Kent Cartwright (essay date spring 1984)

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SOURCE: Cartwright, Kent. “Nick Carraway as an Unreliable Narrator.” Papers on Language and Literature 20, no. 2 (spring 1984): 218-32.

[In the following essay, Cartwright discusses ways in which Nick Carraway is sometimes a confused or misleading narrator.]

While I have met individuals whom I might describe as more Gatsby than Carraway, I have seldom met a critic I would so describe. As critics, we seem to cherish our disillusionment. Indeed, serious interest in The Great Gatsby, according to Richard Foster, was launched by a generation of neoclassical and formalist critics who tended to believe in the final, tough truth of existence imaged in the thinning possibility and thinning joy of Nick's lugubrious moral retreat. As a consequence, traditional estimates of The Great Gatsby have grown up around the dual assumptions that Nick speaks for his author and that the novel's mission is an essentially straightforward criticism of the American Dream.1 Furthermore, because something about Nick's “midwesternism” seems deeply personal to Fitzgerald, critics have tended not to distinguish between either the narrator and his author or the narrator and his novel. Nick's vision, however, is not identical to Fitzgerald's, or at least to the novel's, for Nick is capable of being an unreliable narrator at moments that are crucial to the story's development. Indeed, in exactly the same ways that Nick may be a flawed character, he is also sometimes a confused, misleading, or inaccurate teller of his tale.

In the last two decades, critical acceptance of Nick's judgments has yielded to some disenchantment with the narrator and his moral actions. His detractors have described him variously (and perhaps excessively) as a defunct archpriest, panderer, prig, spiritual bankrupt, hypocrite, and “moral eunuch”—a man capable of neither assertive action nor self-knowledge.2 Even those congenial to Carraway's views speak of his “inhibitions and lack of boldness,” his failure of self-awareness, and his fear of commitment. To many readers, moreover, the hopelessness of Nick's final vision seems somehow to betray his story.3 Part of that dissatisfaction arises from Nick's moral withdrawal to the Middle West of his past, while a related response argues that the dream lives beyond Gatsby's death and that a “gleam of hope” is left the reader at the end, a hope perhaps inspired by the very limitations of Nick's consciousness.4

Recent critics, that is, have begun to see Gatsby's story differently from the way Nick would have us see it. To pose such possibilities, however, is to tamper with accepted notions about the novel's integrity, for some defenders of Nick have argued that “the book makes no sense—if Carraway is repudiated.”5 Yet the limitations of Nick's character do have narrative consequences, for Nick sometimes sees only part of a meaning that a scene carries, sometimes shifts ground perplexingly, and sometimes even strains “judgments” out of inconclusive evidence. To accuse Nick of such faults might sound idiosyncratic and even churlish. After all, Nick is the novel's lone moral consciousness; only he sees the richness of meaning—the ineffable dream and its foul wake—in the events on Long Island that summer. But some readers argue that Nick's vision is “limited” and that Fitzgerald intended no simple identification either between the narrator and himself or the narrator and his reader; others have begun to discover differing, sometimes conflicting narrative “voices” in Nick.6

In addition, Nick develops a peculiar rigidity during the course of the novel. Concurrently, as Nick reveals a growing determination to perceive events in a fixed way, his flights of responsive imagination diminish. After chapter 6 the novel darkens. One explanation for this...

(This entire section contains 6451 words.)

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is that the romantic and mythic context gives way to the social and economic.7 The darkening tone, then, proceeds in part from Nick's evolving consciousness, a staking out of his moral terrain of lost possibility. The two narrative movements are simultaneous: Nick's emerging weaknesses as a narrator parallel his progressively constricted vision, as if the truths Nick affirms are not exactly the truths of his fable. Nick's final disillusionment, that is, derives as much from his own moral dimness, his passivity, and his exaggerated gentility as it does from the facts of Gatsby's life; correspondingly, those qualities sometimes compromise the narration, altering, even from moment to moment, the response—empathy or removal, acceptance or doubt—that his telling draws from the reader. Such a view of Nick's weaknesses must challenge the traditional assumption that Nick generally doubles for Fitzgerald. It might, indeed, reveal that Nick's closing asceticism is more a preference than an imperative, that his assessment of the dream is not conclusive, and that the novel is far more open-ended than some critics have suggested.

Almost from the beginning, the narration invites readers to feel subtle distinctions between representation and explanation. This divergence is a characteristic of the novel's narrative style and is repeated variously throughout the story. The technique has the advantage of economy; it gives readers two types of impressions: one created through descriptions of places, things, and events, and another created by Nick's responses and reflections. The pattern exhibits itself, for example, in Daisy's story of the butler's nose and her comparison of Nick to an absolute rose.

“I'll tell you a family secret,” she whispered enthusiastically. “It's about the butler's nose. Do you want to hear about the butler's nose? … Well, he wasn't always a butler; he used to be the silver polisher for some people in New York that had a silver service for two hundred people. He had to polish it from morning till night, until finally it began to affect his nose.”

“I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a—of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn't he?” She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: “An absolute rose?”8

In the first instance, Daisy's anecdote is trivial and insipid, clearly anticlimactic to the preparation she makes; in the second her comparison is ridiculous and insincere, camouflaging her real preoccupation. But in both cases, Nick is captivated by Daisy's vibrant beauty: “For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened” (14); “She was only extemporizing, but a stirring warmth flowed from her, as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of those breathless, thrilling words” (15). In each example, the narration creates two effects, the first through the structure of incidents—such as the thrown napkin and abrupt departure with which Daisy disposes of her interest in absolute roses—and the second through Nick's mesmerization before her shining face and the feverish modulations of her voice. But the two effects judge Daisy oppositely: the one with distance, the other with engagement. This is not to say that Nick fails to recognize that Daisy is as childish as she is womanly, rather that the response he emphasizes reveals only one-half the way the scene dramatizes her. To acknowledge such distinctions is already to put the reader at some critical remove from the narrator.

An example of Nick's inordinate responses occurs in chapter 4 during his automobile ride with Gatsby to New York (64-69). Fitzgerald's aim in this scene is to create that ambivalence fundamental to the novel by deepening our fascination with the mystery of Gatsby, even though Gatsby teeters on the edge of the ridiculous. One technique Fitzgerald employs is to preserve a kernel of actual or even metaphoric truth in each of Gatsby's falsehoods: he was educated, at least for a few months, at Oxford; he did inherit a “good deal of money” from his spiritual father, Dan Cody, though he was cheated of it; he was a genuine war hero, even if a copy of Sergeant York. Another, more subtle technique is to distance the reader from Carraway's judgment, just as Nick is distanced from Gatsby. Through the episode we see Nick's initial, cool skepticism toppling before his sensual imagination—responses disproportionate in either extreme—which leave the reader's more balanced impressions at odds with the narrator's. Indeed, we are left reacting to Nick's reactions, a condition which not only insulates Gatsby but also evokes his power.

During the journey Fitzgerald calls our attention repeatedly to Nick's filtering lens. We begin pointedly with Nick's aesthetic intellectualism, his “disappointment” that Gatsby “had little to say” and the arch dismissal of him as “simply the proprietor of an elaborate road-house next door” (64). Yet juxtaposed against this wry boredom is the promise of surprise: “And then came that disconcerting ride” (65). Thus, Fitzgerald sets the drama of the scene in the dialectics of Nick's response. Nick rapidly demonstrates a repertoire of judicious responses: his strained sensitivity at Gatsby's overtness, “A little overwhelmed, I began the generalized evasions which that question deserves” (65); his fine ear for the false note as Gatsby stumbles, or chokes, over “educated at Oxford. … And with this doubt his whole statement fell to pieces, and I wondered if there wasn't tion deserves” (65); his fine ear for the false note as Gatsby stum-something a little sinister about him, after all” (65); and his discreet confirming of his own instincts as he asks Gatsby in what part of the Middle West he grew up and is answered “‘San Francisco.’” Nick's power of lucid assessment is in full display.

Carraway's vision of Gatsby now becomes more subtle and extreme. When Gatsby recalls the “sudden extinction” of his clan, Nick responds, “For a moment I suspected that he was pulling my leg, but a glance at him convinced me otherwise” (66). Nick momentarily suspects Gatsby of an irony of which the observer is capable but the observed incapable, though Nick's glance leaves unsettled whether he thinks Gatsby means what he says or not. Gatsby's next image of himself, as a young, sad rajah in the capitals of Europe, tickles Nick with literary hilarity: “With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter. The very phrases were worn so threadbare that they evoked no image except that of a turbaned ‘character’ leaking sawdust at every pore as he pursued a tiger through the Bois de Boulogne” (66). Nick reacts in the full possession of his worldliness, distancing the reader with him, as he caricatures Gatsby's tale into a pastiche of incongruent cliches. And at just that moment of assurance, Nick trips unknowingly over his own learned responses. Gatsby tells his story of the Argonne Forest: “We stayed there two days and two nights, a hundred and thirty men with sixteen Lewis guns, and when the infantry came up at last they found the insignia of three German divisions among the piles of the dead. I was promoted to be a major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration—even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea” (66).

Influenced by the absurdity of the sawdust romance, Nick dismisses Gatsby's war reminiscence: “it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines” (67). But Carraway misjudges. Gatsby's tale is not incredible in context: unlike the leaking rajah, its subject is realistic, its derailing local and concrete, and the whole internally consistent. It is also confirmed by Nick himself in subsequent narrative when he summarizes Gatsby's career: “He did extraordinarily well in the war. He was a captain before he went to the front, and following the Argonne battles he got his majority and the command of the divisional machine-guns” (150). Such acts of singular courage, of course, were familiar during the First World War. The narrative itself has been colored from the beginning by a sense of restless men—Nick in particular—returning from war, flushed with the adventure and thrill of combat. Nick and Gatsby had established the bond of war experience between them before they even learned each other's names (47), and the restlessness that Nick has noticed in Gatsby (“He was never quite still [64]) at the outset of their journey recalls again, like Nick's own restlessness, the agitations of the combat veteran. The Argonne Forest adventure then is not pulp fantasy in the same sense as the melancholy rajah; it is, in fact, close to Nick's own experiences and close to the texture of the novel. Nick has allowed his reactions to outrun his evidence.

Yet Carraway's opinion next does a “disconcerting” about-face. As Gatsby brandishes the medal from Montenegro, Nick begins to capitulate: “To my astonishment, the thing had an authentic look” (67). The Oxford picture completes the reversal: “Then it was all true. I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart” (67). Nick's conversion is so odd that one scrutinizes for a hint of irony. There is none, nor any countervailing action either, like Nick's earlier clarifying glance. Nick's capitulation appears confirmed, furthermore, by his own “astonishment” and by Gatsby's “satisfaction” as he pockets up his trophies. Indeed, the flaming tigers' skins and the crimson-lighted chest have a familiar ring about them, recalling, for example, the blooming Mediterranean and idylls of Fifth Avenue of an earlier episode. Carraway betrays his susceptibility, much like that of which he accuses Gatsby, not only to romance but also to the fantasies of “a dozen magazines.”

A culminating incident follows. When Gatsby shows a “white card from his wallet” to the motorcycle policeman, who immediately apologizes for having stopped him, Nick asks, “‘What was that? … The picture of Oxford?’” (68). Nick's question is commonly considered sarcastic, though his habitual ambivalence makes an intentional naivete possible as well. Yet if Nick is now taking rhetorical revenge, are we to understand his vision of the Grand Canal as sarcastic, too? Or has Nick simply switched to his rationalist mode? If sarcastic, then Nick will undergo yet another sea change, since the journey ends in an affirmation of fairyland, “the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps,” where “Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder” (69). Either Nick means, confusingly, sometimes more and sometimes less than what he says, or his impressionability and fastidiousness alternately swallow each other.

Nick's “judgment” of Gatsby becomes exaggerated, unstable, and finally self-compromising. The key to Nick's response, of course, is his admission that his “incredulity was submerged in fascination” (67). To whatever degree Gatsby has won Nick over, he has won him not by an appeal to evidence but by an appeal to imagination. Because of his impressionability, Nick grasps an image and decks it out with his own bright feathers. But through this submersion, Nick's belief has in some measure grown. Fascination breeds credulity. Indeed, Gatsby is such a cliché that on the flimsiest of bona fides he becomes a miracle. Fitzgerald shows Carraway increasingly convinced of Gatsby; simultaneously, he moves the reader as well, but not in unison. Because we diverge from Nick—sometimes hesitating at his reactions, sometimes moving beyond them—we feel, even as we too are compelled with fascination, a firmer objectivity. Nick's confusions, then, become values in the reader's portrait of Gatsby, making him powerful even as he is remote; plausible yet strange; possible. Thanks, curiously, to the distance Fitzgerald establishes between Nick and his reader, even Gatsby can happen here, without any particular wonder.

As the novel progresses, Nick's sense of possibility recedes. In the memorable scene when Gatsby, Daisy, and Nick tour Gatsby's house (91-97) after the two lovers have been reunited, we hear the note of doubt and disbelief echo like the faint rumble of thunder along the Sound. That counterpoint is structured, in part, into the details of the scene—the rain, the gathering darkness, the isolation of the lovers—but another part is developed by the steady commentary of the narrator. Indeed, while the scenic details are ambiguous in their import, Nick's emerging disillusionment is less so. Nick wants to suggest that for all the intensity of the moment the consummation is unreal, atavistic. But the scene we have is incomplete, perhaps contrary, evidence for his conclusion.

Just as Daisy's house is the symbol of the magical, transforming power of wealth, the tour of Gatsby's house is a ritual demonstration of his rightful entry into Daisy's world and beyond Daisy's world into a self-created beatitude of money. The tour is a set-piece, a celebration of the passage into fairyland.9 The three enter formally by the big posterns, the long way. Daisy murmurs enchantingly as she admires the feudal silhouette, the gardens, the odors of various flowers. The house is a castle of nascent life and incongruent riches: the Marie Antoinette music rooms and Restoration salons imminent with breathless, imagined guests, “period bedrooms swathed in rose and lavender silk and vivid with new flowers” (92). At this moment, Gatsby's life is the wild romance of the young rajah come true, and it is no wonder that Nick is on the verge of asking to see the rubies. Gatsby's shirts are the apotheosis of his wealth, part of the “youth and mystery”—like Daisy's “freshness of many clothes” (150)—that wealth imprisons. They are the riches of the East, existing only to glorify their owner, a numinous beauty so vast and so casually held that Daisy buries her face and cries, herself, in wonder. Daisy is at one with Gatsby's dream.10

And for this interlude at least, Gatsby achieves his dream of Daisy. Nick, both as participant and as narrator, realizes the immensity of this fulfillment. In the ecstasy of Daisy's presence, Gatsby has transcended his known world: “Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real” (92). As Gatsby tries ineffectually to explain himself, Nick observes the intensity and flow of this transformation: “He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence” (93). Nick, too, has a sense of the delicate magic of the moment. As the three of them look at the pink and golden sunset over the sea, Daisy whispers to Gatsby, “‘I'd like to just get one of those pink clouds and put you in it and push you around’” (95). In the ethereal adolescence of that profession of love is its power, and Nick responds to the aura of completeness that surrounds the two lovers: “I tried to go then, but they wouldn't hear of it; perhaps my presence made them feel more satisfactorily alone” (95). The twilight falling, Nick emphasizes the removal of Gatsby and Daisy into a storybook world of their own. As “The Eve of St. Agnes” leaves its lovers suddenly long ages hence, so too Carraway leaves Gatsby and Daisy inhabiting their vision in solitude: “They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn't know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked at me, remotely, possessed by intense life” (97).

Countering the tone of ritual, love, and apotheosis in this episode is an undertow, a suggestion of failure and constriction, made by Nick. This judgment is more than a matter of “structural” irony; it is an awkward and personal interpretation. Of Gatsby's absorption in the thought of the green light on Daisy's dock, for example, Nick writes: “Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. … Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (94). Not only is the narrator's grammatical shift from a conditional to a declarative stance peculiar, but the comment itself is peculiar, coming from the observer who has just described a whole mansion full of objects transformed in the enchantment of the lover's presence. Daisy admiring his rooms, Daisy brushing her hair with his golden brush, Daisy sobbing into his shirts—Gatsby's count of magical objects has actually increased a thousandfold (92). Nick's reflections are not the remarks of the person who almost asks to see the rubies, but rather the more hardened and distant judgments of the man who has seen further to the ruination of Gatsby's dream. They are remarks true to Nick's developing character, but less true to the moment that Gatsby and Daisy inhabit.

Nick wants to argue that the dream is unachievable at the very moment that Gatsby is achieving it. Another such incongruent judgment comes as he leaves the lovers:

As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. … No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

As I watched him he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn't be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song.


Again, Nick seems to be speaking from two perspectives: the one of a man describing what he sees, the other of a man pleading, instead, his own view of life. Nick's assertion that “no amount of fire or freshness can challenge” a man's illusions argues discordantly with the “fluctuating, feverish warmth” of the voice that “couldn't be over-dreamed.” Daisy's voice is as exciting and compelling as Gatsby's vision of her; her voice is, in fact, the essence of her attractiveness, and its incessant, erotic modulations are the essence of the dream. Just as Daisy's voice held Nick spellbound in chapter 1, it is commensurate also with Gatsby's capacity for wonder. Nick seems to be temporarily both “inside and outside” this scene, but the conjunction of viewpoints mystifies, as if Daisy's voice could be both overdreamed and not overdreamed. For the reader, Nick's descriptions point a different direction from his assessments. The glory of this scene, of course, is its ambiguity about what is really won or lost, a mystery to which Nick is no master sleuth. While Nick misjudges the occasion by the measure of his own later disillusionment, Gatsby and Daisy exist inside the dream, living it.

In the novel's final chapter, a peculiar dislocation or reorientation of the story's direction takes place which again connects Nick's personal limitations with his blurred narrative judgment. The first three sections (164-76) of the chapter deal with Gatsby's funeral. The narrator's intention is to sink Gatsby's death into anticlimax by revealing his essential irrelevance to the world in which he had seemed to be the observed of all observers and by demonstrating again the pathetic fragility of the dream which had now “broken up like glass against Tom's hard malice” (148). But the story of Gatsby's burial, ironically, turns out to be not so much about Gatsby as it is about Nick. More than in the immediately preceding chapters, Nick's judgments and responses are evident here: his feeling of responsibility toward Gatsby, his growing awareness of the callous indifference of others, his final emotional numbness.

Nick identifies Gatsby with his own progress. The chapter, in fact, is largely a probing of Nick's statement that “I found myself on Gatsby's side, and alone” (165). Nick feels an “intense personal interest” (165) and a ceremonial responsibility toward Gatsby, whose body seems to call out to him for help and companionship (166): “I wanted to get somebody for him. I wanted to go into the room where he lay and reassure him …” (165). On Gatsby's behalf, Nick grows in angry disillusionment at the breaches of faith by those like Daisy and Wolfsheim who should care most for Gatsby at the final hour: “I began to have a feeling of defiance, of scornful solidarity between Gatsby and me against them all” (166). Just as he takes up partial residence in his house, Nick takes up Gatsby's moral residence, becomes Gatsby's factor, seeking out for him the apparent meaning of his death. That meaning is in its abandonment. After hanging up on Klipspringer, Nick acknowledges, he “felt a certain shame for Gatsby” (170), as if embarrassed for his friend at the indifference of those who accepted his generosity. In the desolation of Gatsby's funeral Nick begins, as the canvas is rolled back, to slip into an unfeeling abstractedness: “I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment, but he was already too far away, and I could only remember, without resentment, that Daisy hadn't sent a message or a flower” (176). Nick loses Gatsby, too, and the ceremony's diminution becomes its revelation.

The narrative perspective toward Gatsby is thus both inside and outside in an odd, sequential way. Though Nick begins as Gatsby's surrogate, he becomes the dulled consciousness of society. That external frame of reference is illustrated in Nick by the futility of his comradeship and by his own failing intimacy with Gatsby. The narrative stance toward Gatsby in death has become the opposite side of its stance toward him in life: while earlier parts of the novel witness the world from the context of Gatsby, later ones witness Gatsby from the context of an indifferent world. On the strength, and ironic failure, of Nick's very empathy, the narrative perspective reduces Gatsby's dream to ashes. The vitiated ritual of Gatsby's burial finds its emotional correlative in Nick's numbness, the tableau comprising for him life's sentence upon the dreamer and the dream. Nick's psychic depletion becomes, too, the ironic reversal of Gatsby's dazed exaltation in his reunion with Daisy, the two events parallel in their isolation, one in “intense life,” the other in death.

Is Nick's judgment the same as the fable's? While Nick's numbness succeeds Gatsby's exhilaration in time, does it also succeed in value? Gatsby was a creature of magic and light, and though he used the “glitterati” of Long Island as stardust for Daisy, they were only that, as unimportant to him as he is to them. The loneliness of Gatsby's interment can only be irrelevant to the transforming power of his vision while he lived. Indeed, it is more important to Nick that Gatsby's funeral be attended than it ever could have been to Gatsby. Nick's dual perspective seems self-contradictory: the meaning that he brings to Gatsby's death from outside is inconsistent with his knowledge of Gatsby's special existence. The isolation of Gatsby's funeral cannot destroy the wonder of his life.

The centerpiece both for Nick's “intense personal interest” and for his “shame for Gatsby” is his visit to Wolfsheim, Gatsby's “closest friend” (172). Oddly, the episode resists Nick's melancholy irony. Wolfsheim's pleasant and casual gangsterism and his vision of the perfectly criminal in the perfectly patriotic and upper class render the scene comic. Nick's intention, apparently, is to show Wolfsheim as a genial sentimentalist and then to puncture his “friendship” (Gatsby's last “‘goneggtion’” with his world) by revealing the facile cynicism and manipulativeness under it. For Wolfsheim will not attend the funeral, will not “‘get mixed up in it’” (173): his friendship is merely conspiracy. Yet Wolfsheim also delivers some parting advice which forms a comment, in turn, upon Nick's brand of camaraderie: “‘Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead’” (173). Good advice—but Nick has acted out its reverse. He has been a better friend to Gatsby in death than in life, and his “interest” comes like an apology after the calamity he has watched so passively. Wolfsheim's perspective is the rejoinder to Carraway's. Just as Gatsby's dream is what ennobles him beyond Wolfsheim, so Wolfsheim's statement exposes Carraway. Nick, as he thinks to serve Gatsby in death, is really doing what he likes best: serving a form, a ceremony, a set of manners.

The problems with Nick as narrator are similar to the problems with Nick as moral center. The personal characteristics that have caused readers to distrust his moral vision are connected to the qualities that invite the reader's distrust for the accuracy of some narrative judgments: his impressionability in the car ride sequence, his confusing ambivalence during the tour of Gatsby's mansion, his self-serving proprieties surrounding the funeral. Nick's judgments, however, seem to harden in disillusionment even as the fable's ambiguities compound. Rather than the arbiter of final meanings, Nick is a contestant in the novel's internal tugging war for truth.11 His narrative failings, in fact, recall other characters who live inside the defensive armor of their own mannerisms, pretensions, and falsehoods: Myrtle and her comic gentility; Jordan looking like a “good illustration” (178) or losing herself in the curious balancing act of her chin before a disagreeable conversation; Daisy and her “sophistication”; Tom expounding a stupid racism or swinging his forearms like a half-back along Fifth Avenue. Such masks and ploys symbolize characters who will not connect with one another or with the life around them.

Nick is the one character capable of perceiving life as Gatsby and the others live it, but he will not shake his fellows out of their defensive pretensions or their complacencies or their lies. Despite Gatsby's grand protean existence, Nick prefers to believe in the unchangeableness of the human character, or at least the unchangeableness of those careless people who smash up things and creatures. That belief is an expression of Nick's personality, for he comes to accept the loneliness and isolation of human experience, but it is not the only truth in the novel. Gatsby dies from the shallowness of Daisy, the hard malice of Tom, and his own pride and misjudgment, not from hope and wonder. Though Nick declares that “you can't repeat the past,” the story neither proves nor disproves it. That is perhaps the most unsettling effect of the novel: that the myth of Gatsby survives everything—his own presumption, Tom's malice, and Nick's gloom. That is surely because the dream is as much emotion as object, as much the capacity for wonder and aesthetic contemplation as it is Daisy Buchanan. Accordingly, the dream never loses its sense of reality: the thrill of excitement and possibility in Daisy's voice convinces utterly, long after she is confirmed in triviality. Gatsby's vitality alone is the measure of his dream. That is why Nick's gradual detachment from Gatsby in death not only misrepresents the dream but is irrelevant to it.

Yet we are drawn to the narrator. Beyond the fundamental decency which Nick reveals—as he wipes the dried lather from Mr. McKee's cheek (37), or corrects Daisy's assertion that Tom is shamming about a car deal while really talking to his girlfriend (116), or erases the obscene word from Gatsby's steps (181)—his sheer, brilliant responsiveness to life sometimes redeems his passivity. That sensitivity compares for the reader, perhaps better than Gatsby's, “to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away” (2). Images flood in upon him, touching off flights of imagination: Jordan's chin, Daisy's voice, Gatsby's smile; he perceives the subtlest social communications; he resonates with sentiment, chagrin, perplexity, and transport. Nick's imagination charms us, even more than the occasions that draw it forth. In the “unprosperous” and “bare” interior of Wilson's wretched garage, for example, Nick fantasizes “that sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead”—incredible commentary, until it turns into half-truth, for the apartments do contain a woman of “immediately perceptible vitality” and “smouldering” nerve ends (25). Again, Fifth Avenue is “so warm and soft, almost pastoral,” that he “wouldn't have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner” (28). At the party in Washington Heights, as Catherine talks disparagingly on Monte Carlo, for Nick, “The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean” (34).

We feel a special affection for Nick, in part because the freshness and humor of the novel are substantially an expression of his vision. We wish him well. Our affinity with Nick is also a function of the novel's first-person point of view, a narrative perspective for which Wayne Booth's comment about Emma applies with equal force: “the sustained inside view leads the reader to hope for good fortune for the character with whom he travels, quite independently of the qualities revealed.”12 Together with his narrative intimacy, Nick's likeability with the audience creates (as Kenneth Burke would have it) form.13 These two phenomena arouse expectations within the psyche of the reader that the resolution of the narrative will also bring about Nick's personal fulfillment. Some version of a positive finish—wisdom, if not joy—is implicit in the very condition of the novel, the aesthetic choices Fitzgerald has made. Part of the work's ambivalence, however, stems from Fitzgerald's undercutting of the novel's form; he defeats our expectations, for Nick loses Gatsby, misses in love, and retreats to the safe and complacent Middle West of his past. I suspect that the discomfort so many readers have felt with the novel's ending is a direct expression of this irresolution in Gatsby's form, a dissonance which must reinforce our sense of Nick's limitations. The conclusion of the novel challenges any blithe acceptance of Nick—as moral arbiter, as judicious observer, as companion, as a character fully entitled to our expectations of good fortune. Indeed, Nick's charming impressionability contains the seeds of his own disablement. His imagination is the strongest part of his character, as his fantasies about entering the lives of beautiful women on Fifth Avenue suggest; but the romance of life consists more in what he rhapsodizes than in what he does. As Nick himself observes, there is a “haunting loneliness” and “wast[e]” about such a life (57). While Nick reverberates like a tympan with felt life, he is the opposite of Gatsby, fixed, like the wall of the cave against which the shadows play.

Readers sometimes confuse the narrator of The Great Gatsby with its author, but the novel is far more ambiguous and morally disconcerting than the attitude that Nick would have us accept. The work represents a kind of miscegenation of forms, a romance enclosed in a novel of manners, and Nick and Gatsby seem attached as if by pulleys: as the one is more credible, the other is less so. Gatsby can be both criminal and romantic hero because the book creates for him a visionary moral standard that transcends the conventional and that his life affirms.14 However, nothing in Nick compels our contemplation or our wonder; he lives in the image of an increasingly reductive melancholy, not of a transcending dream. While Nick has begun the novel addressing questions of judgment, he steadily reveals the infirmity of his own. Nick learns disillusionment for himself, but his unreliable assessments at several key moments distance the reader from the same inevitability. That difference, in fact, is part of the enduring fascination of Fitzgerald's employment of a first-person point of view in the novel. While Fitzgerald subverts our expectations for Nick, he does not wholly subvert the moral or emotional justice of those expectations. The possibility of fulfillment remains latent within the life of the novel despite Nick's inability to attain it. If Nick's ending betrays the story, the novel's inextinguishable sense of possibility partly restores it. Ultimately, the failure of Nick's narration is a failure of his will to believe, even in his own imagination. Too cautious to pay the price for living too long with a single dream, Nick pays the much dearer price for living too long with no dream.


  1. Foster, “The Way to Read Gatsby,” in Sense and Sensibility in Twentieth-Century Writing, ed. Brom Weber (Carbondale, Ill., 1970), pp. 94-95. Cf. John W. Aldridge, “The Life of Gatsby,” in Twelve Original Essays on Great American Novels, ed. Charles Shapiro (Detroit, 1958), p. 211; and Marius Bewley, “Scott Fitzgerald's Criticism of America,” The Sewanee Review 62 (1954): 223.

  2. Robert W. Stallman, “Gatsby and the Hole in Time,” Modern Fiction Studies, 1, no. 4 (1955): 2-16; rpt. in The House That James Built and Other Literary Studies (East Lansing, Mich., 1961), pp. 131-50; Gary J. Scrimgeour, “Against The Great Gatsby,Criticism 8 (1966): 83-85; Peter L. Hays, “Hemingway and Fitzgerald,” in Hemingway in our Time, ed. Richard Astro and Jackson L. Benson (Corvallis, Ore., 1974), p. 96.

  3. Robert Emmet Long, The Achieving of “The Great Gatsby”: F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920-25 (Lewisburg, Pa., 1979), p. 145; Barry Gross, “Our Gatsby, Our Nick,” The Centennial Review 14 (1970): 334-36; A. E. Elmore, “Nick Carraway's Self-Introduction,” in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1971, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr. (Dayton, Ohio, 1971), p. 137; Milton Hindus, F. Scott Fitzgerald: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York, 1968), pp. 40-41; Milton R. Stern, The Golden Moment: The Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Urbana, Ill., 1970), p. 288; Richard D. Lehan, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction (Carbondale, Ill., 1966), p. 111; Foster, p. 108.

  4. Lehan, p. 112; Scrimgeour, 83-84; Robert Ornstein, “Scott Fitzgerald's Fable of East and West,” College English 18 (1956-57): 142-43; Gross, p. 339; Oliver H. Evans, “‘A Sort of Moral Attention’: The Narrator of The Great Gatsby,” in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1971, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr. (Dayton, Ohio, 1971), p. 120; Robert Sklar, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoön (New York, 1967), p. 192; Sergio Perosa, The Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald, trans. Sergio Perosa and Charles Matz (Ann Arbor, 1965), p. 70; Ruth Betsy Tenenbaum, “‘The Gray-Turning, Gold-Turning Consciousness’ of Nick Carraway,” in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1975, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and C. E. Frazer Clark, Jr. (Englewood, Colo., 1975), p. 54.

  5. See Stern, p. 193; Scrimgeour, p. 83.

  6. Evans, pp. 117-39; Tenenbaum, pp. 37-55. Cf. Hindus, pp. 40, 50; William T. Stafford, Books Speaking to Books: A Contextual Approach to American Fiction (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981), pp. 43-50.

  7. Sklar, p. 187. See also Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, N.Y., 1957), pp. 162-67. For a different view of the novel's change in tone see E. Fred Carlisle, “The Triple Vision of Nick Carraway,” Modern Fiction Studies 11 (1965-66): 351-60.

  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York, 1925), pp. 14, 15; cited hereafter in the text by page.

  9. For a discussion of the fairy tale elements in Gatsby see Peter L. Hays, “Gatsby, Myth, Fairy Tale, and Legend,” Southern Folklore Quarterly 41 (1977): 213-23.

  10. Stern, p. 175, considers this effect a “slip” on the part of Fitzgerald. See also Bewley, p. 241; and Ernest H. Lockridge, Introduction, Twentieth Century Interpretations of “The Great Gatsby”: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ernest H. Lockridge (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968), p. 14.

  11. See Peter Lisca, “Nick Carraway and the Imagery of Disorder,” Twentieth Century Literature 13 (1967): 26-27; see also Long, pp. 181-82, 214-15, n. 8.

  12. The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961), pp. 245-46.

  13. “Psychology and Form,” Counter-Statement, 2nd ed. (Los Altos, Calif., 1953), pp. 29-44.

  14. Lawrence W. Hyman, “Moral Attitudes and the Literary Experience,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 38 (1979): 159-65.


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The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

(Full name Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright.

The following entry provides criticism on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925) from 1984 through 2001. See also, F. Scott Fitzgerald Criticism and "Babylon Revisited" Criticism.

Critics have generally agreed that The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is the crowning achievement of Fitzgerald's literary career. It evokes not only the ambiance of the jazz-age search for the American dream of wealth and happiness, but also the larger questions of fading traditional values in the face of increasing materialism and cynicism.

Plot and Major Characters

Fitzgerald frames his plot as a story within a story, as the narrator, Nick Carraway, relates his version of Jay Gatsby's life. Nick, seeking freedom from his constricted Midwestern existence, takes a job in New York City and rents a bungalow in West Egg, Long Island, next door to the lavish mansion of the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Nick's wealthy cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband Tom, invite Nick to dinner with the attractive but flighty Jordan Baker at their luxurious home on the neighboring island of East Egg. Unsettled by the Buchanans' seemingly purposeless lives, Nick returns home and notices his neighbor Gatsby staring longingly at a green light across the bay coming from the Buchanans' property. Tom later persuades Nick to accompany him to a place he calls the Valley of Ashes and introduces him to his blowsy mistress, Myrtle Wilson. Tom, Myrtle, and Nick end up at an apartment in New York, where a wild party ensues, and in a violent outburst, Tom strikes Myrtle and breaks her nose. Later in the month, Gatsby sends Nick an invitation to come to a sumptuous party at his estate, where Nick meets his neighbor for the first time. This is the first of many parties Nick attends at the Gatsby mansion in the company of many of the rich and famous. When Gatsby later takes Nick to New York for lunch, he regales him with tales of his war medals and his Oxford education. The other guest at lunch is the notorious gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, who reportedly fixed the World Series in 1918. Nick, befuddled by Gatsby's questionable associations, is also taken aback when Jordan asks him on Gatsby's behalf to invite Daisy to lunch at Nick's bungalow. He does so even though he now knows that Daisy and Gatsby were in love prior to her marriage to Tom. The two ill-fated lovers meet, and Gatsby takes Daisy to his mansion and invites her to his next party. Daisy agrees, but when she disapproves of some of his guests, Gatsby stops entertaining altogether. He eventually tells Nick of his truly humble Midwest origins, noting that his name is really Gatz, that he did not graduate from Oxford, and that he has made his fortune in bootlegging and other nefarious ventures. One day Gatsby, the Buchanans, Jordan, and Nick drive to New York. On the way, they stop at the garage of George Wilson, husband of Myrtle, who tries to get money from Tom and announces that he and Myrtle are leaving town. At a hotel in New York, Tom accuses Gatsby of trying to steal his wife, and a fierce argument ensues. Daisy heads home with Gatsby, and shortly thereafter Tom and Jordan stop at Wilson's garage to find that Myrtle has been killed by a hit-and-run driver of a yellow car. Tom blames the death on Gatsby though the real driver at the time was Daisy, whom Gatsby seeks to protect. George Wilson, thinking Gatsby was the driver, goes to Gatsby's estate, shoots him, and then kills himself. Only Gatsby's father, who thinks his son was a great man, attends his funeral. Nick later learns that Tom had a part in Gatsby's death, having convinced Wilson that Myrtle and Gatsby were lovers. Disillusioned with the Buchanans and their ilk, Nick decides to return to the Midwest.

Major Themes

Echoes of the American Dream pervade the novel, which contrasts the supposed innocence and moral sense of the “Western” characters with the sophistication and materialism of the “Eastern” characters. Gatsby's lavish existence in the nouveau riche Long Island community of West Egg, moreover, cannot ever compensate for his lack of the more pedigreed wealth of East Egg. He remains an “innocent” in his single-minded pursuit of Daisy despite his association with underworld characters and ill-begotten money. The Valley of Ashes and the sign with the blank eyes of Dr. Eckleburg indicate a moral wasteland and an absent God—as well as the emptiness of the new commercial culture. Gatsby's pursuit of his dream takes on a mythic quality, mirroring the dream which led Americans to conquer the frontier. Gatsby's “frontier,” however, is an ill-advised pursuit of a vacuous young woman not worthy of his love. Initially, Nick, the Midwestern moral arbiter, disdains Gatsby's values, but he eventually comes to see something heroic in Gatsby's vision, which reflects America's own loss of innocence in the face of the crass materialism of the 1920s.

Critical Reception

Early reviews of Gatsby were mixed, and relatively few copies actually had sold before Fitzgerald's death in 1940. Many critics, most notably Ernest Hemingway, were put off by the fact that Fitzgerald had been known as a writer of stories for popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. It was not until a revival of Fitzgerald's works in the 1950s that the novel began to attract serious criticism. For the five ensuing decades, Gatsby has continued to attract critical attention and reappraisal. Critics have praised Fitzgerald's tightly woven narrative, and many have focused on the position of the narrator, Nick Carraway, and the subjective limitations of his observations of Gatsby's saga. Although Gatsby was for many years called “a novel of the Jazz Age” (a term which Fitzgerald coined), critics have agreed that it has a much more universal meaning, not the least of which is a trenchant critique of materialist American society much like T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The appearance of at least four biographies in the 1990s and early 2000s is an indication that interest in Fitzgerald's novels remains unabated. Earlier critics of Gatsby emphasized biographical and cultural influences on the novel, and formalist approaches dealt with the novel's structure, point of view, symbols, use of language, and the like. By the 1980s through the early 2000s, a variety of approaches, both heavily theoretical and non-theoretical, have been evident in critics' commentaries. While many have continued to explore biographical influences or comparisons with other authors, or to use New Critical analyses, others have increasingly employed such techniques as deconstruction, feminist criticism, and discourse analysis to uncover hidden meanings in the text.

Kenneth E. Eble (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Eble, Kenneth E. “The Great Gatsby and the Great American Novel.” In New Essays on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, pp. 79-100. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Eble places Gatsby in the tradition of the quest for an “American” literature.]


In length, the book barely qualifies as a full-sized novel. In subject, it is about an American bootlegger who nourishes an adolescent dream about a golden girl he can't have. Its plot does little more than tell us who the protagonist is and get him killed off in the end by the down-and-out husband of the blowsy mistress of the rich brute who has married the girl whom the hero wants but can't have. Its manner of telling is disjointed, albeit by the literary design of the author, and accompanied by some seemingly casual moralizing by an omnipresent narrator sounding suspiciously like the author and sort of occupying himself at other times by taking an interest in a woman golfer who cheats, the only other substantial character in the novel if we except a denizen of the underworld, the mistress's dog and friends, Gatsby's father, a bunch of assorted party goers, and one mourner.

From this perspective, the adulation The Great Gatsby has received may seem totally out of proportion. For half a century, it has held a high place among twentieth-century novels. Its numerous reprintings around the world and its successive presentations on film have made Gatsby as identifiable an American figure as Huck Finn. It has revived the twenties, set current fashions, and provided dialogue for three generations of devoted readers. In these respects alone, the question of its literary merits set aside, it qualifies as a great American novel. For clearly, it has added a name to that relatively small number of factual and fictional Americans by which Americans know themselves and are known by the world. And it has done so by means of a writer's craft working within the traditional form of a long fictional narrative. If a substantial claim is to be made for The Great Gatsby as the great American novel, it will have to be made by a more considered examination. What I propose here is to examine the novel's relationship to the concept of the “great American novel”; the substance of the novel, its “great argument,” as Edith Wharton phrased it; and the novel's structure and style, its excellence as a literary work, a novel.

