For more information, see Paul L. MacKendrick's " The Great Gatsby and Trimalcio" (1950).

(2.) Mallios states,

   I would add to the list of "possible" points of contact between
   Fitzgerald and Conrad the very title (with which Fitzgerald was
   never quite satisfied) and name of the eponymous hero of The Great
   Gatsby itself: which, or so it's fun to think, may derive from the
   moment in Lord Jim when a denizen of Schomberg's bar says of the
   "romantic" Jim: "for one so young he was 'of great gabasidy'."

(3.) Despite his own desire to study more than just the ways in which Conrad influenced key American writers, Mallios's chapter on Fitzgerald, at least in part, adapts the fruitful conventions of an influence study.

(4.) In a later newspaper article, "10 Best Books I Have Read," Fitzgerald claims that Nostromo is "the great novel of the past fifty years, as 'Ulysses' is the great novel of future" (qtd. in Bruccoli 173).

(5.) For more information on Fitzgerald's stance on the supposed supremacy of Western civilization, see James Bloom's "The Occidental Tourist: The Counter-Orientalist Gaze in Fitzgerald's Last Novels." Bloom argues, "Eliminating the West, in both commonly accepted senses of this vague proper noun, Fitzgerald pushes narrator and readers beyond our mutually and durably fantasized identity as 'Westerners' in pursuit of a critically cosmopolitan, anti-ethnocentric perspective: Fitzgerald's narratives, in turn, contest what many continue to regard as the primacy and normative inevitability of 'the West,' the very privilege [Edward] Said's Orientalism exposes and indicts" (121).

(6.) For a similar argument about the Conradian narrator, see also Long, "Part II" 419-22; and Bruccoli 221.

(7.) For examples of comparative character studies, see Stallman 6-8; Long, "Part T 274; Long, "Part II" 407; Rude 217; Skinner 132; Mallios's "Undiscovering the Country" and Our Conrad 221-64.

(8.) The phrase first appears in a letter when Marlow is soliciting employment on Jim's behalf (110), and, secondly, when he narrates the official court proceedings that cancel Jim's certificate (116).

(9.) Both Jim and Gatsby are associated with popular genres of literature. According to Marlow, "after a course of holiday literature [Jim's] vocation for the sea had declared itself, he was sent at once to a 'training-ship for officers of the mercantile marine'" (Conrad 4-5). Gatsby seems similarly fascinated with adventure tales. After he recounts the fabricated details of his life--"I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe--Paris, Venice, Rome--collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago"--Nick says, "My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines" (Fitzgerald 65-66).

(10.) For an extended analysis of Conrad's use of accented English, see Monod.

Works Cited

Berthoud, Jacques. Introduction. Conrad xiii-xxxi.

Bloom, James. "The Occidental Tourist: The Counter-Orientalist Gaze in Fitzgerald's Last Novels." Style 35.1 (Spring 2001): 111-25. Print.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of E Scott Fitzgerald. 2nd ed. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2002. Print.

Conrad, Joseph. LordJim: A Tale. 1900. Ed. Jacques Berthoud. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Long, Robert Emmet. "The Great Gatsby and the Tradition of Joseph Conrad: Part I." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8.2 (Summer 1966): 257-76. Print.

--. "The Great Gatsby and the Tradition of Joseph Conrad: Part II." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 8.3 (Autumn 1966): 407-22. Print.

MacKendrick, Paul L. "Be Great Gatsby and Trimalchio." The Classical Journal 45.7 (Apr. 1950): 307-14. Print.

Mallios, Peter Lancelot. Our Conrad: Constituting American Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2010. Print.

--. "Undiscovering the Country: Conrad, Fitzgerald, and Meta-National Form." Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (Summer 2001): 356-90. Print.

Miller, James E. The Fictional Technique of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Netherlands: The Hague, 1957. Print.

Monod, Sylvere. "Joseph Conrad's Polyglot Wordplay." The Modern Language Review 100 (2005): 222-34. Print.

Peters, John G. "Conrad's Literary Response to the First World War." College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies 39.4 (Fall 2012): 34-45. Print.

Rude, Donald W. "F. Scott Fitzgerald on Joseph Conrad." Conradiana: A Journal of Joseph Conrad Studies. 31.3 (Fall 1999): 217-19. Print.

Seeley, Tracy. "Conrad's Modernist Romance: Lord Jim." English Literary History 59.2 (Summer 1992): 495-511. Print.

Skinner, John. "The Oral and the Written: Kurtz and Gatsby Revisited." The Journal of Narrative Technique 17.1 (Winter 1987): 131-140. Print.

Stallman, Robert Wooster. "Conrad and The Great Gatsby." Twentieth-Century Literature 1.1 (Apr. 1955): 5-12. Print.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A422447295