The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald's Opulent Synthesis (1925)

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Date: 1995
From: The Winding Road to West Egg: The Artistic Development of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Bucknell University Press
Reprint In: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 176. )
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,538 words

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[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Roulston and Roulston present an overview of the elements of Fitzgerald's style in The Great Gatsby.]

Fitzgerald did not care much for the title of his most perfect book. When returning the proofs in January 1925 from Rome, Fitzgerald indicated to Maxwell Perkins that he preferred to call the work Trimalchio and felt that the title finally chosen was unsatisfactory because of a lack of emphasis in the work, "even ironically," on the greatness of Jay Gatsby.1 Fitzgerald's doubts persisted. In March he still favored Trimalchio but was considering reverting to an earlier choice, Gold-Hatted Gatsby. Just as the novel was on the verge of publication, he proposed yet another title, Under the Red, White and Blue.2 Some of the other possibilities Fitzgerald was considering have certain advantages over the title that finally appeared on the cover. Under the Red, White and Blue, for example, places clearer emphasis on the all-important theme of Gatsby as an exemplar and victim of the American Dream; Trimalchio and On The Road to West Egg more pointedly conjure up Gatsby's pursuit of wealth and glamour.

Yet the title finally chosen, with its apparent contradiction, splendidly conveys the quality that most gives The Great Gatsby its peculiar magic. That quality is not its irony, its tragedy, its realism, its fantasy, its wit, its poetry, its compassion, its satire, its narrative adroitness, its sharp characterizations, but its marvelous inclusion of all these attributes along with numerous others that often seem barely compatible with the rest. No less remarkable is the combination of a richness of texture and profusion of detail with masterly compression.

Fitzgerald's previously cited letter to Roger Burlingame suggests what may have contributed to the multiple vision pervading nearly every level of Gatsby--the pervasive feeling of wanting "to be back somewhere."3 Indications are that Fitzgerald's own nostalgia operated on two tiers, with the Midwest and New York both being its objects. He began work on Gatsby at Great Neck, but under financial duress he set the project aside in late 1923 and produced a spate of stories for large-circulation magazines. After paying off his most pressing debts, he set off for Europe with Zelda in April of the following year, later settling on the Riviera and in June renting a villa in Saint Raphael. There he wrote most of Gatsby but added some final touches in Italy after receiving the proofs from Scribner's. As a matter of fact, he soon had an excellent reason for wanting to be "back somewhere." While he was working on his book, Zelda was becoming involved with a French aviator, Edouard Jozan. Fitzgerald thus found himself in the anomalous situation of writing a novel in which the hero is trying to win another man's wife, while the latter man, in turn, is having an affair with the wife of a poor garage owner. The narrator recoils in disgust and returns to the moral certainties of his home in the Midwest. Yet for all Nick Carraway's animadversions against the corruptness of the East, Fitzgerald invests New York with genuine glamour and excitement, suggesting that he was already looking back on his life there almost as wistfully as upon his earlier experiences in Minnesota.

At the center of this complex and subtle work is a plot that seems simplicity itself. A poor young man named James Gatz, from North Dakota, changes his name to Jay Gatsby, becomes an army officer, and at a dance in Louisville meets and falls in love with a local belle, Daisy Fay. Daisy marries a man of her own class, wealthy Tom Buchanan from Chicago. Determined to win her back, Gatsby amasses a fortune through various criminal enterprises, buys a huge mansion across the bay from the Buchanans' estate on Long Island and almost succeeds in inducing her to leave Tom. Eventually, though, her resolve collapses, and she stays with her husband. Thereafter, through a dizzying series of enough twists to sustain the narrative lines of half a dozen stories in the Saturday Evening Post, Fitzgerald manages to have Daisy, while behind the wheel of Gatsby's automobile, accidentally kill Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Myrtle's husband, George, suspects first Tom, then Gatsby. Fitzgerald finally brings everything to a bloody catastrophe by having the deranged George Wilson shoot Gatsby in Gatsby's own swimming pool.

Not only are the basic boy-meets-girl, loses-girl story and the clever plotting reminiscent of Fitzgerald's Post fiction. Here too are the themes and narrative situations that had sustained him for the last half dozen years: rich girl-poor boy (and vice versa), North versus South, Midwest versus East Coast, the Horatio Alger motif,4 the weakling who turns on his victimizers, the outsider harried by his social or economic superiors, the loss of illusions, a longing for the past, sexual jealousy. The hero is even a variant on one of Fitzgerald's very earliest favorite types, the gentleman burglar. All these strands, though, are woven into a fabric of stunning richness. In fact, Fitzgerald's multiple vision pervades every level, from the smallest stylistic touches to the overall structure.