John William De Forest, less than a great novelist himself, raised the question of “the great American novel” in an essay with that specific title in 1868.1 The literary nationalism that spawned the concept had already been expressing itself for at least half a century and had resulted in such documents as Joel Barlow's Columbiad, Royall Tyler's The Contrast, and Emerson's “The American Scholar.” The novels that De Forest could measure the concept against were not a promising lot. Their authors are largely forgotten by now—Paulding, Brown, Kennedy, and Simms: “ghosts,” who “wrote about ghosts, and the ghosts have vanished utterly.” Melville escaped De Forest's attention, much as Moby-Dick, for all its bulk, escaped most critics' notice until the twentieth century. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was there to be considered, but De Forest found the novel, as others did also, too insubstantial, too provincial, to be either novel enough or American enough to qualify. The novel he did single out was Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had a sufficiently broad, true, and sympathetic representation of American life to make it worth considering. De Forest was biased here by his own understandable preoccupation with the Civil War and its aftermath, although Uncle Tom's Cabin deserves more attention than it gets. Edmund Wilson has pointed out: “It is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect. The first thing that strikes one about it is a certain eruptive force.”2

By the time Fitzgerald began to write, seekers after the great American novel had a much wider choice, and since then a still wider choice. Edith Wharton's essay, “The Great American Novel,” in the Yale Review in 1927, expressed skepticism toward the very idea. As far as she could determine, “The great American novel must always be about Main Street, geographically, socially, and intellectually.” This was a restriction she did not accept, and most of her essay is about the limitations such insistence places on the novelist. Moreover, what might be expected of American novelists when Main Street, she argued, offered “so meagre a material to the imagination?” Still, she pointed out Robert Grant's Unleavened Bread, Frank Norris's McTeague, and David Graham Phillips' Susan Lenox as not only “great American novels,” but great novels.3

Fifty years later, Philip Roth, writing The Great American Novel in name if not in fact, offered The Scarlet Letter,Moby-Dick,Huckleberry Finn,The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl as possibilities. To be precise, these are the choices of a “Vassar slit,” presumably schooled by a modern American English department and badgered into responding to Roth's fictional Hemingway roaring: “‘What about Red Badge of Courage! What about Winesburg, Ohio! The Last of the Mohicans! Sister Carrie! McTeague! My Antonia! The Rise of Silas Lapham! Two Years Before the Mast! Ethan Frome! Barren Ground! What about Booth Tarkington and Sara Orne Jewett, while you're at it? What about our minor poet Francis Scott Fitzwhat'shis name? What about Wolfe and Dos and Faulkner?’”4

Roth has Hemingway decide, “‘It hasn't been written yet,’” and to his boast that he will write it, a seagull croaks, “Nevermore.” Perhaps gulls, if not Poe, have the last word on this matter. Frank Norris said something similar about the time Fitzgerald was born: “The Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hipogriff.” He also said that the great American novelist was either “as extinct as the Dodo or as far in the future as the practical aeroplane,” which suggests that there should be dozens of them around today. Norris had many things to say about the novel, favoring novels that were “true” and with “a purpose,” and embracing both “realism” and “romance.” He surmised that in his time, the great American novel must be “sectional,” and yet he foresaw a unified America and American novelists reaching a “universal substratum” common to all men. By such a route, he had to admit, the idea of a distinctively “American” novel disappears when a great novelist sounds “the world-note.”5

In his fiction—and it is well to note that he was christened Benjamin Franklin Norris,—Norris moved to the novel of epic scope that many others have in mind as requisite to the great American novel. He saw the settling of the American West as “the last great epic event in the history of civilization,”6 as Fitzgerald also implied in The Great Gatsby. In this respect, Whitman had already written the great American novel, although technically it happened to be a poem, Leaves of Grass, rather than a novel. Whitman, as well as anyone in prose or in poetry, defined this underlying ambition for the great American novel.

The preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass begins with two whopping assertions, the second scarcely more defensible than the first: “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”7 The elaboration of these assertions, the emphasis on “the largeness of nature or the nation” needing “gigantic and generous treatment,” are too familiar to need repeating. Fitzgerald expressed his awareness of Whitman's impact in an essay published in 1926 and noted for its bringing Ernest Hemingway to public attention, “How to Waste Material: A Note on My Generation”: “Ever since Irving's preoccupation with the necessity for an American background, for some square miles of cleared territory on which colorful variants might presently arise, the question of material has hampered the American writer. For one Dreiser who made a single-minded and irreproachable choice there have been a dozen like Henry James who have stupid-got with worry over the matter, and yet another dozen who, blinded by the fading tale of Walt Whitman's comet, have botched their books by the insincere compulsion to write ‘significantly’ about America.”8

Fitzgerald's judgment of Dreiser and James aside, his awareness of the force of Whitman's message is directly related to the idea of the great American novel and what that novel should be about. His essay describes various attempts and failures to deal with “American” materials. He cites the treatment of the American farmer, of American youth, of “American politics, business, society, science, racial problems.” His point is that this search for and exploitation of American material is largely in vain: “One author goes to a midland farm for three months to obtain material for an epic of the American husbandman! Another sets off on a like errand to the Blue Ridge Mountains, a third departs with a Corona for the West Indies—one is justified in the belief that what they get hold of will weigh no more than the journalistic loot brought back by Richard Harding Davis and John Fox, Jr., twenty years ago.”9

Fitzgerald had already made these points in various parodies of popular novels and, more directly, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins just after The Great Gatsby was published.10 The letter was about Thomas Boyd's new novel, Samuel Drummond, which Perkins had described to Fitzgerald in terms of high praise. To Fitzgerald the novel sounded “utterly lowsy,” and he sketched out a “History of the Simple Inarticulate Farmer and his Hired Man Christy” to make his point. The basic issue he raises is the same as the one in his essay: the essential weakness of novels dealing quaintly and falsely with American materials—in this instance, the earthy struggle between the American farmer and the soil—to satisfy some kind of craving for the great American novel. In both of these statements, Fitzgerald did not cite his own example from the recent past, the fact that This Side of Paradise, if it did not speak for all of America, was still received by the public (and promoted by Fitzgerald) as speaking for American youth. The Beautiful and Damned, which followed in 1922, might justifiably have been regarded as trying to take in all parts of Fitzgerald's longer list, beginning with “business” and ending with “literature.”

The Great Gatsby, as Fitzgerald perceived in writing it, was something different, something more consistent with and closer to Fitzgerald's wish reported by Edmund Wilson: “I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don't you?”11 One cannot understand Fitzgerald's work, can't come to terms with the possibility of The Great Gatsby being the great American novel, without responding to the naiveté, the presumptuousness, the grandiosity of that remark—as naive and presumptuous and grandiose as Whitman talking about the poetic natures of an American nation and its poets.

That sense of measuring himself against great writers persisted throughout Fitzgerald's life. The curriculum he set up for Sheilah Graham in 193912 was both a recapitulation of his own reading and a considered judgment of what books would best serve Sheilah Graham's beginning and his own continuing education. The novels form a diverse and respectable list, weighted toward the modern, as one might expect, and as much European as British and American. Among the various novels or parts of novels are most of those necessary to serious study of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel: The Red and the Black,Vanity Fair,Bleak House,The Brothers Karamazov,Anna Karenina and War and Peace,Eugénie Grandet,Madame Bovary,Sister Carrie,Man's Fate, a half-dozen or so novels by Henry James, a similar number by Hardy, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, Faulkner's Sanctuary, and others. He prized his meeting with Joyce in 1928 and pasted the letter he received from him in his copy of Ulysses. The drunken serenading with which he and Ring Lardner paid their respects to Joseph Conrad is also a part of Fitzgerald lore. But there is a seriousness in this reading and literary hero worshiping that underscores Fitzgerald's conception of himself as a serious novelist. The long struggle to bring another novel into being after completing The Great Gatsby is not entirely to be blamed on the conditions of Fitzgerald's personal life. In part, the struggle was forced on Fitzgerald because of his ambitions to go beyond The Great Gatsby, to achieve that writer's goal he set forth in a letter to Scottie, “so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.”13 Fitzgerald's letters to Scottie are further testimony to his seriousness as a writer. The reading he sets forth for her reaches back to Moll Flanders and forward to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. “I wish now,” he wrote to her June 12, 1940, “I'd never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: ‘I've found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.’”14

But what Fitzgerald did not emphasize, either in an offhand remark or in his written comments, was his being an American writer, a fashioner of American materials, a writer of the great American novel. To put it in a simple form, he solved the problem of what he should use for material by setting the problem aside. More precisely, he recognized that a preoccupation with what a novel should be about was probably a strike against the novel at the outset. Thus, he became free to deal as best he could with that limited substance he had, free and inadvertently American to “spin my thread from my own bowels,” as Emerson said, or in Whitman's words, “launch forth, filament, filament, filament, out of itself, ever unreeling them.” Or, in Fitzgerald's matter-of-fact words, “My God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.”15

What I am suggesting here is that if there is such a thing as the great American novel, it will not be because of the American-ness of what it is about. Such a novel may be, as Moby-Dick is, about whaling and whales and those who pursue them, much of which is American because the author is American, or as Huckleberry Finn is American by the same line of reasoning, or as The Great Gatsby is. Thus, Fitzgerald's novel is animated by and makes its impact through a writer's intensely devoted attempt to understand a portion of human experience, the personal dimensions of that experience that reach into the hearts of human beings and the contexts that always complicate and alter such personal responses. From one perspective, these contexts are indubitably American, as much so as they seem to convey the pulse beat of the urban American 1920s. But from another, they are no more American than Ithaca is Greek or Bleak House British. What is kept before the reader—and not setting aside the particulars by which that is made manifest—are the longings for love, wealth, power, status, for dreaming and realizing dreams and facing the realities of which dreams are compounded and by which they are compromised.

There is another side to this observation. The story of The Great Gatsby, both to its advantage and its disadvantage in weighing the novel's merit, is intertwined for many readers with the story of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. If one result is to question the likelihood of such a person as Fitzgerald being able to write a great novel, another is to endow the novel with something of the authenticity of the real story of the Fitzgeralds' gaudy but tragic lives. I further suggest that this preoccupation with “self,” the fictional one focused on Gatsby, the real one lying behind the fascination that the Fitzgerald story continues to have for the American public, may be what is more American about the novel than any other aspect. Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography may be the original American novel, even though, like Leaves of Grass, it is not a novel. That aside, what followed the Autobiography was a succession of great American books—poems, essays, romances, novels—that were chiefly explorations of the self. Emerson's Essays and Thoreau's Walden can be added to the novels already mentioned, and to those, Hopalong Cassidy, on whose fly leaf Gatsby had set down his own Franklinesque resolves.

The Great Gatsby, then, is in the right American line, in regard to conceptions, implied and stated, about what should constitute the great American novel. More directly, of course, Gatsby, despite its brevity, illuminates the American past and present, answers the challenge of getting within its pages something of the scope and variety and dynamics of American life, the light and dark of American experience, the underside and upperside of American society. Moreover, it does so within the larger framework of human experience, invariably moving readers to the dimensions of myth that convey meaning independent of time, place, and the particulars of experience.

Robert Ornstein's “Scott Fitzgerald's Fable of East and West” is one of dozens of essays that explore the novel's symbolism, allusions, ironies, ambiguities, and mythical dimensions. Ornstein argues that Fitzgerald has created “a myth with the imaginative sweep of America's historical adventure across an untamed continent. … One can even say that in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald adumbrated the coming tragedy of a nation grown decadent without achieving maturity.” His essay, however, refuses to narrow the theme of the novel to that of the betrayal of the American dream; rather, its theme “is the unending quest after the romantic dream, which is forever betrayed in fact and yet redeemed in men's minds.” Ornstein sees this theme brought out not only in terms of American experience but also in an embodiment of the romantic response to life. “Gatsby is great,” he writes, “because his dream, however naive, gaudy, and unattainable, is one of the grand illusions of the race, which keep men from becoming too old or too wise or too cynical of their human limitations.”16 Fitzgerald dramatized that perception in a brilliant way in “Absolution,” originally intended as an introduction to the Gatsby story. There the crazed priest tells the young boy: “‘Go and see an amusement park. … It's a thing like a fair, only much more glittering. … But don't get up close, because if you do you'll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.’”17 One of the prominent themes in The Great Gatsby is that familiar one, “All that glitters is not gold,” and its corollary, “but it glitters, all the same.” For much of the world and for America itself, America has been the great amusement park, holding its World's Fairs and World Series and awarding “World Championships” as events in which most of the world never participates. What better setting for a meditation on the romantic vision and romantic disillusionment?

This dimension of The Great Gatsby has held a central place in the criticism of the novel since the first revival of interest in Fitzgerald shortly after his death. Prior to that time, Fitzgerald seems justified in replying to John Peale Bishop's letter about the novel: “It is about the only criticism that the book has had which has been intelligible, save a letter from Mrs. Wharton,”18 or to Edmund Wilson: Not one of the reviews “had the slightest idea what the book was about.”19 When it was praised by such writers as T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Gertrude Stein, it was in such general terms as Eliot's “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”20 Even to such a sympathetic critic as Fitzgerald's contemporary Paul Rosenfeld, the novel was “beautifully done, breezy throughout … extraordinarily American, like ice cream soda with arsenic flavoring, or jazz music in a fever-dream.”21 Only Thomas Caldecott Chubb, writing in the Forum in 1925, perceived the book to be “a fable in the form of a realistic novel.” “At once a tragedy and an extraordinarily convincing love tale and an extravaganza.”22

Notwithstanding the restrained and ambivalent responses to the novel when it first appeared, most of the later criticism has been searching and favorable. John W. Bicknell begins with a hint dropped by Lionel Trilling that Fitzgerald's novel is a prose version of Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem Fitzgerald knew almost by heart. Like Conrad, Fitzgerald sees “the modern corruption in contrast to a lost rather than to an emergent ideal.”23 Bicknell's overall critical intent is to determine whether Gatsby is tragic or merely pessimistic. He ends by accepting Alfred Kazin's view that “in a land of promise ‘failure’ will always be a classic theme.” Marius Bewley's essay, “Scott Fitzgerald's Criticism of America,”24 finds more to praise in Gatsby, perhaps because he does not assume that tragedy is the definitive measure of a novel's greatness. He writes: “Fitzgerald—at least in this one book—is in line with the greatest masters of American prose. The Great Gatsby embodies a criticism of American experience—not of manners, but of a basic historic attitude to life—more radical than anything in James's own assessment of the deficiencies of his country. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream.” Bewley's essay acknowledges that “Gatsby, the ‘mythic’ embodiment of the American dream, is shown to us in all his immature romanticism. His insecure grasp of social and human values, his lack of critical intelligence and self-knowledge, his blindness to the pitfalls that surround him in American society, his compulsive optimism, are realized in the text with rare assurance and understanding. And yet the very grounding of these deficiencies is Gatsby's goodness and faith in life, his compelling desire to realize all the possibilities of existence.” Edwin Fussell's “Fitzgerald's Brave New World” also mentions the universality as well as the uniqueness of the American experience. “After exploring his materials to their limits, Fitzgerald knew, at his greatest moments, that he had discovered a universal pattern of desire and belief and behavior and that in it was compounded the imaginative history of modern, especially American, civilization.”25

With respect to its serious import, its examination of both American life and lives in much of the modern Western world, Gatsby bears comparison with those other books that might stand as the great American novel. It does not sprawl like Moby-Dick, nor hover and ruminate like The Scarlet Letter, nor heap up its substance like any work of Dreiser. It does not hint and suggest and qualify like Henry James, nor does it have the robust, yet lyric, quality of Huckleberry Finn. Yet, consider some vital qualities all these novels share. Chiefly these are Gatsby's moral preoccupations, as inseparable from the novel as from Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, and its dramatization of innocence coming into experience, as memorably fixed in Nick Carraway and Gatsby as in Huck and Jim or Ishmael on the Pequod. Moreover, with the final page of the novel establishing “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes” (p. 217), Fitzgerald gives the novel an amplitude that bears comparison with James's powers in The Ambassadors or The American. The persuasiveness of Fitzgerald's prose (or Keats's poetry) aside, that moment of gazing on the “fresh, green breast of the new world” must have been and may be, even “for the last time in history,” “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (pp. 217-18).

The events following the twenties, notably a worldwide economic depression and the outbreak of another world war, may unknowingly have attuned modern readers to the serious dimensions of Gatsby. For it has been since World War II, and particularly in America, that the realities of living in a world of limited resources have begun to register. Throughout much of its history, America was a place of endless expanding and advancing. Without exaggerating greatly, one can place Gatsby with those classic statements that recall us to the fact that, as Fitzgerald came to recognize, one cannot both spend and have. Projected beyond the personal, one cannot espouse infinite progress but must accept some kind of eternal return, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (p. 218).


All readers have been affected by Fitzgerald's style, for Fitzgerald was marvelously sensitive to the sounds and cadences of language. “For awhile after you quit Keats,” he wrote, “all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.”26 His attraction to Conrad was due to Conrad's attention to the power of the written word, to “an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences” that aspired to “the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts.”27 Fitzgerald's sentences have movement, grace, clarity, directness when necessary, force when desired, and cadences appropriate to the mood or emotion or scene. Matched with the visual images, simile and metaphor, sentences like this emerge in profusion: “We drove over to Fifth Avenue, so warm and soft, almost pastoral, on the summer Sunday afternoon that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner” (p. 33). “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (p. 43). “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing” (p. 119). Fitzgerald's style is remarkably apt and precise, even when he is dealing with nearly ineffable matters: “He was a Son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (p. 118). Part of that aptness is the quality of Fitzgerald's wit, apparent in that Homeric catalog of guests that begins: “From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet …” and ends “All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer” (pp. 73-6). Or the bite of such a description as: “the dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson's mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall” (p. 36).

These quotations, chosen to exemplify Fitzgerald's style, serve also to illustrate the inseparability of style and content. Major and minor characters in Gatsby are brilliantly created by both what Fitzgerald chooses to reveal about them and how he reveals it. Most of the preceding passages are important in creating a character and shaping a reader's perception of that character. In the first instance, that pastoral touch, seemingly a stylistic flourish, is exactly right for perceiving Tom Buchanan and Myrtle in contrast to the ash heaps surrounding Wilson's garage and the tacky apartment where Tom has been keeping her. Similarly, Nick Carraway's reflection calls a reader's attention to his being both inside and outside the main action, a vital aspect of his characterization. And speaking of Gatsby as a son of God who goes about his Father's business reverberates powerfully in one's accumulating impressions of that central character. The minor characters in the novel are created with that terse exactness that is apparent in Fitzgerald's handling of words in the novel: Meyer Wolfsheim and his human molar cufflinks; Mr. McKee, who has “‘done some nice things out on Long Island’” (p. 38); George Wilson, veiled in ashen dust; and Owl-Eyes, finding real books in Gatsby's library, but with the pages uncut.

“I think it is an honest book,” Fitzgerald wrote in the introduction to the Modern Library Edition in 1934, “that is to say, that one used none of one's virtuosity to get an effect, and, to boast again, one soft-pedalled the emotional side to avoid the tears leaking from the socket of the left eye, or the large false face peering around the corner of a character's head.”28 It is this restraint, even more than the virtuosity of effects, that distinguishes Fitzgerald's style in The Great Gatsby. In almost all of his other fiction, the quality of the prose gives otherwise ordinary materials a polish that not only exacted high prices from popular magazines but may have hinted at more profundity than the content delivered. In Gatsby, straining for effect is seldom apparent. The whole novel is compactly put together, as much by repetition of images and symbols as by exposition and narrative.

The opulence associated with both Gatsby and the Buchanans is established in Chapter 1 by a physical description of the Buchanans' house and lawn: “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run” (p. 8). At the end of the first chapter, the cadences change as we see Gatsby on his lawn at night: “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars” (p. 25). A paragraph later, Chapter 1 ends with the “single green light” (p. 26) at the end of the dock that became one of the final images in the novel. Between those two images are other descriptions of landscape and house, from the “blue gardens” after “the earth lurches away from the sun” (pp. 47-9) to the “sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began” (p. 99) in Chapter 5. At the end, these images accumulate: the opening of the windows at dawn, the photograph of the house that Gatsby's father shows to Nick, “cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands” (p. 207), and Carraway's last look at “that huge incoherent failure of a house. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone” (p. 217).

James Joyce said of Ulysses that he had put in enough enigmas and puzzles to keep professors busy for centuries. The Great Gatsby lacks that density, but it has engaged the attention of many professors to date. Color symbolism, patterns of images, sources and analogues, ambiguities, mythical dimensions continue to be worked over. Passages of dialogue are as carefully wrought as descriptive passages. Some have become passwords of Gatsby cultists: “‘Can't repeat the past? … Why of course you can!’” (p. 133) and “‘Her voice is full of money’” (p. 144) and “‘In any case … it was just personal’” (p. 182). Others are equally part of the texture of the novel, shaping character, amplifying meanings, knitting parts together: “‘Is it a boy or a girl?’” Myrtle asks of the “gray old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller.” “‘That dog? That dog's a boy.” ‘It's a bitch,’ said Tom decisively. ‘Here's your money. Go and buy ten more dogs with it’” (pp. 32-3). Fitzgerald also knew when to have his characters stop talking. In the draft of the novel, much of Gatsby's story is told in dialogue as he talks to Nick. It permits him to talk too much, to say, for example, before Fitzgerald excised it: “‘Jay Gatsby!’ he cried suddenly in a ringing voice. ‘There goes the great Jay Gatsby. That's what people are going to say—wait and see.’”29

As with details of his style, the structure of The Great Gatsby has been subject to minute examination, Fitzgerald's debt to Conrad was early pointed out: “for the use of style or language to reflect theme; for the use of the modified first person narration; for the use of deliberate ‘confusion’ by the re-ordering of the chronology of events.” Fitzgerald's use of “a series of scenes dramatizing the important events of the story and connected by brief passages of interpretation and summary” is like Henry James's “scenic method.”30 In these respects and others, The Great Gatsby responds, as a great American novel surely should, to the call for “newness” sounded repeatedly throughout America's literary history.

I have written at length elsewhere, as have others, about the structure of The Great Gatsby31 and will not go into detail here. The facsimile of the manuscript enables any reader to study Fitzgerald's revisions, small and large. He was a careful reviser, nowhere in his work more than in The Great Gatsby.

In general, his revisions were devoted to solving the technical problems of presenting the story—the narrative structure—and in sharpening, trimming, amplifying descriptions, narrative, dialogue. The choice of Nick Carraway as narrator was probably not made until some jelling of the essential story took place in Fitzgerald's mind. The short stories “Absolution” and “Winter Dreams” are written in the conventional third person. The longer form in itself may have raised questions about the mode of telling; the examples of James and Conrad were at hand to suggest the use of a first-person narrator. Although that choice was in one sense a technical one, it was also a means of presenting his material “through the personal history of a young American provincial whose moral intelligence is the proper source of our understanding and whose career, in the passage from innocence to revaluation, dramatizes the possibility and mode of a moral sanction in contemporary America.”32 Such a view still seems fairly to describe Fitzgerald's intent, although a spate of criticism has pointed out the unreliability of Carraway as a narrator. The choice of narrator was related to other technical problems, chiefly that of how and when (and in what order and way in the novel) the narrator uncovers for the reader the complete story of Gatsby's past. Like other modern novels, Gatsby does not follow a straightforward chronology; Fitzgerald worked hard to preserve the advantages of a disjointed structure against the confusion such a method may create. One of the effects was to keep Gatsby from fully materializing, helping Fitzgerald solve the difficult problem of making a deliberately shadowy figure the central character of the novel.

It is not easy to summarize even the most important changes Fitzgerald made to achieve the structure he wanted. Suffice to say that changes and shifts of materials kept Gatsby offstage for a longer period of time than in the first version. Between his first appearance as a figure on his lawn and Nick's conversation with him in Chapter 4, the reader is exposed to Daisy, Tom, Jordan Baker, and the Wilsons, is transported through the valley of ashes and into Myrtle's Manhattan apartment, and gets a fuller glimpse of Gatsby during the first party at his house. The chief results, aside from heightening one's interest in the mysterious Gatsby, are the various juxtapositions of beauty and squalor, peace and violence, vitality and decay—in short, the intensifying of the central contrasts between the ideal and the real.

All this is accomplished in three chapters, with the material that originally comprised these chapters being rearranged in various ways. Chapter 4 extends our acquaintance with Gatsby, and Chapter 5 becomes the center of the novel. This chapter was very closely reworked, chiefly in order to give it a static quality, to approximate in the telling Gatsby's attempt to make time stand still. From that chapter on, the novel picks up speed. The real world intrudes in the guise of a reporter through whom details of Gatsby's actual past are exposed. A second party, sharper delineation of Tom Buchanan, and the second trip into Manhattan prepare the reader for the final sweep of the plot to the running down of Myrtle Wilson, “her left breast … swinging loose like a flap” (p. 165). “I want Myrtle Wilson's breast ripped off,” he wrote Maxwell Perkins. “It's exactly the thing, I think, and I don't want to chop up good scenes by too much tinkering.”33

The remaining chapters were chiefly reworked to wind down events with economy but also with measured impact. Some of Gatsby's explanations were shifted to the present tense to give them greater immediacy. The last chapter shifted attention to Nick, but still kept him linked tightly to Gatsby by means of the funeral, his talk with Gatsby's father, and those benedictory words pronounced by Owl-Eyes, “‘The poor son of a bitch’” (p. 211). Nick's last encounter with Tom underscores Fitzgerald's achievement of making Carraway a vital character in his own right, a technical device that helps hold the structure together, a means of amplifying the moral and social dimensions of the novel and the way in which the story gets told. The last image of the book, the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” was originally written as the conclusion of the first chapter. Now placed at the end of the novel, it enlarges even as it brings the novel to an end.

This discussion of style and structure argues for the novel's high degree of finish, surely a merit in a novel, although not necessarily what many would associate with the great American novel. The exchange between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe illustrates my point. Wolfe, a great “putter-inner” of a novelist, challenges Fitzgerald's criticism of his work by citing Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky as “great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in … as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.”34 Wolfe's arguments are unanswerable for those who insist that a great American novel must “boil and pour.” By that measure, The Great Gatsby must fall short, for all that it has a size beyond its actual page length.

Still, one can, only half facetiously, propose that Gatsby is an efficient novel, and thereby identifiably and pleasingly American. For the time one puts into it, a great deal comes out. Even its nuances of style are not likely to be lost on American readers, for they have the laconic power of sarcasm, the brevity of the one-liner, and the directness of American speech. Its moral dimensions still touch the sense of decency and fair play, without engaging the reader in time-consuming ethical and metaphysical speculations. The novel's topicality is that of the twenties, but is not confined to that decade. The author's rhetorical flourishes are nicely spaced; the story has some action and plenty of pathos shading off into tragedy. It raises basic questions citizens of a democracy have to wrestle with: How does one recognize greatness without an established social order? How does the acquisition of power, wealth, and status accord with the professions of democratic equality? How does an idealist and an individual—both prized qualities of the American—keep himself from succumbing to the materialism of the masses or from kicking himself loose from the universe? If all this can be accomplished in a book under 200 pages and still selling for under $10 (it was priced at $2 in 1925), what could be greater and more American than that?


The foregoing claims may be the strongest that can be made for the stature of The Great Gatsby as the great American novel. A less convincing form of reasoning, but one worth addressing briefly, is to see Gatsby in the line of American novels of manners, novels like those of Howells and James and Edith Wharton. It is Wharton, in the essay previously mentioned, who points out that “Traditional society, with its old-established distinctions of class, its passwords, exclusions, delicate shades of language and behavior, is one of man's oldest works of art.”35 She expresses dismay that American novelists have been turned away from this material, from the novel of manners, just as James expressed to Howells his dismay that American society didn't furnish the richness and diversity that would support such novels. Nevertheless, Frank Norris saw in Howells that breadth of vision and intimate knowledge of Americans East and West that went part way toward establishing an “American school of fiction.”36 If he did not quite claim that Howells was writing the great American novel, he did call attention to Howells's efforts to establish the novel of manners as an estimable kind of American fiction.

The novel of manners in Howells's hands and in Fitzgerald's did not preclude its being a serious and socially engaged work. Gertrude Stein's letter in response to The Great Gatsby recognized that Fitzgerald was “creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did his in Pendennis and Vanity Fair and this isn't a bad compliment.”37 Howells's and Fitzgerald's examinations of American society show the novel of manner's concern for moral behavior measured against social norms. In the background of both authors' work are reminders of that moralistic and idealistic strain of Americans who populated a wilderness and created its Washingtons and Lincolns. But the society each saw around him was one in which that kind of American was hard pressed to withstand the amoral and materialistic drive for power that characterized American success. The tragic hero set forth in Gatsby is really the American failure, failing to hold to the course of power that wins success and failing, moreover, because of the strength of idealistic illusions.

Too few readers know Howells's The Landlord at Lion's Head, a novel that started out as one merely about a “jay” student at Harvard but that became one of Howells's strongest social novels. Jeff Durgin, the protagonist of the story, is one more provincial who is sufficiently strong and amoral, like Gatsby, to gain power and wealth by his own shrewdness and drive and luck. Landlord lacks the tightness and finish of Gatsby, but in its central theme it may be more modern and less sentimental than Fitzgerald's novel. For Durgin and his dream are not defeated, much as the many Gatsbys who pursue their driving materialistic dreams are not defeated in American life. Rather, Durgin's success at the end of that novel is the American success of power and money. The girl of Durgin's dreams turns out to be so sanctimonious as to deserve little better than the pallid artist who claims her and who, like Carraway in Gatsby, provides the novel's supposed moral center. Durgin ends up with the daughter of a Europeanized mother and a wealthy American father, a woman all but a dolt would prefer to Durgin's earlier choice. Like Tom Buchanan and Daisy, the Durgins seem likely to make it in the modern world, although Carraway says that they have “retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness” (p. 216) and he back to pondering his father's wisdom that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth” (p. 2). A generation or two earlier than Fitzgerald, Howells, too, saw what the American dream was for most citizens: money, power, social position, and a modicum of culture. Only a “provincial squeamishness” (p. 216) in both writers caused them to question the substantiality and rightness of the materialistic dream.

I am not arguing that the novel of manners somehow provides its writers with some special claim to a novel's greatness. In fact, probably the opposite is true in regard to American writers. Mark Twain's condemnation of Jane Austen's work conveys the disrespect that assigns such novels to a distinct and lesser category. The point is, rather, that the novel of manners has an appropriateness to American writing fully as much as does the romance or tall tale. Howells and James both extended that form, achieving at their best something of what Dickens and Thackeray achieved for the British novel. Balzac and Zola can also fit into this category, as can Norris and Fitzgerald.

But categorizing a novelist's work is a folly not unlike looking for the great American novel. It matters little whether The Great Gatsby is the great American novel or not. It probably matters that writers, much less readers, keep such concepts before them. No reader needs an unrelieved diet of great novels, American or any other kind. Writers, on the other hand, probably do need the urging of tradition, the example of other writers and other novels and kinds of novels, and the idea of greater books than they have yet written. Even then, the novels they write will be as various as the lives they live and the thoughts they think. As there are many American writers and readers, so there are bound to be many American novels, some of them great.

Howells looked back on his career and wrote: “Mostly I suppose I have cut rather inferior window glass with it … perhaps hereafter when my din is done, if any one is curious to know what the noise was, it will be found to have proceeded from a small insect which was scraping about on the surface of our life and trying to get into its meaning for the sake of the other insects, larger and smaller. That is, such has been my unconscious work, consciously, I was always, as I still am, trying to fashion a piece of literature out of the life next at hand.”38 It may be enough to say of The Great Gatsby that F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved what he set out to do, to write “something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.”39


  1. John William De Forest, “The Great American Novel,” The Nation 6 (1868): 27-9.

  2. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 5.

  3. Edith Wharton, “The Great American Novel,” Yale Review 16 (July 1927): 646-56.

  4. Philip Roth, The Great American Novel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973), p. 33.

  5. Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist and Other Literary Essays (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1968), pp. 85-9.

  6. Ibid., p. 61.

  7. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: New York University Press, 1965), p. 709.

  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “How to Waste Material—A Note on My Generation,” The Bookman 63 (May 1926): 262-5.

  9. Ibid., 263.

  10. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1963), pp. 183-8.

  11. Edmund Wilson, “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” The Princeton University Library Chronicle 5 (February 1944): 54.

  12. Sheilah Graham, College of One (New York: Viking Press, 1967), pp. 204-21.

  13. Turnbull, ed., Letters, p. 11.

  14. Ibid., p. 79.

  15. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Introduction to The Great Gatsby (New York: Modern Library, 1934), p. x.

  16. Robert Ornstein, “Scott Fitzgerald's Fable of East and West,” College English 18 (December 1956): 139, 143.

  17. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Absolution,” The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Selection of 28 Stories, with an Introduction by Malcolm Cowley (New York: Scribners, 1951), p. 171.

  18. Turnbull, ed., Letters, p. 358.

  19. Ibid., p. 342.

  20. The Great Gatsby: A Study, ed. Frederick J. Hoffman (New York: Scribners, 1962), p. 179.

  21. Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret Duggan (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 171.

  22. F. Scott Fitzgerald: In His Own Time, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret Duggan (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971): A remarkably good collection of Fitzgerald materials, including reviews of The Great Gatsby at the time of publication. See also G. Thomas Tanselle and Jackson R. Bryer, “The Great Gatsby—A Study in Literary Reputation,” Profile of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1971), pp. 74-91.

  23. John W. Bicknell, “The Waste Land of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism, ed. Kenneth Eble (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973), pp. 67-80.

  24. Tanselle and Bryer, The Great Gatsby: A Study, pp. 263-85.

  25. Ibid., pp. 244-62.

  26. Turnbull, ed., Letters, p. 88.

  27. Joseph Conrad, “Preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus,” in Tanselle and Bryer, The Great Gatsby: A Study, pp. 59-64.

  28. Fitzgerald, Introduction to The Great Gatsby, p. x.

  29. F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Facsimile of the Manuscript, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Washington, D.C.: Bruccoli Clark/Microcard, 1973), p. xxix.

  30. James E. Miller, Jr., The Fictional Technique of Scott Fitzgerald (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1957), pp. 79-81.

  31. Kenneth E. Eble, “The Craft of Revision: The Great Gatsby,American Literature 26 (November 1964): 315-26.

  32. Thomas Hanzo, “The Theme and the Narrator of ‘The Great Gatsby,’” Modern Fiction Studies 2 (Winter 1956-7): 190.

  33. Turnbull, ed., Letters, p. 175.

  34. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1945), p. 314.

  35. Wharton, “The Great American Novel,” 652.

  36. Norris, Responsibilities of the Novelist, pp. 193-200.

  37. Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, p. 308.

  38. Life in Letters of William Dean Howells, ed. Mildred Howells, vol. II (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1928), pp. 172-3.

  39. Bruccoli and Duggan, Correspondence, p. 112.

Principal Works

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Flappers and Philosophers (short stories) 1920

This Side of Paradise (novel) 1920

The Beautiful and Damned (novel) 1922

Tales of the Jazz Age (short stories) 1922

The Vegetable; or, From President to Postman (play) 1923

The Great Gatsby (novel) 1925

All the Sad Young Men (short stories) 1926

Tender Is the Night (novel) 1934

Taps at Reveille (short stories) 1935

The Last Tycoon (unfinished novel) 1941

The Crack-Up (essays, notebooks, and letters) 1945

Afternoon of an Author (short stories and essays) 1957

The Pat Hobby Stories (short stories) 1962

The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (letters) 1963

Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (letters) 1971

As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent Harold Ober, 1919-1940 (letters) 1972

The Basil and Josephine Stories (short stories) 1973

Bits of Paradise [with Zelda Fitzgerald] (short stories) 1973

The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (notebooks) 1978

The Price Was High (short stories) 1979

The Fantasy and Mystery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (short stories) 1991

Jazz Age Stories [with Thomas Hardy] (short stories) 1998

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda (letters) 2002

Darrel Mansell (essay date December 1987)

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SOURCE: Mansell, Darrel. “The Jazz History of the World in The Great Gatsby.English Language Notes 25 (December 1987): 57-62.

[In the following essay, Mansell suggests possible sources of and purposes for a reference to a jazz work in a scene of Gatsby.]

Fitzgerald said in retrospect that his first novel had actually been not one book but three, and his second novel two. He wanted his third novel to be more coherent: more spare, economical and “intricately patterned.” Indeed he wanted the new one to be “perfect.”1

The critical consensus has been that what he produced is close to perfect. In The Great Gatsby there seem almost no loose, unworking parts—no automobile wheels lying in the ditch like the one after a Gatsby party, “unconnected to the car by any physical bond” (Chapter III). The novel is said to have “perfection of form,” to be “compact,” “tightly structured,” to have a “tight inevitability of … construction,” to have a “formal completeness and integrity.”2

But there is at least one episode lying outside just about any conception of the formal integrity of the novel—one wheel lying loose in the ditch. That is the scene when the orchestra leader at the fateful party in Chapter III announces a musical work by a Mr. Vladimir Tostoff: the Jazz History of the World. Nick says that when the work was over

girls were putting their heads on men's shoulders in a puppyish, convivial way, girls were swooning backward playfully into men's arms, even into groups, knowing that some one would arrest their falls. …3

What are we to think of a piece of music with such a title? Why did the work create a sensation at Carnegie Hall the previous May (as the orchestra leader says it did)? Why does he say so “with jovial condescension”? Why does the audience laugh when he says so? Surely we aren't to take a sensational piece with such a preposterous title as moving or beautiful—Nick says the nature of the music simply eludes him. Yet the piece has a strange, mesmerizing effect on the party-goers; and, most strange of all, had in the manuscript of the novel a deeply moving effect on Nick himself. There he strives—Fitzgerald strives—for three turgid paragraphs omitted from the published novel to make us understand and feel something which seems to have taken a profound emotional hold on the author himself:

It facinated [sic] me … it started out with a wierd [sic], spinning sound that seemed to come mostly from the cornets, very regular and measured and inevitable with a bell now and then that seemed to ring somewhere a great distance away. A rhythm became distinguishable after awhile in the spinning, a sort of dull beat but as soon as you'd almost made it out it disappeared. … The second movement was concerned with the bell only it wasn't the bell any more but a muted violin cello and two instruments I had never seen before … you were aware that something was trying to establish itself, to get a foothold, something soft and … persistent and profound and next you yourself were trying to help it, struggling, praying for it—until suddenly it was there, it was established rather scornfully without you and it seemed to look around with a complete self-sufficiency, as if it had been there all the time.

I was curiously moved and the third part of the thing was full of even stronger emotion. I know so little about music that I can only make a story of it … but it wasn't really a story … there would be a series of interruptive notes that seemed to fall together accidentally and colored everything that came after them until before you knew it they became the theme and new discords were opposed to it outside. But what struck me particularly was that just as you'd get used to the new discord business there'd be one of the old themes rung in this time as a discord until you'd get a ghastly sense that it was all a cycle after all, purposeless and sardonic. … Whenever I think of that summer I can hear it yet.

The last was weak I thought though most of the people seemed to like it best of all. It had recognizable strains of famous jazz in it—Alexander's Ragtime Band and The Darktown Strutter's Ball and recurrent hint [sic] of The Beale Street Blues.4

It is not impossible to make sense of this curious episode—to think of some relevance it has to the novel. Indeed almost every interpretation of the novel has a way of doing so. For instance the novel is said to be concerned with time; and the Jazz History of the World shows that concern in being a juxtaposition of the timeless (history) and the evanescent (jazz).5 Or Tostoff's composition is, “amid the tossed-off names and the tossed-off identities … a piece of music that is itself a tossed-off debasement of the idea of history.”6 Or Gatsby himself is a kind of showman, an entrepreneur; and this “musical extravaganza” is one of his meretricious productions.7 Or this sprawling and chaotic musical composition shows the hugeness of Gatsby's parties, their “movement, mingling, and commotion.”8 Or the composition's non-linearity, polyphony and complex rhythms are “like a buried preface, an anamorphic projection of the book's operative principle.”9 Or the composition's sensuality shows the “chaos and libertinism of Gatsby's world.”10

There is just no consensus as to the relevance or significance of this puzzling episode. Fitzgerald himself regretted having written it: “I thought that the whole episode … was rotten.”11

I think there is something of a factual, historical nature to be said about the episode. Fitzgerald liked to date his scenes by putting in them specific details his readers would associate with a particular year. Often such details have to do with music. The song “Poor Butterfly,” played on a gramophone at Princeton in a scene in This Side of Paradise, “had been the song of that last year” (Chapter IV)—the year 1917. The song “Something Seems Tingleingleing” is described in a scene in The Beautiful and Damned as “the year's mellowest fox-trot” (Chapter II)—thus 1913 (from the 1913 musical High Jinks). In The Great Gatsby the orchestras in Daisy's Louisville are said to set “the rhythm of the year” with songs like the “Beale Street Blues” (Chapter VIII)—the year 1918. And “Three O'Clock in the Morning,” played at one of Gatsby's parties, is a “neat, sad little waltz of that year” (Chapter VI)—the year 1922.

The Jazz History of the World may be just such a piece of music dating a scene. The orchestra leader says the piece “attracted so much attention at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation” (50). That would have been May, 1921 (the scene being the summer of 1922).

It happens that during the concert season of 1921 the great composer Richard Strauss was making a much-publicized tour of the United States conducting his own compositions with various symphony orchestras. The month of May that year would have been off-season at Carnegie Hall; but on 31 October Strauss conducted a program of his own music there. The music critic Richard Aldrich wrote next day that the hall “was filled to at least its legal capacity” to hear the celebrated composer; the audience greeted his appearance with a great roar of applause that lasted some time.12

Scheduled for that Carnegie Hall concert (but replaced at the last minute) had been Strauss's symphonic work Also Sprach Zarathustra. This piece was subsequently performed (Strauss conducting) on 15 November at the Metropolitan Opera House. A “large audience that practically filled the house” gave the concert enthusiastic appreciation (New York Times, 16 November 1921, 22c). Now there must be only one actual symphonic piece extant which ever became known as a history of the world like the piece played at Gatsby's party. That is Strauss's Zarathustra. Its author himself described it as “an idea of the development of the human race from its origin, through the various phases of development …” (these words appear in the Times concert review cited above). Furthermore, the bell Nick makes so much of in the long description of the piece cancelled by Fitzgerald is probably the much-noted bell which peals in the Nachtwanderlied section of Strauss's work.

I think Fitzgerald's idea of a 1921 performance at Carnegie Hall of a composition on such an unusual, not to say bizarre, theme as the history of the world—a performance enthusiastically received and subsequently written up in the papers—grew out of these actual circumstances (Strauss's name being changed in the manuscript of the novel to Leo Epstein, then to Tostoff). I think Fitzgerald read about the concert in the papers (“If you read the papers,” the orchestra leader says). Fitzgerald was in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the time, where he wrote some book reviews for the New York papers.13 Furthermore, I think that at the time of the composition of the novel he knew Zarathustra itself at least vaguely from having heard it (in addition to concert performances there was at least one phonograph recording by 1924). Nick's puzzled fascination with the piece was Fitzgerald's own. Indeed Zarathustra celebrates the Nietzschean superman so often referred to in Fitzgerald's fiction.

What is puzzling in the Jazz History of the World episode may therefore be explicable more or less as follows. Fitzgerald wanted to date his scene by reference to a particular musical event of 1921 which had caught his attention: a well-publicized performance of a composition reported (in the Times) to have been conceived by its author as nothing less than a history of the world. Furthermore, Fitzgerald actually knew and had been arrested by Strauss's composition. He struggled unsuccessfully in the manuscript of his novel to get his fascination into Nick's remarkably long, profoundly-felt and groping attempt to describe the Epstein-Tostoff piece of music heard at Gatsby's party (by no means all of Nick's description in the manuscript applies to Also Sprach Zarathustra).

At the same time Fitzgerald was also trying in the scene to do something else. He wanted the piece of music in the novel to be just right for one of Gatsby's parties. Hence Strauss is transmogrified into a jazz history of the world. In the early twenties “jazzing” the classics was very much an issue—generally thought to be a sign of the creeping vulgarization of culture. Aldrich for instance took that position in an indignant newspaper article of 1922 (“Jazz draws the line nowhere. Nothing is safe from its devastating touch. The jazz blacksmiths … lay violent hands upon music that musicians have always approached with respect and … reverence”).14 In the manuscript even the members of the orchestra at the party are themselves described as disdainful of what they are about to play: they “looked at one another and smiled as tho this was … a little below them. …”15

Such a piece of music at one of Gatsby's parties plays on a major theme in the novel: America's brash, energetic and meretricious vulgarization of European culture. A jazz history of the world—just right at a house where Klipspringer plays The Love Nest on the piano in the Marie Antoinette music room (92, 96); just right at a house which is itself an imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy (5); just right in a novel where Myrtle Wilson's New York apartment is trying to summon up an image of Versailles (29).

Fitzgerald just was not successful in bringing these two ideas together: the Jazz History of the World as strange beauty and as the vulgarization of culture. At the last minute he threw out the former and replaced it with nothing but Nick's hasty remark, “The nature of Mr. Tostoff's composition eluded me.” Then Fitzgerald went straight to the next scene as already written. The novel's central figure suddenly materializes (“my eyes fell on Gatsby”) as if summoned up out of the music to be its very embodiment—its beauty and vulgarity.


  1. For Fitzgerald's comment on This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned see his letter to Maxwell Perkins, ca. April 16, 1924, The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull (New York, 1963), p. 163. For Fitzgerald on wanting his new novel to be “intricately patterned” see his letter to Perkins, ca. July, 1922, Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, eds. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Margaret M. Duggan (New York, 1980), [112]. For “perfect,” Fitzgerald's letter to Perkins ca. December 20, 1924, Letters, ed. Turnbull, p. 172.

  2. Robert Sklar, F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York, 1967), p. 172 (“perfection of form”). James E. Miller, Jr., F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York, 1964), p. 103 (“compact”). Richard D. Lehan, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Carbondale, 1966), p. 118 (“tightly structured”). Kenneth Eble, F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York, 1963), p. 91 (“tight inevitability …”). David Laird, “Hallucinations and History in The Great Gatsby,South Dakota Review, 15 No. 1 (1977), p. 19 (“formal completeness …”).

  3. The Great Gatsby (New York, 1953), p. 50; page references hereafter appear in parentheses in my text.

  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Washington, 1973), pp. 54-55.

  5. Bruce Bawer, “‘I Could Still Hear the Music’: Jay Gatsby and the Musical Metaphor,” Notes on Modern American Literature, 5 (1981), Item 25.

  6. Milton R. Stern, The Golden Moment (Urbana, 1970), p. 217.

  7. B. W. Wilson, “The Theatrical Motif in The Great Gatsby,Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual (1975), p. 110.

  8. Robert Emmet Long, The Achieving of The Great Gatsby (Lewisburg, 1979), pp. 127, 143.

  9. André Le Vot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, trans. William Byron (New York, 1983), p. 165.

  10. Gene Bluestein, The Voice of the Folk (Amherst, 1972), p. 119.

  11. Letter to Perkins, ca. December 20, 1924, Letters, ed. Turnbull, p. 174.

  12. Concert Life in New York (New York, 1941), p. 674.

  13. See Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur (New York, 1981), p. 162.

  14. Concert Life, p. 717.

  15. Facsimile, p. 54.

Further Reading

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Magistrale, Tony, and Mary Jane Dickerson. “The Language of Time in The Great Gatsby.College Literature 16, 1 (spring 1989): 117-28.

Draws on theories of Mikhail Bakhtin to explain the juxtaposition of past and present in Gatsby.

Tyson, Lois. “The Romance of the Commodity: The Concellatation of Identity in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby” In Psychological Politics of the American Dream: The Commodification of Subjectivity in Twentieth-Century American Literature, pp. 40-62. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.

Argues that Gatsby is not a portrayal of an idealized yet corrupted American dream, but rather a false dream corrupted by a culture of commodity.

Weinstein, Arnold. “Fiction as Greatness: The Case of Gatsby.Novel 19 (fall 1985): 22-38.

Attempts to define the “greatness” of The Great Gatsby in terms of its evocation of the power of a dream.

Additional coverage of Fitzgerald's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Thomson Gale: American Writers; American Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1917-1929; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 123, 110; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 4, 9, 86, 219, 273; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vols. 1, 15, 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981, 1996; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 2, 19; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 15; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 6, 31; Twayne's United States Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 6, 14, 28, 55; and World Literature Criticism.

Caren J. Town (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Town, Caren J. “‘Uncommunicable Forever’: Nick's Dilemma in The Great Gatsby.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 31, no. 4 (winter 1989): 497-513.

[In the following essay, Town deconstructs the language used by Gatsby narrator Nick Carraway, noting disconnections between what he says and what he actually means.]

From the petal's edge a line starts
that being of steel
infinitely fine, infinitely
rigid penetrates
the Milky Way
without contact—lifting
from it—neither hanging
nor pushing—

—William Carlos Williams, from “The Rose”

During their first meeting in The Great Gatsby, Daisy Fay Buchanan playfully calls her cousin (and the novel's narrator) Nick Carraway “an absolute rose.” He responds:

This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose. She was only extemporizing, but a stirring warmth flowed from her, as if her heart was trying to come out to you concealed in one of the breathless, thrilling words. Then suddenly she threw her napkin on the table and excused herself and went into the house.1

What matters to Nick here and throughout the novel, is not the veracity of what is being said, or even the words themselves, but the “heart” that is “concealed in one of the breathless, thrilling words.” Words may lack the power to express objective truth, but Nick believes in their power authentically to embody emotion in metaphor and in his power therefore to be true to his story, an account of strictly emotional truth. A few pages later Nick reports:

The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.

(18; emphasis added)

The word “absolute” reappears, designating both an objective and an emotional truth: Daisy is not sincere, but she is compelling. Nick sees the insincerity but is willing to be seduced by its mode of expression, which the next line deftly confirms: “Inside the crimson room bloomed with light …” (emphasis added). The “absolute rose” is transformed into an “absolute smirk” that encompasses, finally, the “crimson room” blooming with light. Even though Nick makes it “absolutely” clear that he is not to be associated with that particular flower and tries to dissociate himself from Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, the rose has opened and cast its color on the entire company. In his attempt to establish his credibility as narrator, Nick, too, becomes tainted by the rosy tint.

Thus the “absolute” signifies the paradoxical nature of Nick's explanations of human behavior. When Nick speaks—and Gatsby's entire story is told in his words—he is never in absolute control of the story he tells. Instead, a dialectic of intention and interpretation results in patterns that finally come to dominate the novel. This web of interconnecting words and signifying relationships undercuts Nick's position as detached observer and constantly threatens to disrupt or subvert his attempts to gain distance from the characters he introduces and the situations he describes. In other words, the question is not whether Nick means what he says: Nick means to be reliable, but his language is unreliable, and the question becomes one of metaphorical instead of psychological reliability.2 The effect of this trait is that Nick and the reader, from the first page of the novel, struggle for control over interpretation, engaging in an elaborate dance of acceptance and rejection of narrative authority.3 A dance or a game: “There is not a single signified that escapes, even if recaptured, the play of signifying references that constitute language,” Derrida says in his Of Grammatology.4 As the rose example shows “absolutely,” Nick is unable to escape the play of references that he sets in motion.5

The paragraph that immediately follows Daisy's exit (to confront her husband Tom about phone calls from his mistress) emphasizes the futility of Nick's belief in the transmissibility of meaning. Nick has been left alone with his new friend Jordan Baker to figure out what has just happened:

Miss Baker and I exchanged a short glance consciously devoid of meaning. I was about to speak when she sat up alertly and said “Sh!” in a warning voice. A subdued impassioned murmur was audible in the room beyond, and Miss Baker leaned forward unashamed, trying to hear. The murmur trembled on the verge of coherence, sank down, mounted excitedly, and then ceased altogether.


Daisy's voice struggles to make itself understood; it “trembled on the verge of coherence” but then was lost. As is the case with the entire novel, the meaning of particular passages promises to become clear but never does. Each phrase, each gesture, each action recorded by Nick remains as “consciously devoid of meaning” as the “subdued impassioned whisper.” Jordan Baker, whose first word in the novel is “absolutely” (11), can't make sense of them either.

Daisy's voice promises but does not—or cannot—deliver; it consists of surface glitter (Gatsby will later equate it with money) and extemporaneous promises. Earlier Nick has tried to isolate its particular quality:

It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. … [T]here was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay exciting things hovering in the next hour.


What one hears when listening to Daisy's voice is not content but style, the “arrangement of notes.” This voice carries with it a “singing compulsion,” a promise of both a past and a future that is, ultimately, the goal of all effective communication. Nick hopes that his language, too, will transcend its limitations, as Daisy's conversation transcends its insubstantiality or insincerity, that it will compel its listeners with its promise. In spite of its clear desire to persuade, his voice consistently promises more than it can deliver.

Crucial to Nick's elaborate but ultimately Quixotic strategy for gaining control of his self-representation and his narrative is his attempt to win the reader's confidence, beginning on the first page of the novel.6 First, Nick introduces himself before he introduces the rest of his characters, telling us that his father has told him that “all the people in the world haven't had the advantages [he has] had”:

In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought—frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

What is obvious here is that the sentences do not follow one another logically, and these ironies have often been pointed out by Gatsby critics.7 The careful reader, however, is constantly asking how the ideas presented are related. For example, why is it “in consequence” of his having been told that all people are not equal that Nick is inclined to reserve judgments and is “made the victim” of boring confidences? There seems to be something missing here, perhaps that it suits Nick's self-definition to invite confidences. Or why does it follow, given what came before, that “reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope”? His self-proclaimed desire to avoid conversations with “wild, unknown men” sounds more like evidence of his infinite cynicism than of his infinite hope. Or, finally, how does Nick escape the indictment heaped on other “young men” that their “intimate revelations” are “usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions”? Thus, while Nick is telling the reader one thing (that he is open minded), the logical inconsistencies are saying something entirely different (that he is not).

But the passage is doing something other than just evoking skepticism, creating simple ironies, or reflecting the incoherence of the culture out of which Nick speaks.8 By looking closely at the language, one can see that there is a stylistic accumulation taking place, which allows the reader to reevaluate what is being said. Immediately after declaring that he is “inclined to reserve all judgments,” Nick has judged those who confide in him to be “curious natures” and “veteran bores,” whose minds are “abnormal.” In this early passage in the novel, there is a radical injection of doubt: Nick argues for the normality of his own mind, contrasts his nature to the “curious” ones around him, and claims authenticity for his story in relation to the “plagiaristic” ones he has been told. Yet who is he arguing with? Surely even the most skeptical reader would not be suspicious of Nick already—we are only on page 1! The effect of Nick's pleading is to put the reader in the position of defending Nick's honor—or his sanity—a position that is crucial to the success of the narrative. For Nick's story to “work,” for Gatsby to become the romantic/tragic hero that Nick intends him to be, the reader must not become suspicious of the person telling his story; he must fall under the same “singing compulsion” as do those who listen to Daisy's voice.9

In conflict with this bid for sympathy, however, is a linguistic pattern that emerges as the passage is read more closely. Through his use of several qualifiers (“not a few,” “abnormal,” “unjust,” “unknown,” “unsought,” “unmistakable,” “unequally”), Nick so qualifies himself that it becomes difficult to believe what he says unequivocally. The more obvious self-deprecations (his references to his snobbishness, or his lack of interest in the “intimate revelations” of his classmates) can now be seen as distractions that focus the reader's attention away from the less “obvious suppressions,” from the hidden qualifications of his narrative. Nick has thus not completely succeeded in winning us over.

Derrida provides a useful metaphor to describe this process of accumulation and distraction. The genealogy of the text “is neither causality by contagion, nor the simple accumulation of layers,” he says. “And if a text always gives itself a certain representation of its own roots, those roots live only by that representation, by never touching the soil, so to speak” (101). The text of The Great Gatsby is crisscrossed by a root system that has no fixity in the soil of absolute truth, a kind of hydroponic textuality that nevertheless searches for rootedness, for completion, for final explanations.

Thus any confidence in one's ability to distinguish between revelation and suppression in Nick's narrative can result in tripping over roots. On page 2 of the novel, Nick speaks at length, ostensibly about Gatsby's faults and merits, but he actually reveals more about himself and his own limitations.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gave his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of “creative temperament”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.


The same thing is happening here as in the previous passage: the reader gets only false directions and incoherent conclusions. Nick starts this passage by reminding the reader of his tolerance and then holds out a so-called admission that there are limits even to such reluctantly given tolerance, as regards human conduct. But then the “argument” turns again, with Nick saying that he wanted the world to be at “a sort of moral attention forever.” However, he also says that Gatsby (the first mention of his name, by the way) was “exempt from [his] reaction.” The reader wonders which of the three different reactions Nick is talking about. Was Gatsby exempt from Nick's limited tolerance, from his disregard for the foundations of conduct, or from his desire for moral attention? Then, as if this is not confusing enough, Nick utters the famous conditional phrase—“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures”—which is supposed to valorize Gatsby to any reader who accepts the premise. But does it? One is never completely sure if Nick believes that personality is or ought to be a series of successful gestures. And if the premise is not accepted, does that mean that Gatsby is not gorgeous after all, but something horrible, or at least something shabby? Or might it not mean that Nick's narrative is nothing more than an “unbroken series of successful gestures”? Again, as in the previous passage, Nick wants the reader to play by his rules and defend his propositions, to place hope, as he does, in reserving judgments and “romantic readiness.”

Yet what Nick says he admires—Gatsby's “heightened sensitivity” and “romantic readiness”—reminds the reader of his earlier distaste for the “griefs of wild, unknown men” and qualifies the seeming praise. (Remember that these passages are only one page apart.) So when Nick comes out with the amazing “No—Gatsby turned out all right in the end,” the reader wonders with whom Nick is arguing here—himself? The reader, certainly does not need to be convinced about Gatsby at this point, since he has not even seen him, watched him behave, heard his voice. But then he finds out that it is what floated in Gatsby's wake that “closed out” Nick's interest in the “abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” So it was not Gatsby at all (whom we did not suspect) but the characters around him (whom we have not met) whom Nick blames for Gatsby's tragedy (which we have not witnessed).10 By the time the reader has finished the first two pages, Nick has given—or given away—the main characters, the plot, the moral, and complete directions for how to read the rest of the novel, but the reader has begun to wonder whether or not it is possible to get there from here.11

These directions seem less and less reliable as Nick continues; each story he tells about his past undercuts itself. Take, for example, his family history:

My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this Middle Western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we're descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather's brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on to-day.


The hallowed family tradition is apocryphal; Nick's family—with its merchant origins—is only a generation removed from the poverty and shabbiness of Gatsby's father. Highly ironic also is his famous assertion:

I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become that most limited of all specialists, the “well-rounded man.” This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.


The possibility of a “single window” through which to look at the world, however, has diminished significantly in the first pages of the novel; Nick's house of fiction, like Dickinson's poetry, is “more numerous of windows” and is actually a rather drafty place.

Thus reading the novel carefully involves not following Nick's directions too blindly but watching for moments when he reveals too clearly his desire to lead. Perhaps the most obvious example of this constraint occurs early in the novel when Nick describes being a newcomer to West Egg. He feels lost, he says, until a newer arrival asks him for directions, and then he comments:

And as I walked on I was lonely no longer. I was a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler. He had casually conferred on me the freedom of the neighborhood. And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.


Once again, a passage seems to tell us something about Nick's romantic imagination: he thinks of himself as a pathfinder, an original settler. It might also be argued, less charitably, that it shows how ridiculous Nick is, since he is so quick to romanticize even the most trivial of incidents. Most important, the reader becomes like that newer arrival who has come on the scene of the novel shortly after Nick arrives but late enough so that Nick has to give directions. Nick is the map reader, movie director, creator of a clearly fictional road map filled with hidden dead ends and potholes.

A disordering pattern similar to that of the rose cycle also begins in this passage. Nick's “familiar conviction” looks forward to Jordan Baker's comment that “life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall” (118). The result is a confused sense of both natural and narrative time; for whom is this “familiar”? Neither version is exactly conventional; after all, the year traditionally begins with the winter solstice or with the vernal equinox. Nor do these versions conform to the action of the novel: the summer brings only heat, enervation, and hot tempers, and the fall brings no beginning either, only an ending, of his dream for Nick and of his life for Gatsby. Just as Gatsby's death is final, so is Nick's return to the Midwest a final abandonment of his illusions and his youth. Once again, the competing voices and versions have disrupted what appear to be Nick's intentions.

The conflict between initial intention and final execution is emphasized by the ongoing references to Gatsby's house. It is first described as “a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden” (5). The only thing to which this house is true is the quality of its imitation. Its history is equally problematic:

A brewer had built it early in the “period” craze, a decade before, and there was a story that he'd agreed to pay five years' taxes on all the neighboring cottages if the owners would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heart out of his plan to Found a Family—he went into immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.


The story resembles Nick's family history in its unsuccessful attempt to remake the past into something more romantic. It also has at its heart a puzzling enigma: it is never clear just what the difference is between serfs and peasants, and as a result the story promises more—in terms of genealogy and moral—than it actually delivers.

This perpetual slipping away of the solidity of the romantic past and the intrusion of actual and more sordid origins is emphasized later in the novel when Gatsby, who has just asserted that it is possible to change the past, is described as “looking around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand” (111). It may be possible to change the past, but it is impossible to escape it.

These disruptions continue throughout the novel. Near the end Nick tries to put things into what he considers to be the proper perspective because he comes to recognize that he is in some way responsible for the chaos surrounding Gatsby's life—and death. He says, “It grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested—interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right at the end” (165). Nick is responsible, he says, because he became an “interested” as opposed to a detached observer. Yet notice that this interest is something to which everyone has “some vague right”: what seems an intense personal involvement is only a vague connection, and Nick is no closer to explaining what happened to Gatsby, or to himself.

What the reader begins to see is that Nick is responsible because he created Gatsby, or at least a romanticized version of Gatsby, and this larger-than-life image leads to Nick's disappointment at the apparent lack of interest in Gatsby's death. In fact, Nick's most eloquent passages at the end of the novel, after Gatsby's unattended funeral, are an attempt to order the chaos that he created in his mythologizing of Gatsby, to find another way of making sense of what happened, to immortalize Gatsby. Yet the stylistic disruptions that I have described prevent the reader from feeling any sense of closure, no matter how hard Nick tries. From beginning to end, Nick's language subverts his intentions.

This responsibility is not solely Nick's, however; we all hope that language will let us make sense out of chaos, will give meaning to life, will save us from death.12 This hope is what Daisy's voice promised for Gatsby (as well as for Nick): “I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn't be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song” (97). The same warmth that Nick felt in Daisy's voice, the same promise, is shared by Gatsby. Because it is not real, this voice can be dreamed about endlessly; because it is insubstantial, it can never die. Yet when it actually could have saved Gatsby from death, the voice never comes:

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it [the phone call from Daisy] would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.


Without Daisy's voice Gatsby's world is “material without being real,” and the rose, which was “absolute” early in the novel, is now “grotesque.” At Gatsby's end there is neither rose nor any voice: “I tried to think about Gatsby then for a moment, but he was already too far away, and I could only remember, without resentment, that Daisy hadn't sent a message or a flower” (176). Nick cannot depend on Daisy's “deathless song” of a voice or on roses either, but he feels compelled to find some meaning in what has happened, to find closure. He tries first to invoke geography as an explanation by recounting his annual Christmas return to the Midwest:

I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.


Here Nick tries to claim that all the characters in the novel share some fundamental quality that both sets them apart and renders them deficient. However, the reader notices that Nick comes to this conclusion immediately after remembering his house—“where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name.” This recalls Gatsby's house, which not only has no name but also an obscure and vaguely unsavory past, as well as Nick's story of his origins, and the reader begins to suspect that Nick's frantic struggle to find common ground is a quest that is doomed to fail.

This common ground must begin to seem uncertain to Nick as well, since he next tries to invoke history as a way of unifying the novel:

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.


Since houses have failed him in the previous passage, as they failed Gatsby earlier, Nick must now claim that they are “inessential.” He then begins to speculate about the reactions of the Dutch sailors to their first view of what was to become West Egg, ascribing to them responses that are not unlike his own toward Gatsby. It would not suit Nick's purposes to paint the sailors as greedy plunderers or as exploitative conquerors; instead, they must approach the new world with “aesthetic contemplation,” as artists. In order to justify his position as authoritative narrator, Nick must force both the past and the present to conform to an appreciation of beauty that is free from personal desire; the only contemplation allowed is “aesthetic.” The “real,” for Nick, lies not in desire or the material but in the aesthetic.

In this most lyrical passage, especially, Nick's language betrays him. The island “flowered” (evoking other flowers in this novel—roses, daisies, and myrtles—which are all tainted); it becomes a “fresh green breast” (alluding to the other breast—Myrtle's—which was ripped off); and the trees “pander in whispers” (referring to Nick's pandering for Gatsby). The reader is also transported back to the “original settler,” “singing compulsion,” and “absolute rose” passages, with all their ambiguity. Clearly, Nick is more “interested” in his narrative than he wants to admit.

Interested, but he remains powerless to change anything, even to set right a falsification of events. When he meets Tom for the last time, and Tom recounts his version of the accident that killed Myrtle and led to Gatsby's murder, Nick responds, “There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn't true” (180). Nick, who once saw himself as “pathfinder,” now finds himself unable to correct even the most obvious and important of misinterpretations.

So, as Nick feels his distance and control slipping away from him in the last few sentences of the novel, he plays his final card and tries to implicate the reader:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic 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.


Nick tries to make us, his readers, feel that “we” are also caught in the same dance, that we share Nick's dream and his dilemma. We suddenly recognize that we are being inscribed in the text and forced to acknowledge that we have participated in this tragedy by listening to Nick's story. Unfortunately, the perceptive reader does not share Nick's hope that “one fine morning—” his optimism for the future, nor his nostalgic if melancholy pull toward the past. Instead, at the end of the novel, Nick's dream merges with Gatsby's dream, and Nick and his readers are “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” the past of the novel. The chain of disconnections that has bound us up should force us to question all aspects of the narrative, including the narrator, Gatsby, and the reader's involvement with both of them. Nick has become, against his will, both lover and rival, while struggling to remain just a good friend.

In each formulation, in each attempt to reconstruct history, origin, and identity, both for himself and for Gatsby, Nick fails, not for lack of trying but for the limitations inherent in his language. Just as Gatsby, after kissing Daisy, will “never romp again like the mind of God” (112), so Nick will never be able to save Gatsby from death by explaining him:

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man's, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.


The truth that Nick had hoped to convey becomes a “fragment of lost words,” a final meaning that was “uncommunicable forever.”13


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribners, 1925), 5. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Consistently, critics have praised The Great Gatsby for its multiple perspectives instead of considering it flawed. Fitzgerald—unlike other novelists of the same period—is rarely called upon to decide between various means of representation; indeed, he is celebrated for combining elements of realism and romance into the same novel. But while the novel is praised as both a realistic representation of the 1920s and a romantic rendering of the American Dream, Nick is forced to be either sincere or insincere; he is very rarely permitted to be both. For to assume that Nick is both trustworthy and untrustworthy threatens the privileged position that allows the critic to pass moral judgment on the perspective of the novel and on the psychology of the narrator. For language to become the site of misrepresentation, regardless of the intention of either character or critic, dulls the edge—or perhaps removes the need—for critical thematizing.

    I am thinking specifically of critics such as Richard Lehan, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966), 122; Maxwell Geismar, “Orestes at the Ritz,” in The Last of the Provincials (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 319; Kenneth Eble, F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Twayne, 1963), 98; F. H. Langman, “Style and Shape in The Great Gatsby,Southern Review 6 (1973): 40; and W. J. Harvey, “Theme and Texture in The Great Gatsby,” in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of “The Great Gatsby,” ed. Ernest Lockridge (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 94. And this practice is not limited to earlier critical works; the essays in New Essays on “The Great Gatsby” (ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985]) offer little to change the traditional formula: Nick is sincere or insincere; therefore, Fitzgerald was idealistic or cynical about America.

  3. Kent Cartwright (“Nick Carraway as an Unreliable Narrator,” Papers on Language and Literature 20 [1984]: 218-32) says we distrust Nick because his judgment is “exaggerated, unstable and finally self-compromising” (224). Nevertheless, “because we diverge from Nick—sometimes hesitating at his reactions, sometimes moving beyond them—we feel, even as we too are compelled with fascination, a firmer objectivity” (224). So lack of identification becomes a point of novelistic unification. But the novel's overall vision—meaning Fitzgerald's vision—is clouded by Nick's ambiguous narrative position; instead of being “the arbiter of final meanings, Nick is a contestant in the novel's internal tugging war for truth” (229).

  4. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 7. All subsequent references will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  5. Mikhail Bakhtin (The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist [Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981]) also focuses attention on the multiplicity of voices and intentions in the novel. From the section called “Discourse in the Novel”:

    These distinctive links and interrelationships between utterances and languages, this movement of the theme through different languages and speech types, its dispersion into the rivulets and droplets of social heteroglossia, its dialogization—this is the basic distinguishing feature of the stylistics of the novel.


    Any utterance is, he says, “a contradiction-ridden, tension-filled unity of two embattled tendencies in the life of language,” between the “unitary” language and “social and historical” forces (272). I see these tendencies—a pulling toward and a pulling away from the desire for unity—strongly at work in The Great Gatsby.

  6. Warwick Wadlington (The Confidence Game in American Literature [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975]) and Gary Lindberg (The Confidence Man in American Literature [New York: Oxford University Press, 1982]) discuss the pervasiveness of the confidence man in American novels. For Wadlington, the game of literature is a confidence game, which is made up of “problematic, ambivalent, or deceptive transactions that establish imaginative authority and renew individual identity, in both the world the writer imagines and the relationship he fashions with his reader” (ix). “Men seek and create the grounds of confidence, which is to say, mutual faith,” he says, “as much to validate themselves as to control the wills of others” (6). The trickster represents the “neither-both,” as opposed to “either-or” or “both-and,” an “illusive fullness” that is marginal to all sectors. “The Trickster's marginal nature does not so much synthesize oppositions, as serve as a referent for them: it is what oppositions seek to capture” (19). This figure is also representative of American culture:

    In the national iconography, Americans are peddlers of assurance. The iconography was shaped early by the historical uniqueness of the experiences open to the nation, by the new Romantic faith in the self, and by the competitive energies of capitalism.


    Lindberg agrees with this relationship of the confidence game to America:

    [The confidence man] is a covert cultural hero for Americans. … It is not our official pieties that he represents but our unofficial reward systems, the strategies that we have for over two centuries allowed to succeed. He clarifies the uneasy relations between our stated ethics and our tolerated practices.


    The confidence man, he says, “makes belief” (7). Nick can be thought of as a kind of confidence man, although he is also fooling himself.

  7. Fitzgerald was also skeptical of such assertions. His narrator comments in “The Rich Boy,” a story often seen as a precursor to The Great Gatsby:

    When I hear a man proclaiming himself an “average, honest, open fellow,” I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal—and his protestation of being average and honest and open is his way of reminding himself of his misprision.

    (The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Malcolm Cowley [New York: Scribners, 1951], 177)

  8. Ross Posnock (“‘A New World, Material without Being Real’: Fitzgerald's Critique of Capitalism in The Great Gatsby,” in Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby,” ed. Scott Donaldson [Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984]: 201-13), says that Gatsby (and Nick's representation of him) “risks incoherence … not simply from personal defect but because he is a product of a capitalist society that Fitzgerald reveals to be profoundly incoherent” (202). But the conflict between classes does not divide the novel because Nick's “‘aesthetic contemplation’ abstracts Gatsby from a human world and places him in an ideal realm” (211). In sum:

    Gatsby becomes just the sort of hero that a lonely, modestly successful thirty-year-old like Nick would be likely to invent. As Nick's invention, Gatsby, in effect, is transformed into a commodity that Nick sells the reader. The object Nick provides for our consumption is a version of a perennially marketable cultural myth—the romantic hero as passive sacrificial victim.


  9. In The Resisting Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977), Judith Fetterley reformulates this problem in terms of sexist cultural assumptions. The narrative structure of the novel, she says, “could be more accurately described as one of Fitzgerald's most self-conscious and most successful solutions to the problem of how to tell a story” (93). She continues:

    To accuse Nick of dishonesty in his treatment of women and Fitzgerald of carelessness in handling that dishonesty is to miss the point. Nick's dishonesty goes unrecognized by most of the novel's readers: it is not perceived as dishonest because it is common, pervasive, and “natural” to a sexist society. The Great Gatsby is a dishonest book because the culture from which it derives and which it reflects is radically dishonest.


    Fitzgerald, she says, was able to achieve his effects “by drawing on a large cultural lie which he neither recognizes as such nor makes any conscious commentary upon” (94). This lie is a double standard for men and women that goes like this: “men are legitimate subjects for romantic investment and women are not; men can support it and women cannot; Daisy must fail Gatsby but Gatsby need not fail Nick” (95). I think this too easily equates Nick, a fictional character, with Fitzgerald and diminishes what the novel reveals about Nick's struggle with self-representation and metaphor.

  10. An analogy to Nick's difficulties in describing Gatsby can be seen in Derrida's discussion of the problem of naming in relation to Lévi-Strauss:

    Thus the name, especially the so-called proper name, is always caught in a chain or a system of differences. It becomes an appellation only to the extent that it may inscribe itself within a figuration. Whether it be linked by its origin to the representations of things in space or whether it remains caught in a system of phonic differences or social classifications apparently released from ordinary space, the proper-ness of the name does not escape spacing. Metaphor shapes and undermines the proper name. The literal [propre] meaning does not exist, its “appearance” is a necessary function—and must be analyzed as such—in the system of differences and metaphors.


    The proper name, like Gatsby's made-up name, exists only in appearance; there is no inherent self that it represents. In spite of Gatsby's attempt to create a personality for himself and Nick's struggles to define that self, Gatsby—and all his name represents—is “caught in a chain or a system of differences.”

  11. Gary Scrimgeour (“Against The Great Gatsby,” in Twentieth-Century Interpretations ofThe Great Gatsby,” ed. Ernest Lockridge [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968], 70-81) sees the problem as more one of morality than of clarity. “Carraway's honesty is a matter not of principle,” he says, “but of convenience” (76). He moves from this to an assertion that Nick's assumed morality threatens the structure of the novel: “If the reader cannot accept Carraway's statements at face value, then the integrity of the technique of the novel is called in question” (77). Finally, Scrimgeour says that Nick is a “moral eunuch,” which makes the meaning of The Great Gatsby “much blacker than that of Heart of Darkness” (78).

  12. For Derrida this is the predictable longing for the metaphysics of presence:

    The subordination of the trace to the full presence summed up in the logos, the humbling of writing beneath a speech dreaming its plenitude, such are the gestures required by an onto-theology determining the archeological and eschatological meaning of being as presence, as parousia, as like without difference: another name for death, historical metonymy where God's name holds death in check. That is why, if this movement begins its era in the form of Platonism, it ends in infinitist metaphysics.


  13. Cartwright says that part of the novel's ambivalence, “stems from Fitzgerald's undercutting of the novel's form” (231). What Fitzgerald has done is defeat traditional reader expectations both for a narrator and for an ending:

    The work represents a kind of miscegenation of forms, a romance enclosed in a novel of manners, and Nick and Gatsby seem attached as if by pulleys: as the one is more credible, the other is less so. Gatsby can be both criminal and romantic hero because the book creates for him a visionary moral standard that transcends the conventional and that his life affirms. However, nothing in Nick compels our contemplation or our wonder; he lives in the image of an increasingly reductive melancholy, not of a transcending dream.


    Although ultimately he capitulates to the vague cohesive power of the novel, to its “inextinguishable sense of possibility” (232), Cartwright raises the crucial questions of reader expectation and authorial intentionality. This reinforces what Bakhtin says about all novels: that they carry within them a variety of forms and constantly defeat expectations created by the structure and voices of the narrative. Cartwright's reading provides the prologue to a critique of the actual function of the novel, although he falls back on possibility (or politics, or psychology) to hold the novel together.

Richard Lehan (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Lehan, Richard. “The Importance of the Work.” In The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder, pp. 11-15. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

[In the following essay, Lehan discusses the reasons why The Great Gatsby is still considered a literary classic.]

Any attempt to pinpoint the importance of a work involves a slightly circular argument. The criteria that one brings to the work establish its sense of importance, and the claim for importance then justifies the criteria. Such a necessary circularity need not, however, diminish the more obvious contexts used in establishing the worth of a literary text. Complexity and artistry, vision and technique are the values usually brought to the evaluative process. But even within these terms critics find room for disagreement. What is narratively complex and artistically accomplished to one may seem simplistic and awkward to another. So at the outset we must be aware that any discussion of the “greatness” of a work involves judgments that are both tentative and personal.

The problem of evaluation is complicated further by the fact that there are many modes of fiction: the early realism of Defoe, for example, functions differently from the comic realism of Dickens, which in turn functions differently from the romantic realism of Hugo, or the naturalism of Zola, or the mythic symbolism of Joyce. Fitzgerald began his career by writing an aesthetic novel in the tradition of the bildungsroman; moved on to write a seminaturalistic, documentary kind of novel; then under the influence of Conrad, turned to the highly wrought novel of symbolic detail, controlled by the sensibility and moral intelligence of a narrator who participates in the action. Along with the mythicsymbolism of Joyce, the stream of consciousness of Virginia Woolf, the narrative primitivism of D. H. Lawrence, this kind of novel is central to the very idea of the modern, at the same time that it functions differently—and hence must be read and evaluated differently—from the other narrative modes and the subgenres within those modes. The Great Gatsby is perhaps the best example of what might be called moral symbolism, and the critics who underestimate this novel tend to do so by not seeing clearly the mode in which it was written—and how successfully that mode was accomplished.

Some of these critics are also put off at the outset by Fitzgerald's reputation, which has been diminished by the short stories—many of them trivial—that he wrote for such popular journals as the Saturday Evening Post. Ernest Hemingway always felt superior to him on this score. That Fitzgerald diluted his craft under the urgent pressures of debt and the need for money cannot be denied. That he also wrote a dozen or so of the best short stories in the twentieth century can also not be denied. When he was in control of his craft, Fitzgerald was capable of consistently major achievements.

By 1924 Fitzgerald was in the position to write a masterwork like Gatsby—everything had been building toward this moment. He had served a kind of apprenticeship in the writing of his two previous novels, and he had begun to conceptualize the Gatsby novel in such short stories as “Winter Dreams,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “Absolution,” and a bit later “The Rich Boy.” He would never be so completely in control of his craft again, so sure of the narrative effect that he wanted to create, and in such good health that he would have the energy to work on that novel even at times to the point of exhaustion.

What Fitzgerald did in The Great Gatsby was to raise his central character to a mythic level, to reveal a man whose intensity of dream partook of a state of mind that embodied America itself. Gatsby is the last of the romantic heroes, whose energy and sense of commitment take him in search of his personal grail. The quest cannot be separated from the destiny of a nation—from people who came to a new world, crossed a continent, and built a nation. Such an exercise in will was not without consequence, however, for these people left behind a trail of plunder and waste—of Indians massacred, of the land and its minerals exploited, of nature pillaged. Once the frontier was exhausted, the adventurous state of mind still existed; only now the object of its contemplation was less heroic and sometimes even banal. Fitzgerald's Gatsby was a man of such heroic vision without the opportunity to find a commensurate experience for it. Once the frontier was gone, Gatsby brought his Western intensity East and found a “frontier” equivalent in the New York underworld, the world of professional gamblers, bootleggers, financial schemers, and a new breed of exploiters that the city bred differently from the land. Such a man will stand out in “respectable” company because he will lack social credentials. Novelists like Henry James, E. M. Forster, and Ford Madox Ford gave us insight into how such a highly structured world works; it turns primarily on manners, a system of decorum that those who are within the system share and that separates them from those who are outside. In this world Gatsby is a poseur, a man who fakes it, exploiting his brief contact with Oxford, his war record, and a natural physical elegance that belies his crudity of taste and his lack of a privileged knowledge of manners.

And it is this Gatsby who becomes the object of focus for Nick Carraway—a young, privileged Westerner who has also come East to try his fortune. But Nick does not have to make his own money—that was done by those who came before him, whose crude ventures are now concealed by bourgeois status. Nick's granduncle and father have settled comfortably into the business of American business, of servicing the hardware needs of the new America. Such is a diminished thing. The romantic intensity that the pioneers brought to the new world, Gatsby now brings to a beautiful but also rather superficial, self-involved, self-protecting, morally empty young woman. The power of this novel ultimately comes from the structured relationships between these narrative elements. We have two kinds of seeing in this novel: the visionary whose vision has been emptied, and a moral observer who is initially unsympathetic to what he sees in the visionary (“Gatsby … represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn”) but who is eventually won over by what is compelling and poignant in Gatsby's story. Nick comes to see that Gatsby's fate cannot be separated from his own or from the destiny of America—that something heroic has passed in the backwash of time; that in the era of Harding and Coolidge, the era of modern America, a crass materiality has absorbed our attention, making it a dreamer's fate to idealize what is now most hollow in an emptied past. We most often think of the visionary as one who can read the future; but the visionary is really the person who can read the past, who knows what has been used up, what has been materially exhausted and is no longer available. In this context Fitzgerald was truly a visionary.

In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald tells an extremely American story, so much so that he even thought of titling it “Under the Red, White, and Blue.” The sense of personal destiny in the novel gives way to a sense of national destiny and that in turn to a romantic state of mind. Fitzgerald's literary imagination was always deeply connected to the romantics; he began reading them seriously at Princeton under the influence of Professor Christian Gauss, and he brought the same intensity of romantic interest to an aesthetic tradition that spawned so many of the young disillusioned men and women that Fitzgerald made the trademark of his fiction. Such disillusionment was imbedded in the vision itself, inseparable from its workings: illusion versus reality, a transcendental ideal in conflict with an earthy materialism, the Keatsian frozen moment in contrast with time the destroyer, the romantic ideal transforming physical reality, the rose elevated beyond the garden—such was the fateful metaphysics behind a novel like Gatsby, a metaphysic that gave such tragic priority to the unreal that it was assured the ideal would be undone in time. But to state the problem this bluntly robs it of narrative subtlety, robs it of the greatest gift Fitzgerald brought to his novel—a style so well honed that his story takes on the intensity of a poem.

And indeed it was a poem that served among his models. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald wrote an American equivalent to The Waste Land and brought the same intensity of vision to the postwar, secular world of America that T. S. Eliot had brought to the world of postwar England. So many of the touches in the novel are purely Eliotic—the scene in the Washington Heights apartment where the principals talk about Mrs. Eberhardt, who “goes around looking at people's feet in their own homes” (31), or the counterscene in Daisy's mansion where it is asked, “What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon … and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” (118), or the scene involving Nick walking the city streets seeing both from the inside and out. Nick may start off with absolute scorn for Gatsby, but he comes to admire him both as a man and as a portent of America. Nick sees what is both pathetic and grand in the last of the American romantics, the last of the breed with an epic sense of destiny whose vision took him beyond the realm in which the rest of us live. When asked why Daisy married Tom Buchanan, Gatsby responds, “it was only personal.” Such touches Fitzgerald brought to every page of The Great Gatsby, which radiates with its own special energy.

Fitzgerald's fiction, his conception of character, the narrative unfolding, the complexity of language—all make for a novel of unbelievable complexity. On a personal note, I can say that I have read this novel well over one hundred times, and every time I reread it, I find that I am seeing things that I had previously missed. Few novels—particularly those so seemingly simple on the surface—hold up so well and have the ability to continually surprise us. The Great Gatsby seems larger than the criteria that we bring to its evaluation; whatever we say about it seems never complete or satisfactory enough. It is a novel that has continually proved itself larger than its many critics, which is perhaps what we mean when we speak of it as a masterpiece. When the canon of American literature changes, the criteria we use to establish that canon change as well. Literary posterity is always a fragile thing, but challenges to the permanence of The Great Gatsby seem to cast more doubt on our critical criteria than they do on Fitzgerald's achievement.

Carol Wershoven (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Wershoven, Carol. “Insatiable Girls.” In Child Brides and Intruders, pp. 92-9. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Wershoven notes that Daisy Buchanan is a prototypical “child bride” whose “purchase” is required by a society of commodity.]

Undine Spragg [in Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country] is only one in a series of girls whose appetite mirrors a nation's desire. In four novels that followed The Custom of the CountryThe Great Gatsby, [Wharton's] Twilight Sleep [and Ellen Glasgow's], The Sheltered Life and In This Our Life—versions of the insatiable girl appear, and so, too, does a recognizable pattern. The desiring/desired girl stands at the center of a vortex. Around her swirl instances of failed marriages, blocked communications, social disorder and decay. Like The Custom of the Country, each of these four novels is set in a world of deception, where illusion and role-playing supersede reality and emotion. But a new element appears in the pattern: a crime. In these novels, there are two shootings and two car “accidents” (hit-and-run). In each case, the innocent heroine is either the culprit or is indirectly responsible, and, in each case, society helps to cover up the deed.