One of the most conspicuous peculiarities of Fitzgerald's prose is his fondness for oxymorons, those phrases combining incongruous elements. Nowhere are they more striking than in Gatsby. Gatsby's gangster mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim,5 for instance, eats with "ferocious delicacy," and Gatsby himself pursues a vision of "meretricious beauty" and of "ineffable gaudiness" and perceives "the unreality of reality." Even when modifiers do not exactly cancel out their nouns, the juxtaposition is often startling, as when Fitzgerald refers to Wolfsheim's "tragic nose," the "cheerful snobbery" of Daisy's milieu in Louisville, or--in a touch of synesthesia--the "frothy odor" of a beverage. Then there are the "adventitious authority" of the detective at the scene of Myrtle Wilson's death and the "racy pasquinade" the press will make of the whole episode.

In such phrases Fitzgerald is not merely being clever. He is doing in miniature what he does stylistically throughout the novel. In an interview for an episode on Fitzgerald in the television series, Biography, the Canadian author and acquaintance of both Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, Morley Callaghan, contrasted the styles of the two writers. Hemingway's language, Callaghan contended, is much closer to the American vernacular, whereas Fitzgerald's is more literary and traditional. Most would probably assent to Callaghan's distinction. But anyone who carefully compares the opening sentences of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises with those of Gatsby should notice something strange. Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald's narrator, says: "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since" (GG, 5). Now "younger and more vulnerable" may be somewhat literary, but "turning over" is not, nor is the contraction "I've." Neither are "haven't" and "you've" in the second sentence, nor are "didn't" and we've" in the third. Jake Barnes, Nick's counterpart in Hemingway's first novel, uses no contractions throughout the opening pages, even when the colloquial stance seems to cry out for them, as in the second sentence, which begins "Do not think that I am very much impressed" (5). Would Jake really have said "do not" and "I am" rather than "don't" and "I'm?" Now everybody knows that Hemingway's ear for the rhythms of language was one of the marvels of the modern world. Jake's more formal usage here certainly makes his delivery appropriately staccato and hard-boiled.

The fact, though, is that Fitzgerald's greater blend of formal and informal usage at the outset of Gatsby allows him the widest possible stylistic latitude, and he proceeds to take full advantage of the opportunities thus afforded. Nick, therefore, is able, with little sense of disjuncture, to descant in a conversational manner, as if confiding to the reader over a glass of ale, and suddenly shift to blazing lyrical passages when recounting some particular enthusiasm or emotional crisis. In a recent review of a volume of stories by Fitzgerald, Jay McInerey commented upon Fitzgerald's repeated use of an old-fashioned way of addressing the reader in a manner reminiscent of Thackeray. The repeated echoes of Thackeray should hardly be surprising. Fitzgerald more than once stressed his debt to the English novelist and in 1934 pointed out in a letter to John Jamieson that, though he had little familiarity with French authors during his formative years, he had read Thackeray "over and over"6

Since most critics seem more intrigued by the structural, symbolic, and thematic aspects of Gatsby than by its style, the influence of Thackeray has received less attention than the apparent impact of Conrad and Spengler, or even of Wharton and Eliot. Thackeray, though, is a looming presence no less than another of Fitzgerald's idols, John Keats, albeit the aura of the latter is less pervasive in Gatsby than it is in Tender Is the Night. At any rate, Nick can switch from being a Thackeray-like raconteur to prose poet and back again without losing his recognizable voice or his coherence as a character. Indeed, as Nick tells his tale, he achieves his considerable linguistic variety without lapsing into the eclecticism that mars some of Fitzgerald's earlier writings. Gatsby, for instance, contains nothing like the outright mimicry of Oscar Wilde that intrudes in This Side of Paradise or the stylistic mannerisms of H. L. Mencken in "May Day," "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," and The Beautiful and Damned. Thus Nick, the calm reporter of incidents, without stepping out of character, can give vent to a lyrical outburst when contemplating Long Island Sound from the veranda of the Buchanans: "Slowly the white wings of the boat moved against the blue cool limit of the sky. Ahead lay the scalloped ocean and the abounding blessed isles" (124). Most splendid of all is the concluding barrage of prose that fuses Gatsby's dream of success with the vision of an unspoiled American continent greeting the first Dutch mariners.

Another important dichotomy involves the different ways in which Fitzgerald depicts Long Island and Manhattan. Although both locales emerge vividly from the page, nearly everything east of the Queensboro Bridge is distorted by a thick layer of symbolism. In Manhattan everything is not merely sharp but usually almost literally accurate, with thoroughfares and buildings given their actual names. Tom's love nest, for instance, is specified as being on west 158th Street, and Nick first encounters Meyer Wolfsheim in a cellar restaurant on Forty-second Street. Nick usually dines at the Yale Club and often strolls afterward "down Madison Avenue past the old Murray Hill Hotel, and over Thirty-third Street to the Pennsylvania Station" (61). Nick in Manhattan may enjoy reveries about romantic women, but those reveries transpire on bustling Fifth Avenue, and Wolfsheim's unromantic office is on frenzied Broadway. When the main characters assemble in town, it is not in some vague fictive venue, but in the Plaza Hotel, which Tom specifies as being on the south side of Central Park.