These conspiracies of evasion are the logical outcomes of the crimes, as those around the heroine are her accomplices. They have created the atmosphere in which the child bride flourishes; they have, in essence, created her. And those around her perceive that she cannot be held responsible for her actions, for she embodies the pure freedom of endless choice without consequences. She is the consumer who need never pay.

She is an icon of desire and damnation. Like Undine Spragg, she is what men want, and she is full of discontent: forever attracted to a new amusement, a new toy, a new man, and forever bored, disappointed, seeking a new deal. Men strive to pay for her, and they pay twice. They work to acquire her, and they assume the responsibility of owning a delinquent child, one who smashes things and people with the petulance of a spoiled little girl.

The price of the child bride never seems to be too high. In these novels, even when the beloved child is revealed as a manipulator, betrayer, or murderer, she is carefully shielded from the consequences of her desires. This icon of longing must not be shattered, for if she is gone, what is left? Only the Valley of Ashes that created her.

In the middle of The Great Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim, who has ingeniously transformed human molars into jewelry and the dirty deal into a corporate empire, offers Nick Carraway a business connection. His offer encapsulates most of the relationships of the novel, for F. Scott Fitzgerald's book is largely about deals. Tom Buchanan has bought his wife, and Jay Gatsby wants to exercise his prior option on the merchandise. Nick, the novel's moral center, is learning to trade in stocks and bonds. Gatsby sells liquor in the guise of medicine, Tom Buchanan and George Wilson dicker over the sale of a car, Myrtle Wilson sells herself, and Meyer Wolfsheim bought the World Series.

At the center of the trading is, of course, the golden girl, or more accurately, as Michael Millgate notes, the gold and white girl. Daisy is the golden girl in the white palace, the “Daisy” with a gold center and white petals, the princess dressed in white, driving a white roadster. She is, then, the color of money but also the color of the “absence of all desire.” The white palace is remote and inaccessible, Millgate says, and Daisy's white innocence is life-denying (111). Daisy wants things and people, but she feels no true sexual desire, and thus there is no space inside her that can be filled, no unfinished part of her that can be completed by another. She is a trick of blankness. Even her golden color, the color of money, is also the color of brass, the imitation. It is the color of the brass buttons on her dress the day she reunites with Gatsby, himself resplendent in a silver shirt and golden tie.

At the center of all the deals, then, is a bad bargain. Daisy is the meretricious beauty to which Gatsby consecrates his life.

It is fitting that a book about buying and selling should center on a woman who does not give full value for the money. Most trades involve some deception, or at least some illusion, on the part of buyer and/or seller. And so The Great Gatsby is a novel of lies, filled with open secrets, evasions, deceit, and betrayal. It begins with the open secret of Tom's infidelity and Daisy's dramatic enactment of the role of long-suffering, beautiful fool. The scenario entertains Jordan, a professional golfer who is a liar and a cheat. The first scenes introduce the keynote of deception that continues throughout. Tom lies to his mistress about his wife's refusal to divorce him; Myrtle and her sister deceive Myrtle's husband, poor George; everyone suspects Gatsby is lying about his genteel past; and a series of deceptions lead to Gatsby's murder.

As the Houyhynhms said, a lie is “the thing that is not,” and this is a novel about the love of “what is not.” In The Great Gatsby, appearances are worshipped as if they were real, things are substituted for emotions, things provoke emotion, and people become things.1

The central characters, Daisy and Gatsby, drift from role to role, almost as if they were searching for the most appropriate one. Daisy is first seen in an elaborate tableau of elegance and lassitude, posed on her sofa, gazing motionless at some invisible object, a figurine in a cool, lush setting. In the space of a few hours, she attempts two new roles: the injured wife and the adoring young mother. Her lover, trying to explain his past to Nick, also posits a series of roles, from which Nick can choose the one he finds most plausible: war hero of Montenegro, white hunter in the colonies, Oxford man. Daisy is drawn to Gatsby's flair for drama. As Marius Bewley notes, what Daisy likes best at Gatsby's party is the empty gesture of an actress and her director (278), slowly moving toward one another in a pantomime of love, a parody of her own slow movement back to the lover who wants to dominate her life.

And the love that supposedly binds these two is frequently represented as an uncontrollable feeling prompted by an object. Gatsby beseeches Daisy's green light in the darkness; she is where the light is, but somehow the light evokes the feeling. Daisy loses control and weeps, not on first re-encountering her lost love, but when she sees the piles of pastel-colored shirts he flings, like tribute, into her lap. Betrayal is also revealed by a thing: George Wilson discovers his wife's adultery when he finds a jeweled dog leash in her room.

The lines dividing people, images and things become increasingly blurred. Daisy's little girl, charmingly dressed and adorably (but briefly) exhibited to Nick, seems like her mother's doll, or a prop in Daisy's drama of marital virtue wronged and affronted. Daisy's attitude towards Gatsby is most tellingly revealed in the words of passion that give the game away. Tom is certain that Daisy has been unfaithful when she lovingly compares Gatsby, so fresh and clean and beautifully dressed, to the image of a man in a shirt advertisement. There seems to be no higher tribute in this world of illusion than to compare one's beloved to an advertisement.

It is a dead world, a place dominated by a pair of eyes on a billboard, eyes that are sightless but forever peer out, looking for something. Like the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, the innocents of the novel keep looking for something, something new and better, for they are bored with the things they have already bought. Daisy wonders what they'll do each day, and the next day, identifying the dilemma of people who can have whatever they want, as soon as they want it. Tom, too, is bored, seeking excitement first in sport, then in infidelity, seeking identity in a book of racist political philosophy. Myrtle is bored with her husband and looking for a better deal; George, too, dreams of moving to a new place where business will be better.

Gatsby, more than anyone else, is eternally hopeful, confident that one more purchase will save him. Malcolm Bradbury says Gatsby aims “to transform money into love” (65) by buying Daisy. For, as [Judith] Fetterley says, Daisy has become the embodiment of the things Gatsby has craved for so long. Her family's rich house in Alabama, where he first sees her, is “the house of romance which he can only enter through her,” and she is “the ultimate object in it. It is she for whom men compete, and possessing her is the clearest sign that one has made it into that magical world” (74).

Fitzgerald's comment on his relationship to his wife Zelda is relevant to Gatsby's motives. In his notebooks, Fitzgerald discussed his marriage to Zelda, a dream fulfilled only after much frustration. Zelda had broken their engagement because Fitzgerald had no money, and she married him only after he had become rich and famous, with the publication of his first novel. Fitzgerald describes the bitter lesson learned from both denial and subsequent gratification of his longing:

The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class—not the conviction of the revolutionist but the smouldering hatred of a peasant. In the years since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends' money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.

(Qtd. in Spindler 152)

His fear describes the plot of The Great Gatsby, and Spindler says the statement reveals Fitzgerald's awareness that “money was the dynamo which powered the bright lights of the leader class” (152). But the comment also reveals Fitzgerald's understanding that women are property, prizes to be won. And so his greatest character, Jay Gatsby, perceives Daisy as “that which money exists to buy,” as Fetterley says. To own her “both indicates the fact of money and gives point to its possession” (74).

Fitzgerald seems to say that Daisy is the source of Gatsby's doom, that she brings him down. Critics of the novel generally agree that Daisy's destructive power is not willed or conscious, that Gatsby has simply invested too much in a property that cannot appreciate in value. Nevertheless, our general sense of Gatsby's story links his fall to his choice of the golden girl. Perhaps if he had found some other embodiment of his dreams, if he had purchased something else, his life might have been otherwise. The being who created himself, this Son of God, is incarnated, made fallible and vulnerable, when he makes the wrong consumer decision.

As Gatsby remembers it, the fatal choice is his decision to commit himself to Daisy. On that autumn night, as he and Daisy walked on a sidewalk “white with moonlight,” he turned to Daisy and noticed that “the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees.” The moment of choice arrives, for Gatsby can reach the secret place

if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited. … Then he kissed her … and the incarnation was complete.


Gatsby has bought the definitive item; given the choice between the stars and the earth, between a secret place of endless wonder and the blank, white face of mortality with its “perishable breath,” Gatsby comes down to Daisy, who must lift her face to reach him. God has been made man; anticipation, infinite promise have been reduced to a limiting realization. It seems that God has become man not by becoming a child, but by loving one.

The passage is not so straightforward. For the alternatives of Gatsby's choice are not clear. From what heights did Gatsby fall? And to what has he been reduced?

Without Daisy, Gatsby thinks, he could climb that white ladder to the sky and be safe in a solitary spot, free to suck the milk of wonder, to romp. This choice is a child's choice, a consumer choice. Gatsby perceives this secret world as a place of dependency and drift, where the maternal breast of dreams is ever-available, where he can suck the milk of wonder endlessly as he romps in innocence. To get there, he must take a white sidewalk and climb a white ladder to live on the white liquid of dreams. In a novel filled with negative images of the white princess in her white world, the world relinquished by Gatsby seems remarkably similar to the world he chooses.

Gatsby's “fall” into Daisy's perishable world is no Fortunate one. There is no moment of transition from that secret world of play to the mature world of guilt, sorrow, and perhaps redemption. If Daisy indeed brings Gatsby down, she brings him down to reality. The fallen Gatsby is not so much diminished as revealed. He has chosen Daisy not as an alternative to that playful world of wonderful white dreams, but as an embodiment of it.

As Fitzgerald points out, Gatsby makes himself, and he creates his own destiny as well. Like that first self-made man, Ben Franklin, Gatsby methodically and systematically designs his regimen of self-improvement. His diary, like Franklin's, allocates each moment of the day for one more step on the way to wealth. Gatsby learns and studies under a more modern version of the self-made man, the predator/pioneer Dan Cody. Gatsby learns to believe in his mentor's values of power, possession and control. He becomes exactly what he wanted to be—the latest incarnation of an old American dream. By Gatsby's time, the self-made man is no longer creative and inventive like Franklin, nor rapacious and atavistic, like Cody. He is polished and charming, a con man. But Gatsby's misfortune is to be the con man duped by his own yearnings.

Gatsby is brought down by his refusal to see the nature of his own dreams, and that is why he must remain faithful to Daisy until he dies. As Fetterley says, Gatsby has invested himself in Daisy (76-77), so to recognize her emptiness is to recognize his own. It is easier to remain in a world of lies, to die waiting for a call that will never come, a declaration of love from a girl who cannot love. The dream must be sustained by deception, of others and of oneself, so that identity can be sustained.

It is easier for all those in Gatsby's world to go on as they began than to confront the evil inside their dreams. When the golden girl kills, her crime must be concealed, and Gatsby, Tom, and even Nick conspire to cover up the truth. And so the novel ends as it began. It ends in falsehood, from Gatsby's lie to save Daisy, to Jordan's lie to save her pride. It ends in deception, from George Wilson's tragic mistake, to the revelation of Gatsby's real name, to the Buchanans' re-assumption of the role of united married couple.

And, most of all, it ends with a final picture of the power of money. Money can buy the innocent bride, and enough money can keep her safe in a white palace. Money can sustain the illusion that, somewhere, there is one new thing, one new pleasure or one new person that, purchased, will fill the emptiness inside. And so the story of the Buchanans ends with two more purchases, as Tom buys jewelry to adorn his new mistress, his latest acquisition. Business continues as usual.


  1. This blurring of polarities is very like the blurring of subject and object in Sister Carrie.

Works Cited

Bewley, Marius. The Eccentric Design: Form in the Classic American Novel. 1957. New York: Columbia UP, 1963.

Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern American Novel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1983.

Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction, 1978. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby, 1925. New York: Scribners, n.d.

Millgate, Michael. American Social Fiction: James to Cozzens. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1964.

Spindler, Michael. American Literature and Social Change: William Dean Howells to Arthur Miller. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1983.

Ronald Berman (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Berman, Ronald. “Contexts.” In The Great Gatsby and Modern Times, pp. 15-37. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Berman discusses ideas current in America in the early part of the decade just before Gatsby's publication.]

In “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” written in the early thirties, with a flourish Fitzgerald identified the crucial year of the preceding decade: “May one offer in exhibit the year 1922!”1 It is the turning-point year in which The Great Gatsby takes place. And in the novel he makes it a point to be specific about the dating of his story. In what particular ways does the novel use its moment? Let us look at certain ideas in circulation in the summer of 1922, and in the period around it: ideas that, like that of “civilization,” are referential in the text. For Tom Buchanan “civilization” is highly meaningful—and is opposed to his sense of “the modern world.” Does he echo a public debate? And, is his anxiety over ideas and social situations possibly derived?

One set of anxieties can probably be discarded. In a 1921 interview Fitzgerald stated that, “except for leaving its touch of destruction here and there, I do not think the war left any real lasting effect. Why, it is almost forgotten right now.”2 Possibly to our surprise there was substantial agreement with this. Leading into the year The Great Gatsby takes place, on November 30, 1921, the New Republic states of “the new spirit” that worldwide, “improvement is spreading rapidly and is increasing in self-confidence and in positive achievement as well as in volume. It is clearly the expression of a temper radically different from that which prevailed during and after the war.” Throughout 1922, the Saturday Evening Post showed little interest in a war that had by now receded from the memory of its readers and was no longer good copy. The Post, in any case, had many other quarrels to engage in, and there are good reasons for it being a magazine of choice for Tom Buchanan. In 1923, the year of the first publication of Time, almost nothing was said in its weekly coverage about war disillusion. The archaeologist of news will find instead that Time covers war debts, war finances, and armament limitations without invoking war disillusion. In the early twenties Time covered fiction and theater in more detail than it now does, but very little of its critical attention was devoted to books or essays about the lasting, debilitating effect of our experience in the Great War. Much attention, however, was paid by Time, other magazines, and by Fitzgerald to certain resentments.

On July 5, 1922, a date to remember, the New Republic continued its campaign of national introspection or “interpretation” (the term is from the first sentence of the first issue in 1914) of public events. There was much to interpret, beginning with the industrial war in West Virginia in which coal miners had killed nineteen strike breakers. The editors thought that these unionized miners were identical in class outlook and behavior to those who had recently beaten and tortured black migrant workers in Springfield and East St. Louis. There were troubles enough abroad: the Marines were in Haiti; Ireland was habitually regressive in politics and in culture; and in Germany Walther Rathenau had just been assassinated.3 But, at least for the New Republic, foreign policy was not at this point the main issue: what mattered most in American life was the management of domestic change. There were many anxieties, and traditional kinds of explanation seemed no longer to hold. It seemed, for example, to be no longer useful to think about the relationship of Capital to Labor, or of Democrat to Republican. Politics was a waste of time. In 1922, the public duty was to reassess the aggregate of individual lives that constituted the nation and to bring to bear a new private and public sense of self. Perhaps nothing could be done about West Virginia until the values of a “Christian people” were asserted—and recognized. About other things much remained to be done, especially about the dual facts of too much money in circulation, and in too few hands. There was an uneasy sense of the swiftness of social change, and, even more, that it might be unmanageable. The issue of July 5 ended on an especially disquieting note, with a review of recent books on coming of age in America. Its last words were about a new cultural sense of self, about the child no longer “the subject of the parental regent, however wise.” In the coming decade, it was plain to see, personal identity would be achieved through “self-direction and self-determination.” The author reviewed is Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and his book Child Versus Parent is taken for a tract for the times. Undesired social change seems now to begin, literally, at home. Both author and reviewer believe that the growth of social character should indeed be ordered by “self-discipline” but they doubt that will happen. Fitzgerald would write in the early thirties that “the wildest of all generations” was that “which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War.”4 As for self-discipline, that had been stood on its head: the generation of children had “corrupted its elders.”

There is one other thing about this issue that is of special interest to novelists: a review of Ulysses by Edmund Wilson. Since reading it, “the texture of other novelists seems intolerably loose and careless.” Ulysses has invalidated traditional kinds of fiction, including, one supposes, books like This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned. New fiction will clearly have to be ironic in tone, modernist in technique. Fitzgerald dutifully read Ulysses and wrote to Wilson about its personal effect on him.5 There is more to the effect of modernism on Fitzgerald that needs to be said and I will try to amplify that in later chapters.

Other magazines will of course have other concerns but they too are focused on the overriding theme of change. There is Vanity Fair, a publication closer than the New Republic to the tactical issues of Fitzgerald's fiction. Vanity Fair means also to be interpretative—its motto has, from the first issue in 1913, been “a record of current achievements in all the arts and a mirror of the progress and promise of American life.” Its sense of “promise” resonates to Fitzgerald's themes. Vanity Fair was (before the advent of the New Yorker) the main source for the creation of social identity through high style. It assumed that self-determination operates through consumption. One of its great themes is the acquisition of identity by conscious choice. That choice is exerted through transaction within the marketplace. The primary assumption of the marketplace of style is that we can choose what we want to be without inhibition. A secondary assumption is that diligent consumption, as thoughtful and perhaps as arduous as that of a lifetime of good works, legitimatizes our efforts. When Myrtle Wilson shops at Pennsylvania Station she is by no means being simply materialistic—she displays the care and prudence once associated with the vocation of citizenship. She understands that purchases and styles are meant not to gratify but to display the character of choice—and the choice of character.

Vanity Fair is necessarily about commodities, and its advertisements are as important as any other instructions conveyed by commercial literature. I believe that Fitzgerald took quite seriously the techniques and even the claims of advertising—he did not differentiate it from the rest of “culture” and indeed he used it to enormous advantage in a novel about people whose energies are often bent toward consumption. There are no warnings in The Great Gatsby that when we leave love for advertising or for the description of commodities we are moving from a realm of higher to lower seriousness.

Vanity Fair has a powerfully affective sequence of advertisements (nearly all illustrated, with many taking up an expensive full page) of its principal commodities, automobiles. Here they are in order of appearance in the July 1922 issue: the life-changing designs of the Chalmers Six, Oldsmobile, Wills Sainte Claire, Haynes 75, Renault, Winton, Kimball, De lage, Talbot-Duracq, Marmon, D. A. C., Mercedes, Stanley, Elgin, Dusenberg, the three-wheeled Neracar (“a new type of automotive vehicle unlike either an automobile or a motorcycle”), Ford, Le Baron, Rumpler Raindrop, Studebaker, Durant, Stutz, Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, Sunbeam, Ballot, Packard Twin-Six, Paige, Daniels, Derham, and La Fayette. The August issue will add the Maxwell, Locomobile, Essex, and the Rolls-Royce favored by Gatsby. In relation to all advertisements and text the automobile is by far the most important commodity in the issue. It is as important a symbolic object to Vanity Fair as it is to The Great Gatsby. Each car has a social character to confer. Some will grant middle-class reliability. Most, however, have more extensive ambitions. The products imply consumers who are themselves “leading,” “powerful,” and even “perfect.” These products confer “esteem,” “security,” “enjoyment” and, possibly more important, something not likely to be granted often by daily life, complete “satisfaction.” In The Great Gatsby one of these cars will even turn out to be “triumphant.”

Few of the cars on the pages of Vanity Fair are less elaborate than Gatsby's, which begins to seem representative rather than extreme. There are not only spare tires but cases for them; there are tools and gauges for mileage, gasoline, and oil; and logs for daily expenses. There are monograms in metal to prove ownership. There are traveling sundials. A special model of the Pierce-Arrow comes equipped with water tank and icebox for cocktail parties; with bottles, glasses, “knives, forks, plates and other picnic paraphernalia.” This model also has a Victrola and room for records to play on it. There is a built-in Kodak to memorialize its usage. The Stutz is itself interpretative, “owned and liked by men who have long since passed the Dollar Sign on the road to achievement.”

Gatsby seems less idiosyncratic when a magazine of 1922 is opened. The majority of other commodities in the July issue of Vanity Fair are clothes that make the man. Advertisements of the 1990s now praise natural impulse and promise individuality within the mass. Ads of the twenties are more socially instructive. They reflect realities, not impulses. We buy underwear because of “The Question of Health.” A watch is not an ornament or jeu d'esprit but “The Last Essential in Dress.” What matters is that which allows us to be “approved” and which turns us into “ladies” and “gentlemen.” B. V. D.s suggest neither sexuality nor privacy—they are what a man wears for the last perceivable stage of correctness in the club locker room. It is only natural that a considerable amount of anxiety should be generated because the marketplace is full of those who aspire to mobility but who cannot defend their origins. The marketplace of identity has to avoid the issue tackled by the great novels of social change that kept inner consciousness focused on the past. In the great line of narrative from Dickens to Lawrence and Joyce the problem is not that of achieving status but of reconciling it with one's former, inner—and true—identity. The ads of Vanity Fair promise a change of identity so complete that there will be no former self left to argue with.

The Vanity Fair Shopping Service undertakes “to leave the decision” about acquiring a new self through commodities “to Vanity Fair's judgment.” It is a judgment much less fallible in its sense of a social self than any individual's is liable to be. There are many ads like this one in magazines of the twenties, providing instructions for those on the margins of class. The marketplace had to formulate character as well as supply demand. Fitzgerald once wrote ad copy himself and was aware of the relationship between style and status: Gatsby leaves the decision about his shirts to a man in England who sends over a “selection” of things each season. Daisy understands not only the plenum of styles but the way they reach Gatsby and what they mean to him.

The ultimate promise about acquired identity is made in Vanity Fair by an ad for the La Fayette: “He Who Owns A La Fayette is envied by all who truly love fine things. Quiet, beautiful and strong, this car rules any road it travels.” It should be no surprise that after Daisy tells Gatsby indirectly that she loves him, she seeks for her own objective correlative: “You resemble the advertisement of the man. … You know the advertisement of the man—” (93). Probably not the man in the La Fayette ad, but the man whose face is drawn a thousand times a day in the art of commercial realism, a figure perfectly achieved.6

But even Vanity Fair has second thoughts about “progress and promise.” In the May 1922 issue, the omnipresent Hendrik Willem Van Loon had invoked “civilization” in a way that would reverberate throughout the decade.7 The term will come to mean a great deal to Tom Buchanan in the spring of 1922 and to those he represents. Van Loon writes that after the war, “America has suddenly been called upon to carry forward the work of civilization.” We must now provide what an exhausted Old World used to provide, “art and literature and science and music and all the other great accomplishments of the human race.” Or, as Tom confusedly puts it in his redaction of profundity, “oh, science and art and all that” (14). By “art” both mean aesthetics in the service of social stasis: realistic images with moral values. But there are some redefinitions also about “the human race.” Van Loon adds that civilization as we know it may well vanish, exactly as when “unknown hordes from unknown parts of Asia and Eastern Europe broke through the barriers of Rome and installed themselves amidst the ruins of the old Augustan cities.” The modern equivalent of these hordes is “the latest shipment of released Ellis Islanders” who will “make a new home among the neglected residences of your own grandfathers and uncles.” The issue was addressed from the other side of the aisle at exactly the same time (May 10, 1922) by the New Republic, which concluded that national identity would be changed no matter what people like Van Loon wanted. A “new” kind of “upstart half-breed Americans seem destined to rule the larger American cities for many years in spite of the discomfiture, the dismay and the ineffectual protests of the former ruling class.” It is a good description of the political-cultural dialectic—and also of Tom Buchanan and his fears.

Harper's Monthly Magazine in the early twenties had few advertisements and showed little interest in either domestic or national policy. It was very much in the genteel tradition, concerned with manners, the fiction of sensibility, various uses of Nature, the alternatives of city and country life, and the cultural responsibilities of the enlightened middle class. More than one piece in the July 1922 issue sought to be inspirational about America. But the theme so persistent in other texts finds expression here also: we were better off before times changed. The opening essay, “What Happens to Pioneers,” is about a country once untroubled by mass migrations from Europe to America—or from South to North. It insists that before the twentieth century, ownership and working of the land themselves constituted moral character. As for the settlement of the wilderness—that had been an act of national altruism. It is bad enough that the change in population from country to city-based has wrought a change in our national character—much worse is the effect of ideas about our past. A certain nameless reviewer for the New Republic (clearly infected by the spirit of Veblen and of Beard) is the villain of this piece in Harper's. That reviewer, obviously a modern materialist with no regard for the meaning of American history, has converted “The dreaming builders” of our union, who were entirely altruistic, into “real-estate speculators, usurers, merchants, brokers,” and pettifogging lawyers. The “mystic exaltation” of the Founding Fathers has been reduced to mere “pecuniary interest.” Their motive for developing the wilderness is now interpreted by moderns as being only the desire to profit from it. American history, according to such new, deracinated intellectuals, is an exact counterpart of contemporary history. There are two main sources of resentment in this piece: that the innocent past should be so distant from the corrupt present; and that it should be judged by “modern” ideas.

The July Harper's ends with the “Editor's Easy Chair” in which the reader is warned that “A man's most difficult antagonist is within himself, and the same is apt to be true of nations.” The specific issue is American national life perceived in terms (“anxieties,” loss of “confidence,” and of “balance”) that are clearly not political but moral-psychological. This kind of transference is one of the great modes of periodical literature and of the entire enterprise of social commentary. There are some good reasons for the public being addressed as if it were in a continual state of moral crisis. In an age of limited government there are necessarily limited expectations. It is rare for the editorialists of the early twenties to appeal to state or federal agencies. They sermonize instead. And they persist in understanding national issues as if they were moral issues. This is as true of Irving Babbitt as it is of Tom Buchanan. It is as if national character were perceived as an enlarged form of individual character. Within that tradition the editor of Harper's looks back at the nineteenth century, and says that “the old way” of doing things “has not worked well” for us. The truth may be that twentieth-century problems are not amenable to nineteenth-century solutions. There is an unbridgeable distance between our history and our selves.

If we are to judge from this limited sample, public debate on the subject of true Americanism was mournful and confused. As for American “civilization,” that debate was even angrier and uglier than Tom Buchanan's. The term “civilization” was everywhere in use for the expression of anxiety. It was often used as a code word meaning innocent American national character before mass immigration and Emancipation—and before the loathsome effects of modernity.

During a “polite” and “pleasant” dinner on East Egg Nick Carraway unconsciously engages a national dialectic: it takes no more than saying, “You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy” (13). Nick says that he “meant nothing in particular by this remark, but it was taken up in an unexpected way” (14). From this point on Tom Buchanan is cued to debate “civilization,” and the text begins its refraction of ideas from print. As Tom says of his current favorite book, “everybody ought to read it” (14), and the implication is that ideas do in fact circulate from texts. Fitzgerald has gone to some trouble to indicate—in a very pointed communication from Nick to the reader—that an eruption has occurred that reveals underlying truths. Beneath the surface of a “pleasant” evening is resentment, even rage if we are to judge from what seems to be its displaced forms in Tom. We get from “art” and “science” to race very quickly. There is a strange parallel between this passage and another passage published a few years before, in 1919, which also moves volcanically from “art” to “civilization.” William Winter's life of David Belasco complacently views the state of Broadway productions and then suddenly precipitates national resentments about the visible evidences for historical change:

The spirit of our country is and long has been one of pagan Materialism, infecting all branches of thought, and of unscrupulous Commercialism, infecting all branches of action. Foreign elements, alien to our institutions and ideals as to our language and our thoughts,—seditious elements, ignorant, boisterous, treacherous, and dangerous—have been introduced into our population in immense quantities, interpenetrating and contaminating it in many ways: in the face of self-evident peril and of iterated warnings and protests, immigration into the United States has been permitted during the last twenty years of about 15,000,000 persons—including vast numbers of the most undesirable order. We call ourselves a civilized nation—but civility is conspicuous in our country chiefly by its absence. Gentleness is despised. Good manners are practically extinct. Public decorum is almost unknown. We are notoriously a law-contemning people. The murder rate—the unpunished murder rate—in our country has long been a world scandal. Mob outrage is an incident of weekly occurrence among us. Our methods of business, approved and practised, are not only unscrupulous but predatory. Every public conveyance and place of resort bears witness to the general uncouthness by innumerable signs enjoining the most elemental decency. … The tone of the public mind is to a woeful extent sordid, selfish, greedy. In our great cities life is largely a semi-delirious fever of vapid purpose and paltry strife, and in their public vehicles of transportation the populace—men, women, and young girls—are herded together without the remotest observance of common decency,—mauled and jammed and packed one upon another in a manner which would not be tolerated in shipment of the helpless steer or the long-suffering swine.8

The suddenness of transference from “art” to “civilization” says something about the way Tom Buchanan's mind works, or fails to work. Winter clearly feels that the movement from one kind of statement about the art of theater to another kind of statement about the nature of “civilization” is appropriate and that it makes sense.

Daisy and Jordan make fun of Tom but they do not seriously challenge his ideas about civilization. In fact, when Daisy reveals her own ideas she says something of their sources. She has many doubts, and they come from “the most advanced people” who think that “everything's terrible anyhow” (17). We are faced in the right direction, invited to agree with those who in 1922 argue that life is unsatisfactory. Daisy's sources are cultural pessimists—there is a word for it, Kulturpessimismus, or the belief that modernity is without soul or public morality, and that a return to the values of the past is the only possible solution. It was a position for those opposed to the effects of democracy, in America as well as Germany. Pessimism about “civilization” was often expressed in a language strikingly similar to Tom's. In 1920 George Santayana began Character and Opinion in the United States with this assertion: “Civilization is perhaps approaching one of those long winters that overtake it from time to time. A flood of barbarism from below may soon level all the fair works of our Christian ancestors, as another flood two thousand years ago levelled those of the ancients.”9

Related issues were not confined to a lunatic fringe, and they were heavily publicized by magazines and newspapers. In 1923 the celebrated Study of American Intelligence by McDougall and Brigham appeared, stating that “the intellectual superiority of our Nordic groups over the Alpine, Mediterranean and negro groups has been demonstrated.”10 The New York Times and the American Museum of Natural History agreed. Tom Buchanan would not have been perceived as a crank in the period from 1921 to 1923. He would have compared favorably with some members of Congress. He would have been understood as being under the respectable wing of the amateur anthropologists Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, and of George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post. A modern historian observes that Grant, a notable racist, “inspired” other writers, and that he was the focus of “sympathetic comments in the editorials of such influential publications as the New York Times and the Saturday Evening Post.11 Grant Overton's American Nights Entertainment of 1923 has much to say about national figures whose ideas are assimilated by people like Tom:

Prophecy is a very old business. It has become our habit to think of ourselves as a people without prophets; and yet there was never a time when mankind had more seers or more interesting ones. What is H. G. Wells but a prophesier, and from whom do we receive counsel if not from Mr. Chesterton? Mr. Shaw is our Job's comforter, and George Horace Lorimer, on the editorial page of Saturday Evening Post, calls us to repentance. A few years ago I had the adventure of reading Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, an impassioned proclamation of the merits of the blond Nordic race, and a lamentation over its decay. At that time such a book was in the nature of a revelation whether you gave faith to its assertions and proofs or scoffed at them. The thing that struck me was the impossibility (as it seemed to me) of any reader remaining unmoved; I thought him bound to be carried to a high pitch of enthusiastic affirmation or else roused to fierce resentment and furious denial. And so, in the event, I believe it mainly turned out. At that time, although he was the author of several books, I had not heard of Lothrop Stoddard, unless as a special writer and correspondent for magazines. It was not until April 1920, that The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy was published. Even so, attention is not readily attracted to a book of this type. Many who have since read it with excitement knew nothing of the volume until, in a speech at Birmingham, Alabama, on 26 October, 1921, President Harding said: “Whoever will take the time to read and ponder Mr. Lothrop Stoddard's book on The Rising Tide of Color … must realise that our race problem here in the United States is only a phase of a race issue that the whole world confronts.”12

According to the Saturday Evening Post, Stoddard's work attracted “an extraordinary amount of attention” and was recognized as “the first successful attempt to present a scientific explanation of the worldwide epidemic of unrest.”13 He was a household name, which is probably why he is encountered in Tom's household as “this man Goddard” (14) who has written “The Rise of the Coloured Empires.”

In 1924 there was much political discourse over American character in Congress, and much argument in print. In a volume at least as well known as Santayana's, Irving Babbitt's Democracy and Leadership, the following was stated: “We are assured, indeed, that the highly heterogeneous elements that enter into our population will, like various instruments in an orchestra, merely result in a richer harmony; they will, one may reply, provided that, like an orchestra, they be properly led. Otherwise the outcome may be an unexemplified cacophony. This question of leadership is not primarily biological, but moral.”14 One admires the qualification, but the thrust of argument remains the same: pessimism over those of us who are neither Nordic nor Christian. But Babbitt was infinitely better than most on this issue: in 1925 Reader's Digest carried a Madison Grant piece from an earlier issue of the Forum, which reads as if it were designed for a Tom Buchanan who had briefly flickered into consciousness over the immigration debate. Grant's essay, “America for the Americans,” argues not only against the admission into the United States of black or yellow peoples but also of Germans, inassimilable because of their guttural speech and mannerisms (the war was not adduced). During the early twenties it was widely thought that Germans were insufficiently Nordic. Grant uses the same kind of vocabulary as Tom: “our institutions are Anglo-Saxon and can be maintained by Anglo-Saxons and by other Nordic peoples in sympathy with our culture.”15

To return to the year of the novel's events: here are two passages that may indicate what we now call intertextuality. The first is from John Higham's history of immigration. It is about a series of articles that Kenneth Roberts wrote for the Saturday Evening Post in 1920 and that appeared in book form under the title Why Europe Leaves Home in 1922. Roberts cast his findings into the framework of the Nordic theory, concluding that a continuing flood of Alpine, Mediterranean, and Semitic immigrants would inevitably produce “a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe.”16 The second passage, from The Great Gatsby, seems to be a mere interlude: “Inside, the crimson room bloomed with light. Tom and Miss Baker sat at either end of the long couch and she read aloud to him from the ‘Saturday Evening Post’—the words, murmurous and uninflected, running together in a soothing tune. The lamplight, bright on his boots and dull on the autumn-leaf yellow of her hair, glinted along the paper as she turned a page with a flutter of slender muscles in her arms” (17-18).

There is action and meaning at this moment, although it would seem to be a pause in the narrative. Fitzgerald's text reminds us of the existence of other texts. The enormous, imitative enterprise of mass literacy is perceptibly within the consciousness of characters in his own text. What Tom is hearing we will never know, but we can expect that the ideas of the moment are being read to him, and that they too are soothing and uninflected. More is involved than Norman Rockwell covers.

The relationship between race and religion and culture had its critics, among them Harold Stearns, who argued against it in Civilization in the United States (1922). According to Stearns, “whatever else American civilization is, it is not Anglo-Saxon … we shall never achieve any genuine nationalistic self-consciousness as long as we allow certain financial and social minorities to persuade us that we are still an English colony.”17 But it was, by 1922, too late to sort out distinctions—the political debate over immigration from eastern and southern Europe made them easy to cloud over. Even Civilization in the United States had to acknowledge the current theory and its vocabulary. Other contributions, for example Geroid Robinson's essay on race, admit that “the attitude of both Northerners and Southerners is somewhat coloured by the fear that the blacks will eventually overrun the country.”18 The essay of Louis Reid on small towns celebrates the “true American civilization,” that is, national life before the arrival of Catholics and Jews.19 Walter Pach, who was reasonably enlightened and has been praised as an art critic by E. H. Gombrich, found himself dependent on race and religion as determinants, arguing for an “art-instinct accumulated in a race for centuries.” In the case of literature, he said that instinct belonged to “the Anglo-Saxon race.”20 Stating this was the only way he could conceive of the inherent ability of Americans to produce the cultural proofs of their existence.

The March 1, 1922, issue of the New Republic carried the introductory chapter of Walter Lippmann's forthcoming Public Opinion, and in this chapter he warned the audience “that under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities.” Fictions might be true (or false) scientific theories; they might even be “complete hallucinations”—but they were representations of the environment that determined our responses to it. Some fictions might be beneficial—useful without being accurate—but those abroad in 1922 were apt to be neither. In Public Opinion, Lippmann describes fictions corresponding to—identical to—the theories that Tom Buchanan raises in the first and seventh chapters of The Great Gatsby.21 Lippmann's list of current fictions in “news” (he took special pains to distinguish “news” from “truth”) are Tom's bugbears: ancestry and American history; race and nationality; and in particular the ideology of “Anglo-Saxons.” At the heart of the Lippmann thesis is the premise that these issues, important though they may be in themselves, have become demonized by their public discussion. In both Lippmann and Fitzgerald the conveyance of ideas by print results in an intellectual tragicomedy. It is useful to see Lippmann's reaction to what Fitzgerald was to call “stale” ideas: “The more untrained a mind, the more readily it works out a theory that two things which catch its attention at the same time are causally connected. … In hating one thing violently, we readily associate with it as cause or effect most of the other things we hate or fear violently. They may have no more connection than smallpox and alehouses, or Relativity and Bolshevism, but they are bound together in the same emotion … it all culminates in the fabrication of a system of all evil, and of another which is the system of all good. Then our love of the absolute shows itself.”22 It is wise, thought-provoking, and related to one of Fitzgerald's problems in the writing of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald was no political scientist but he did need to describe the effect of political ideas upon personality and the manifestations of personality. We infer not that Tom Buchanan is either a Democrat or Republican but that within him there really is a “love of the absolute” that wants to “show itself.” In essence, psychological necessity chooses belief.

H. L. Mencken agreed to a certain extent. His was eventually the most crushing rebuttal to the fiction of Anglo-Saxon civilization. Mencken's essay on the failure of Anglo-Saxon civilization (1923) was reprinted in Prejudices: Fourth Series (1924). But as early as 1917, in an essay on Howells, Mencken had identified what others thought was the problem of American democracy as its nature: our system worked not despite but because of “the essential conflict of forces among us.”23 In this respect Mencken was more political than either Santayana or Babbitt—and very much more political than either Pound or Eliot. The point of the 1923 essay was not only that the country needed new immigrants but that (and his essay takes on the form of a narrative) the old ones, who now called themselves natives, had failed dismally to establish any kind of “civilization” of their own. Mencken writes about the proud, vainglorious and ignorant culture-hero, or would-be culture-hero, the anxiety-ridden Anglo-Saxon whose “defeat is so palpable that it has filled him with vast alarms, and reduced him to seeking succor in grotesque and extravagant devices. In the fine arts, in the sciences and even in the more complex sorts of business the children of the later immigrants are running away from the descendants of the early settlers. … Of the Americans who have come into notice during the past fifty years as poets, as novelists, as critics, as painters, as sculptors and in the minor arts, less than half bear Anglo-Saxon names. … So in the sciences.”24 Mencken's Anglo-Saxon is constitutionally a bully, hence his many acts of aggression against social change are accompanied by “desperate efforts” of “denial and concealment.” The Anglo-Saxon's “political ideas are crude and shallow. He is almost wholly devoid of esthetic feeling. The most elementary facts about the visible universe alarm him, and incite him to put them down. Educate him, make a professor of him, teach him how to express his soul, and he still remains palpably third-rate. He fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men. His blood, I believe, is running thin; perhaps it was not much to boast of at the start.”

As Harry E. Barnes observed in the American Mercury in 1924, the issue was very much one of “ideas” and public opinion: Madison Grant's work on the superiority of Nordic “civilization” was itself “a literary rehash of Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain.” And even Grant was “progressively debased” as his book became “widely disseminated,” and decanted into Lothrop Stoddard.25 By the time such ideas reach Tom Buchanan they exist in the form in which he states them.

The Anglo-Saxon fears the loss of his “civilization” and that fear is easily confused with conscience. He continually justifies what he does by the illusion of keeping faith with history. Mencken has created a character in a historical drama who responds to the issues of the moment and reminds us of the issues in Fitzgerald's text. Tom seems not only to have read many texts but to originate in them. He is obsessed with acquired ideas. So much so that he expresses a great many of them in the quarrel at the Plaza at a moment when we expect other passions of body and mind. Tom is faced with his wife's lover, with the idea of love itself, but the argument over Daisy takes the form of a lecture on Kulturbolchewismus. Tom orates about house, home, and family; about nobodies from nowhere; and about the various abominations of “the modern world” (101). His ideas have traveled a long way from Irving Babbitt and Santayana, from Grant and Stoddard to their reification by mass media. He is so confused by ideas transmitted from mind to media that he can perceive Gatsby only as an epiphenomenon of “the modern world.”26 As for Daisy, to her embarrassment she realizes that Tom sees her only as part of the “institutions” he defends.

As if following a script written by H. L. Mencken, Tom discourses in the first chapter about the arts and sciences and “civilization” itself. He later comes to view Gatsby as a kind of problem in modern institutions. Tom is, like Mencken's satirized Anglo-Saxon, enormously alarmed by the “elementary facts about the visible universe”: “pretty soon the earth's going to fall into the sun—or wait a minute—it's just the opposite—the sun's getting colder every year” (92). Fitzgerald has added to Mencken's text a kind of strategic entropy of both world and mind imagining it. When Tom begins his lecture on civilization in the first chapter the reader is tempted to write him off as a crank, which is probably the wrong thing to do. It seems logical because Tom cannot convince anyone with an independent mind of his views on history or national destiny. But there are no independent minds in his household. Daisy and Jordan do not openly disagree—in fact, they go along. They find him ridiculous but acceptable. As Jordan later says, settling differences at the Plaza, “We're all white here” (101). It would appear, by the simplest kind of extension, that there are few independent minds anywhere else.