Now all this is quite remote from the manner in which Fitzgerald renames and even reinvents sites on Long Island, in the process investing them with symbolic resonances more reminiscent of Hawthorne than of Dreiser. The Valley of the Ashes is indubitably modeled on the city dump Fitzgerald passed many times, traveling between Manhattan and Great Neck; but Fitzgerald's portentous designation--along with imagery suggestive of Eliot's The Waste Land and the huge fading eyes of T. J. Eckleburg--convert a commonplace eyesore into a vast metaphor of modern desolation and futility, personified by its feckless denizen, George Wilson. Something similar occurs with Great Neck when it is refashioned into West Egg. To be sure, among Fitzgerald's neighbors were scores of show business types, shady entrepreneurs, and no doubt some out-and-out crooks. But the opposition between it and the communities across Manhasset Bay were by no means as stark as the contrast between Nick's and Gatsby's unfashionable neighborhood and the posh East Egg. After all, if Gatsby had lived near the real-life party giver, Herbert Bayard Swope, and had stared out across the bay, instead of seeing the green light on Daisy's dock, he might have observed Eddie Cantor strolling along the shore, while the Astors and the Sloanes were over on the other side of the peninsula.

In this matter, as in so many others in Gatsby, the contrast is not absolute. Manhattan has its own aura of magic, for Nick at least; and Long Island is rendered with enough specificity to give it an abundance of verisimilitude. Nevertheless, Manhattan--where Wolfsheim reigns and Tom carries on his squalid amour--is a land of where Gatsby's romantic vision starts to crack at the Plaza under the blows of Tom's hard malice. Long Island has been the realm of those dark twins--the grand dreams nurtured in West Egg and the nightmares of the Valley of Ashes where Myrtle Wilson's death sets into motion the sequence of events that destroy Gatsby.

Just as the language of Gatsby is varied yet cohesive, so the portraits of the characters, from minor ones up to Gatsby himself, are complex and frequently ambiguous. Even in sometimes perfunctory magazine pieces, Fitzgerald would use incongruous characterization as a kind of trick, evidently realizing that unexpected behavior makes a character both more interesting and more lifelike. Some calculated inconsistencies in Gatsby are of this nature. Thus Meyer Wolfsheim's whistling "The Rosary" before Nick vainly tries to persuade him to come to Gatsby's funeral, is a ludicrous, vivid departure from stereotype. It is also, however, one of several manifestations of the sentimentality that makes Wolfsheim's predatory criminality, symbolized by his cuff links made of human molars, all the more sinister. Indeed, nearly all the important characters are, in terms of behavior, what an oxymoron is in terms of language--walking and talking sets of opposites. Jordan Baker, the golfer who lies and who cheats, is an unsporting sportswoman. George Wilson is a wimpish murderer. Myrtle Wilson's flashy, trashy sister behaves with "a surprising amount of character" at the inquest (171).

The most significantly ambivalent are the four major characters. Carraway is a gullible skeptic and a biased objectivist. As a result, his accounts of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and of Jay Gatsby, in particular, are downright prismatic. Nick's profession of "unaffected scorn" for everything that Gatsby represents, is all but negated in the very same paragraph by a veritable paean to Gatsby's "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" and to Gatsby's "extraordinary gift for hope" and "romantic readiness." After describing his last meeting with Gatsby, Nick comments that he "disapproved of him from beginning to end." Yet his final words to Gatsby have been, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." The "bunch" alluded to are the "rotten crowd" consisting mainly of Tom, Daisy, and Jordan (162). As for Nick himself, he modestly asserts that he is "one of the few honest people" he knows (64). But when Jordan, at their last meeting, tells him that she had made a "wrong guess" when she first regarded him as "an honest straightforward person," he can only lamely assent: "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor." Throughout their relationship, his behavior has been so calculating, and his perception of her is generally so negative, that it is difficult to believe his final assertion that he is "half in love with her" (186). In fact, he seems to have been using her quite as much as earlier he had used the girl from the accounting department in the brokerage office where he worked, only to break off the affair because her brother had begun eyeing him with suspicion.

The point is not that Nick is a scoundrel, a fool, or a liar. It is rather that, just as his diction can shift from Ring Lardner-like colloquialisms, such as "whole rotten bunch," to flights of Keatsean poesy, so he can see the merits of people he dislikes and defects of those he likes, and behave with perfectly normal inconsistency. He can both love and condemn, hate and forgive, just as he can contemplate a panorama from the window of Tom and Myrtle's trysting place on the upper West Side of Manhattan and exclaim: "I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life" (40).

The result of this illusion of evenhandedness is that the reader trusts Nick and, more important, likes him, much as the reader of Huckleberry Finn likes Mark Twain's equally inconsistent narrator-hero. Nick is ingratiating, witty, self-deprecating, and, whenever Fitzgerald wants him to be, stupendously eloquent. Nick cajoles one into assent, again like Huck Finn, by his charm and by his all-too-human failings as much as by his virtues. He says he has been drunk only twice in his life, then proceeds to give a half-comic, half-nightmarish account of one of those two times. He can priggishly rebuff Gatsby's offer of an "opportunity to pick up a little money," on the grounds that "the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered" (88). Nick can then proceed to render exactly the same service gratis by, in effect, becoming Gatsby's pimp when he arranges a tête-à-tête between Gatsby and Nick's own distant cousin, Daisy. By this point, however, Nick has depicted Daisy's husband as so odious that the reader believes Tom, a flagrant and compulsive adulterer, richly deserves being cuckolded. So persuasive is Nick that readers as acute as Henry Dan Piper and Milton R. Stern are willing to accept his moral judgments with few reservations.7 Such reservations are expressed, though, by Robert W. Stallman and John F. Callahan.8 The reality of this matter, as with so much else about this novel, is complex. Nick both is and is not a spokesman for his creator. He does and does not resemble Fitzgerald himself. The events depicted do and do not support Nick's conclusions.

Perhaps nowhere else does Nick editorialize so insistently as when denigrating his bête noire, Tom Buchanan. In an article published in the late 1970s, I (Robert Roulston) argue that Tom is a comic villain rather than the monstrous embodiment of pure evil that many critics have found him. There I also point out that, despite Nick's unrelenting hostility, Tom embodies many of Fitzgerald's own traits and even expresses some of Fitzgerald's own most cherished beliefs. In other words, if Fitzgerald had wanted to say of a character in Gatsby what Flaubert said of Emma Bovary--"Madame Bovary c'est moi"--he could quite as aptly have chosen Tom as Nick or even Gatsby. Alone of the major characters, Tom drinks heavily. In fact Fitzgerald specifically indicates that Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick drink little. Tom, on the other hand, is constantly asking about liquor, ordering it, and swilling it. Tom, moreover, is the only one to have been involved in Fitzgerald's favorite college activity, football. This former end at Yale, indeed, has achieved what the undersized Scott Fitzgerald had been able only to yearn for, gridiron glory. Also Tom possesses something else Fitzgerald envied, great wealth. Tom's tastes, moreover, are certainly closer to Fitzgerald's than are those of Gatsby, with his flashy pink suits, his bogus French villa, his vulgar car, which Tom sneeringly calls a circus wagon. Tom drives a modest roadster, lives in a proper upper-class Georgian mansion, and knows a phony police dog when a street peddler tries foisting one on him and Myrtle. Of course, by presenting Tom as a brute, a bully, a snob, a bigot, and a dunce, Fitzgerald is simultaneously making Tom both a scapegoat, who shares some of his creator's defects, and a Halloween figure in a plutocrat's mask who can be gleefully mocked.

Yet one should resist assuming that, when he dismisses Tom's rantings about miscegenation and the collapse of moral norms as "impassioned gibberish," Nick is wholly speaking for Fitzgerald. Tom's alarms over "The Rise of the Colored Empires" and "intermarriage between black and white" may be stated in the most fatuous possible manner (17, 137). Nevertheless, Tom alone of the major characters, is expressing exactly the sort of apprehensions Fitzgerald gave vent to a few years earlier in the previously noted letter from Europe to Edmund Wilson, when Fitzgerald fulminated against "the Negroid strain" he believed to be defiling the Nordic races of the Old World.9 To be sure, Fitzgerald was too sophisticated to give much credence to the kind of crude racist tracts Tom Buchanan cited, such as the one by "this fellow Goddard," an apparent reference to Theodore Lothrop Stoddard's The Rising Tide of Color.10 Tom, however, is the only character to exhibit more than a trace of the kind of musing Fitzgerald claimed to be indulging in during the summer of 1924 when he was supposedly under the spell of Oswald Spengler. Whether Fitzgerald had actually read Spengler--an unlikely occurrence, as Sklar observes, in view of Fitzgerald's inability to read German and the lack of an English translation at the time--Gatsby does present a picture of a civilization in disarray.11

If Fitzgerald did not read Spengler, he probably read about him, as Richard Lehan and Dalton Gross contend, and unquestionably read The Waste Land of T. S. Eliot, who was familiar with Spengler and whose poem depicts exactly the kind of cultural breakdown that was a frequent theme in Fitzgerald's writings, from the 1917 undergraduate story, "Sentiment--and the Use of Rouge" to the uncompleted final novel, The Last Tycoon. Nick Carraway, however, has little to say directly about the matter. To be sure, he depicts the collapse of norms--of debutantes being debauched at wild parties, of casual adulteries, of socialites consorting with criminals, of blacks being driven about by a white chauffeur. But he is seldom especially incensed, at least not enough to comment even to the extent that he does upon Jordan's cheating at golf and Wolfsheim's "play[ing] with the faith of fifty million people" by rigging the World Series (78).