Tom agonizes over adultery and divorce. He is alarmed into reflection over race and class. He is irrational about all those who would “throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white” (101). Even a moralist must have exceptional capacities for outrage to worry about all these things. Unless, of course, his whole concept of identity were involved.27 Part of that identity has been provided by association: the text introduces him as “Tom Buchanan of Chicago,” which does more than mimic society-page seriousness. He is part of a place, and his opinions are approximations of Chicago opinions. His hometown (he and Daisy try “to settle down” (61) there after their marriage) was the most racially troubled and intolerant city in the North. Industry in the early twenties encouraged a migration of black workers from Georgia and Alabama to the factories of the Midwest. It was a cause of great concern because it raised the price of labor in the South. And, of course, the migrants ran up against a new phenomenon in American life, persecution from the side that won the Civil War. In so doing, they caused a tremendous revaluation in national life. The notorious Chicago riots were caused by confrontations over jobs, housing, and beachfront recreation. The consequence was the formation of national opinion largely in favor of racism. We recall that Tom worries in the first chapter of The Great Gatsby about the white race being “dominant” and keeping “control” of its civilization (both here and abroad). He was not much different from, say, the New York Times of July 23, 1919: “The majority of Negroes in Washington before the great war, were well-behaved … most of them admitted the superiority of the white race and troubles between the two races were unheard of.”28

When Tom articulates his ideas we can see some of their likely sources and understand the allusions. But Fitzgerald's text is not a tract; it is concerned with motive as well as ideology. Idea is related to act. We recall Tom's grabbing Nick's arm, bruising Daisy, and breaking Myrtle's nose, as well as his general foaming at the mouth on the subject of marriage. Tom is three-dimensional and is equipped with a number of anxieties connected to his ideas, or to his need for ideas. For example, he seems fixated upon “I” and “we.” He fears “all kinds” (81), in itself a phrase of psychological interest. He talks about “people” (who are unidentified) “sneering” at things sacred to him (101). This too seems meaningful, because the matter has been turned into psychodrama. Max Scheler's classic study of Ressentiment, written in the decade before The Great Gatsby, suggests that Fitzgerald understood the connection of idea to personality. Scheler depicts the internal language of resentment, which says to itself, “I can forgive everything, but not that you are—that you are what you are—that I am not what you are.”29 There is no textual connection, but there is a clear parallel between this mode of thought and Tom's litany about Nordic selves: “I am and you are and you are and—” (14). Tom speaks a language of absolute subjectivity. He has invested his needs in ideas, which is to say in allowable aggressions. If he is in fact a representative figure then he says much for Fitzgerald's view of the cultural moment.

We enter the narrative of The Great Gatsby to the description of universe, earth, hemisphere, and ocean. Throughout the story the skies will turn, with their silent commentary on the meanings we define as history. In the summer of 1922 we have been separated from the past. Given the anemic description of his family, Nick conveys that his own past has not much to recall. We gather that from the limit on his articulation of its values. He has been given the least useful of social virtues, a kind of passive toleration. It is as if all the moral energy of the nineteenth century had dwindled into good manners.

The novel begins with mention of two important events in national consciousness, the Civil War and the Great War of 1914-18. Neither holds Nick's attention for more than a moment. Hemingway was to make a career out of recollections of his war; Fitzgerald understands things differently. For him the war is a checkpoint in history, a barrier to the influence of the past. His imagination is sociological. Nick dreams neither of the past nor of the war but rather of the new agenda of the twenties—banking and credit and investment.

The postwar world is free of the past and of its institutions, but it is not free of its own false ideas. When Tom Buchanan informs Nick and the reader that “Civilization's going to pieces” (14), he has probably never said truer words. But he is of course displaying more than he describes. He echoes a vast national debate about immigration, race, science, and art. There is something seriously wrong in America—yet it may be Tom's own class and type that is responsible. He represents a group as idle and mindless as that excoriated by Carlyle in Past and Present. There is something wrong with the immoral pursuit of wealth by historical figures like James J. Hill—except that inherited possession seems no better. Fitzgerald's rich boys often pose as guardians of tradition and often adduce a false relationship to public values.

The more we hear about “civilization” in the text and the more we experience its style and morality the more we, like Nick Carraway, make our own withdrawal from the historical moment. History in The Great Gatsby can rarely be taken at face value—perhaps it is as suspect as biography. When Tom alludes to his favorite racial or geographical or class prejudices (and when Daisy plays to them) a public dialogue is refracted. The most interesting thing about that dialogue is that many of those “advanced” people who deplore civilization in America are considerably less attractive than Tom Buchanan. He only echoes their discourse. What matters is not the specific character (if there is any) to his ideas about “science” or “art” but his reflection of a historical moment in which their discussion is more poisonous than his own. In the summer of 1922 there will be very little use in his appealing to profound texts or Daisy appealing to the most advanced people or Nick appealing to the values of the past—or the reader appealing to a larger and more confidence-inspiring set of standards beyond those governing the action. The allusive context of the novel is meant to disturb and disorient. It is as if Fitzgerald had Balzac in mind, and, describing a milieu in which all things are permitted, made it impossible for protagonists or readers to bring to bear morals and other norms.

As for the issue of “Civilization,” that was not to be adjudicated by the defenders (and inventors) of the American past. In 1924, while Fitzgerald was thinking over the story that would become The Great Gatsby, the American Mercury (April 1924) had published a sardonic study of character acquired through consumption: It was richly attentive to certain kinds of ads that showed consumers “how to rise quickly” and “how to become” something other than they were.30 It noted the increased use of phrases like “wonderful,” “astounding,” “amazing” and “miraculously” applied to personal change and betterment. In the marketplace of ideas personal identity was itself to become a commodity.


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” in The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: New Directions, 1945), p. 15.

  2. Frederick James Smith, “Fitzgerald, Flappers and Fame,” in The Romantic Egoists, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, and Joan P. Kerr (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974), p. 79.

  3. The editors feared as a consequence the domination of western Europe by a “militaristic France.” Peter Gay writes in Weimar Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1970) that the murder of Walther Rathenau was part of the celebration of the youth culture of the twenties. According to one of Rathenau's assassins, Ernest-Walter Techow, “The younger generation” was “striving for something new, hardly dreamed of. They smelled the morning air. They gathered in themselves an energy charged with the myth of the Prussian-German past, the pressure of the present and the expectation of an unknown future” (p. 87).

  4. Fitzgerald, “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” p. 15.

  5. In a letter to Edmund Wilson the week before the review appeared Fitzgerald admitted that Joyce had caused him to think of his own family history: “I have Ullyses [sic] from the Brick Row Bookshop & am starting it. I wish it was layed in America—there is something about middle-class Ireland that depresses me inordinately—I mean gives me a sort of hollow, cheerless pain. Half of my ancestors came from just such an Irish strata or perhaps a lower one. The book makes me feel appallingly naked” (The Crack-Up, p. 260). To use the terminology of James R. Mellow, an “invented” life might naturally proceed from these feelings, and a heightened perception of assumed identity in others.

  6. “The Unspeakable Egg,” a Fitzgerald story that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (July 12, 1924) has the line, “he reminded her of an advertisement for a new car.” Reprinted in Matthew J. Bruccoli, ed., The Price Was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 128.

  7. For a sense of Van Loon's standing see the immensely favorable review of The Story of Mankind by Charles A. Beard in the December 21, 1921, issue of The New Republic. See also the full-page ad for Van Loon's book, with many blurbs, in the February 1, 1922, issue.

  8. William Winter, The Life of David Belasco, 2 vols. (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1918) 2:424-27. If there is a solution to Winter's problem that lies in converting art to the display of domestic virtue and history to anti-modernism:

    If true civilization is to develop and live in our country, such conditions, such a spirit, such ideals, manners, and customs as are widely prevalent among us to-day, must utterly pass and cease. The one rational hope that they will so disappear lies in disseminating Education. … For that education Society must look largely to the ministry of the arts and, in particular, to the rightly conducted Theatre. … Few managers have been able to take or to understand that view of the Stage. David Belasco was one of them. It is because his administration of his “great office” has been, in the main, conducted in the spirit of a zealous public servant; because for many years he maintained as a public resort a beautiful theatre, diffusive of the atmosphere of a pleasant, well-ordered home, placing before the public many fine plays, superbly acted, and set upon the stage in a perfection of environment never surpassed anywhere and equalled only by a few of an earlier race of managers, of which he was the last, that David Belasco has, directly and indirectly, exerted an immense influence for good and is entitled to appreciative recognition, enduring celebration, and ever grateful remembrance.

  9. George Santayana, Character and Opinion in the United States (New York: Doubleday, 1956), vi.

  10. Cited by Geoffrey Perrett, America in the Twenties, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), p. 79.

  11. John Higham, Strangers in the Land, (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p. 271.

  12. Grant Overton, American Nights Entertainment (New York: D. Appleton Company, George Doran Company, Doubleday, Page & Co., Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923), pp. 380-81. I am grateful to James R. Mellow for pointing this book out to me and copying out the passage cited.

  13. Overton, American Nights Entertainment, pp. 382-83.

  14. Irving Babbitt, Democracy and Leadership (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924), p. 245. Henry Adams, Henry James, Santayana, Babbitt, Eliot, and Pound are like the Kulturpessimisten of Weimar. See the account of the battle against modernity in Walter Lacquer's Weimar (New York: Perigee, 1974), pp. 78f. For this side of the Atlantic there is good recent coverage in Eric Sigg's The American T. S. Eliot (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 110f. Here is Sigg's account of Henry James on civilization versus immigration: “For James, ethnic pluralism jeopardized social order and cultural achievement. He assumed that America should and could produce art equal to that of Europe. He further assumed that American high culture would arise from distinctively American elements in the country's tradition, from shared assumptions about education, morality, and manners, and most important, from a common language used and preserved self-consciously. Immigrants offer James another instance of an American incongruity that is at least bathetic indecorum and at worst surrealist horror” (p. 129).

    See also Samuel G. Blythe's lead article “Flux,” Saturday Evening Post, August 19, 1922, pp. 3f. On political leadership Blythe says that “Politics in this country is now guerrilla warfare. It is not even that. It may best be compared to operations by bodies of indignant and disgusted citizens, in various parts of the country, without communication or ordered plan, getting together from sense of protest and going out and shooting in the dark, hoping they may hit something: but shooting anyhow. There is nothing coherent about our politics. There is nothing much articulate about it in its present state. The prime motive in all our demonstrations is protest. The actuating spirit is change.” All things are relative: Blythe has a ferocious attack on “the increasing interference of government in private affairs.” Liberals distrusted government performance; conservatives like Blythe distrusted its powers, further reasons for the constant adjuration to Americans to be more moral and more Christian.

  15. Madison Grant, “America for the Americans,” Reader's Digest (October 1925) 367-68.

  16. Higham, Strangers in the Land, p. 273.

  17. Harold E. Stearns, ed., Civilization in the United States (London: Jonathan Cape, 1922), vii.

  18. Ibid., p. 355.

  19. Ibid., p. 295.

  20. Ibid., p. 228.

  21. Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Macmillan, 1922), pp. 317-65.

  22. Ibid., pp. 154-56. See the powerful piece by Augustus Thomas, “The Print of My Remembrance, Saturday Evening Post, July 8, 1922, pp. 24f. Thomas apologizes for writing in a good part for a charitable Jewish physician in As A Man Thinks, a one-act play at the Lambs, “instead of having him ridiculed as he generally was in the theater.” Thomas attributes racial hatred to the Jewish willingness to work as perceived by the more neglectful and lazy “Anglo-Saxon temperament” (94). Even between liberals and conservatives—racism aside—the debate on cultural differences was framed in terms of the distinction between “Anglo-Saxon” and the rest.

  23. H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (New York: Vintage, 1982), p. 491.

  24. Ibid., pp. 171-77.

  25. See “The Drool Method in History,” American Mercury, January 1924, pp. 31f.

  26. See Perrett, America in the Twenties, pp. 159-60: “In 1890 there had been one divorce for every seventeen marriages; by the late twenties there was one for every six … novels, plays, and works of social criticism steadily derided marriage as an outmoded institution, something the modern world could well do without. There were confident predictions that marriage would die out before the end of the century.”

  27. I disagree with the view that American history is present in the text only to the extent that the “materialism” of “the modern American upper class” betrays our national origins. (See Kermit W. Moyer, “The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald's Meditation on American History,” in Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, ed. Scott Donaldson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), pp. 215f. Tom is said to have a “materialist orientation” and “Daisy represents the materialism of her class.” But Tom and Daisy are rarely seen evaluating things according to cost nor do they judge experience by material standards. Tom's mind is directed by texts and ideas that, far from having anything to do with materialism, are perfervid distortions of idealism.

  28. Cited by Perrett in America in the Twenties, p. 88.

  29. Max Scheler, Ressentiment (Glencoe: Free Press, 1961), p. 52. Das Ressentment appeared in 1915.

  30. “American Boobology: A Survey of Current National Advertising Campaigns,” American Mercury, April 1924, pp. 457-58.

Bryan R. Washington (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Washington, Bryan R. “The Daisy Chain: The Great Gatsby and Daisy Miller or the Politics of Privacy.” In The Politics of Exile: Ideology in Henry James, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Baldwin, pp. 35-54. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Washington compares Henry James's Daisy Miller and Gatsby, emphasizing the themes of racism, white cultural conservatism, and repressed homosexuality.]

Beginning with the premise that The Great Gatsby revises Daisy Miller, the readings that I undertake in this chapter are concerned with various states of panic: sexual, racial, and social. Eve Sedgwick's theory of “homosexual panic,” in other words, points toward a dense interpretive terrain extending far beyond, although always implicating, desire. As I have indicated, a repressed homosexuality undergirds “Going to Meet the Man.” Moreover, it is associated with (or presented within the context of) racial discord. The idea that homosexuality and race are important for The Great Gatsby is hardly startling. Nick's fixation with Gatsby easily suggests flirtation, and his obsession with ethnic origins punctuates the text. But the notion that either homosexuality or race bears any relevance to James's novella may at first seem a critical anachronism.

Winterbourne, who frames the narrative, is a genteel conservator, even an enforcer. But in disciplining Daisy he responds to more than the defiant transgression of class boundaries that the time she spends with Eugenio (a courier) and Giovanelli (a questionable gentleman) represents. Published in 1878, Daisy Miller is not only the product of Reconstruction but also a commentary on the social (textual) implications of that era. Disembarking from the City of Richmond, Daisy arrives in Europe the incarnation of America after the Civil War, the unsuspecting emblem of “[c]ivilization … go[ne] to pieces.”1 The many references to her whiteness invite the speculation that whiteness is in serious jeopardy. But the insistence on whiteness prods blackness, in effect, into the text. Indeed, neither Winterbourne nor finally James can decide whether this new America, this Daisy, is educable, capable of understanding that, if blackness were to penetrate its discourse, James's narrative enterprise would cease to exist. Ignorant of the old textual rules, Daisy is dangerous. The threat she poses to the community of white American exiles imagined does not implicate only the potential assault of race. It also suggests the possible exposure of the homosexual underpinnings bracing not simply Daisy Miller but arguably all of James's texts. The effete Winterbourne, the suggestively asexual custodian of haute bourgeois conventions, is as necessary for the survival of James's genteel endeavor as the denial of blackness (or, for that matter, as Daisy herself). She, however, refuses to listen to him, refuses to be allegorized. Daisy prefers the company of comparatively manly men, who—by ushering her out of the drawing room (privileged in the text because it is so private) and through the streets to the public forum of the Roman Colosseum—quite literally put her at physical and social risk. His own narrative legitimacy in question, Winterbourne is almost desperate.

Equally (if less ambiguously) panicked, Nick Carraway valorizes the “Middle West”—

not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name.


Ethnic cohesiveness and familial continuity are exactly the values James assigns to Europe. But the most persuasive indications of The Great Gatsby's Jamesianisms are realized in the figuration of Daisy Buchanan, a woman of apparently irreconcilable dualities. Fitzgerald's Daisy is both a flower of innocence with the power to rescue Nick (and by implication Gatsby as well) from a commodified world and a kind of cultural monster who betrays her creator's Romantic female ideal. As Nina Auerbach argues, “if the American Girl did not exist, James would have had to invent her as a personification of the United States. …”2 Auerbach is concerned to show, and justifiably, that James's female subjects do not result from a steadfast feminism, but rather from the anticipation of a “coming ‘common deluge’ that threatened to drown the private and fastidious perceptions of art,” thereby making it preferable to pay lip service to the rhetoric of the “new woman” rather than endure “the garbage of mass lower-class culture that surged below her.”3

James's American girl is an invention of narrative conceived to serve a particular cultural end: to halt the displacement of the rarefied, refined, and therefore feminine aesthetic world on which his vision depended by the aggressive, anti-aesthetic, and therefore masculine world of commerce. In the sociohistorical sense, then, the female he portrays may have existed, but she by no means speaks for the whole of America—unless, of course, one assumes that the Americans who matter are white and rich. By contrast, the archetypal female whom Fitzgerald would reclaim did exist: she is the preoccupying force in James's most ambitious writing. The “fragment of lost words … uncommunicable forever” (112) is the textual past that Fitzgerald aims to recapture. Indeed, it will become clear that the critical work I draw upon, particularly in my discussion of Daisy Miller, is similarly invested. Lionel Trilling, William Wasserstrom, F. W. Dupee—all of whom were at their most influential in the 1950s—practiced a conservative readerly politics that contemporary critics generally revalorize.

In Heiress of All the Ages, William Wasserstrom sees James as the central figure in the genteel tradition, a tradition he defines as that group of texts concerned to “establish order within the human spirit and in the life of the society.”4 If, as Wasserstrom maintains, the genteel tradition strove to overcome the “vast distances of wilderness, religious disorganization, political disorder, slavery, Civil War, tenements, strikes,”5 then the texts associated with it did so by attempting to remove themselves from them. Paradoxically, however, when the narrative scene shifts from America as such to Europe (imagined as stable) James's international fictions resonate with the tensions that made America the enemy of his narrative project. The genteel tradition saw democracy as antithetical to art. But, when it appropriated the novel—always new, always in process—as the primary vehicle of its message, it ultimately defeated itself: for the novel constitutes a democracy in and of itself. Few readers of Daisy Miller, however, have found solace in the dynamics of democracy animating it. F. W. Dupee, for example, considers Daisy's failure to listen to the voice of Europe intolerable, arguing that she is “a social being without a frame” who “does what she likes because she hardly knows what else to do. Her will is at once strong and weak by reason of the very indistinctness of general claims.”6 Similarly, Wasserstrom sees Daisy as “infantile,” “ignorant”—a misguided innocent who “childishly throws away her life.”7

To the extent that Daisy emblematizes the tension between America's impulse to democratize and Europe's compulsion to create hierarchies, the conflict is resolved only in her death. When Daisy sickens and dies, she is both silenced and, to invoke Bakhtin, “ennobled.”8 Wasserstrom argues that James saw the American girl as the symbol of the “dream of history,” as the heiress of a society that is the “heir of all the ages. It became therefore her duty to resolve and transcend all antitheses. When she failed, the result in literature was tragic. But when she brought off the victory, she paid the nation's debt to history.”9 Ideally, then, James's American girl permits the desired union between America and Europe. Her cultural assignment: to “achieve a great marriage in which two great civilizations would be joined.”10

“Daisy and her mama,” Winterbourne insists, “haven't yet risen to that stage of—what shall I call it—culture, at which the idea of catching a count or a marchese begins. I believe them intellectually incapable of that conception.”11 Though in the final analysis Winterbourne dismisses Daisy as an indecipherable text (“he soon went back to live at Geneva, whence there continue to come the most contradictory accounts of his motives of sojourn: a report that he's ‘studying’ hard … —much interested in a very clever foreign lady” [74]), his investment in shielding her from the scrutiny of other, potentially more invasive readers (suitors) is considerable. Daisy's conduct with her courier, Eugenio, suggests that she regards him as more than a servant. Indeed, Mrs. Costello pronounces their relationship an “intimacy,” arguing that

there's no other name for such a relation. They treat the courier as a family friend—as a gentleman and a scholar. I shouldn't wonder if he dines with them. Very likely they've never seen a man with such good manners, such fine clothes, so like a gentleman—or a scholar. … He probably sits with them in the garden of an evening.


What is at risk here? The obvious response is that Daisy's crossing the conventional line between “mistress” and “servant” attests to her ineligibility as a genteel heroine. Which would explain Winterbourne's outrage at her ambiguously ardent relationship with Giovanelli, who on Winterbourne's terms is “a music-master or a penny-a-liner or a third-rate artist” (45). Were Giovanelli a member of the Italian nobility, were he for example Prince Amerigo of The Golden Bowl, then presumably he would be an appropriate suitor and a potential mate for Daisy, for America. But Daisy's transgressions implicate more than class. The emphasis on her whiteness, as I have suggested, is almost obsessive. At the beginning of the narrative she is “dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces and knots of pale-coloured ribbon” (5). Indeed, references to her white dresses, white shoulders, white teeth crowd the text. This iterative whiteness, traditionally read as an affirmation of her virtue, is also simply—complicatedly—whiteness.

We know from The American Scene that James was greatly concerned that the country would never recover from the sociocultural split of the Civil War, but he also romanticized the antebellum South, which perhaps accounts for the name of the ship transporting the Millers abroad. Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, is on the move, in transit. Why? Because white women and children must be evacuated? Implicitly, Daisy's archetypal whiteness is defined against its archetypal opposite, blackness. In short, since she blithely ignores class boundaries, would Daisy be capable of venturing further? Or, in the aftermath of the war, in the aftermath of the Emancipation, had America changed so irrevocably that anything could happen? As her conduct with Eugenio and Giovanelli invites us to speculate, Daisy would conceivably risk her own racial destruction were she permitted to pursue the implications of the social freedoms she embodies. This is what democracy does: it precipitates chaos. In James's tale, race is of course unspeakable. In The Great Gatsby, however, it dominates the discourse.

If Nick Carraway is Winterbourne unambiguously panicked, Daisy Buchanan is Daisy Miller fully recontextualized:

“You see I think everything's terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I've been everywhere and seen everything. … Sophisticated—God, I'm sophisticated!”


Assuming, then, that she is to reenact the drama of American innocence, it is Daisy Buchanan's sophistication that prevents her from fulfilling, as Wasserstrom would argue, her destiny. In The Great Gatsby the figuration of women in general suggests an attempt to produce a suitable “heiress”—not of the ages, but to the Jamesian legacy. Daisy (murderous cosmopolite) and Jordan (innocent miller's daughter transcribed to dishonest baker's) are genteel conspirators. But Myrtle, the potentially relentless force in this gendered cultural garden, is expeditiously weeded out because she places male (textual) authority in even greater peril.

Like her namesake, Daisy Buchanan is defined by her whiteness. So is Jordan Baker:

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.


If these women can fly, then for Nick they are either angels or witches, saints or sinners. In short, Nick is the prisoner of his own classifications, desperately hoping that these privileged white women are the female archetypes he needs them to be and hopelessly disenchanted when they prove to be more complicated than his allegories of gender would allow.

Richard Godden suggests that Daisy has “repressed her body and cashed in her voice, … described as ‘full of money.’”12 For Godden, then, “the structure of Daisy's desire is economic.”13 Myrtle, on the other hand, “is described most frequently in terms of ‘blood,’ ‘flesh,’ and ‘vitality.’”14 (Her husband, Wilson, is represented as “blond,” “spiritless,” and “anaemic,” as though his wife has drained him of his vital fluids.) But that Myrtle, in contrast to Daisy, is a woman who is entirely physical is not, as Godden maintains, a function of her lack of commitment to “the production of manners” or to the trappings of the leisure class. Her New York apartment, for example—“crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it, so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles” (29)—strives to achieve the elegance of Daisy's house on Long Island. Like everyone else in the novel, Myrtle is a bracketed figure whom Nick “reveals” to us. The woman he presents is literally Daisy in-the-flesh, ominous because of her social aspirations and because of her almost manly sexuality.

Myrtle's purchases, made en route to the apartment that Tom has procured for her, point up her ambition and her ignorance: “a copy of Town Tattle and a moving-picture magazine, … some cold cream and a small flask of perfume,” and, finally, a puppy of an “indeterminate breed” (27). This, then, is a woman who has yet to learn the difference between mongrels and Airedales, between gossip magazines and the social register. In a text preoccupied with and intolerant of the racial and social hybridization of America, Myrtle's most unforgivable sin is perhaps her inability to distinguish a hybrid from a thoroughbred. Her lack of judgment applies not only to dogs but also, apparently, to men. Nick reports that Myrtle married her husband because she thought “he knew something about breeding, but,” she adds, “he wasn't fit to lick my shoe” (35). But Myrtle, of course, knows nothing of breeding. The testimony of her narrow escape immediately follows her sister's narrative about an abortive affair with a Jew: “I almost married a little kike who'd been after me for years. I knew he was below me. Everybody kept saying to me: ‘Lucille, that man's way below you!’ But if I hadn't met Chester, he'd of got me sure” (34).

And yet, always conscious of the boundaries he transgresses, Nick too is a nativist:

As we crossed [my emphasis] Blackwell's Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes [sic], two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.


His conclusion: “Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge, … anything at all …” (69). Nick's is the laughter of terror, for the black men he depicts have literally passed him by. The encounter, it seems, is so disconcerting that the overtaking passengers are denied voice.

In Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Houston Baker laments Fitzgerald's failure to place “his ‘pale well-dressed negro’ [the black man who identifies the car that kills Myrtle] in the limousine,”15 suggesting that had Fitzgerald done so he would have acknowledged the legitimacy of the Harlem Renaissance—the black writers of the 1920s, many of whom were indeed “pale.” He would, in short, have overturned the racial stereotype of black inarticulacy upheld in the text. Moreover, the presence of “pale-skinned” blacks confirms the worst fears of those who foresee the dissolution of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. For to be pale-skinned and African American is to be—like Myrtle's dog—a mongrel.

Nick's reaction to the blacks in the limousine recalls Tom Buchanan's unabashed racism:

Civilization's going to pieces. … I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard? … Well, it's a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved. … It's up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.


Though Tom misidentifies the author (the reference is to Lothrop Stoddard's Rising Tide of Color against White Supremacy, prominently displayed in Gatsby's library), his views are corroborated in the novel as a whole. Camouflaged in the discourse of the fall of civilization or of a remembered but unattainable past, Fitzgerald's subtext, to which Tom points, encodes a darker message. As Baker argues, Tom might be “a more honestly self-conscious representation of the threat that some artists whom we call ‘modern’ felt in the face of a new world of science, war, technology, and imperialism. … What really seems under threat are not towers of civilization but rather an assumed supremacy of boorishly racist, indisputably sexist, and unbelievably wealthy Anglo-Saxon males.”16

Myrtle's ineptitude when it comes to identifying the breed of dogs or men equates with Nick's inability to determine who Gatsby is. Nick says of his mysterious neighbor: “I knew I had discovered a man of fine breeding after I talked with him an hour. I said to myself: ‘There's the kind of man you'd like to take home and introduce to your mother and sister’” (73). As I shall demonstrate, this is an intricate textual moment. Arguably, it is at this point that Nick's readiness to welcome Gatsby to the nativist family, to extend a fraternal embrace, is at its most pronounced. Given his earlier reservations about his background, Nick's renewed conviction that Gatsby is indeed a “man of fine breeding” can be read as an ethnological sigh of relief:

I would have accepted without question the information that Gatsby sprang from the swamps of Louisiana or from the lower East Side of New York. That was comprehensible. But young men didn't—at least in my provincial inexperience I believed they didn't—drift coolly out of nowhere and buy a palace on Long Island Sound.


And thus when it is finally disclosed that Jay Gatsby is Jimmy Gatz and possibly more than merely casually connected with Meyer Wolfsheim (“a small, flat-nosed Jew” with tufts of hair in his nostrils and “tiny eyes” [69-70]), why Gatsby's ambiguous ancestry, his questionable past, is intolerable to Nick begins to make sense. To say that “Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself” (99) is to confirm that he is the worst kind of outsider. Gatsby, unlike Daisy and Tom (Nick's distant cousins), is of no relation. He is as much a threat to the “family”—to the “Middle West,” to the white cultural center—as Myrtle, the “black bucks” in the limousine, or Wolfsheim.

But complicating the deliberation over bringing Gatsby home is desire itself. Does Nick speak as a man, a woman, or both? Like Eliot's Tiresias, Nick is “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (36)—capable, that is, of being both male and female, Jew and gentile, black and white. Insofar as The Great Gatsby is indebted to The Waste Land, its commitment to salvaging whatever is left of “civilization” (as with poem) is articulated by one “in whom the two sexes meet.”17 The androgynous Tiresias bears witness to a culture in decline. He attests to the imminent demise not only of Europe (as text) but also of its institutions (implicitly the Church) and the strictly enforced hierarchies that fostered them. The “typist home at tea time” is an outrage and a devastation precisely because she is a typist—reductio ad absurdum of Philomel.

If Nick is like Tiresias, he is also like the sexually neutral Winterbourne. When he looks at Daisy, when he “stud[ies]” her, Winterbourne's gaze is not that of a potential suitor, but instead that of a decorous cultural chaperone searching for a charge who will behave. Fitzgerald's revision of James's tale foregrounds the deeper narrative implications of her misconduct. As I have pointed out, Myrtle is Daisy's déclassé double. Just as she is socially presumptuous, she is also physically overwhelming: her clothing “stretche[s] tight over her rather wide hips,” and her figure is “thickish,” “faintly stout.” Nick observes that “she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face … contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering” (25-26). As Nick conceives it, Myrtle's sexuality is aggressive, masculine; her body authoritative. She is a match for Tom and thus a threat to Tom, who breaks her nose. Indeed, her “smouldering” presence is so disruptive that she has to be contained, locked up in Wilson's house. And when she breaks free, shouting “Beat me! … Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!” she runs to her death. But killing her is not enough. Her “left breast … swinging loose like a flap [and her] mouth … wide open and ripped at the corners” (138), she is also mutilated, and her sexual power (in effect) neutralized.

There is an element of misogyny at work here that further problematizes the figuration of Nick. What values are assigned to him? Does the bald revulsion at female sexuality suggest homosexual panic? If it does, then The Great Gatsby affirms the cliché that for homosexuals women, appetitive and predatory, are terrifying. On these homophobic terms, Myrtle is loathsome because, defined only by body, she makes it impossible for Nick to romanticize male-female relationships, to see them as anything other than base, physical exchange. On the other hand, Nick's disgust with Myrtle is conceivably Winterbourne's frustration with Daisy laid bare. The stereotypical homosexual sensibility we confront, which James's work authorizes, is one repelled by a female figure whose gross ignorance and unfailing disobedience are the enemy of manners. Myrtle (desire incarnate) and Daisy (desire disembodied) are “monstrous doubles,” and thus one of them must be sacrificed. In other words, René Girard's theory of myth and ritual is in this context quite useful. For Myrtle can be read as a “surrogate victim” whose death results (or is meant to result) in the restoration of order to the community.18

The Great Gatsby co-opts James's figure of the hotel as a “synonym” for America's social disintegration. As James said of the Waldorf Astoria, “one is verily tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and most finding itself.”19 Indeed, in Daisy Miller the social critique of the hotel, which “represents the abolition of privacy and decency,”20 is buried in the discourse of the aesthetic. Describing the rooms the Millers have taken in Rome, Daisy defers to Eugenio, who considers them the best in the city. But the aesthetic judgments of an Italian courier are in James's hierarchicized world less than worthless. “Splendid” though they may be, these rooms are nevertheless public accommodation. Giving voice to the “mysterious land of dollars and six-shooters,” Daisy's brother Randolph makes it clear that the Millers are accustomed to a superabundance of gilded space: “We've got a bigger place than this. … It's all gold on the walls” (37). Indeed, Daisy's mother's imagination is the captive of the hostelry: “‘I guess we'll go right back to the hotel,’ she remarked with a confessed failure of the larger [my emphasis] imagination” (41). The cultural vision of Americans like these, then, is truncated. And yet the imaginative capability privileged in the text is smaller, not larger. The Millers are reproved for their attraction to the gigantic, the overstuffed, the overgilded, and the distinctly public. They are exhorted to narrow their scope, to exclude themselves from mass society—to be small.

When Daisy Buchanan decamps to her lover's house, Gatsby essentially shuts down the inn: “the whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes” (114). In penetrating Gatsby's territory, then, Daisy is a potentially civilizing (privatizing) force:

She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented “place” that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village—appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing.


Gatsby's sprawling house (and by extension all that occurs there) repels because it is a phenomenon rather than a “place,” an augury of things to come. It is a luxurious “roadhouse” to which all are admitted, a “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, … and more than forty acres of lawn and garden” (5). The owner of this “colossal affair” is a kind of aesthetic criminal whose “art” Nick condemns—a reaction immediately undermining the reliability of a narrator who announces in the ninth line of the text that he is “inclined to reserve all judgments” (1). For, if nothing else, The Great Gatsby is a litany of judgments of the most reactionary sort.

In contrast to Gatsby's ersatz residence, Nick's “small eyesore” of a house is the ideologically privileged trysting place for Daisy and Gatsby. It is a model of privacy. Though, as Gatsby deduces, Nick “doesn't make much money,” he is nevertheless perfectly capable of producing an afternoon tea that certifies his pedigree. Replete with lemons and lemon cakes and prepared by a female servant (unnamed, dismissed as “my Finn” [113]), the haute bourgeois tea that Nick serves to friends suggests that his house is a “home.” The parvenu Gatsby, on the other hand, is host to endless caravans of visitors whom he does not know. Klipspringer, for example, is a permanent but unidentified guest—a visible indication of the social phantasmagoria Gatsby's way of life represents, as are the nightly parties themselves. Gatsby's guests are “swimmers,” “wanderers,” anonymous “groups [that] change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, [and] dissolve and form in the same breath,” “confident girls who … glide on through the seachange of … men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles” (41, 46). Gatsby's parties play out the “Jazz History of the World,” the music Nick remembers from the first party he attends. Jazz is, in Nick's eyes, the music of commerce, its syncopations and rhythms, as Theodor Adorno argues, defined by the demands of the marketplace.21 Indiscriminate, catering to the masses, jazz, in other words, speaks for Gatsby.

Matthew Bruccoli insists that “The Great Gatsby provides little in the way of sociological or anthropological data,”22 which is another way of saying that its meanings transcend their historical context. Why dehistoricize the text? To safeguard its status as a “classic”? Consider, for example, the names of some of Gatsby's guests: Blackbuck, the Poles, Da Fontano, Don S. Schwartze, Horace O'Donovan, and the Kellehers. These clearly attest to Fitzgeraldian outrage at the new America, one in which so-called ethnics are ubiquitous—in which the citizens of East Egg, who form a “dignified homogeneity” in the midst of the “many-colored, many-keyed commotion” (45, 105), must contend not only with the inhabitants of West Egg but with all of New York.

“On week-ends … [Gatsby's] Rolls-Royce [later characterized as “swollen … in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shield that mirrored a dozen suns” (54)] became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered … to meet all [my emphasis] trains” (39). And ready to welcome the masses stands Gatsby—a fraudulent feudal lord in command of a serfdom of household staff charged with keeping the whole thing going: “on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and … garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before” (39). And “every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons … left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb” (39).

The details of Gatsby's household evoke James's Newport “white elephants,” the enormous “cottages” of the summering rich that in The American Scene have replaced the quaint abodes James knew in his youth:

[I]t was all so beautiful, so solitary and so “sympathetic.” And that indeed has been, thanks to the “pilers-on-of gold,” the fortune, the history of its beauty: that it now bristles with the villas and palaces into which the cottages have all turned, and that those monuments of pecuniary power rise thick and close, precisely, in order that their occupants may constantly remark to each other, from the windows to the “ground,” and from house to house, that it is beautiful, it is solitary and sympathetic.23

The edifices that “rise thick and close” in Newport are in Gatsby faithfully reproduced: Nick's house is “squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season” (5).

In Slouching towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion, also horrified by the crumbling of traditional values (although she attributes the erosion to the social upheaval of the 1960s), returns to James's Newport to report, quoting The American Scene almost verbatim, that “no aesthetic judgment could conceivably apply to the Newport of Bellevue Avenue,” where “the air proclaims only the sources of money” and where “the houses [like Gatsby's] are men's houses, factories, undermined by tunnels and service railways, shot through with plumbing to collect salt water, tanks to store it, devices to collect rain water, vaults for table silver, equipment inventories of china and crystal and ‘Tray cloths—fine’ and ‘Tray cloths—ordinary.’”24 On these elitist terms, Gatsby's house is the quintessential male (public) bastion that presumably could be gentrified under the supervision of a woman like Daisy, whose taste Nick both endorses and replicates. The contrast, in fact, between Daisy's house and her lover's is striking: it is an architectonic utopia,

a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon.


Daisy's house is not only a model of tasteful (though conspicuous) consumption, effortlessly marrying the best of Europe with the best of America, and subtly enshrining a woman who has “been everywhere and done everything.” It also embodies the natural elegance associated with Daisy Miller—as though she has finally forsaken the hotel. The Buchanan mansion is an extension of the landscape surrounding it: “The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea” (8).

Gatsby's house, by contrast, is “unnatural,” not simply because of the way it imposes itself on the landscape or because of who is invited there but also because of its interior. Rather than achieving a sanctified marriage with Europe, equated in East Egg with nature itself, Gatsby's “palace” is represented as the product of a cultural rape, as a kind of bastardized museum in which visitors wander through “Marie Antoinette music-rooms and Restoration salons” (92) unable to detect an organizing logic beneath the labyrinth of exhibits. The house is so clearly designed to accommodate the public that, during a private tour with Gatsby as guide, Nick suspects that there are “guests concealed behind every couch and table, under orders to be breathlessly silent until we had passed through” (92). The most significant room, given what it says about Gatsby, is the “Merton College Library” (92)—de rigueur for a self-invented Oxford man: “we [Nick and Jordan] tried an important-looking door, and walked into a high Gothic library, panelled with carved English oak, and probably transported complete from some ruin overseas” (45). Here a “middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles,” exclaims that the books are “absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard” (45-46). They are not. The pages, however, are uncut. Gatsby, as untutored as Daisy Miller, does not read: his books are merely part of the inventory.

The novel's climactic scene unfolds in the Plaza Hotel. As though guests at one of Gatsby's parties, the principal players in the text are “herded” into a single “stifling” room—their private drama acted out in what is effectively a theater. Tom and Daisy's marriage is a corporate merger. Gatsby (the Arrow Shirt man) and Daisy (whose voice itself sounds like money) are equally commodified. The reified “personal” relationships and disintegrating traditional values Nick perceives are symptomatic of a country that for him, as for Fitzgerald, has become uninhabitable. “Nowadays,” Tom says, “people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white” (130). Though Nick dismisses this outburst as “impassioned gibberish” (130), as the hypocritical response of a man who has suddenly transformed himself from “libertine to prig” (131), his own view of the American dilemma bolsters Tom's.

The celebrated concluding paragraphs of The Great Gatsby compose a reactionary social manifesto dressed up in the romantic rhetoric of loss. But a loss of what? Of innocence? Of the promise of spiritual perfectibility that the idea of America held out to its colonizers? As Baldwin suggests in “Stranger in the Village,” the answer depends on whether, ancestrally, one is a conqueror or one of the conquered. Readers who are not descended from the “Dutch sailors” invoked may wonder at Lionel Trilling's depoliticizing and still largely unquestioned assessment of a writer now unavoidable: “the root of Fitzgerald's heroism is to be found … in his power of love.”25

As it turns out, Daisy was always a discursive failure. In both narratives, women are exhorted to save “America,” which is to say a particular textual tradition whose values and assumptions about what a culture should properly do and be are in jeopardy. Figuring America a cultural battlefield, James advocates evacuation, manning a textual lifeboat bearing the refugee of sanctified white womanhood. Awaiting Daisy stands the ultimately ineffectual Winterbourne, whose refined (homosexual?) sensibility, whose valorization of Europe (represented as the only culture) is crucial to James's work as a whole. However, Daisy's baggage, the conflicts of class and race with which—from the very beginning—she is ineluctably associated, proves too heavy; thus she is disciplined, and finally punished by death.

As an illustration of the sense of urgency underscoring the discourse of white American exiles, The Great Gatsby is clear enough. Tender Is the Night, however, to which I am about to turn, brings both Fitzgerald's social agenda and his ongoing dialogue with James into sharper focus. The opening paragraph, for example, depicting a hotel “on the pleasant shore of the French Riviera,”26 is James's synonym for America invoked yet again. Gausse's Hôtel des Étrangers is isolated from its surroundings: bounded on all sides by mountain ranges, pine forests, “the pink and cream … fortifications of Cannes,” and by the sea itself, where “[m]erchantmen crawled westward [i.e., to America, the land of commerce] on the horizon” (9). Inscribing a “littoral [cut off] from true Provençal France” (9) and populated by Americans as contemptible as the Buchanans, Tender Is the Night is a meditation on boundaries and thresholds.

Recalling James's nostalgia for the old Newport, Fitzgerald suggests that his Riviera was once a place of genteel beauty, where the “cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines” (9)—was once untouched by the “pilers-on-of gold.” And there are further references to James—especially to Daisy Miller. Geneva, Zurich, Vevey, the Swiss cities dominating the map of Daisy's European experience, are Dick Diver's familiar haunts. As with Daisy, his education begins in Switzerland, and he also hails from the same American region. Daisy is from Schenectady; Dick is from Buffalo. But in Fitzgerald's text, Switzerland is more than the backdrop for a tragicomedy of manners dramatizing the differences between Europeanized Americans and parochial patriots: it is “the true centre of the Western World” (167).


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925; reprint, New York: Scribner's, 1953), 13. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

  2. Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 122.