Jordan and Daisy have even less to say on such matters. It is only Tom who sees himself standing on "the last barricade of civilization." One of his very first utterances, in fact, is "Civilization's going to pieces" (17). Tom alone is given to apocalyptic reflections, as when he blurts out in the sweltering salon of his house--"I read somewhere that the sun's getting hotter every year. ... or wait a minute--it's just the opposite--the sun's getting colder every year" (124). In his obtuseness, Tom has succinctly given utterance to the still-reigning twin theories as to the cosmic cataclysms most likely to befall the planet. Just as Gatsby emerges as a noble crook, so Buchanan is a kind of wise fool and a knavish moralist--a buffoonish Oswald Spengler and tongue-tied T. S. Eliot. For all his repugnance, Nick shakes Tom's hand at their last encounter. In part this action is a recognition that Tom is a kind of innocent--"I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child." But Nick also realizes that Tom believes that his behavior to Gatsby was "entirely justified" (188). Aside from Nick's own complicity--after all, he knows the true circumstances behind the deaths of Myrtle and Gatsby but has remained silent--he does have a kind of kinship with Tom, both legally and socially. Daisy is a relative, and Nick's own background is closer to Tom's than to Gatsby's.

Whatever ambivalence exists in Nick's presentation of Tom, nothing is unclear about the delineation of him. Many readers probably share Maxwell Perkins's response to him: "I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him."12 Readers would be less likely to recognize the other two main characters, in part because Nick envelops them in a romantic haze. Thus, whereas we know that Tom is a "sturdy straw haired man of thirty" with "gruff husky tenor," with "two shining arrogant eyes," and a way of "leaning aggressively forward," Daisy and Gatsby are described less precisely (11). Daisy is dark, petite, but otherwise is delineated in rather general terms. One of her attributes, however, seems to preoccupy Nick to the point of obsession--her voice. He describes it variously as "low" and "thrilling," and as "glowing and singing" (13, 19). Jordan suspects Daisy may have had amorous dalliances, mainly because "there's something in that voice of hers" (82). Later Nick responds to the "exhilarating ripple" in her voice, but when he calls it "indiscreet," Gatsby instantly defines it in such a way as to lead to a veritable epiphany for Nick. "Her voice is full of money," Gatsby asserts. And Nick responds tremulously: "That was it. ... It was full of money--that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it" (127).

Perhaps nowhere, not even while at their last meeting when Nick tells Gatsby that Gatsby is worth more than all the others, are the two men in more perfect accord. Nick here becomes Gatsby's complete double. For all the abyss between their social and educational backgrounds, this parvenu and former roustabout from North Dakota and Nick, the Ivy League alumnus with patrician forebears and scion of a moderately "well-to-do" midwestern family, are one in their awe of the kind of style and manner only a lifetime of great wealth can confer (7). Here Fitzgerald, the outside-insider, after having split himself in two, in effect, by creating this pair of outwardly dissimilar characters, unites them. A few pages later, though, he will expose the ugly side of precisely the kind of wealth and social status of which both men are in awe. All along Daisy, in spite of the vague charm of her voice, has been revealed by her behavior as spoiled, shallow, selfish, and affected. Despite Fitzgerald's having assigned to her some of Zelda's mannerisms and even some of Zelda's actual statements,13 Daisy has little of Zelda's formidable personality. Daisy's dark hair and her wealthy background, indeed, make her more like Fitzgerald's first great love, Ginevra King, than like Zelda, to whom the novel is dedicated. The meeting between Gatsby and Daisy at a dance in Louisville, however, is similar to the first meeting between Scott and Zelda in Montgomery, while Fitzgerald was stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan. In a sense Gatsby's attempt to win back Daisy is a variant of Fitzgerald's own pursuit of a second golden girl, after his first had rejected him. And for a while events in Fitzgerald's own courtship seemed about to follow the earlier pattern, for Zelda too, after agreeing to marry Scott, broke off their engagement, only to relent after This Side of Paradise was accepted.

If Nick and Gatsby are never so akin as when they agree on the nature of Daisy's voice, they are never so at odds as when they comment on the relationship of past and present. And their disagreement embodies one of the major dichotomies in the novel, and perhaps in Fitzgerald's entire outlook. After Nick tells Gatsby he "can't repeat the past," Gatsby instantly rejoins: "Why of course you can!" (116).