  3. Ibid., 116.

  4. William Wasserstrom, Heiress of All the Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1959), ix.

  5. Ibid., x.

  6. F. W. Dupee, Henry James (1951; reprint, New York: William Morrow, 1974), 110-11.

  7. Wasserstrom, Heiress of All the Ages, 63.

  8. Bakhtin argues that discourse in the novel straddles two stylistic lines. Novels of the first type “eliminate their brute heteroglossia [the competing linguistic forces derived from everyday speech that Bakhtin maintains are unique to the novel], replacing it everywhere with a single-imaged, ‘ennobled’ language.” Novels of this category, then, homogenize difference. Novels of the second type, however, incorporate a multiplicity of “languages, manners, genres; … [they] force all exhausted and used-up, all socially and ideologically alien and distant worlds to speak for themselves in their own language and in their own style. …” M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 409-10.

    And yet, just as the author's intentions are dialogically linked with these languages, they are also dialogically opposed to them, thereby energizing the text with unresolved conflict. The two styles of novelistic discourse Bakhtin identifies are sometimes present within the same text, and so the reader must contend not only with heteroglossia but also with oppositional modes of discourse. Such is the case with Daisy Miller. Bakhtinian theory, of course, assumes a democratic reader.

  9. Wasserstrom, Heiress of All the Ages, x.

  10. Ibid., 65.

  11. Henry James, Daisy Miller, in Selected Fiction, ed. Leon Edel (New York: Dutton, 1964), 61-62. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

  12. Richard Godden, “Some Slight Shifts in the Manner of the Novel of Manners,” in Henry James: Fiction as History, ed. Ian F. A. Bell (London: Vision, 1984), 162.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid., 168.

  15. Houston A. Baker, Jr., Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 6.

  16. Ibid., 4.

  17. T. S. Eliot, “Notes on ‘The Waste Land,’” in The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt, 1971), 152.

  18. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 95.

  19. Henry James, The American Scene, ed. Leon Edel (1907; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 102.

  20. Virginia Fowler, Henry James's American Girl: The Embroidery on the Canvas (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1984), 16.

  21. See Theodor W. Adorno, “Jazz,” in Prisms, trans. Samuel and Shierry Weber (1967; Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), 121-32.

  22. Matthew J. Bruccoli, introduction to New Essays on “The Great Gatsby,” ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, The American Novel 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 7.

  23. James, The American Scene, 212.

  24. Joan Didion, Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968; reprint, New York: Touchstone, 1979), 211-12.

  25. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York: Viking, 1950), 244.

  26. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night (1934; reprint, New York: Scribner's, 1962), 9. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

John F. Callahan (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Callahan, John F. “F. Scott Fitzgerald's Evolving American Dream: The ‘Pursuit of Happiness’ in Gatsby,Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon.Twentieth Century Literature 42 (fall 1996): 374-95.

[In the following essay, Callahan examines various manifestations of the idea of the American dream as it evolved in three Fitzgerald novels.]

Since the first stirrings of the F. Scott Fitzgerald revival in the 1940s, readers have been fascinated by the oppositions in his work and character. Critics from several different generations have noted how Fitzgerald used his conflicts to explore the origins and fate of the American dream and the related idea of the nation.1 The contradictions he experienced and put into fiction heighten the implications of the dream for individual lives: the promise and possibilities, violations and corruptions of those ideals of nationhood and personality “dreamed into being,” as Ralph Ellison phrased it, “out of the chaos and darkness of the feudal past.”2 Fitzgerald embodied in his tissues and nervous system the fluid polarities of American experience: success and failure, illusion and disillusion, dream and nightmare.

“I did not care what it was all about,” Hemingway's Jake Barnes confessed in The Sun Also Rises. “All I wanted to know was how to live in it.”3 Fitzgerald, who named and chronicled that brash, schizophrenic decade, was no stranger to the dissipation of values and the pursuit of sensation in the Jazz Age of the 1920s. But for all that, he strained to know what life is all about and how to live in it. To him, Hemingway's it was not simply existence and the soul's dark night of melancholia and despair. It also stood for an American reality that, combined with “an extraordinary gift for hope” and a “romantic readiness,”4 led to the extravagant promise identified with America and the intense, devastating loss felt when the dream fails in one or another of its guises.

Face to face with his own breakdown, Fitzgerald traced his drastic change of mind and mood in his letters and Crack-Up pieces. From the conviction during his amazing early success in his 20s that “life was something you dominated if you were any good,”5 Fitzgerald, at the end of his life, came to embrace “the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”6 Abraham Lincoln was Fitzgerald's American exemplar of this “wise and tragic sense of life” (Turnbull, Letters [L] 96). And in The Last Tycoon (LT) he associates Monroe Stahr's commitment to lead the movie industry closer to an ideal mix of art and entertainment with Lincoln's creative response to the contradictions of American democracy embodied in the Union.

Fitzgerald's invocation of Lincoln recalls the proud and humble claim he made to his daughter from Hollywood. “I don't drink,” he wrote; then, as if freed from a demon's grasp, he recounted the inner civil war he fought to keep his writer's gift intact: “I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value have some sort of epic grandeur.” “Some sort” he qualifies, as if preparing for the ironic, self-deflating admission in the next sentence. “Anyhow after hours I nurse myself with delusions of that sort” (L 62, 61). But Fitzgerald did preserve the “essential value” of his talent; the pages he left confirm that. Like Lincoln who lived only long enough to sketch out what a truly reconstructed nation might look like, Fitzgerald was defeated in his attempt to finish his last novel. Yet what he wrote is all the more poignant because, finished, The Last Tycoon might have recast and reformulated the intractable oppositions of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

“The test of a first rate intelligence,” Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up (Wilson, CU), that posthumous collection full of his sinewy, mature, self-reliant thought, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function” (CU 69). By function, Fitzgerald means more than cope; he's affirming that readiness to act in the world with something approaching one's full powers—“a willingness of the heart” combined with enabling critical intelligence. Fitzgerald's fictional alter egos, Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver, lost this stance of simultaneous detachment and engagement, if they ever possessed it, for they could live in the world only with a single, consuming mission. In his life, Fitzgerald, too, had to steel himself against the tendency toward Gatsby's self-destroying romantic obsession, and like Diver, he had to wrench free from the opposed, complimentary shoals of identification and alienation in his marriage with Zelda.

After Tender Is the Night and before his fresh start in Hollywood in 1937, Fitzgerald reflected on his earlier search for an equilibrium of craft, reputation, and power as expressed in the literary vocation and his large personal ambition. “It seemed,” he remembered,

a romantic business to be a successful literary man—you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived—you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent.

To the end, like the vivid, still-evolving Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald stays in motion, keeps the dialectic between life and craft going, if not to resolution—“Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied” (CU 69-70)—at least in pursuit of new and unrealized novelistic possibilities. “But I, for one, would not have chosen any other” (CU 69-70), he concludes, and keeps faith with his vocation by writing about craft and character in the life of a gifted movie man, whose form Fitzgerald feared might subordinate the novel, “which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another,” to “a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of rendering only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion” (CU 78).

Meeting Irving Thalberg, Fitzgerald becomes more open to the craft of the movies as practiced in Hollywood. Like Fitzgerald the novelist, Monroe Stahr produces movies, not opportunistically (for the most part) but from within. There is a fluidity to Fitzgerald's conception of Stahr missing from Gatsby and his dream, so ill defined in its worldly guise, so obsessive and absolute in its fixation on Daisy; and missing also from the aspiring hubris of Dick Diver, trapped by his misguided, innocent mingling of love and vocation in his dream of personality in Tender Is the Night. Stahr, like the writer who created him, learns that daring to function can be a first step toward loosening the paralyzing grip of “opposed ideas.”

Fitzgerald's characters, like the seismograph alluded to in Gatsby, register changes in his sensibility. Not that Monroe Stahr is Fitzgerald; like the others, he is a composite character. “There never was a good biography of a good novelist,” Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook. “He's too many people if he's any good.” Nevertheless, Fitzgerald put into Stahr's character much of the awareness he came to have in the melancholy troubled years after Tender Is the Night. “Life, ten years ago,” he wrote in 1936, “was largely a personal matter.” Without telling how that's changed but making it clear that it has, Fitzgerald confronted his present imperative:

I must hold in balance the sense of the futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and the determination to “succeed”—and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.

(CU 177, 70)

To be sure, Fitzgerald did not always hold these contradictions of mind and will, memory and imagination, in equilibrium. But increasingly, as he worked on The Last Tycoon during his last year and a half in Hollywood, he sensed a progression from his earlier novels—enough that he strove to set a standard mingling intelligence with “a willingness of the heart.” Intelligence identifies and holds in suspension “opposed ideas,” but the “ability to function” in the midst of what Keats called “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts”7 follows from that “willingness of the heart” Fitzgerald identified as a peculiarly intense American urge to do something about one's condition, to take risks for a better self, a better life, a better nation. “For example,” Fitzgerald wrote, illustrating his embrace of contradiction, “one ought to be able to see that things are hopeless and still be determined to make them otherwise” (CU 64). So he was. And as a writer, until the end of his life, Fitzgerald linked his pursuit of craft and personality, if not any longer simply happiness—“the natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness” (CU 84)—with the unfolding story of America.

Perhaps because of Fitzgerald's struggles and his paradoxical, sometimes exhilarated serenity alongside the pain and loss reflected in the diminishing hourglass of his life, in The Last Tycoon he was able at least to break the stalemate between previously opposed ideas. For this reason, Fitzgerald's passing before he could finish The Last Tycoon is an incalculable loss, only to be guessed at from the drafts he left, however much in progress, and his rich, copious notes, charts, and outlines. With Hollywood as milieu and the producer Stahr as protagonist, the American dream becomes even more identified with the urge to integrate private and public pursuits of happiness than in Fitzgerald's other novels.

In The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald does for the American dream what Ralph Ellison argues every serious novel does for the craft of fiction. Even as a fragment, the work extends the range of idea and phenomena associated with the dream. As a man and a writer, he became at home in that country of discipline and craft he had discovered but, later lamented, did not truly settle down in it until it was too late. As he wrote to his daughter Scottie, a student and aspiring writer at Vassar, I wish I'd said “at the end of The Great Gatsby: ‘I've found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing’” (L 79). In 1939 and 1940, The Last Tycoon did come first. But burdened with expenses, lacking the quick, lucrative Saturday Evening Post markets of his youth, lacking in any case the “romantic readiness” to write stories with happy endings, and in sporadic, failing health, Fitzgerald had to balance his novel with other work, and eke it out in pieces. Nevertheless, he ended up a writer's writer. From that single window, he looked beyond his circumstances and saw the American dream not as a personal matter and no longer a nostalgic, romantic possibility but as a continuing defining characteristic of the American nation and its people. Far from being behind him, as Nick Carraway had claimed in The Great Gatsby, the dream, refigured in The Last Tycoon, is a recurring phenomenon in each phase, place, and guise of Fitzgerald's imagination of American experience.

The American story, Fitzgerald wrote late in life, “is the history of all aspiration—not just the American dream but the human dream. …”8 The story that Fitzgerald told was his version of a dream hauntingly personal and national. “When I was your age,” he wrote his daughter in 1938, “I lived with a great dream. The dream grew and I learned how to speak of it and make people listen.” Like Keats, who, Fitzgerald imagined, was sustained to the end by his “hope of being among the English poets” (CU 81), Fitzgerald aspired to be among the novelists. But, as he confessed to his daughter in a bone-scraping passage, he compromised his artist's dream by indulging the very thing that inspired it—romantic love. Of his marriage to Zelda, he wrote in retrospect, “I was a man divided—she wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream” (L 32). The imbalance Fitzgerald attributed to Zelda was also his own tension and tendency. Nevertheless, what gave his life and work such fascination was exactly that dream of mingling craft and accomplishment with love—first with Zelda, and at the end in more muted fashion with Sheilah Graham, his companion in Hollywood.

In its American guise, the dream Fitzgerald sought to realize flowed from that most elusive and original of the rights proclaimed by the Declaration of Independence. Framed as an “unalienable” right by Thomas Jefferson and espoused by the other founders of this revolutionary nation, the “pursuit of happiness” magnified the American dream into an abiding, almost sacred promise. Going back to that scripture of nationhood, it is striking to note that although Jefferson amended John Locke's “life, liberty, and property or estate” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” neither he nor any other signatory explained or remarked in writing on the change. But naming the “pursuit of happiness” an unalienable right confirmed the newly declared American nation as an experimental, necessarily improvisational society dedicated to the principle that every human personality is sacred and inviolable. Yes, blacks, women, Native Americans, and even indentured servants were excluded, but excluded then, not forever. For as Lincoln was to imply in the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration's eloquent language strained toward the proposition that all persons were free, and, therefore, implicated in and responsible for the nation's destiny. And the idea and covenant of American citizenship required that all individuals make themselves up in the midst of the emerging new society. And the process of creation would be vernacular, arising from native ground, the weather, landscape, customs, habits, peoples, and values of this new world in the making.

That was and remains the promise of America. But, Fitzgerald's novels remind us, things were never this simple. And as the late Ralph Ellison, who seems closer and closer kin to Fitzgerald, put it, “a democracy more than any other system is always pregnant with its contradiction.”9 One such contradiction unresolved by the Declaration or the ensuing Constitution, and played out since in national experience and Fitzgerald's novels, is between property and the “pursuit of happiness.” Certainly, as Eugene McCarthy has noted, the third unalienable right “undoubtedly included the right to pursue property as a form of happiness, or as ‘a happiness.’”10 For some the “pursuit of happiness” was simply a euphemism for property. Officially, the tension went unresolved and scarcely acknowledged until the 14th Amendment forbade the states to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The less concrete, more elusive “pursuit of happiness” went unmentioned except by implication. Yet, for over 200 years, before and after passage of the 14th Amendment, Americans have sought to balance property's material reality with the imaginative possibilities hinted at in the phrase the “pursuit of happiness.”

What if we were to read Gatsby,Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon as projections of that sometime struggle, sometime alliance between property and the pursuit of happiness? As human impulses, property and the pursuit of happiness are sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary metaphors for experience. Let property stand for the compulsion to divide the world and contain experience within fixed, arbitrary boundaries. And let the “pursuit of happiness” become imagination's embrace of the complexity, fluidity, and possibility open to human personality. In Jefferson's time, if not so strongly in Fitzgerald's or our own, the “pursuit of happiness” also implied individual responsibility for the “spirit of public happiness” that John Adams felt so strongly in the colonies, which he judged the American Revolution won almost before it began. Jefferson did not include the word public, but his phrase implies the individual's integration of desire with responsibility, self-fulfillment with the work of the world. In short, in this promissory initial American context, the pursuit of happiness was bound up with citizenship, and citizenship with each individual's responsibility for democracy.

The first thing to be said about Fitzgerald's novels is that these enactments of the American dream are expressed in the love affairs and worldly ambitions of Jay Gatsby, Dick Diver, and Monroe Stahr. In The Great Gatsby (TGG), Tender Is the Night, and The Last Tycoon, the matrix of the dream differs, but in each case, the hero is, like Fitzgerald, “a man divided,” yet he seeks to integrate love of a woman with accomplishment in the world. Telling his story to Nick Carraway after he has lost Daisy Fay for the second and last time, Gatsby remembers that when he first met her, he felt like the latest plunderer in the line of Dan Cody, his metaphorical father, and a mythical figure who, in Fitzgerald's interpretation, “brought back to the Eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.” Sensitive to the demarcations of background, money, and status, Gatsby

knew he was in Daisy's house by a colossal accident. However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders.

Meanwhile, “he had deliberately given Daisy a sense of security; he let her believe he was a person from much the same stratum as herself.” Jay Gatsby pursues Daisy knowing that her sense of happiness and the good life depends on money and property. Nevertheless, “he took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand” (TGG 76, 113). Ironically, Gatsby's lieutenant's uniform allows him proximity to Daisy simply as a man long enough to seduce her.

Until Gatsby makes love to Daisy, he projects little soul or feeling, only a self-absorbed passion mixed up with his urge to defy American boundaries of class, status, and money. The experience of love deeply moves and changes Gatsby, but so pervasive is the culture of material success that his new reverence and tenderness toward her are inseparable from money and possessions, and perhaps from Carraway's image of Daisy “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor”—Gatsby's struggles, maybe, as a boy and penniless young man in North Dakota and Minnesota. Earlier that same day in 1922, Gatsby calls Daisy's voice a voice “full of money.” But his subsequent words to Carraway about that experience of love in wartime 1917, a time that obscured boundaries of class and background in favor of a seemingly all-powerful fluidity and equality, convey the mystery and tenderness of his earlier emotion. “I can't describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport,” Gatsby tells Carraway in his sometimes too well-chosen words whose tone nonetheless carries a touch of wonder. “I even hoped for a while that she'd throw me over, but she didn't, because she was in love with me too.” The more vividly Gatsby remembers, the more the tricks of his voice yield to the feeling underneath. “She thought I knew a lot because I knew different things from her. … Well, there I was, 'way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute, and all of a sudden I didn't care” (TGG 114, 91, 114).

Gatsby discovers that Daisy loves him because of his different experience, not despite it as he feared. He surrenders his ambitions, as yet inchoate, unfocused, adolescent, to his intense feeling for Daisy. But their love is an interlude, happening “in the meantime, in between time.” More vividly alive because of his love for Daisy, Gatsby “did extraordinarily well in the war,” becoming a captain and, following the Argonne, a major given “command of the divisional machine guns” (TGG 72, 114). He emerges as a leader. Although his ambitions are vague, thinking of other American trajectories, a pioneering future in politics or in some other new venture, aviation, say, or advertising, might have awaited Gatsby if Daisy had stayed true to her love for him.

Instead, Daisy Fay turns fickle and self-indulgent. Desperate for Gatsby to return, impatient and petulant over his mistaken assignment to Oxford, she must have her life “shaped now, immediately—and the decision must be made by some force—of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality—that was close at hand” (TGG 115). Daisy's pursuit of happiness in the form of her dangerous, defiant love for Gatsby surrenders to the palpability of a safe, material, unequal propertied union with Tom Buchanan. Afterwards, on his forlorn lover's progress through the streets of Louisville, Daisy's hometown and scene of their love, Gatsby understands: To win Daisy he gathers money and property, the latter transient and garish, in the quick and illegal ways open to him—Meyer Wolfsheim and the rackets. After another interval of love inspired by the possibilities of human personality—remember, Daisy sees Gatsby's possessions for the Horatio Alger emblems that they are and responds only to the passion, will, and tenderness that lie behind them—the struggle over Daisy (and, parabolically, America) is fought on the field of property. Whose money is solid wealth, whose possessions land, oil, and the like? And whose property stays in the same hands for generations?

In Gatsby, sooner or later human feelings are negotiated in relation to property or some other form of material reality subject to ownership. Gatsby's wonder of discovery, Daisy's magic of “bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again” (TGG 82), these unanticipated, intense moments of experience recede before Tom Buchanan's relentless revelation of the shady transience of Gatsby's wealth. But perhaps Gatsby, too, gives Daisy little choice between two opposed fixed ideas. When Tom Buchanan forces a showdown with Gatsby at the Plaza Hotel, the two men turn Daisy into a prized possession to be fought over on the basis of social and economic conventions. In effect, Buchanan invokes the droit du seigneur. He is the lord, Gatsby the serf, Daisy the woman belonging to the vast American estate. Contending on that ground, Gatsby may well pay an emotional tithe to the poor boy from North Dakota, and again feel he has no right to touch Daisy's hand. In any case, the scene at the Plaza is an acrimonious “irritable reaching after fact or reason”11 without love. Who can blame Daisy for withdrawing after her perspective goes unheard by both men? On this occasion, Gatsby is no more able than Buchanan to consider Daisy a woman in her own right, a unique and equal person whose voice has had the power to give the words she sings singular feeling and meaning. For each man, Daisy is a possession; for Buchanan material, for Gatsby ideal. So Daisy, the actual woman, the flawed and vulnerable human personality, flees. Held to no standard of decency or accountability by either man after her hit-and-run killing of Myrtle Wilson, she once again chooses the conventional, worldly protection of Tom Buchanan.

Gatsby's dream of love corroded to nightmare, the passion ebbs from his work, such as it is. And no wonder. His flimsy network of “gonnegtions” and sinister underworld deals in booze and bonds were all for love of Daisy. When she returns to Tom Buchanan and their leisure-class world, partly because of Gatsby's desperate bargain with the American underworld, and partly because of his narcissistic, romantic inability to comprehend her attachment to Buchanan, Gatsby is emptied of love and ambition alike. The heart and wonder are gone from him; there is no happiness to pursue. His time of love and “aesthetic contemplation” passed, Gatsby, Nick imagines, sees around him only a frightening physical landscape—“a new world, material without being real” (TGG 123), an American world bleaker and, for all its glut of accumulations, more insubstantial than the spare, monotonous prairie James Gatz started from in rural North Dakota. For all his romantic gifts of personality, lacking a discerning critical intelligence, Gatsby seems destined to have served that same “vast, vulgar meretricious [American] beauty” of which Dan Cody is the apotheosis (TGG 75).

“France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter.” In this passage from “The Swimmers,” a 1929 story later distilled into his Notebooks, Fitzgerald evokes the anguished intense patriotism he finds in American faces from Abraham Lincoln's to those of the “country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered” (CU 197). For Fitzgerald that American “quality of the idea” finds most worthy expression in the impulse to offer the best of yourself on behalf of someone or something greater than yourself. Directed toward the world, a “willingness of the heart” intensifies the individual's feelings and experience. In Tender Is the Night (TITN) as in Gatsby, the dream of love and accomplishment is distorted by the values of property and possession. Like Gatsby, Dick Diver has large ambitions: “… to be a good psychologist—maybe to be the greatest one that ever lived.”12 Dick's colleague, the stolid Swiss, Franz Gregorovius, stops short hearing his friend's pronouncement, as did the aspiring American man of letters, Edmund Wilson, when the undergraduate Fitzgerald declared: “I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don't you?”13 Like Fitzgerald, Diver mingles love with ambition, though passively, almost as an afterthought: “He wanted to be loved too, if he could fit it in” (TITN 23).

Reminiscent of Gatsby, Diver's dream resides initially in a masculine world in which one man's ambition and achievement are measured against another's. But, as with Gatsby, experience changes the values implicit in Diver's equation. Stirred by professional curiosity, he meets Nicole Warren. Because of her youth and beauty, the patient becomes in Diver's eyes primarily a woman, though a woman imagined as “a scarcely saved waif of disaster bringing him the essence of a continent.” To the inexperienced Diver—“only hot-cheeked girls in hot secret rooms” (TITN 27)—Nicole is a figure for the romantic possibility of an America that, like the “fresh green breast of the new world” whose “vanished trees … had made way for Gatsby's house” (TGG 137) is, though violated and compromised, suggestive of innocence, vitality, and possibility, and above all, still worthy of love.

So Dick Diver gambles his “pursuit of happiness” on marriage to Nicole. But his desire to be loved—“I want to be extravagantly admired again,” Fitzgerald said as he was writing Tender—seduces him away from his scholarly writing as a psychiatrist. Once diverted from his work, he does not find happiness as curator of the leisure-class expatriate American world he and Nicole create on the Riviera, or as psychiatrist in charge of the clinic bought with Warren money, or as Nicole's husband, or, finally, “wolf-like under his sheep's clothing” a pursuer of women more in mind than in actuality. For Diver, like Gatsby, the pursuit of happiness becomes personally hollow in love, and professionally so in his work. Again, perhaps like Gatsby, only more so, Diver is more responsible than he knows for the dissolution of his dream of love and work.

For her part, Nicole, like Daisy, only more poignantly, veers between two selves. Cured, she embraces her heritage as her robber baron grandfather Warren's daughter; her white crook's eyes signify a proprietary attitude toward the world. More vividly and knowingly than before, she becomes the goddess of monopoly and dynasty described early in the novel. “For her sake trains began their run at Chicago and traversed the round belly of the continent to California.” Nicole, “as the whole system swayed and thundered onward,” is, in Europe, remote product and beneficiary of her family's multinational corporate interests. Like Daisy, Nicole “has too much money”; like Gatsby, Dick Diver “can't beat that” (TITN 113, 311).

Yet in Tender Is The Night, the matter is not so simple. Marrying Nicole, Dick takes on a task demanding a heroic and perhaps a too stringent discipline and self-denial. After the most violent and threatening of Nicole's schizophrenic episodes, he realizes that “somehow [he] and Nicole had become one and equal, not opposite and complementary; she was Dick too, the drought in the marrow of his bones.” Her personality reinforces rather than compensates for what is missing in him. Even more fatal for Diver's balance between husband and psychiatrist, “he could not watch her disintegrations without participating in them” (207). Underneath the historical overtones of the American dream gone terribly, incestuously, wrong, Fitzgerald explores the strained and, finally, chilling intimacy of a marriage turned inward against the autonomy and independence of each person. With slow excruciating inevitability, Diver's “willingness of the heart,” so catalytic to his imagination, charm, and discipline, deserts him.

She went up to him and, putting her arm around his shoulder and touching their heads together, said:

“Don't be sad.”

He looked at her coldly.

“Don't touch me!” he said.

(TITN, 319)

Diver has come so far from his former love for Nicole, “a wild submergence of soul, a dipping of all colors into an obscuring dye” (TITN 235), that he now recoils from her touch. The Divers are no longer man and woman to each other. In truth, the conditions and pathology sustaining the marriage are played out. Nicole is rid of her incestuous dependence on Dick, and Dick seeks to recover the independence he sacrificed as Nicole's husband, doctor, and, above all, protector.

Discipline, spirit, and imagination attenuated if not broken, Diver returns to America a stranger. With Nicole now acting as Fitzgerald's chronicler, the last news of Diver tells of the “big stack of papers on his desk that are known to be an important treatise on some medical subject, almost in process of completion.” So much for his craft; as for the dream of love, he becomes “entangled with a girl who worked in a grocery store” (TITN 334). Homeless in spirit, Diver drifts from one lovely, lonely Finger Lakes town to another, and whatever dreams he has, he dreams in oblivion without his former promise and intensity of feeling and action.

Fitzgerald created his deepest, most realized novel out of his own predicament. His dissipation and need to write short stories for the Saturday Evening Post to sustain his and Zelda's standard of living seduced him away from his craft and to some extent his dream of love. Still, Fitzgerald bled out Tender Is the Night at La Paix—“La Paix (My God!)” (L 345)—in Rodgers Forge outside Baltimore. He brought his “big stack of papers” to completion. But when reviews were mixed and sales modest, also perhaps because, exhausted, he had no new novel taking shape in his mind, only the early medieval tale of Phillippe or The Count of Darkness, with its curiously anachronistic tilt toward Ernest Hemingway's modern code of courage, Fitzgerald sank deeper into drink and depression. Finally, as Scott Donaldson observes, Asheville, Tyron, and other North Carolina towns became suspiciously like the small towns of Diver's self-imposed exile at the end of Tender Is the Night.14

For more than three years after publication of Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald continued to imitate the desolate trajectory he'd projected for Dick Diver. Everything was a struggle. Perhaps “to preach at people in some acceptable form” (L 63) and to show himself an unbowed Sisyphus, without the camouflage of fiction, he dove into the confessional Crack-Up pieces. To the chagrin of those who wished him well, and even some who did not, he wrote an even more exposed confession of faith than Tender Is the Night. His low point came with the appearance of “The Other Side of Paradise,” a portrait of the novelist as a broken-down man and a failed writer that appeared on his fortieth birthday in the New York Post in September of 1936. “A writer like me must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star,” he told the reporter. “But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity, and I lost my grip.”15 The reporter featured the empty bottles and the desolate hotel room more than Fitzgerald's words, however, and the self-inflicted blow of humiliation Fitzgerald absorbed seeing the piece in print prompted him to make an abortive gesture at suicide.

Only an offer from Hollywood less than a year later broke the pattern of waste, the spell of despair, and roused Fitzgerald from his uneasy, purgatorial hibernation. Slowly, tortuously, he came back to life as a man and a novelist. Taking another crack at Hollywood, where the “inevitable low gear of collaboration” (CU 78) had twice mocked his sense of artistic vocation, Fitzgerald renewed his “pursuit of happiness.” His theme was another variation of the American dream. For as a place and an industry, Hollywood was at once the consequence and the purveyor of the dream, often an eager expression of the culture's lowest common denominator. Unlike his earlier moves, to the south of France to write Gatsby in 1924 and Baltimore to write Tender in 1932, Fitzgerald saw going to Hollywood as a lucky last chance to recoup his fortunes. He had a screenwriter's contract; perhaps if he got himself together another novel would take shape. In the meantime, riding west on the train in July 1937, Fitzgerald welcomed the chance to pay his debts, educate Scottie, care for Zelda, and keep himself. And Hollywood also offered a fresh start. “Of all natural forces,” he had written in The Crack-Up, “vitality is the incommunicable one” (CU 74). And he did not flinch from taking stock of his condition. “For over three years,” he wrote his cousin Ceci, “the creative side of me has been dead as hell” (L 419). So, he might have added, was the side of him that lived in relationships at a high pitch of intensity.

In Hollywood almost two years, Fitzgerald pursued once more his dream of love and craft. Cherished by Sheilah Graham who had her own life and ambition, Fitzgerald felt alive enough in his pores to revive the dream of being truly among the novelists. “Look,” he wrote his daughter late in October 1939 with a surge of the old vitality and self-confidence, “I have begun to write something that is maybe great.” And he went on to tell her with touching understatement: “Anyhow I am alive again” (L 61). In the last year of his life, Fitzgerald poured into Monroe Stahr and The Last Tycoon the sense that life was ebbing and his resolve to pursue happiness as a writer and a man to the end. Into Stahr he put exhaustion—the sense of death in the mirror—and readiness for love—“the privilege of giving himself unselfishly to another human being,” Fitzgerald's words for a love more mature than romantic. Into his new book, he put the passion to make The Last Tycoon “something new” that could “arouse new emotions, perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena.”16 For him the “pursuit of happiness” now meant, in Francis Kroll Ring's words, “the pursuit of the limits of his craft,” which she, who knew him well, notes that he felt “he had not reached.”17

Fitzgerald did not speak directly of the dream in The Last Tycoon as he had in Gatsby,Tender Is the Night, and, with occasional bitter nostalgia, the Crack-Up essays. But it was there in Monroe Stahr's pursuit of private and public happiness, there with a measure of caution and maturity as well as a dangerous, consuming intensity. Monroe Stahr is both outside and inside the mold of Fitzgerald's previous heroes. Like Gatsby, Stahr is self-made, a leader of men in Hollywood as Gatsby briefly had been in France during the Great War. But Stahr's ambition and creative power fuse with the public good; he does not become a crook or a gangster to advance his ideal, romantic pursuit of happiness. Neither does he confuse love with vocation. No,

Stahr like Lincoln was a leader carrying on a long war on many fronts; almost singlehandedly he had moved pictures sharply forward through a decade to a point where the content of the “A productions” was wider and richer than that of the stage.

(LT 106)

Like Dick Diver, Stahr's mind puts him in select company, and also like Diver, Stahr is a man with a strong, specific sense of vocation. But unlike Diver, Stahr distills his passion into a sustained, disciplined appetite for his work. Stahr is also a Jew, whose identity as an American outsider is more fully, consciously felt and put to more palpable professional use than had been the case with either Gatsby or Diver.

Stahr makes it to the pinnacle in Hollywood—a world open to and largely created by Jews—by virtue of his brains, judgment, leadership, taste, and sense of craft and quality possible in the medium of film with its democratic accessibility and mass appeal. Compared to Lincoln by Fitzgerald, Stahr believes he's about to take a call from President Roosevelt in front of the woman he's just recently met and is fast coming to love. “I've talked to him before,” Stahr tells Kathleen before the phone call turns out to be from an agent whose orangutan is “a dead ringer for McKinley” (LT 83). But Fitzgerald, always sensitive to the feel of a decade's turning points, implies parallels between Stahr's protective role in the movie industry and Roosevelt's in government. “There is no world but it has its heroes,” he writes, “and Stahr was the hero.” He evokes Stahr's staying power during the evolving phases of the movies, as well as in the making of an individual picture. “Most of these men had been here a long time—through the beginnings and the great upset, when sound came, and the three years of depression, he had seen that no harm came to them.” Stahr was perhaps a paternal employer, as Roosevelt was a paternal, protective President. Both men preside over transitional circumstances in ways more evolutionary than revolutionary by force of character and impersonal compassionate intelligence, and by taking a personal interest in the problems of their constituencies. “The old loyalties were trembling now,” Fitzgerald concludes in the passage describing Stahr mingling with those who work for him at the end of a day at the studio: “There were clay feet everywhere; but still he was their man, the last of the princes. And their greeting was a sort of low cheer as he went by” (LT 27).

Stahr dreams of and attains knowledge and success in Hollywood's ambiguous, often insincere world of entertainment, art, and profit, the solitary, Cartesian way. He “did his reasoning without benefit of books—and he had just managed to climb out of a thousand years of Jewry into the late eighteenth century.” About the past, Fitzgerald notes that Stahr “could not bear to see it melt away” (LT 118). Reading this you can't help recall Fitzgerald's elegiac prose about the early promise of America “where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (TGG 137), or those pioneering Virginia “souls made of new earth in the forest-heavy darkness of the seventeenth century” (TITN 222). In a word, Fitzgerald continues, Stahr “cherished the parvenu's passionate loyalty to an imaginary past” (LT 118). But, having faced Stahr's and his own nostalgia, Fitzgerald invokes checks and balances against the romantic pull of the past. Stahr invents a peculiar, involuntary collaboration among the screenwriters, and his broader accomplishment as producer—“I'm the unity”—comes from his radical pragmatic courage to grasp and implement innovations. In short, Stahr is able “to retain the ability to function” amidst the contradictions of democracy and corporate power and property. Fitzgerald, too, wanted to achieve in The Last Tycoon what he felt he and his contemporaries so far had not done with the novel. “I want to write scenes that are frightening and inimitable,”18 he writes in one of his notes.

Both Fitzgerald and Stahr are men whose creative powers flow more richly into the world when they are involved in a satisfying, intimate relationship with a woman. For all of Stahr's love affair with an “imaginary past,” Kathleen awakens his passion for life in the present. Despite his “definite urge toward total exhaustion,” when he and Kathleen touch, Stahr feels the abiding elemental world again; at the coast he comes alive to the rhythms of land and sea and sky. After he and Kathleen make love at his unfinished Malibu beach house—“It would have been good anytime, but for the first time it was much more than he had hoped or expected”—they watch countless grunion fish come to touch land “as they had come before Sir Francis Drake had nailed his plaque to the shore” (LT 92, 108, 152).

Stahr's love for Kathleen intensifies his confidence about his gifts and worldly aspirations in a way reminiscent of Fitzgerald. “I used to have a beautiful talent once, Baby,” Fitzgerald told young Budd Schulberg during the Dartmouth Winter Carnival debacle. “It used to be wonderful feeling it was there.”19 Page by page, Fitzgerald ekes out The Last Tycoon, his physical stamina no longer able to keep up with his mind. Nor keep up with his will. As Frances Kroll Ring, Fitzgerald's then 20-year-old secretary tells it, he'd take a weekend off when he needed money to pay bills. With single-minded discipline fired by a desire to have the coming week free for his novel, he would plot and write a Pat Hobby story for Esquire.20 But always the dream of realizing his promise as a pioneering American novelist was there, perhaps made more palpable by his love affair with Sheilah Graham and his dedication to her education, and, for that matter, to his daughter Scottie's education. The latter is especially poignant, for Scottie, of the same generation as Fitzgerald's narrator, Cecilia Brady, and his contemporary and intellectual conscience, Edmund Wilson, were Fitzgerald's two imagined readers of The Last Tycoon, and that connection kept him going on more than one desolate, discouraging occasion.

In the novel, Fitzgerald does not leave the connection between love and craft to speculation. While the grunion flop at their feet on the Malibu shore, Stahr and Kathleen encounter a black man who tells Stahr he “never go[es] to movies” and “never let[s his] children go” (LT 92). Later, at home alone, Stahr recalls the man—”He was prejudiced and wrong, and he must be shown somehow some way.” The man had been reading Emerson, and for Stahr he becomes the representative responsible good citizen whose allegiance Stahr must win for his soul's sake, the movies' sake, and the sake of American culture, of which Stahr sees himself a guardian. “A picture,” Stahr thinks, “many pictures, a decade of pictures, must be made to show him he was wrong.” And Stahr immediately commits himself to a specific action. “[H]e submitted the borderline pictures to the Negro and found them trash. And he put back on his list a difficult picture that he had tossed to the wolves, … to get his way on something else. He rescued it for the Negro man” (LT 95). Here Stahr puts his corporate property and producer's power in service of a higher common good—democratic (e)quality. Here the “pursuit of happiness” expresses his best potential and the best of American popular culture. What's more, Stahr's responsiveness to the black man's criticism is bound up with his passionate and tender love for Kathleen. His power to act as a public man is perhaps brought to brief, occasional fullness by the experience of love and intimacy.

Yet Stahr, Fitzgerald takes pains to observe, was not born to love and intimacy. He worked hard to shape the raw materials of his personality into a sensibility capable of an intimate relationship. “Like many brilliant men, he had grown up dead cold.” Looking over the way things were,

he swept it all away, everything, as men of his type do; and then instead of being a son-of-a-bitch as most of them are, he looked around at the bareness that was left and said to himself, “This will never do.” And so he had learned tolerance, kindness, forbearance, and even affection like lessons.

(LT 97)

Not surprisingly, Stahr's impulses toward the private happiness of intimacy are not as natural or sure-handed as his pursuit of public happiness in the world in the form of work and power, competition and money.

For all his mingling of love and craft in what seems a mature pursuit of happiness, Stahr hesitates with Kathleen. Perhaps Fitzgerald would have changed somewhat the terms of his story; we do not know. What we do know is that Stahr waits, fatally it turns out, though he is sure in his heart and his mind. “He could have said it then, said, ‘It is a new life,’ for he knew it was, he knew he could not let her go now, but something else said to sleep on it as an adult, no romantic” (LT 115). What Stahr and Kathleen do not know is that outside forces are closing in. The man Kathleen calls “The American,” who rescued her from her old life's quagmire in London, is already speeding toward Los Angeles and the marriage ceremony they've agreed to, his train hours early. If there's something hasty, even amateurish about this twist of Fitzgerald's plot, so be it. To say he might have changed it or refined the terms is to remember that he too, like Stahr, did not have the luxury of time.

In what Fitzgerald did write, Stahr says good night to Kathleen, but keeps his feelings to himself. “We'll go to the mountains tomorrow,” he tells her with the public voice of the man in charge, the producer, as if that were all. For his part, Fitzgerald the novelist, unable to resist one of those asides that mark his relations with his characters, especially those he loves, reflects on Stahr's temporizing judgment: “You can suddenly blunt a quality you have lived by for twenty years” (LT 116).

This line does not belong entirely to Fitzgerald but to Cecelia Brady, his narrator, who also loves Stahr, and in the way of a woman, not a novelist. Here, too, Fitzgerald was breaking new and different ground from that traversed in previous novels. He gambled that this young woman, “at the moment of her telling the story, an intelligent and observant woman” (LT 140), could reveal Stahr's complexity as well as her own and that of Hollywood and American society in the transitional time of the Depression and the coming of the Second World War. Through Cecelia's sensibility as insider and outsider, Fitzgerald registers changes in what Ellison has called the American social hierarchy.21 In The Last Tycoon, Stahr, a Jew not far from the shtetl, makes a black man his moviemaker's conscience, falls in love with an Irish immigrant, and has his story told by another woman, a young Irish American who, by virtue of her father's Hollywood money and her intelligence and grace, moves among the well-to-do on both coasts.

In Fitzgerald's fascinating, fragmentary notes and sketches for the novel's ending—three teenagers' discovery of the fallen plane and the personal effects of Stahr and other passengers—and epilogue—Stahr's lavish Hollywood funeral full of hypocrisy and intrigue—the dream fights on in life-affirming, life-denying variations. Whatever Fitzgerald might have done, we glimpse in Stahr what might unfold if the pursuit of private and public happiness were to fuse in a common responsiveness. The one transforms and intensifies the other; the self trembles, now fully alive.

Stahr, whether in conversation or the act of love with Kathleen, or in his renewed sense of aesthetic possibility in response to a black man's rejection of the movies, comes to know that his vitality depends on mingling passion and tenderness toward Kathleen with the pragmatic imagination of his producer's craft. Without one, the other falters, as Fitzgerald shows in his draft of the last episode he wrote and his notes for the novel's succeeding chapters. In the last months of his life, Fitzgerald struggled toward the same equilibrium beyond Stahr's grasp, but not his imagination, in his settled relationship with Sheilah Graham and the steadfastness with which he pursued the limits of his craft. Despite his efforts to finish The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald left a fragment that is, for all its promise, as Richard Lehan put it, “a brilliantly incomplete work that has all the limitations of being a draft and thus never fully conceptualized and polished by revision, where Fitzgerald always did his best work.”22 Nevertheless, Fitzgerald's fragment is a palpable reminder, at once mocking and reassuring, about his novelist's dream and the American theme.