At that point, Nick and Gatsby seem at an impasse. Their disagreement reflects a rift deep within Fitzgerald's own character, his manic-depressive alternations between sanguine expectations and bleak disappointments. In This Side of Paradise, the rift had found expression in Amory Blaine's up-and-down pattern of behavior, as he rushed from one enthusiasm to another and into and out of infatuations and love affairs, often disillusioned, but never crushed. In Gatsby Fitzgerald deftly cleaved apart those conflicting tendencies, giving to Jay Gatsby the "extraordinary gift for hope" and the "romantic readiness" that the more saturnine Nick can envy but only sporadically attain (6). Nick, to be sure, can burst into paeans about the magic of Manhattan and the coziness of prairie life. But his cool, calculating liaison with Jordan Baker, his cautious appraisal of the charms of Daisy Buchanan, his tendency to blend into a group--whether it be with the vulgarians at Tom and Myrtle's love nest on 158th Street, the carousers at Gatsby's parties, or with the Buchanans at dinner at their fashionable estate in East Egg--are all as far removed from Gatsby's relentless pursuit of wealth and of Daisy as they are distant from Fitzgerald's own bibulous antics that by the mid-1920s were already getting him into brawls and into police courts.

But for all the differences between them, Nick and Gatsby are spiritual twins, bound together by their midwestern backgrounds, their service in the same Third Division in the war, their age, their tendency to perceive themselves as outsiders, and especially by their entrancement with wealth. Indeed, both men are mesmerized by wealth. Only someone with such a regard for riches would refer, as Nick does, to the Buchanans as drifting to where people-are "rich together" or would believe a street peddler to bear an "absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller" (10, 31). And only someone who reveres wealth could so persistently seek it and so extravagantly flaunt it as Gatsby does.

Let us take Fitzgerald at his word that in the novel he did not place any emphasis even ironically on the greatness of Gatsby. But, explaining to Perkins why he did not let Tom Buchanan--"the best character I've ever done"--"dominate the book," Fitzgerald wrote: "Gatsby sticks in my heart."14 In the same letter, Fitzgerald also agreed with Perkins that Gatsby and Daisy were both too vaguely depicted; but he promised to do something about the problem, at least in regard to Gatsby, before returning the proofs from Rome. Although Fitzgerald did add some details about Gatsby's business dealings and about his personal life, even in the final version Gatsby remains the least fully delineated important character in the book. Nick describes Gatsby as "an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty" (53), and that is about all Fitzgerald has to say on the subject, as opposed to the graphic details given about even such minor characters as Chester McKee, Meyer Wolfsheim, and Myrtle's sister. As noted previously, Daisy is also enveloped in a romantic haze, in part to express Gatsby's idealized vision of her, a vision that even Nick cannot completely escape.

Gatsby, however, is different. Just as he remains an isolated figure at his own parties--and a total outsider when Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Jordan share reminiscences in their suite at the Plaza--so he is odd man out in the book that bears his name in the title, despite Fitzgerald's misgivings. Among all the bric-a-brac of realism surrounding him, Gatsby remains as mythic a figure as James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo. To be sure, even Cooper may have been too literary for Gatsby's tastes, for as the man with owl-eyed glasses at Gatsby's party points out to Nick, the pages of the books in Gatsby's Gothic library are uncut. But when Gatsby's father, Henry C. Gatz, brings a treasured memento to his son's funeral, it is a pulp-fiction equivalent of Cooper, "a ragged old copy of" Hopalong Cassidy. The schedule inside the back cover, with its list of resolutions, one of which is to "read one improving book or magazine a week," suggests that one of those books was probably by Benjamin Franklin, who was given to exactly the sort of schemes for self-improvement young James Gatz was devising for himself (181-82).

Thus if Gatsby is not great, he represents some great as well as some terrible things. Perhaps inspired by Kurtz's pamphlet in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with its ghastly genocidal postscript, "exterminate all the brutes," Fitzgerald with this stroke invests his hero with the whole burden of the frontier tradition and of the American belief in success.15 Fitzgerald, of course, had already associated Gatsby with westward expansion by making Gatsby a protégé of the mining tycoon, Dan Cody (with obvious allusions to Daniel Boone and Buffalo Bill Cody). Also Cody's debauchery and premature senility represent the decline of frontier vigor, just as Gatsby's criminality makes Gatsby's career a perversion of the Benjamin Franklin-Abraham Lincoln type of success story. These two themes come together at the end, where Gatsby, gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, is identified with Dutch sailors off the primal coast of the "green breast of the new world" (189).

Yet if Gatsby here and elsewhere is a symbol, he is never only a symbol. His pink suit, his repeated use of the phrase old sport, his collection of monogrammed shirts, and his presentation of himself as an Oxford man all individualize him enough to keep him from being a mere type, something Fitzgerald was astute enough to avoid. In creating Gatsby, Fitzgerald fused bits of actual people--among them the party-giving neighbor at Great Neck, Herbert Bayard Swope; a boastful bootlegger Fitzgerald had encountered; the stock swindler in the well-publicized Fuller Magee case; and, not least, F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. As we observed in our chapter on This Side of Paradise, the hero of that book is not, like Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim, "one of us." Neither is Gatsby, who more accurately could be called all of us. He is the great American Everyman, a real Yankee Doodle Dandy, who instead of riding to London on a pony, rides to a grandiose imitation of "some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy" (9) in a huge gaudy cream-colored automobile, presenting himself as an Oxford alumnus on the basis of a few weeks at the English university in a special program for veterans.

Thus Gatsby is the supreme set of contradictions in this work teeming with them. He is sinister and naive, violent and soft-hearted, both a child of an American backwater and a would-be British aristocrat, an idealist and a predator, stylish and vulgar, tragic and clownish, glamorous and banal in his efforts to recreate himself and his milieu according to a "Platonic image of himself." If Gatsby is surely grand, "a regular Belasco" (104, 50),16 he comes close to fulfilling Fitzgerald's own definition of genius: "The ability to put into effect whatever is in your mind."17 Gatsby's "resourcefulness of movement" is "peculiarly American" (68), as is his blend of megalomania and vulgar ostentation that leads him to contrive a fantasy land as bizarre as Disney World, the Trump Tower, and William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon. No wonder Fitzgerald considered calling this book Under the Red, White and Blue!

Only a structure as fragmented as that of The Great Gatsby could accommodate appropriately such characters and such divergent themes. And only a style so luminous could make such a tangled account seem not only lucid but inevitable. The flashbacks, the stories within the larger story scattered throughout, ought to make Gatsby as groping as the novels of Fitzgerald's professed model, Joseph Conrad. Moreover, Carraway himself intrudes at various points, filling in exposition in a manner that ought to break the flow of the narrative. The action, furthermore, often proceeds by short vignettes that seem like scenes in a drama, yet never obtrusively so like the stretches of pure dialogue in This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. Perhaps his recent writing of The Vegetable had given Fitzgerald a surer sense of dramatic pacing, despite the failure of the play. Perhaps the deft addition of comments by Nick Carraway and sharp impressionistic bits of description flesh out the badinage of the characters. Whatever the reason, the scenes, despite their brevity, seem neither rushed nor forced, as they, much like Nick's asides and digressions, illuminate character and themes. For example, the banter between Miss Baedeker and Doctor Civet at Gatsby's final party, where Civet reproaches her for drinking so much and she rejoins that she would not let him operate on her with his shaking hands, becomes a synecdoche for the squalor of the entire gathering, which explains Daisy's distaste not just for that particular event, but for West Egg. That distaste, in turn, foreshadows and motivates her rejection of Gatsby in the next chapter.

Thus the novel that Fitzgerald polished up in France in the summer of 1924, with a few later refinements on the proofs, would have enough facets to rival one of Braddock Washington's gems in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." Viewed from one perspective, the book is a novel of manners realistically scrutinizing American class distinctions. From another angle, Gatsby is a romantic fantasy abounding in lyricism and symbolism. Biting satire alternates with lush impressionistic descriptions that in turn lead into briskly narrated scenes. Colloquial dialogue, prose equivalents of Keats, nostalgia, suspense, violence, snippets of popular songs of the era, and verbal snapshots of clothing styles and automobiles of the time: all are there. So too are glimmerings of personal experiences, some going back as far as Fitzgerald's childhood in Minnesota and others as recent as Zelda's infidelity that summer in France. Despite its diversity, Gatsby coheres with a diamond-like integrity. The novel, in fact, is a synthesis of all that is best in what he had written, as well as of much of what he had read, up to the mid-1920s. So completely had he assimilated borrowings from Conrad, Spengler, Eliot, Thackeray, and the numerous other writers who are alleged to have influenced him that Fitzgerald could accurately say, to a much greater degree than he could have said of his first two novels, that Gatsby is unlike anything he had ever read before.18 Gatsby has no equivalents of the counterfeit bons mots of Wilde and Shaw in This Side of Paradise or the wholesale mimicking of Norris and Mencken in The Beautiful and Damned.

No less important, Gatsby combines the skilled compression of the best of Fitzgerald's popular-magazine fiction, the innovativeness and trenchancy of his best Smart Set pieces, and the lyricism and ambitiousness of his two previous novels. It is mercifully free, however, of the pretentiousness that mars some of his earlier efforts. Instead of pontificating on the imperiled state of Western culture, he lets the egregious Tom Buchanan comment fatuously on the collapse of civilization and relies upon the authenticity of the narrative to demonstrate just how far Buchanan's apprehensions are valid.

No one could legitimately say of Fitzgerald, as T. S. Eliot said of Henry James, that he had a mind too fine to be violated by an idea. Fitzgerald's mind was violated again and again--first by Wells and Shaw, then by Mencken, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Marx. Yet somehow, he was astute enough to trust his own perceptions and narrative skills more than half-assimilated abstractions. If The Great Gatsby is a lament for a passing civilization, it is no less a paean to his own waning youth and to the scenes of its pleasures and failures. Paradoxically, this novel by a self-proclaimed romantic egotist has a classic clarity and symmetry rare in American fiction including much of Fitzgerald's. Here, as in none of his other works, his finest qualities are in near-perfect equipoise. The youthful artist who once offered to hurl himself from a Paris window in homage to the reigning god of high art, James Joyce, in Gatsby formed a comfortable partnership with the clever young man who had learned how to propitiate the awesome deity of popular-magazine fiction, George Horace Lorimer of the Saturday Evening Post. Never again would the two be in such complete accord.