“So we beat on,” to echo and recast Gatsby's ending, not necessarily “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (TGG 137). For in The Last Tycoon, there is a fluidity and ambiguity about property and the “pursuit of happiness” missing from the social structures underlying Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Even more than Tender Is the Night, in its protean state The Last Tycoon appears a work of ceaseless fluctuations. Unlike Tender,Tycoon's unfolding and denouement were to be governed by a moral and aesthetic principle underscored in Fitzgerald's notes. ACTION IS CHARACTER, he wrote in large block letters, and they are the last words in Edmund Wilson's edition of the fragment. As Fitzgerald's notes and outlines reiterate, Monroe Stahr was to struggle until the end. He would not await his fate passively like Gatsby or, like Dick Diver, abdicate to a private corner of America. Fitzgerald imagines Stahr a player to the last, and only the ironic contemporary deus ex machina of a plane crash would interfere with his decision to call off a retaliatory murder he's arranged in sick desperation. Gatsby operates in the shadows of American violence and power; Diver becomes a sleepwalking Rip van Winkle in a time of transition, but Stahr lives in the glare never believing that “things are [entirely] hopeless.” Rather, he is “determined [to the end] to make them otherwise.” Such, at least, is the impression conveyed by Fitzgerald's posthumous, very much in-progress fragment of a novel.

In Stahr's case and Fitzgerald's, the choices are contingent and pragmatic rather than ideal. It is no longer the case, as Fitzgerald once believed, that “life was something you dominated if you were any good” (CU 69). This romantic categorical imperative is long gone from his life and burned off the pages of The Last Tycoon. By 1940, life was the pursuit of equilibrium, and the dream has become an ability to put previously opposed ideas into relationship, what D. H. Lawrence, in praise of the novel, called “the trembling instability of the balance.”23 Perhaps this is why Fitzgerald, and his evolving patriot parvenu, Monroe Stahr, come to the American dream still with a “willingness of the heart.” Its promise was not happiness at all, as Jefferson and Adams realized so long ago, but the pursuit of happiness. The American experiment looked toward an ideal of individuals straining for self-realization with every nerve and muscle, every thought and feeling, in order to create what Ellison identified as that “condition of being at home in the world which is called love and which we term democracy.”24 For Fitzgerald the pursuit of happiness and the American Dream were inseparable. Digging deeply into his experience and the nation's, Fitzgerald made Monroe Stahr's story and character express the complexity of American life, its contradictions and possibilities alike. “The writing gave him hope,” Frances Ring remembers from Fitzgerald's last months, “that something good was happening, that he was whole again.”25

Perhaps the sense of his powers returning prompted Fitzgerald's note to himself near the end. “I am the last of the novelists for a long time now,”26 he wrote, and who can know what he meant? Could he have meant that he was the last of his generation to keep faith with the nineteenth-century view of the novel as a testing ground for the experiment of American culture and democracy? Could he have meant his remark as a challenge to succeeding writers to pick up where he left off in exploring the American theme? Whatever he meant, even unfinished, The Last Tycoon has had the effect of leading readers and writers back to Fitzgerald's work knowing, as he knew, that the story of America has an endless succession of takes, but no final script.


  1. For a sense of Fitzgerald criticism over the past 4[frac12] decades, see Jackson R. Bryer's “Four Decades of Fitzgerald Studies: The Best and the Brightest” and Sergio Perosa's “Fitzgerald Studies in the 1970s,” both in Twentieth Century Literature, 26 (1980). Also see Critical Essays on The Great Gatsby, ed. Scott Donaldson, and Critical Essays on Tender Is the Night, ed. Milton R. Stern.

  2. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 433.

  3. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, 148.

  4. The Great Gatsby, 4. Henceforth The Great Gatsby will be cited in the text as TGG.

  5. The Crack-Up, ed. Edmund Wilson, 69. Henceforth The Crack-Up will be cited in the text as CU.

  6. Andrew Turnbull, ed., The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 96. Henceforth the Letters will be cited in the text as L.

  7. Letter to George and Thomas Keats, 21 Dec. 1817, in Rollins, ed., 193.

  8. Quoted by Andrew Turnbull in Scott Fitzgerald, 307.

  9. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory, 251.

  10. Eugene McCarthy, Complexities and Contraries: Essays of Mild Discontent, 112.

  11. Keats, 193.

  12. Tender Is the Night, 22. Henceforth Tender Is the Night will be cited in the text as TITN.

  13. F. Scott Fitzgerald as quoted by Edmund Wilson in “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” 54.

  14. Scott Donaldson, “The Crisis of Fitzgerald's ‘Crack-Up,’” 185.

  15. Michel Mok, New York Post, 25 Sep. 1936.

  16. The Last Tycoon, 139, 141. Henceforth The Last Tycoon will be cited in the text as LT. (Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor of The Love of The Last Tycoon [1993] is correct to say that Edmund Wilson assigned the title of The Last Tycoon. Nevertheless, Bruccoli's evidence for his title is less than convincing; thus my decision to use the 1941 Wilson edition.)

  17. Letter from Frances Kroll Ring to the author.

  18. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Notes as quoted by Matthew J. Bruccoli in The Last of the Novelists: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon, 156.

  19. F. Scott Fitzgerald to Budd Schulberg as quoted by Arthur Mizener in The Far Side of Paradise, 317.

  20. Frances Kroll Ring, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, 52-55.

  21. This is a recurring phrase and theme of Ellison's, found in Shadow & Act, Going to the Territory, and in some of his unpublished or uncollected pieces included in Collected Essays.

  22. Richard Lehan, letter to the author.

  23. D. H. Lawrence, Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence, 528.

  24. Ralph Ellison, Shadow & Act, 105-06.

  25. Frances Kroll Ring, unpublished remarks delivered at the Fitzgerald-Hemingway International Conference in 1994.

  26. Bruccoli, op. cit., 156.

Works Cited

Bruccoli, Matthew J. The Last of the Novelists: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1977.

Bryer. Jackson R. “Four Decades of Fitzgerald Studies: The Best and the Brightest.” Twentieth Century Literature 26 (1980): 247-67.

Donaldson, Scott. “The Crisis of Fitzgerald's ‘Crack-Up,’” Twentieth Century Literature 26 (1980).

———, ed. Critical Essays on ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Boston: Hall, 1984

Ellison, Ralph. Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison. New York: Random, 1995.

———. Going to the Territory. New York: Random, 1986.

———. Invisible Man. New York: Random, 1952.

———. Shadow & Act. New York: Random, 1964.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. In Three Novels. New York: Scribner's, 1953.

———. The Last Tycoon. In Three Novels. New York: Scribner's, 1953.

———. Tender Is the Night. In Three Novels. New York: Scribner's, 1953.

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Scribner's, 1926.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-21. Ed. Edward Rollins. Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.

Lawrence. D. H. Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence. New York: Viking, 1968.

Lehan, Richard. Letter to the author. 25 May 1995.

McCarthy, Eugene. Complexities and Contraries: Essays of Mild Discontent. New York: Harcourt, 1982.

Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise. Boston: Houghton, 1965.

Mok, Michel. “The Other Side of Paradise.” New York Post 25 Sep. 1936.

Perosa, Sergio. “Fitzgerald Studies in the 1970s.” Twentieth Century Literature 26 (1980): 222-46.

Ring, Frances Kroll. Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald. Berkeley: Creative Arts, 1985.

———. Letter to the author. 7 Sep. 1994.

———. Unpublished remarks delivered at the Fitzgerald-Hemingway International Conference, Paris, 8 July 1994.

Stern, Milton R., ed. Critical Essays on Tender Is the Night. Boston: Hall, 1986.

Turnbull, Andrew, ed. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Scribner's, 1963.

———. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Scribner's, 1962.

Wilson, Edmund, ed. The Crack-Up. New York: New Directions, 1965.

———. “Thoughts on Being Bibliographed,” Princeton University Library Chronicle (Feb. 1944).

Janet Giltrow and David Stouck (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Giltrow, Janet, and David Stouck. “Style as Politics in The Great Gatsby.Studies in the Novel 29, no. 4 (winter 1997): 476-90.

[In the following essay, Giltrow and Stouck use discourse analysis to show that the novel's linguistic subtleties mask ideas of social conservatism.]

The Great Gatsby is valued for the vividness with which it renders an historical era; perhaps more than by any other American novel written in the 1920s, we are convinced that we hear the voices of people speaking from that decade before the advent of talking motion pictures. As narrator, Nick is the medium by which those voices are heard and, as principal speaker in the text, he serves as a translator of the dreams and social ambitions of the people who surround him. But the dilemma for readers of the novel is how to interpret Nick's voice: is he genuinely critical of Gatsby's romantic imagination and the culture that informed it, or does his suave talk conceal an essentially conservative nature?

Major statements on the novel in the last twenty years identify important elements of cultural criticism in the text. Ross Posnock's Lukácsean reading, grounded in Marx's account of commodity fetishism, views Fitzgerald (and the story's narrator) as primarily a critic rather than an exponent of the American Dream; his assurance of the speaker's critical purpose is such that he can claim “the novel's account of man's relation to society … profoundly agrees with Marx's great discovery that it is social rather than individual consciousness that determine's man's existence” (p. 202).1 Even Judith Fetterley, in her denunciation of the text's misogyny, allows that “certainly there is in the Carraway/Fitzgerald mind an element that is genuinely and meaningfully critical of the Gatsby imagination and that exposes rather than imitates it” (p. 99).2 Less certain of the text's radical intent is a ‘queer’ reading by Edward Wasiolek who locates one of the novel's meanings in the conservatism of what he alleges to be Nick's repressed homosexuality. According to Wasiolek, Nick does not act on his intense feelings for Gatsby, but remains a voyeur, and he draws attention to a masturbatory image and rhythm in the last lines of the text (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) to suggest a regressive infantilism at the novel's center.3 And in a deconstructionist study that negotiates the competing claims of psychoanalysis, feminism, and Marxism, Gregory S. Jay suggests in passing that Nick's identification with Gatsby belongs to that conservative order of social bonding wherein women are viewed as possessions in male power games.4 But Jay also argues for the radical nature of the text asserting that The Great Gatsby is “a work of cultural criticism that enacts … the intellectual analysis of how the social subject can never be conceived, even ab ovo, as the inhabitant of a world outside commodification, exchange, spectacle, and in speculation” (pp. 164-65). Then Jay asks, concerning the moment in the text when Daisy weeps over Gatsby's shirts, does Nick reproduce the scene for us to read critically, or does he endorse Daisy's emotion—her thrill and sense of loss at both the reach and the limits of Gatsby's imagination? In other words, he asks (as if uncertain about the large claims he has made of the text's design), where does Nick stand?

In this essay we shall approach the question of critical intent and execution through an examination of the novel's style.5 We shall use traditional accounts of English syntax to describe Fitzgerald's at sentence level, but we shall also use techniques from discourse analysis and linguistic pragmatics that will help us invesitage stylistic features that operate beyond the sentence, in the arena of language as socially situated, as utterance addressed and received both within the text and as an exchange between reader and writer. One of the major criticisms of stylistics, voiced strongly by Stanley E. Fish, is that observable formal patterns are in themselves without value, or else that stylistics assigns them value in a wholly arbitrary fashion, without regard to contexts of reception and reader expectation (p. 70).6 Respectful of such criticisms, we point out that our analysis is inspired by advances in critical linguistics that insist that style is motivated—by context, by differentials of position, by political interest. Instead of presenting observed features of Fitzgerald's style as isolated formalities, we locate them in larger contexts, and explain how these contexts motivate the book's wordings. First we situate our findings in a consideration of mode in the novel: in the naive (or folk) romance mode as it is historically manifested in the American Dream, and in its ironic version manifested in this narrator's account of flagrant partying that convenes the tokens of social class in America. Then, after examining certain ways of speaking that adhere to the narrator's midwestern origins, we will claim that language in The Great Gatsby provides us with evidence for the multiple, seemingly contradictory readings of the book. We will show that alongside the expose of American materialism—the irresponsible behaviors of the wealthy class, the corruption in business practice—there remains a conservatism, a resistance to change, and that both are evident in the book's language. In the manner of Nick's speaking, we find evidence that the critical inclination of The Great Gatsby is not just towards reform but towards restoration—restoration of a social order that has been confused and disturbed by reconfigurations of power and property, by the dishevelling forces of the age.


The novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, tells two stories: one about his fabulous neighbor, the other, less obviously, about himself. The story he tells of Jay Gatsby, in its barest outlines, follows the pattern of romance, that reading of the individual life as an identity quest. Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye have both described the structure of romance narrative and the trajectory of the hero's progression: from obscure origins he or she journeys into the unknown where an enemy, a lover, and a mentor all play crucial roles in identifying who the hero is and where he or she fits into the world. More recently, Michel Foucault defines succinctly the essence of the romance mode when he writes that the modern man is not the man who attempts to discover his personal secrets and his hidden truths; rather “he is the man who tries to invent himself,” who is compelled “to face the task of producing himself” (p. 42).7 For such an individual, writes Foucault, the high value of the present is indissociable from an eagerness “to imagine it otherwise than it is” (p. 41). Foucault uses the term “modern man” rather than romance hero, but his concept of modernity is not tied to an historical epoch. Rather, he suggests that modernity be considered an attitude, a mode of relating to contemporary reality that can be found in other periods of history, consisting essentially of “the will to ‘heroize’ the present” (p. 40). Issues of identity, the nature of power and, in Foucault's terminology, an engagement with the Other—these all lie at the heart of the romance mode and bear on any reading of Gatsby's story.

Stretched over much of the narrative is the mystery of Gatsby's origins: rumored to be a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm, and claiming himself to be the scion of a wealthy, English-educated family, Gatsby, Nick learns eventually, is actually James Gatz, the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people” from North Dakota (p. 104).8 Gatsby's rejection of these humble origins is signaled by a name change, an “immigrant” surname anglicized and a formal first name made familiar and fashionable sounding. This reinvention begins when Gatsby is seventeen, when he leaves home and family behind and moves into a world of “reveries,”9 where on moonlit nights “the most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed” (p. 105). Historically, this transformation takes place in the era when the robber barons were the model for power and success. For Gatsby, born on the margins, Daisy Fay is the embodiment of both success and the unknown; her privileged social status renders her a mysterious cynosure of sexual attraction, wealth, and social belonging, and when he kisses her she becomes the incarnation of his dreams and “unutterable visions” (p. 117). Nick writes that in loving her Gatsby “committed himself to the following of a grail” (p. 156); that Daisy was “[h]igh in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl” (p. 127). But Gatsby does not meet the test of wealth in Daisy's society (that specifically American measure of the romance quest), and he loses her to a rival suitor, Tom Buchanan. The spell Daisy casts with her voice—that “low, thrilling” siren's voice with its “singing compulsion” (p. 14) that “couldn't be overdreamed” (p. 101)—has been broken when Gatsby can say bluntly to Nick, “Her voice is full of money,” and Nick recognizes that indeed its “inexhaustible charm,” “the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it” was simply that—the seductive power of riches (p. 127). Situated at the heart of Gatsby's story is the metanarrative central to American culture—the deeply conservative ideology of capitalism, the story of rags to riches, of power, love and fame achieved through personal wealth.

It is the narrator's role to discredit this myth. The story he tells of Gatsby bereft of this illusion is a story of violence, despair, and ghostliness—a fantastic dream, distorted and grotesque, like a “night scene by El Greco” (p. 185). Gatsby, he reveals, has no wise mentor to lead him on his journey; older men like Dan Cody and Meyer Wolfsheim have shown him the path of deceit and felony, and he follows it until one of the “ghosts … gliding toward him through the amorphous trees” (p. 169) takes his life. Gatsby does not emerge from his journey a hero reborn with the power to bestow boons on his fellows; Nick describes instead a wasteland, the valley of ashes, which grows while the obscure movements of the ash-grey men in the dumping grounds are watched over by the blinded eyes of Dr. Eckleburg. Nick tells of Gatsby's father entering the narrative not to reveal that his son was of distinguished parentage, but to offer another kind of testimony, a book and a schedule for improvement—the humble fragments of a national myth (the Ben Franklin, Horatio Alger formula) that has deluded his ambitious son.

On the level of plot then the sophisticated narrator seems to impugn the American dream, its illusions and excesses—he refers scornfully to Gatsby's “appalling sentimentality” (p. 118) and to the “foul dust” that “floated in the wake of his dreams” (p. 6). But syntactically, in some of the most beautifully wrought and memorable lines of the novel, Nick Carraway demonstrates not scorn but, rather, ready sympathy for Gatsby and for those ideological presuppositions that underlie his ambitions. Nick tells Gatsby's story in what Bakhtin would describe as a lyrical style, “poetic in the narrow sense,” without dialogue, the words sufficient unto themselves, “suspended from any mutual interaction with alien discourse.”10 This lyricism is accomplished grammatically in the continuation of sentences seemingly reluctant to end, sentences which go on after a syntactic core has delivered its message. Offering a profile of the narrative style Fitzgerald has given Nick, we suggest that, characteristically, the first part of the sentence, sometimes just an independent clause, does the work of the plot, moving the narrative forward in time and place and event, but a second part, often syntactically unnecessary, can go on to evoke feelings and indefinite excitements and to suggest matters that exist only in the realm of possibility and the imagination. These sentence endings are the site of poetic invention, which imagines the world “otherwise than it is,”11 cultivates heightened sensation, and registers the romantic conceits and aspirations of ambition.

In Nick's way of speaking, the core of the narrative sentence establishes focus on time, place, event; drawn-out endings evoke accumulations of romantic sensitivity. Consider Nick's account of Gatsby's entry into his dream world:

For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing.

(p. 105)

This sentence begins, characteristically, with a time-adverbial, establishing duration and “reveries” as what is being talked about, then elaborates itself, through a second-start “they,” into apposition—syntactically unnecessary, surplus, but seemingly engendered by sensitivity to words like “imagination” and “reverie.” The tenuous subject of reverie and the imagination is then extended to even more tenuous matters in a “hint” and a “promise,” but in the lush and improbable ending of the sentence occurs the “fairy's wing” that connects directly to the embodiment of Gatsby's dreaming, Daisy Buchanan, whose maiden name is Fay, an archaic variant of fairy. Nick hereby conveys an aura of magical destiny to Gatsby's adventure, as does the ending of another trailing sentence where Daisy is described as “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (p. 157). In this instance we glimpse something of the feudal heart of the American myth of riches.

The most evocative sentence endings are frequently constructed as elaborate appositives; they adumbrate the poetry of wealth and possessions. Nick describes in this way Gatsby's romantic excitement as a young army officer when he first views Daisy's house:

There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender, but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year's shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.

(p. 155, emphasis added)

Everything contained in the appositive is suggestive, an elaboration of the mystery that surrounds Daisy, heightened especially by the ephemeral and transient nature of time present. Nick's own sensitivity to the passage of time is revealed in another sentence ending that evokes both the wonder and pathos of the romantic imagination:

At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others—poor young clerks who loitered in front of the windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant meal—young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moment of night and life.

(p. 62, emphasis added)

In these sentence endings is gathered the emotional excitement that accumulates around ambition, money, romantic love, the ripeness of the moment, and the longings and commotion they generate.

The sentence's residual momentum, or surplus, or even exorbitance, can carry across the sentence boundary, producing a variant on the appositional structure: the sentence fragment. Here Nick reflects on Gatsby's statement that Daisy's voice is “full of money” (a statement that might have just as easily thrown things into a more cynical mood):

It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it. … High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl. …

(p. 127, ellipses in original)

The double appositional construction—“the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it” in apposition to “the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it”—here is perhaps itself inexhaustible, endlessly responding to itself: ellipsis points signify the sentence's resistance to closure, suggesting that the sentence (like the dream) has no conclusion, once this particular syntactic resource and these wordings of romance are in play (all of which seem to enable Nick to beg the question raised by the first part of the sentence—the hard fact of Daisy's wealth, a sturdy economic actuality). The abundance of this appositional surplus spills over the receding sentence boundary, its momentum sufficient to begin a new story, in a syntactic fragment, itself partly appositional, that floats free to gesture to romance in its purest form, the fairy tale of the hero striving and attaining, sights set on the transformative goal: “High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl.”12 Such sentence-ending elaborations summon a virtual world of romance and possibility to attend the characters' actions and the plot's episodes, but they reveal at the same time that the myth of culture at work in the narrative is one that affirms a deeply conservative view of America—an ideology of class and property, of racial hierarchy, of women as possessions. In his reflection on Daisy's voice then, and in numerous sentences where a sharp-eyed view of events gives way to the romance of self-propogating invention, we see that Nick is both “repelled” and “enchanted” (p. 40) by Gatsby's America, that his style of speaking registers two views simultaneously.


That way of speaking directs us to the complexities of Fitzgerald's intention and style. In his ironic rendering of Gatsby as romance hero, Nick would appear highly critical of capitalist aspiration, but the language of this ironic narration reveals that he can be as conservative and elitist as the myths he would discredit. The tension between the naive and ironic aspects of the romance mode, between what Nick describes as Gatsby's “appalling sentimentality” (p. 118) and his own “incredulous laughter” (p. 170), would seem to describe the source of the novel's critical element.13 But a careful examination of the language of the text reveals that Nick's irony does not always undercut the American Dream upon which Gatsby's fantastic world is founded; rather it locates Nick with the privileged denizens of the moneyed class and in a position to detach himself and look from a distance on the “foul dust” that gathers in Gatsby's wake.

Nick's ironic stance is most prominent in his representation of others' speech, as he works through the linguistic resources available for such representation, and especially as he does so on those occasions when the domains of romantic possibility and suggestion have turned sour: when he has ventured too far into the actual world occupied by Gatsby and Daisy, when the voices of others rise and collide, when he portrays himself at the afternoon get-together in Myrtle's apartment, or in Meyer Wolfsheim's company, or lingering until the end of one of Gatsby's gaudy parties.

While the wordings of naive romance evoke the ambition of the individual, the hero reconnoitering the boundaries of aspiration and seeking position and recognition within their circumference, an ironic version of the same story deflects the romantic trajectory by making audible the dissonance of the social order. Nick has an ear for these dissonances, the words and accents of daily usage, and the sociohistorical stratifications they embody. He renders these words and accents through a range of means that syntax offers for the expression in a single sentence of many voices at once: through alterations between direct and indirect reported speech; between reported speech and the naming of the speech act; between reported speech and speech simply absorbed into the narrative utterance, detectable only through what Bakhtin calls “intonational quotation marks” (p. 14, and passim). In every instance the sentence offers ways of entertaining the ghosts of other sentences. In its ironic dimension, cultivating the discrepancy between what is said and what is intended, The Great Gatsby renders not the attainment of the individual, nor the collective unity of “the republic” (Gatsby, p. 189), but “all the contradictory multiplicity of an epoch” (Bakhtin, p. 156), language saturated with the conditions of the historical era—“even of the hour” (Bakhtin, p. 263)—and with the rankings and calibrations of the social order: the “multiplicity of social voices and [the] wide variety of their links and interrelationships” (p. 263). Bakhtin observes (especially pp. 68-69, 76, 296) that the novelist's way of incorporating speech artefacts into narrative marks their degrees of solidarity with or distance from the narrator's point of view. In moments when Nick comes into intimate contact with brute matters, he practices speech habits of distancing, and his feeling of superiority and attitude of reserve become apparent in the differentials between the formality of his own words and the words he reports or reproduces. In the following sentence, Nick finds a delicate, arm's-length way of saying that the people in Myrtle's apartment were rapidly getting drunk: “The bottle of whiskey—a second one—was now in constant demand by all present, excepting Catherine, who ‘felt just good on nothing at all’” (p. 39). Some wordings here are Nick's: “a second one” indicates his measure of excess consumption; “in constant demand by all present” converts the loud, indulgent talk of the partyers to a formal register that names that aggregate speech act as demand. Then, in the same sentence, words appear that are not Nick's at all, and are isolated by quotation marks: Catherine “‘felt just as good on nothing at all.’” This construction tells us more than just that Catherine does not drink. As artefacts, her words come with “conditions attached” (Bakhtin, p. 75); they are words that have been attracted, as Bakhtin says, into the “orbits of certain social groups” (p. 290); words that are the alien language, their alien status being, as Bakhtin also says (pp. 278, 287), what produces art that is not “poetic” (or lyrical), but novelistic. Nick's way of handling Catherine's words, exposing them as artefacts of a lower social class, as not his way of speaking, executes his social distance from the figures he is closeted with, asserts his attitude of superiority.

As the paragraph continues, Nick reports on the partyers' plans for a meal “Tom rang for the janitor and sent him for some celebrated sandwiches that were a complete supper in themselves” (pp. 39-40)—and similarly manipulates the distance between himself and the cohort of drinkers. He tells us that the sandwiches are “celebrated”; the term at once represents a flow of talk about the sandwiches and concentrates it into a speech act the name of which comes, ironically, from a register more formal than that from which the talk itself issued. (The ironic discrepancy in speech registers could be seen as projected into the setting itself, for Tom's mistress's cramped apartment contains furniture “tapestried” with “scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles” [p. 33].) But the relative clause that concludes the sentence appropriates the original register by identifying the sandwiches as a “complete supper in themselves,” and giving a more commonplace account of the sandwiches and their advocates. In these two sentences, the narrative voice traverses the social order. Nick's formal wordings elevate him above what is a sordid scene—a drunken, adulterous, and eventually violent afternoon—while his appropriation of the language indigenous to the locale, to the eating, drinking and sexual behaviors of “certain social groups” in New York in the 1920s, imprints that alien experience in his own sentences.

Nick finds himself in such circumstances again at the end of one of Gatsby's parties. Then he calls the drunkenness a “reluctance to go home” (p. 56). Translating local arguments, he describes the evening as “rent assunder by dissension” (emphasis added), and the complaining of the women in raised voices as “sympathizing with each other” (emphasis added), in each case containing disorderly speech in elevated names of speech acts. There follows a passage whereby Nick allows us to hear the women directly, just as he previously allowed us to hear words directly from Catherine's mouth:

“Whenever he sees I'm having a good time he wants to go home.”

“Never heard anything so selfish in my life.”

“We're always the first ones to leave.”

(p. 56)

Nick gives the gist of their conversation in a form of indirect reported speech as “the wives' agreement that such malevolence was beyond credibility” (p. 57). By abstracting the women's speech and introducing it in the context of Nick's abstract, educated and literary14 speech, the narrative schematizes the ironic discrepancy between the word and its setting. From the social information concentrated in the women's direct speech, we know that they are not the kind of people who would say: “I am reluctant to go home”; “I sympathize with you”; “this malevolence is beyond credibility.” Nick is the kind of person who talks this way, and, doing so, he reserves his advantage, imposing another speech stratum on the sociolect of others, but still leaving that sociolect to show through.

When the evening deteriorates into total confusion and disorder and Nick joins the crowd around the car wreck, he similarly distances himself with ironic wordings: “The sharp jut of a wall accounted for the detachment of the wheel which was now getting considerable attention from half a dozen curious chauffeurs” (p. 58). Now the ironic wordings achieve a conspicuous effect that perhaps has been immanent all along—an effect of high politeness. Buried in this formal statement is an account of drunk driving—somebody drove into a wall. But the formality politely suppresses agency, and very elaborately, at the cost of some linguistic effort expended to assign active-voice subject position to a non-agent (“jut of a wall”) and to nominalize the only trace of the event itself (detach > “detachment”), and thus eliminate the grammatical necessity of a doer of the action.15 The high politeness—distancing and ironic—of this account of drunk driving is later supported by Nick's specialty, indirect speech reporting gist, the gist emanating from the speech of a social class distinct from the class of people excited by the accident. “At least half a dozen men, some of them little better off than he was, explained to [the driver] that wheel and car were no longer joined by any physical bond” (p. 60). We know that men who were “little better off” than the driver would not say “wheel and car [are] no longer joined by any physical bond.” This refined gist measures the long social distance that separates Nick from the scene in which he is involved.

Especially at moments like this, when the world of romance has left him stranded in ugly confusion, Nick works most rigorously on capturing and transforming the speech of others. In so doing he asserts his social distance and superiority not only from working class people like the contemptuous butler (p. 119) or the maid that spits (p. 94), but from the fashionable society of party-goers that collect around Gatsby. By their names they are identified as the nouveau-riche and he stands with Gatsby, apart from them, at a distance. But at these moments, the heteroglot voices of a turbulent, unceasingly transient, contradictory social order persist in his ears. Rumor and reputation resound; notoriety and slander amplify the publicity of the newsstands; medleys of popular lyrics play over and over, and even sandwiches are “celebrated.” Speech seethes with forces that Nick most acutely reports by naming a pathological speech act that echoes compulsively:

There was the boom of a bass drum, and the voice of the orchestra leader rang out suddenly above the echolalia of the garden.

(p. 54, emphasis added)

The utterance of the age—echolalia, dense with the disturbed sound of the historical moment—this is what Nick flees from at the end of the novel, the El Greco nightmare of history,16 not the romantic dream of the king's daughter, “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (p. 157). In turn we too are invited—again by the style—to make a judgment, to see Nick from a distance, recognizing the political limits of his elitist stance while valuing his capacity to see and hear, and to report on the world around him, with such acuity.


Thus far we have examined the elaborate sentence endings which poeticize Gatsby's dream—the American myth of belonging through wealth—and we have considered Nick's ironic voice, the conservative, restraining expressions that reveal his disapproving fastidiousness and sometimes superior attitude. But beyond the voices of his social habitat, and even his refined, ironic translations of them, Nick attends to another order of experience, one that is stable, profound, original, timeless. When Nick tells his story he has returned home to the Middle West where he “wants the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (p. 6). In this light of return we shall consider yet another feature of style that complicates our estimate of Nick and his judgment of the world around him.

At the beginning of his story, Nick tells us of his unusually close relationship to his father and conveys a certain pride in the Carraway clan, said to be “descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch” (p. 7). He also turns over in his mind a piece of advice from his father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone … remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had” (p. 5). Nick amplifies this counsel in a snobbish generalization, claiming that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth” (p. 6). Mr. Carraway's homily, his word of caution, has made a strong impression on his son. And it seems that it is the form as much as the content of the homily that impresses Nick, for, although his amplification somewhat distorts his father's intention, his speech habits can often exactly preserve the voice of the father. Despite his relative youth and his taste for partying, Nick makes a number of similar generalizations about life:

There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.

(p. 131)

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

(p. 101)

There [is] no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well.

(p. 131)

In linguistic terms such statements are maxims, that is, proverbial generalizations about human nature and human experience drawn from long reflection on the order of things. Occasionally they occur in The Great Gatsby as independent propositions, but more frequently they are imbedded in longer sentences, sometimes compressed into referring expressions as when Nick says that he is going to become “that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded’ man.” Insisting on the wisdom of this paradoxical observation, he continues to generalize, adding: “This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all” (pp. 8-9). Such statements and expressions are not only general in reference (“most,” “a man,” “life”), they have no specific time reference, their truth being neither particular nor contingent. They are somehow above, or beside, the narrative order of events and establish in the text the speaker's recourse to an order of permanent values beyond the resounding echolalia and even its ironic representation.

Maxims also convey a speaker's claim to knowledge, his or her access to established authority and steady truths, and recognizing this, Aristotle said that while maxims were an effective tool for orators, young speakers should not use them.17 Aristotle's advice acknowledges an incompatibility between lack of experience and wise sayings, yet Nick is very prone to thinking in maxims, despite his youth and his resolve to stay all judgments. Their incongruence draws our attention to that very divided nature of the novel's narrator who on the one hand is a heedless party-goer, imagining glamorous encounters with women in darkened doorways, but on the other hand is an apprentice in the banking and bond business and a judicious observer of human behavior. Nick describes this doubleness when he says of himself at the squalid party in Myrtle Wilson's apartment: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (p. 40). The voice of the maxim, grounded in paternal authority and wisdom, is a regulating device for Nick—solemn, stable, even magisterial—negotiating the extravagance and moral confusion of West Egg and New York, those “riotous excursions” to which he is so irresistibly drawn. For example, when trying to understand Jordan Baker's behavior early in their relationship, Nick observes that “most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don't in the beginning” (p. 962). And reflecting on the rumor that she has cheated in a major golf tournament, he makes the sexist claim that “Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply” (p. 63). Nick most often speaks in this voice when under pressure; he says “I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (pp. 63-64). The posture of the maxims, distributed in the text beyond particular sentences and situations, signals for the reader something regressive in Nick's character, which in turn is at work in the shaping of his narrative.

An examination of style in The Great Gatsby reveals strata of social and political attitudes so complex that we are perhaps no longer surprised that on the one hand Nick satirizes Tom Buchanan and his class by having him quote admiringly from the racist writer, Lothrop Stoddard (“‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard” gives “scientific” evidence that “Civilization's going to pieces,” says Tom [p. 17]), while on the other hand, in the novel's famous last scene, Nick tells us in romantic wordings of a Long Island that flowered once for Dutch sailor's eyes—“a fresh, green breast of the new world” (p. 189)—a pastoral and Nordic vision of America's origins that echoes directly Stoddard's ideal. Such contradictions or conflicting motivations are grounds for the interpretive perplexities that Nick's story arouses. While readers have long recognized that Nick is critical of the American scenes he describes, the focus and extent of his criticism continue to confound, as readers estimate Nick's position in the social configurations of the age: where has Fitzgerald located him? Where do Nick's interests lie?

Even as Nick's story defies the romance of wealth and status, and shows its sordid actuality, that core myth of American culture still excites a stylistic homage that sympathizes with Gatsby's aspirations. Nick can imagine the American romance; he recognizes its compelling song—a naive theme of folk consciousness, at once vulnerable and resistant to criticism. Nick's own career is not motivated by this theme—but he can hear its allure and entertain its enchantments.

Were this the sum of the novel's stylistic resources—exposé balanced by fascination—we might read Nick as a disinterested observer, sensitive to both the decadence of the age and its heady momentum, allowing each their weight. But another salient feature of his story-telling voice—his ironic representation of others' voices—begins to situate his interests, and thereby limit the scope of his critical vision. The dialogic ironies of speech locate Nick in a socially elevated position, this trick of rank or hierarchy deriving from his acute sense of social differentials—conditions that make it impossible for the naive (or folk) hero to ever really transform himself, for he will always bear the marks of his humble origins. This order of social observation secures an elite point of view, and indemnifies privileged interests.

Invoking an appreciation of social rank, these ironic gestures complicate the critical attitude of the narrative. But they might only hint at some confusion of critical intent—were it not for the voice of maxim and authority that pervades the narrative. While this voice could seem innocent or disinterested—it consults timeless principles to evaluate people's behavior—Fitzgerald shows, in his arrangements for Nick's story-telling, that this sober voice itself issues from an identifiable position in the social-order: Nick's well-placed family. Near the myth of rags-to-riches and the self-made man, endlessly replicating itself in the material imagination, there is another myth—equally conservative but more covert: the myth of a distinguished class aloof from the strivings of the marketplace, its own “rags” phase long forgotten and its riches converted to moral authority. As Fitzgerald represents it, Nick's position in the social order is not one from which visions of reform are likely to develop. In fact, social change is clearly problematic from this point of view—where change incurs consternation, and where there is more of an inclination towards restoration than towards reform.

These circumstances are embodied in Nick's voice; it is Nick's voice that reveals complications of interest that are perhaps inherent in certain traditions of American cultural criticism. In other words, style in The Great Gatsby is not a motionless, unitary condition, or object of afterthought, but is substance itself, incessantly shifting, forming, and engendering the novel's political and psychological complexity.


  1. Ross Posnock's “‘New World, Material Without Being Real’: Fitzgerald's Critique of Capitalism in The Great Gatsby,” in Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald'sThe Great Gatsby,” ed. Scott Donaldson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), pp. 201-13.

  2. Judith Fetterley, The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978).

  3. Edward Wasiolek, “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby,” The International Fiction Review 19 (1992): 14-22. Wasiolek extends the examination of Nick's sexual ambiguiousness that was initiated by Keath Fraser in “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby,English Studies in Canada 5 (1979): 330-43.

  4. Gregory S. Jay, America the Scrivener: Deconstruction and the Subject of Literary History (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990).

  5. Commentaries on Fitzgerald's style have so far offered only general impressions on the subject, the most recent and worthwhile being George Garrett's essay, “Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby,” ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 101-16. This essay is a response to Jackson R. Bryer's call for a focus on “the small units” of style in Fitzgerald's writing (pp. 127-28). See Bryer's “Style as Meaning in The Great Gatsby: Notes Towards a New Approach,” in Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald's “The Great Gatsby”, ed. Scott Donaldson (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984), pp. 117-29.

  6. Stanley E. Fish, “What is stylistics and why are they saying such terrible things about it?”, in Essays on Modern Stylistics, ed. Donald C. Freeman (New York: Methuen, 1981), pp. 53-78.

  7. Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”, in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 32-50.

  8. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Macmillan, 1991). All citations from the novel are taken from this authorized text.

  9. In his study of the romantic hero, Joseph Campbell describes the hero's journey taking place in a world of “unfamiliar yet strangely intimate forces” wherein he must pass a series of tests before being reborn. See Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949), p. 245. (There is a thoroughgoing, if somewhat slavish, application of Campbell's description of romance to The Great Gatsby in Neila Seshachari's “The Great Gatsby: Apogee of Fitzgerald's Mythopoeia” in Donaldson, pp. 96-107). Northrop Frye characterizes this unfamiliar realm specifically as a dream world. See Frye's The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 102. The insistence on a romantic dream state is inscribed everywhere in the text: Nick, for example, describes Gatsby's love for Daisy as driven by “the colossal vitality of his ‘illusions’” and his death as a “high price for living too long with a single dream” (p. 169, emphasis added).

  10. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981).

  11. Foucault, p. 41.

  12. These suggestions carried in sentence endings have inspired one critic to write: “The memories of legend and fairy tale that permeate the book lift The Great Gatsby out of time and place as if the novel were a story celebrated for ages in song, folklore, and literature, a story deeply rooted in the psyche of the western world.” See John Kuehl, “Scott Fitzgerald: Romantic and Realist,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 1 (1959): 413.

  13. In some ironic versions of romance, what is audible in the language is the clash of warring philosophical assumptions that underpin the social order. Conrad's Heart of Darkness provides a striking example. At the center of that text is the story of Kurtz's self-invention in terms of Victorian philanthropy, his self-fashioning as “an emissary of pity, and science, and progress” dedicated to “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.” But Marlow's ironic account of Kurtz's quest brings into play the language of another point of view that interrogates the assumptions and purposes of imperialist cultures and exposes beacons of progress to be “whited sepulchres.”

  14. Here we use “literary” in the sense that is developed in Bakhtin and Pierre Bourdieu (Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991]), and less specifically in Tony Crowley (Standard English and the Politics of Language [Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1989]), that indicates forms of expression genealogically tied to formal written texts, to studied, “respectable” and prestigious utterance, in contrast to oral and often stigmatized vernaculars situated in everyday occasions. One conspicuous sign of literariness is Nick's characteristic use of words from a very sophisticated part of the lexicon: “meretricious,” “adventitious,” “peremptory,” “vinous,” “echolalia,” etc.

  15. In English, suppressed agency is a common resource of politeness. For example, out of respect for and deference to a distinguished but clumsy dinner guest, one could report to a server that “some wine has been spilled.” Brown and Levinson's classic and comprehensive account of politeness (“Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena,” in Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978]) explains phenomena such as agentless expressions as part of larger sociolinguistic systems devoted to mitigating face-threatening acts. According to this kind of analysis, Nick's suppression of agency in a situation embarrassing to the unidentified driver is as an expression of respect a face-saving strategy. But, since Nick clearly does not estimate Gatsby's guests as deserving respect or deference, we must take another step, and recognize his politeness as ironic. Moreover, analyses of politeness such as Bourdieu's (1991) reveal politeness as the enactment not only of deference but also of domination, social superiority, and ranked distance between speaker and addressee. (So agentlessness can often serve a dominant speaker's execution of a directive speech act, as in “The door has been left open.”)

  16. For a comprehensive description of the “historical moment” in which the novel was written, see Ronald Berman's The Great Gatsby and Modern Times (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994).

  17. Aristotle describes the use of maxims as “suited to speakers of mature years, and to arguments on matters in which one is experienced. In a young man, uttering maxims is—like telling stories—unbecoming; and to use them in a realm where one lacks experience is stupid and boorish.” See Aristotle, The Rhetoric, trans. Lane Cooper (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1960), p. 152.

Jeffrey Hart (essay date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Hart, Jeffrey. “Fitzgerald and Hemingway in 1925-1926.” Sewanee Review 105 (summer 1997): 369-80.

[In the following essay, Hart examines the rivalry between Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, with specific reference to The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.]

My argument can be put briefly. Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises (1926) as a direct rejoinder to The Great Gatsby (1925): he created it as an aggressive defense of his own style against Fitzgerald's—and, derivatively, of his own view of reality. With The Sun Also Rises he declared almost open war against a rival whom he suddenly saw as formidable far beyond his expectations. Until Gatsby appeared, Hemingway had considered Fitzgerald merely a popular writer and, as a rival, a pushover.

The title The Sun Also Rises engages in a hostile way one of Fitzgerald's most prominent recurrent images in Gatsby, the romantic moon. Hemingway means to assert that the Sun, not the Moon, the earth, not the sky, constitute the essential truth of experience. This sun-moon argument includes the obvious idea that the sun stands at the center of the actual solar system while the moon merely reflects the sun—thus defining his relation to Fitzgerald. This is to say that the sun represents the major tradition in literature, the romantic moon merely reflects a subordinate one. In The Sun Also Rises Hemingway relentlessly pressed his war against Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald and Hemingway both published major works in 1925. The Great Gatsby was released in April. Then In Our Time appeared in October. When Hemingway forged In Our Time, partly out of earlier material, he had every reason to think it a strong enough book despite its provenance and form to move him past Fitzgerald in the literary standings. And Hemingway, as we know, thought in such terms.

Fitzgerald had emerged suddenly in 1920 with This Side of Paradise, and his early success was part of his legend. He then wrote short stories, some of them excellent, and then finished his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922). The stories were reprinted in two collections, Flappers and Philosophers and Tales of the Jazz Age. Fitzgerald, who was earning large sums of money from magazine publication, had a wide audience.