Notes

1. Fitzgerald, Letters, 177.

2. Fitzgerald, Correspondence, 153.

3. Fitzgerald, Letters, 479.

4. For a good discussion of the Horatio Alger motif, see Scharnorst, "Scribbling Upward," 26-35.

5. In the original edition, as well as the authorized text edited by Bruccoli and cited throughout this study, the name is spelled "Wolfshiem."

6. Fitzgerald, Letters, 509.

7. Piper, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait, 107; Stern, The Golden Moment, 196.

8. Stallman, "Gatsby and the Hole in Time," 2-16; Callaghan, "Interview," in The Other Side of Paradise.

9. Fitzgerald, Letters, 326.

10. For discussions of Stoddard's impact on Fitzgerald, see Stallman ("Gatsby and the Hole in Time," 2-12) and Turlish ("The Rising Tide of Color," 442-44).

11. Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins on 6 June 1940: "Did you ever read Spengler--specifically including the second volume? I read him the same summer I was writing The Great Gatsby and I don't think I ever quite recovered from him" (Letters, 289-90). Despite Sklar's caveat about Fitzgerald's inability to read German in 1924 when Spengler's work was not yet available in English (F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön, 135), Lehan in particular provides a convincing rebuttal, demonstrating Fitzgerald's familiarity with Spengler's main points and confirms conclusions argued back in 1955 by Robert W. Stallman (Lehan, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction).

12. Fitzgerald and Perkins, Dear Scott/Dear Max, 83.

13. After Scotty's birth, Zelda said the words Fitzgerald attributes to Daisy about Daisy's daughter: "I hope its [sic] beautiful and a fool--a beautiful little fool" (Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, 160).

14. Fitzgerald, Letters, 173.

15. The question of Conrad's influence on Fitzgerald is almost as vexing as the question of Spengler's impact. As in the case with Spengler, Fitzgerald himself noted the influence, claiming in a 1925 letter to Mencken that in Gatsby he was an "imitator" of the older author, adding in parenthesis: "God! I've learned a lot from him" (Letters, 482). In 1955, Robert W. Stallman ("Conrad and The Great Gatsby" 5-11), cited parallels between Nostromo, Lord Jim, and Heart of Darkness. Sklar minimized some of these parallels by contending that before Gatsby Fitzgerald knew only Nostromo, "Youth," A Mirror of the Sun, The Nigger of the Narcissus, and Victory (F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön 152). Fitzgerald's reference to Lord Jim, however, in a 1923 review of Sherwood Anderson and an allusion to Heart of Darkness in the 1920 story "The Offshore Pirate" indicate some familiarity with both works. Moreover, most of the parallels cited by Stallman and others, especially Long, seem too striking to be fortuitous (The Achieving of "The Great Gatsby," 85-96).

16. David Belasco (1859-1931) was a flamboyant American theatrical actor, playwright, director, and producer--a sumptuous showman who loved lavish staging and stage machinery to astound his audiences, a Cecil B. De Mille or Steven Spielberg of the legitimate stage. Belasco is perhaps best known today as the author of the plays on which Giacomo Puccini based his operas Madama Butterfly and La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West).

17. Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, 123.

18. Fitzgerald, Correspondence, 146.

Bibliography

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Fitzgerald, F. Scott. All the Sad Young Men. New York: Scribner's, 1926.

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------. The Crack-Up. Edited by Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions, 1956.

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------. The Vegetable: Or From Postman to President. 1923. New York: Scribner's, 1976.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Zelda Fitzgerald. Bits of Paradise: Twenty-one Uncollected Stories by Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Scottie Fitzgerald Smith. New York: Scribner's, 1973.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Harold Ober. As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent, Harold Ober. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Jennifer M. Atkinson. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, and Maxwell Perkins. Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence. Edited by John Kuehl and Jackson R. Bryer. New York: Scribner's, 1971.

Long, Robert Emmet. The Achieving of "The Great Gatsby": F. Scott Fitzgerald 1920-1925. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Piper, Henry Dan. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait. New York: Holt, 1965.

Scharnhorst, Gary. "Scribbling Upward: Fitzgerald's Debt of Honor to Horatio Alger, Jr." Fitzgerald-Hemingway Annual 10 (1978): 26-35.

Stallman, Robert W. "Conrad and The Great Gatsby." Twentieth Century Fiction 1 (1955): 5-11.

------. "Gatsby and the Hole in Time." Modern Fiction Studies 1 (1955): 2-16.

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Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420110007