Hemingway played tortoise to Fitzgerald's hare. After the war he worked as a journalist and experimented with a new way of writing, also frequenting avant-garde circles in Paris. He published, almost secretly, two privately printed pamphlets, Three Stories and Ten Poems (July 1923; 300 copies) and then in our time (January 1924; 170 copies).

This minimal publication did attract enough attention in avant-garde circles for Edmund Wilson to review the two pamphlets in the influential Dial magazine of October 1924, and he did so with special attention to Hemingway's style, which he called “a limpid shaft into deep waters,” a strikingly apt description of what Hemingway was trying to achieve, Two of the three stories in the first pamphlet and the brief vignettes that constituted the second pamphlet came forward into In Our Time in 1925.

Working slowly and with great discipline at his craft, Hemingway would have been justified in thinking that the 1925 edition of In Our Time was far superior to anything Fitzgerald thus far had written. In Our Time is a powerful work, not quite a novel but much more than a collection of stories; and it has multiple interconnections with Eliot's Waste Land (1922). To use Hemingway's lingo, this book should have knocked Fitzgerald out of the ring. Meanwhile Fitzgerald was generously promoting Hemingway as a writer and reviewed In Our Time with astute praise in the Bookman for May 1926.

In October 1925, when In Our Time appeared, Hemingway was no longer competing with the early works of Fitzgerald. He was competing with The Great Gatsby, another matter altogether. As Hemingway—like everyone else—surely noticed, Gatsby was an enormous advance over everything else Fitzgerald had written. Eliot, who is present in Gatsby in many ways, wrote that it “seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

During that famous summer of 1925 Hemingway made his trip to Pamplona and then wrote The Sun Also Rises with what was, compared to his usual practice, great speed. He wrote it with Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby much on his mind. His rapid composition may indicate anger and denied ambition; it surely indicates his mastery of his own style and ability to manage a longer form. Under Fitzgerald's sponsorship, Hemingway had broken with Boni and Liveright and moved to Charles Scribner's Sons and Maxwell Perkins. The Sun Also Rises appeared in October 1926.

In many obvious ways this novel is full of rage directed at Fitzgerald, who had shown nothing but goodwill and generosity toward Hemingway.

In The Sun Also Rises Robert Cohn, like Fitzgerald, has gone to Princeton—then a citadel of the WASP aristocracy. Cohn is a Jew, Fitzgerald a Catholic, and thus comparable outsiders at Princeton. Cohn's Jewishness can be read as a denigrating comment on Fitzgerald's Catholicness. Cohn tries unsuccessfully to be a gentleman, another comment directed at Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who was a hero-worshipper and who idolized Princeton athletes, was himself a failed football player. Cohn has had his Jewish nose flattened in the ring and thus “improved.”

Cohn (read Fitzgerald) is a romantic and a bad novelist. His failure as a writer is owing to his romanticism and bad taste. He admires bad novels (The Purple Land) while Jake Barnes (Hemingway) knows that Turgenev has the right stuff.

Throughout the novel Cohn displays atrocious manners. Like Fitzgerald he is a sloppy drunk. He talks too much, is bad with women, and women despise him. He is “unrealistic” about women. That this was Hemingway's opinion of Fitzgerald is abundantly demonstrated in A Moveable Feast, as in the notorious chapter “A Matter of Measurements.”

Hemingway had been befriended and promoted by Sherwood Anderson. In The Torrents of Spring (1925) he had launched a devastating attack on Anderson. The Sun Also Rises represents another such attack, this time against Fitzgerald, a much more formidable opponent.

Hemingway's attack is not only personal but also stylistic and moral. He would have framed it as moral realism versus romantic illusion.

Fitzgerald's central achievement as a writer is to use all the resources of language to capture the magnificence of the moment. In This Side of Paradise, he writes on the first page: “Beatrice Blaine! There was a woman!” But having said that, the very young writer must come through to show that this is so. Throughout this flawed early novel, the young writer sets himself such celebratory dares and must rise to the proof, often moving into prose poetry. Fitzgerald's prose wants to move toward and even into celebratory song.

Hemingway's prose, as the emotions it deals with grow more and more intense, moves toward total silence. At the end of The Sun Also Rises words fail:

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

“Yes,” I said. “Isn't it pretty to think so.”

Prose arias about Princeton, Dutch sailors, and the Riviera could not possibly live in that stylistic environment.

Gatsby provides a bravura demonstration of Fitzgerald's style and moral vision. It begins with a soggy bromide from Nick's father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had.” Nick apparently thinks so highly of this verbal legacy that he treasures it. Indeed he is rather bromidic himself as we follow him through the wild events of the story. But his gift for cliché is challenged by what happens around him, and his capacity for eloquence finally issues forth in his last great song about the Dutch sailors, the virgin American continent, and history.

No doubt what provokes this eloquence in Nick is his total experience during that strange, even visionary summer of 1922; but its most immediate source is Jay Gatsby himself. He speaks seldom, but when he does his lines are startling: “Her voice was full of money”; “Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can”; he declares also that Daisy's love for Tom Buchanan was merely “personal.” At such moments Gatsby presses weirdly, magically, against ordinary expectations, even as does his half-crazy project of returning to 1917.

That Gatsby is a prince of language and can pass this power on to his demi-disciple Nick is a comment on Fitzgerald's own style. This aspect is hardly ever discussed by critics, but it is the essence of the Fitzgerald performance. He too is able to go off the charts, in scene as well as in phrase, perform in an almost crazy way, writing something zany that is also perfect, as he does, for example, in the scene in which the wheel comes off the car and the drunk can only suggest, “Put her in reverse,” and “No harm in trying”; or the scene in Nick's cottage before the appearance of Daisy, when Gatsby's head tilts back the clock on the mantle and almost causes it to fall; or the old timetable on which Nick wrote the now-graying names of Gatsby's remarkable guests “that summer.” Such brilliant zaniness often occurs in Fitzgerald in the smaller scale of a sentence:

The snow of twenty-nine wasn't real snow. If you didn't want it to be snow, you just paid some money.

“That's nothing at all. My father has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”

“Eatin' green peach. 'Spect to die any minute.”

There was something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God.

And dozens more. Often a single such touch redeems an otherwise mediocre magazine story. They are so striking that they gave rise to the suspicion that Fitzgerald thought of them when he was half in the bag. That his style can press up to the edges of sanity and maybe beyond Fitzgerald acknowledges in his great story “Absolution” when he gives us in Father Schwartz a visionary stylist who has slipped over the line: “Well, go and see an amusement park. … It's a thing like a fair, only more glittering. Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place—under dark trees. … It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon—like a big yellow lantern on a pole.”

Nick Carraway moves from the banalities of his father into the magical world of Gatsby and his language. This central characteristic of Fitzgerald's style is Keatsian and, behind that, Shakespearian. Throughout Hamlet the prince says all those remarkable things while his friend Horatio remains a steady but pedestrian Senecan stoic out of Wittenberg University. But, with the death of the prince, Shakespeare gives Horatio some of the best lines in the play, far beyond anything he could articulate earlier. It is a conversion: “Goodnight, sweet prince, / May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” So much for the Senecan stoic.

Keats, it is hardly necessary to argue, was a poet of great importance to Fitzgerald, and in The Great Gatsby the nightingale's song is heard only in a Keatsian moonlight.

Reading Gatsby in the spring of 1925, Hemingway could not have missed the large thematic role played by the moon, sailing into that novel from folklore, romantic tradition, and most immediately from Keats's Endymion. Gatsby himself, it has often been pointed out, seems weakened in the daylight scenes but lives much more powerfully after dark; and throughout the action he is associated with moonlight at especially important moments.

In Endymion the hero falls in love with Cynthia the moon goddess, and this poem has not only thematic resemblances to Gatsby but narrative parallels as well. The moon illumines the poem as much as it does Fitzgerald's novel.

And lo! from opening clouds, I saw emerge
The loveliest moon, that ever silver'd o'er
A shell for Neptune's goblet; she did soar
So passionately bright, my dazzled soul
Commingling with her argent spheres did roll
Through clear and cloudy, even when she went
At last into a dark and vapoury tent—

When Endymion at last meets the moon goddess, she somehow brings the spirit of the moon with her to the bottom of a well as if to protect it from the violations of daylight:

                                        When, behold!
A wonder fair as any I have told—
The same bright face I tasted in my sleep,
Smiling in the clear well. My heart did leap
Through the cool depth.

The moon is as important in Gatsby as it is in Endymion, which Fitzgerald probably could recite from memory. The Gatsbian moon first appears in that remarkable sentence when Nick first glimpses Jay Gatsby: “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night. … The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor's mansion, and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars.”

Gatsby, as the first chapter ends, has “stretched out his arms” toward the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. At the end of This Side of Paradise, the last time we see Amory Blaine, he is under the stars, stretching out his arms toward them and toward Princeton. The similarity of the postures is striking; and in his essay “Princeton” (1927) Fitzgerald wrote about his university in lyrical and ideal terms that could easily express the emotions of Gatsby in the scene just described.

One of Gatsby's parties ends with that amazing scene in which a wheel is broken off a car driven by the drunken driver. This is a parodic version of Gatsby himself. At the same time Gatsby is bidding farewell to his multitude of guests: “A wafer of a moon was shining over Gatsby's house, making the night fine as before, and surviving the laughter and the sound of his still glowing garden. A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.”

In the flashback to Gatsby's boyhood in chapter 6, we learn that Jay Gatsby was born out of James Gatz under the light of the moon: “A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the wash-stand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies.” That clock ticking on the washstand recalls the clock alluded to earlier.

The moon appears again in chapter 6, but this time as a “pale, thin ray of moonlight” over one of Gatsby's parties, as Nick and Daisy stand watching a movie director slowly kiss the cheek of his star actress. The scene is a pale version of genuine romance.

Five years earlier, in 1917, when Lt. Gatsby was in love with Daisy in Louisville, “they had been walking down a street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other.” There we have the “moment,” with the moon turning the sidewalk white. The leaves are falling, but the lovers are oblivious of time.

The Gatsbian moon is much more than the conventional moon of romance, and its full significance becomes clear only after Gatsby himself is dead in his swimming pool and is wreathed by the fallen leaves of autumn. Nick returns, perhaps for the last time, to the North Shore of Long Island and thinks about Gatsby. Absolutely everything in this coda is important. Nick notices “on the white steps, an obscene word scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick.” Nick erases the word. (J. D. Salinger after World War II could print that but had Holden Caulfield erase it.) Then Nick wanders down to the shore and reflects: “Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until I gradually became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes.” Given the extensive preparation for this, the phrase as the moon rose higher is inevitable. The phrase flowered once reaches back to Daisy, Myrtle, the Carraways, and much else. But, though Jay Gatsby is dead, his moon still rises; and now Nick, no longer the child of his banal father, commences his own nightingale's song under the moon in this unexpected bravura aria.

That he is the “son” now of Gatsby is indicated by his inclusive “we” when he says that “tomorrow we … will stretch out our arms farther.” When he had first glimpsed him, Gatsby was stretching out his own arms toward Daisy's green light, and at that point Gatsby was the son of Amory Blaine, who had stretched out his arms toward Princeton. For all the irony with which he surrounds the words “we … will stretch out our arms farther” at the end of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald will not give it up. It is of the essence, and it informs his style, which itself is always stretching beyond, with Fitzgerald's taking risks Hemingway could not imagine.

What we are to understand, as that moon rises over Long Island at the end of Gatsby, is that this end is not the end. The moon of imagination that transformed James Gatz into Jay Gatsby will continue to rise everlastingly, the imagination transforming things for better or worse according to its own quality. This is Fitzgerald's “answer” to Eliot's Waste Land, which he had written into this book as the Valley of Ashes and which he calls the “waste land.” As against Eliot, Fitzgerald says that this moon, rising in the night sky, is a permanent force, not a force for romantic illusion. Though Gatsby mistakenly worshipped his Daisy, Fitzgerald wrote in Gatsby that the moon is the power of the transforming imagination.

Fitzgerald probably would not have been surprised by the prophetic grasp of The Great Gatsby as the transforming imagination did indeed transform the Valley of Ashes, known as Flushing Meadow. Jay Gatsby was a product of money and imagination. The New York World's Fair of 1939 and 1940 arose out of the Valley of Ashes, a landfill, as a triumph of money and imagination, its Trylon and Perisphere, designed by Wallace Harrison and André Fouilhoux, a culmination of the modernist movement in architecture and an emblem of transcendent optimism. Today, with the great fair gone, the Valley of Ashes has been once again transmogrified into the National Tennis Center, named after Louis Armstrong, a jazz musician who had no interest in tennis. Fitzgerald would have understood these startling changes completely.

Hemingway first met Fitzgerald at the Dingo Bar in the rue Delambre, Paris, in late April or early July 1925. The meeting occurred after the publication of Gatsby but before the publication of In Our Time. It seems probable that Hemingway had read Gatsby by the time of the meeting. However that may be, Hemingway's account of the meeting in A Moveable Feast is venomous at Fitzgerald's expense.

During the next summer Hemingway made his trip to Pamplona, gathering the material that would go into The Sun Also Rises. He completed the novel rapidly, and delivered the typescript to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's in February 1926.

Then an episode occurred that must have been excruciating for Hemingway. By the spring of 1926 The Sun Also Rises was going into galley proof at Scribner's. Hemingway and his wife, Hadley, visited the Fitzgeralds at Juan-les-pins on the Riviera. The Fitzgeralds did not like their place, the Villa Paquita, and turned it over to the Hemingways. Fitzgerald read a carbon copy of the typescript of The Sun Also Rises, and he wrote Hemingway a long and surgically professional memorandum on the faults of the novel, which by then was in galleys in New York. Hemingway must have been appalled, but he swallowed his pride and made the changes Fitzgerald recommended, including the major cut of about the first twenty pages of the typescript, which dealt at length with Cohn. In New York the galleys had to be reworked to incorporate the changes. “I can't imagine,” Fitzgerald wrote, “how you could have done these first 20 pps. so casually. You can't play with peoples attention.”

Both the title of the novel and the epigraph from which it comes are puzzling in relation to the novel. The quotation from Ecclesiastes is about the everlastingness of the earth, which, Hemingway said, is the subject of the novel. But this is only partly true, if at all true. The novel is about ragged and painful human relationships; about transitoriness, love, and suffering; and about the courage of endurance and silence in the face of overwhelming emotion. The original title of the novel was Fiesta, which, with suitably ironic overtones, does seem more appropriate than the eventual title. Why Hemingway changed the title we cannot know. The one we have, however, may glance obliquely at The Great Gatsby, as if to say that, well, if the moon of imagination rises there, the sun of realism will rise here. The title can be seen as an assertion of moral realism (Hemingway) as against the supposed illusions of romance (Fitzgerald). We may think that as the moon rose over Gatsby's Long Island the sun will now rise triumphantly over Hemingway's Spain and in the mind of Jake.

Was there a winner in this contest that Hemingway imagined? The moon of transforming imagination did rise over Fitzgerald's Valley of Ashes, and constituted Fitzgerald's oblique answer to Eliot's Waste Land; but Hemingway has his own answer to Eliot. Jake Barnes is a wounded Fisher King, but there is no Grail in his blighted kingdom. With his Old Testament name, Jacob, and his residual dried-up Catholicism, and his sexual wound, Jake cannot unite himself with the pagan Brett. The old Christian-pagan Western synthesis has been shattered, and though Jake tries to pray, he cannot heal the wound in his own heart and in the heart of Western civilization. Still he does fish in that cool stream near the monastery of Roncesvalles (he cannot reach the Chapel Perilous); he does sustain the stoic code of the soldier, and he knows the power of silence. Unlike Cohn, Jake is a gentleman. He is a wounded and emotionally shattered veteran, but also a reconstructed Western man.

Furthermore Hemingway asserted his Lady Brett against Fitzgerald's Golden Girls, and she more than held her own. Such figures as Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Edwin R. Murrow, and many other post-1920s figures would be unthinkable without Hemingway, as would the hard-bitten journalism of World War II.

After 1926 Hemingway long remained a master of the short story and wrote one more novel at the peak of his powers, A Farewell to Arms (1929). As a world figure Hemingway rose like the sun during the 1930s, becoming a modern Byron and a media star. Despite the gorgeous ruin of Tender Is the Night and whatever we make of the fragments of his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald never achieved again the near-perfection of Gatsby.

Hemingway seemed to forget about the power of silence, compression, and deep suggestion, becoming more and more prolix until—despite a few brilliant recoveries—he managed to achieve the verbal elephantiasis of the manuscript of The Garden of Eden. During the 1930s he continued his war against Fitzgerald, insulting him in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” often wise-cracking about him as a writer who had passed from adolescence to senility without ever becoming an adult, and taking some nasty shots at him from the grave in A Moveable Feast.

And yet, in 1926, who won? In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald had written an even stronger novel than The Sun Also Rises. He even had improved The Sun Also Rises with his last-minute and immensely important corrections. When Hemingway first read The Great Gatsby early in 1925, he may well have sensed that what Fitzgerald was doing was beyond him and been furious. Then he published The Sun Also Rises and proved Fitzgerald's achievement was beyond him.

Bert Bender (essay date December 1998)

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SOURCE: Bender, Bert. “‘His Mind Aglow’: The Biological Undercurrent in Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Other Works.” Journal of American Studies 32, no. 3 (December 1998): 399-420.

[In the following essay, Bender discusses the influence of theories of evolutionary biology—including eugenics, ideas of accident and heredity, and Darwin's notions of sexual selection—on Gatsby and other Fitzgerald works.]

They talked until three, from biology to organized religion, and when Amory crept shivering into bed it was with his mind aglow …

(Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)

Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's early work might recall that in those years just before the Scopes trial he wrote of Victorians who “shuddered when they found what Mr. Darwin was about”; or that he joined in the fashionable comic attacks on people who could not accept their “most animal existence,” describing one such character as “a hairless ape with two dozen tricks.”1 But few would guess the extent to which his interest in evolutionary biology shaped his work. He was particularly concerned with three interrelated biological problems: (1) the question of eugenics as a possible solution to civilization's many ills, (2) the linked principles of accident and heredity (as he understood these through the lens of Ernst Haeckel's biogenetic law), and (3) the revolutionary theory of sexual selection that Darwin had presented in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). As I hope to show in the following pages, his concern with these issues underlies such well-known features in the Fitzgerald landscape as his insecurity in the “social hierarchy” (his sense of its “terrifying fluidity”), his emphasis on the element of time, his interest in “the musk of money,” his interest in Spengler and the naturalists, and his negative portraiture of male violence.2 The principles of eugenics, accidental heredity, and sexual selection flow together as the prevailing undercurrent in most of Fitzgerald's work before and after The Great Gatsby, producing more anxiety than love from the tangled courtships of characters he deemed both beautiful and damned.


By his second year at Princeton (in 1914), before he began to read the naturalists, Fitzgerald had taken in enough of the evolutionary view of life to see its relevance to the most fascinating subject for any youth of eighteen—sex. In “Love or Eugenics” he playfully wondered whether young men are most attracted by women of vigorous stock, with “plenty of muscle, / And Avoirdupois to spare,” or by modern flappers who know the value of “good cosmetics.”3 But Fitzgerald grew a good deal more serious about the biology of sex before he left Princeton in 1917. In the scene from This Side of Paradise in which Amory and his friend Burne Holiday talked about biology until Amory's mind was “aglow,” the two came naturally to the question that gave eugenics its pressing relevance, the idea that “The light-haired man is a higher type,” as Burne puts it (128). When Burne (patterned on Fitzgerald's friend Henry Slater) “voluntarily attended graduate lectures in philosophy and biology” (131), he might have heard Princeton's famous Professor of Biology, Edwin G. Conklin, lecture on phylogeny (with attention to Darwin and sexual selection) and ontogeny (with emphasis on Conklin's particular interest in eugenics). Conklin published a detailed outline for the course in General Biology (Laboratory Directions in General Biology), and ended the section on ontogeny with this note: “All members of the class are invited, but not required, to fill out a Family Record blank, giving details of their own heredity for the use of the Committee on Eugenics.”4

Even if Fitzgerald or Burne/Slater never read this invitation, it is clear from This Side of Paradise that the subject was quite palpably in the air at Princeton, no doubt heightening what Fitzgerald's biographers have described as his insecurity in the social hierarchy. Indeed, Fitzgerald was so attuned to the subject of eugenics and heredity that he included a further brief, playful scene in his next novel: a young man accused of being an “intellectual faker” responds with the challenge, “What's the fundamental principle of biology?” When his accuser guesses, “natural selection?” the young man corrects him: “Ontogony recapitulates phyllogony” (sic,Beautiful and Damned 153-54).

The profound social consequences of this “fundamental principle” are reflected in much of Fitzgerald's work. Articulated by Ernst Haeckel, the idea was that a species' evolutionary development (phylogeny) is recapitulated in the individual's embryological development (ontogeny), revealing in the human embryo's gill slits, for example, our ancestral relationship with fish. But, as Stephen Jay Gould notes, “Recapitulation served as a general theory of biological determinism” with a terrible appeal to many Americans who felt the pressure of immigration from Ireland and especially southern Europe. The American paleontologist E. D. Cope “preached [it as the] doctrine of Nordic supremacy”: the “inferior” groups (including “races, sexes, and classes”) were arrested in development at the level of the white male's child. Just as the white embryo's development recapitulated the human descent from lower forms, so did the white child's development recapitulate the development of the lower or “childlike” races (who were supposedly arrested at that stage) until, triumphantly, the white males, at least, would go on to exhibit their superiority as a race.5

One begins to see how the study of heredity might have appealed to Princetonians of those years, some of whom, like Fitzgerald, were so disturbed at seeing “the negroid streak creep[ing] northward to defile the nordic race” that they were overly receptive to popular and less scientific writers like Lothrop Stoddard.6 Stoddard (cited as Goddard by Tom Buchanan in Gatsby) welcomed the time when “biological knowledge will have so increased” that eugenicist programs might “yield the most wonderful results”; in the meantime, he advised, “migrations of lower human types like those which have worked such havoc in the United States must be rigorously curtailed. Such migrations upset standards, sterilize better stocks, increase low types, and compromise national futures.”7 As Fitzgerald wrote to Edmund Wilson from Europe in the summer of 1921, “Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo Saxons + Celts to enter” (Letters 47).


Since Fitzgerald referred to Haeckel's “biogenetic law” and, as a reviewer, complained of another writer's “undigested Haeckel,” it will be worth considering what he seems to have gathered from his own copy of Haeckel's The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1900).8 Although Fitzgerald's critics have never discussed it, The Riddle of the Universe is much more reliable in suggesting the outlines of Fitzgerald's thought than is the text most frequently cited in this regard, Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (even though it did not appear in English until 1926). In a way, the books are similar in providing different but sweeping senses of destiny: Spengler's in his advocacy of “Goethe's form-fulfillment” as destiny (rather than Darwin's causality), and Haeckel's in his closing with Goethe's lines: “By eternal laws / Of iron ruled, / Must all fulfil / The cycle of / Their destiny.”9

But, in general, Haeckel's book does much more to bring together the two subjects about which Amory and Burne talked until their minds glowed in This Side of Paradise—“biology” and “organized religion.” The Riddle of the Universe deals with many of the key biological terms that figure in Fitzgerald's work before, in, and after Gatsby—like accident, egg, descended, specimen, instinct, struggle, adaptation, selection, extinction, and the name of Darwin, himself, whom Haeckel praises as “the Copernicus of the organic world.10 But Haeckel's particular attraction for Fitzgerald lay in his solution to the “riddle” of man's “place … in nature” by explaining the related principles of accident, heredity, and selection (62).

Of these three, Haeckel emphasizes the role of heredity, advancing it in a larger context that dispenses with the “superstition” or “primitive” religion of revelation. Yet he explains “the embryology of the soul” and calls for a “new monistic religion,” “scientific” and “realistic,” that will be revealed in “the wonderful temple of nature” (chs. 8 and 19; p. 382). None of this pertaining to the soul or the “new monistic religion” resembles anything that I know of in Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald certainly seems attuned to Haeckel's criticism of primitive Christianity (which he would have especially appreciated after reading Harold Frederic's examination of it in The Damnation of Theron Ware, one of his favorite books); and in Gatsby, especially, he emphasizes the role of accident in ways that suggest that he was quite familiar with Haeckel's (and, ultimately, Darwin's) discussion of it. Haeckel, going well beyond Darwin's point about chance or accidental variation, insists that “all individual forms of existence … are but special transitory forms—accidents or modes—of substance”: “nowhere … in the evolution of animals and plants do we find any trace of design, but merely the inevitable outcome of the struggle for existence, the blind controller, instead of the provident God, that effects the changes of organic forms by a mutual action of the laws of heredity and adaptation” (216, 268-69).

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald gives us, in place of a provident God, the gazing “eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg” that were set there by “some wild wag of an oculist” who “then sank down himself into eternal blindness.” These are the eyes that peer out over the bleak figure of George Wilson when he is told that his wife Myrtle was killed in an “accident,” and that provoke him to insist repeatedly, “God sees everything.”11 Fitzgerald's emphasis on “accident” becomes overwhelming in the closing pages of the novel, including Nick's remark that Gatsby “knew that he was in Daisy's house by a colossal accident,” and most resoundingly in his last image of the dead hero afloat in his pool: “A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb [the water's] accidental course with its accidental burden” (156, 170).

As a story of modern love, Gatsby is squarely within the tradition of American fiction that began to appropriate Darwin's theory of sexual selection immediately after The Descent of Man, beginning with W. D. Howells's A Chance Acquaintance (1873).12 This is not to suggest that Fitzgerald had Howells particularly in mind, but he depicted Gatsby and Daisy in this way as they leave together after the confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan: “They were gone, without a word, snapped out, made accidental, isolated like ghosts even from our pity” (142). Rather than Howells, the American writers most on Fitzgerald's mind during these years were Frederic, Dreiser, Frank and Charles Norris, and Wharton—to name only a few who were quite self-consciously engaged in critiquing “love” from their various biological points of view. But, again, it would seem that the most immediate theoretical support for Fitzgerald's own critique of love was The Riddle of the Universe, where Haeckel refers to Darwin's theory of sexual selection. Here, writing of the “eros” or “powerful impulse that … leads to … nuptial union,” Haeckel emphasizes: “the essential point in this physiological process is not the ‘embrace,’ as was formerly supposed, or the amorousness connected therewith; it is simply the introduction of the spermatozoa into the vagina” (138-39).

Such remarks provide the kind of biological insight into modern love that caused many characters in American fiction at around the turn of the century to question “love” and motherhood as Edna Pontellier did in The Awakening. Witnessing “the scene of torture” as her friend gave birth, Edna thought of her own experience in “awakening to find a little new life to which she had given being, added to the great unnumbered multitude of souls that come and go”; and she feels “a flaming, outspoken revolt against the ways of Nature” (ch. 37). In This Side of Paradise similar insights provoke Amory's agonizing questions, “How'll I fit in? … What am I for? To propagate the race?” (215). And they lead his friend Eleanor to complain of the “rotten, rotten old world” where she remains “tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony.”13 Then, voicing Fitzgerald's sense that the struggle of sexual selection is far more disturbing than what the Freudian craze had suggested in its apparent invitation to promiscuity, she remarks: “I'm hipped on Freud and all that, but it's rotten that every bit of real love in the world is ninety-nine per cent passion and one little soupçon of jealousy.” Amory (already depressed about his purpose in life as a male) agrees that this “rather unpleasant overpowering force [is] part of the machinery under everything” (238).

Before going on to analyze what drives the “machinery” of “love” in The Great Gatsby (i.e., the process of sexual selection, as Fitzgerald construed it), there is a final important point—the essential point—to make about Fitzgerald's interest in The Riddle of the Universe. Everything is determined by the accident of heredity—“the soul-blending at the moment of conception [when] only the latent forces of the two parent souls are transmitted by the coalescence of the erotic cell-nuclei” (142). Intent on showing his theory's “far-reaching consequences” regarding “our great question” of man's place in nature, Haeckel notes that “the human ovum, like that of all other animals, is a single cell, and this tiny globular egg cell (about the 120th of an inch in diameter) has just the same characteristic appearance as that of all other viviparous organisms” (62). Thus Haeckel concludes not only that the “law of biogeny” demonstrates our heritage back through “the ape” and all the “higher vertebrates” to “our primitive fish-ancestors,” but that it “destroy[s] the myth of the immortality of the soul” (65, 138). For Fitzgerald, though, Haeckel's conclusion that “each personality owes its bodily and spiritual qualities to both parents” raises questions not only about man's place in the universe, but in the social hierarchy; for it demonstrates—as “in the reigning dynasties and in old families of the nobility”—that all individuals are held “in the chain of generations” (138, 143).

For these reasons more than anything else, the imagery of eggs figures memorably in Fitzgerald's work, not only in the absolute barrier that exists between “East Egg” and “West Egg” in The Great Gatsby, but in such earlier works as the unsuccessful play he produced in 1923, The Vegetable. There, one of the characters, Doris, explains that she plans to marry a man named “Fish,” and Fitzgerald heavily underscores both “Fish” and “egg.” “Fish? F-i-s-h?” another character (Jerry) asks. When Doris explains that “these Fishes are very nice,” he warns that she might have to live “right over his father's place of business.” Doris is attracted not only by Mr. Fish's “wonderful build,” but by his habit of calling her “adorable egg.” Confused again, the character Jerry asks, “What does he mean by that?” and Doris explains, “Oh ‘egg’ is just a name people use nowadays.” After Jerry asks again, “Egg?” Doris wonders, “Does your father still read the Bible?”14 This apparently trivial exchange has its place in the play's larger plot, which tracks the vegetable-hero's failed accidental ascent to the presidency of the United States and his ultimate career as a postman. As the hero finally explains about postmen, “They not only pick 'em out—they select 'em” (134).

Even though Fitzgerald's work with the egg idea couldn't save The Vegetable, he did not give up on it. Before he wrote the play he had commented to Edmund Wilson that he thought Sherwood Anderson's The Triumph of the Egg was “a wonderful title” (Letters 49), and he made something much more serious of it in Gatsby than his readers have sensed. Aside from the East and West Egg material, he includes two other odd but meaningful scenes. In the first, sitting in the New York apartment where Tom Buchanan meets with Myrtle Wilson, Nick notes that “the only picture was an over-enlarged photograph, apparently a hen sitting on a blurred rock. Looked at from a distance however the hen resolved itself into a bonnet and the countenance of a stout old lady beamed down into the room” (33). Moments later Nick realized that it was a “dim enlargement” of Myrtle's mother that “hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall” (34). “Ectoplasm” is a succinct comment on Myrtle Wilson's place in the social and evolutionary hierarchies, its two meanings (according to the Random House Dictionary) being (1) “the outer portion of the cytoplasm of a cell,” and (2) “the supposed emanation from the body of a medium.” According to Haeckel, “the skin layer, or ectoderm, is the primitive psychic organ in the metazoa … the tissue-soul in its simplest form” (160).

The other “egg” scene in The Great Gatsby serves to gloss the well-known passage in which Tom Buchanan exclaims “violently” that “‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard” shows how “Civilization's going to pieces” (17). Fitzgerald seems to discredit Tom's belief that “it's all scientific stuff; it's been proved” (17); but, through Nick's observation as he and Gatsby enter the city, Fitzgerald suggests his own anxiety about the Rising Tide of Color. Crossing over the Queensboro Bridge, Nick sees “a dead man” pass “in a hearse” accompanied by friends with “the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe”; then “a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry” (my emphasis; 73). Nick's own anxiety is clear here when he stops laughing and thinks to himself, “Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge”; “Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder,” he concludes. But this is before Nick meets Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz, or learns that Gatsby's “parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people [and that] his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all” (104).

Gatsby's effort to create himself—to spring “from his Platonic conception of himself”—can only fail in the biological universe that Haeckel described (104). And, if Gatsby is a true “son of God” who “must be about His Father's Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty,” it is in the sense that he is destined to pursue Daisy's beauty according to the laws of sexual selection.15 This force of beauty drives many of Fitzgerald's young men, as Dexter Green is “unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams” of Judy Jones (“Winter Dreams,” Stories 150). Even at age eleven, Judy was “beautifully ugly as little girls are apt to be” who “are destined … [to] bring no end of misery to a great number of men”; “she was arrestingly beautiful … [and the] color and the mobility of her mouth gave a continual impression of flux, of intense life, of passionate vitality” (147, 152). “The thing … deep in” Dexter that compelled his response to Judy persisted until he was much older and realized that “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone” (161, 168).

By 1922 Fitzgerald had freed himself somewhat from his earlier hero's conclusion in This Side of Paradise that “the problem of evil” was “the problem of sex” and that “inseparably linked with evil was beauty” (280). In The Beautiful and Damned beauty is simply part of the “machinery under everything”—an engine of sexual selection; and Fitzgerald identifies “life” itself as “that sound out there, that ghastly reiterated female sound”: “active and snarling,” it moves “like a fly swarm” (Beautiful and Damned 150, 260). In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald anoints both Daisy and Gatsby with the power of beauty, as I will explain below; but, in both their cases, as in the “intense vitality” of Myrtle Wilson (which contains no “gleam of beauty”), the underlying force is simply “life” (35, 30). This is Fitzgerald's ultimate subject in The Great Gatsby: “the full bellows of the earth [that was blowing] the frogs full of life” at the moment on that evening in late spring when “the silhouette of a moving cat” drew Nick's eye to Gatsby for the first time (25). Later, when Nick leaves Daisy and Gatsby alone during her first visit to his house, he sees that they are “possessed by intense life” (102).

In the following section I explain how Fitzgerald dramatizes the process of sexual selection in the stories of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Daisy and Gatsby, Myrtle and George Wilson, and Nick and Jordan Baker. But it will help at this point to sketch in the main features and implications of the tangled web of conflicted life in which all the players exist. First, everyone is subject to the anxieties that arise in the general, unending struggle for life. In Fitzgerald's presentation of the evolutionary reality everything is subject to change: accidents happen at any moment, men and women must struggle to win and then keep their mates, the “tide” of “lower” racial groups is on the rise, and civilizations themselves rise and fall. Moreover, in the individual's development through life, according to Haeckel, his or her “psychic activity” is subject to the same pattern of progress and decline. In Haeckel's five stages of “man's psychic activity,” the “new-born” develops “self-consciousness,” the “boy or girl” awakens to “the sexual instinct,” “the youth or maiden” up to “the time of sexual intercourse” passes through “the ‘idealist’ period,” the mature man and woman engage in “the founding of families,” and then “involution sets in” as the “old man or woman” experience “degeneration.” As Haeckel dismally concludes, “Man's psychic life runs the same evolution—upward progress, full maturity, and downward degeneration—as every other vital activity in his organization” (146-47). Rather in this key, Nick Carraway on his thirtieth birthday looks forward to only “the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.” Having just witnessed the disastrous confrontation between Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, who “loves” them both, he remarks, “So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight” (143).

Second, in this universe of accident and change, every individual and every individual's “house” or line is fixed at the moment of conception—as in “the Carraway house,” for example, “in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name” (184). And third, although people like Myrtle and Gatsby are not only free but compelled to enter the struggle of sexual selection (their only means of elevating themselves in the social and evolutionary hierarchies), they nor any other characters in Fitzgerald's fiction can break the bonds of what Haeckel calls “the chain of generations” (143). As Fitzgerald put it in “The Unspeakable Egg” (1924), the comic story he wrote while Gatsby was in press, although a young woman might have her choice of “attractive eggs” and unattractive ones, the “unspeakable egg” itself determines that even in “Umerica, a free country,” there aren't really any “chauffeurs and such that marry millionaires' daughters.”16


While Fitzgerald's understanding of heredity and ontogeny seems to have originated in his informal exposure to such ideas at Princeton and his reading in The Riddle of the Universe, his familiarity with the theory of sexual selection probably came as much from the novelists he admired as from biologists like Conklin or Haeckel. Both of these biologists briefly discuss the “secondary sexual characters” (like “the beard of man, the antlers of the stag, the beautiful plumage of the bird of paradise”) that, Haeckel remarks, “are the outcome of sexual selection” as Darwin had explained (Riddle of the Universe 139). For lengthier discussions of the theory of sexual selection, including courtship behavior, Fitzgerald might have turned to any number of sources, from The Descent of Man to Havelock Ellis's Sexual Selection in Man (a volume collected as part of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex), or Upton Sinclair's The Book of Life (1921). It is important to realize that, had he turned to these three, he would have seen distinctly different versions of the sexual reality. Ellis, for example, built on Darwin's theory but then strove to elevate the psychology of sex into the art of love and ultimately a transcendent religion in which the human's animal nature is scarcely perceptible; and Sinclair strove to emphasize the human's “supremacy over nature by his greater power to combine in groups”—as in “primitive communist society.”17 No less than the theory of natural selection, the theory of sexual selection was (and continues to be) susceptible to various interpretations, as different writers construed evolutionary theory in ways that reflected their particular points of view regarding gender, class, race, or political ideology, as well as their particular spiritual or psychological anxieties.

Whatever his sources, it is clear that Fitzgerald focused on the key principles of sexual selection that previous American novelists from Howells to Edith Wharton had depended upon in constructing their own plots of courtship and marriage. Seeing the process in general as he put it in This Side of Paradise, as the “rather unpleasant overpowering force that's part of the machinery under everything” (238), he emphasized the female's power to select the superior male, and the male's struggle to be selected. Both the male and female in Fitzgerald's fiction wield the power to attract, often through music or dance, the female through her physical beauty and the beauty of her voice, and the male through his strength or ornamental display. And like so many American novelists who had also worked with the Darwinian materials, Fitzgerald embraced Darwin's observation that civilized human beings select for wealth or social position. Also, as in Darwin and the many realist and naturalist novelists who took up his theory, the successful male is compelled to exhibit superior strength and to contest his strength with competing males in what Darwin called “the law of battle” for possession of the female. Finally, as part of a more recent development in literary interpretations of Darwin's theory, Fitzgerald was interested in (and considerably frightened by) the new woman's aggressive sexuality—her occasional desire for more than one man and her recognition that she must engage in sometimes deadly competition with other females to win her man.

Working essentially with these points in The Great Gatsby, then, Fitzgerald constructed a plot with a fully natural ending: Gatsby fails in his romantic quest and remains a “poor son-of-a-bitch” because he denies his genetic identity and ignores the laws of sexual selection. Moreover, while Tom Buchanan retains physical possession of Daisy, his hand covering hers in “an unmistakable air of natural intimacy,” he continues in his “alert, aggressive way … his head moving sharply here and there, adapting itself to his restless eyes.” And Nick, having exhibited much anxiety and ambivalence in his own sexual relations, having witnessed the violent, chaotic drama involving Gatsby, the Buchanans, and the Wilsons, and having realized that the most profound “difference between men … [is] the difference between the sick and the well”—Nick withdraws alone into the middle-west of his youth, “half sick between grotesque reality and savage frightening dreams” (183, 152, 186, 131, 154).

Fitzgerald takes his first step toward this natural ending with his epigraph. Here, carrying forward his interest in the sexual “machinery under everything” (from This Side of Paradise), he focuses immediately upon the essential workings of sexual selection—the male's struggle in dance or ornamental display to be selected and the female's power to select:

Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”

But before Nick enters into the story of Gatsby's effort to win Daisy, he begins by referring to his own “clan's” descent and telling of his own participation in a “counter-raid” in the “Teutonic migration known as the Great War” (“the last love battle,” as Fitzgerald later termed it).18 Resulting in his feeling at “the ragged edge of the universe,” Nick's war experience has made him a wounded veteran in the larger sexual struggle about which Tom Buchanan is so anxious—that “the white race will be—will be utterly submerged” in the rising tide of color, and ultimately that he stands to lose his wife to a “crazy fish” like Gatsby (7, 17, 110). If you “sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife,” Tom complains, you might as well “throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white” (137).

In his first chapter, then, Fitzgerald identifies his other main characters and sets them adrift in the fluid, evolutionary universe wherein—as Nick remarks in the famous last line—“we [all] beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (189). Tom Buchanan, Daisy, and Gatsby all “drift” in and out of the novel as the dead Gatsby finally does in his swimming pool, where Fitzgerald surrounds him with other “poor ghosts” who “drifted fortuitously about” in this “new world” (169). Telling how by “chance” he had rented his house near the “pair of enormous eggs” in that “strangest [of] communities in North America” to which Tom and Daisy had also “drifted” (and where Daisy will joke about “accidentally” arranging Nick's marriage to Jordan Baker), Nick begins to picture a tumultuous reality of high winds and rampant growth (9, 10, 23).

The “great bursts of leaves growing … just as things grow in fast movies” are driven by the same cosmic force that blows the “frogs full of life” and causes the Buchanans' “lawn [to start] at the beach and [run] toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks in burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run” (8, 25, 11). Developing this theme, Fitzgerald writes that the “fresh grass … seemed to grow a little way into the [Buchanan] house,” suggesting that, like all life, it emerged from the sea and is related to the life force within the Buchanan line.19 Later in the novel Nick describes how “the Buchanans' house floated suddenly” into view (149). This household's vital force throbs in “the enormous power of [Tom's] body” with its “great pack of muscle shifting” beneath his coat; and it has produced the child about whom Nick remarks, “I suppose she talks, and—eats, and everything” (11, 21). Moreover, it is reflected in the “paternal contempt” of Tom's “gruff” voice, which seemed to say, “I'm stronger and more of a man than you are” (11). Within pages we learn of the first incident in which this dominant male, a “hulking physical specimen,” uses his “cruel body” to injure each of the three women in his life (16, 11). He is responsible not only for Daisy's “black and blue” knuckle in this scene, but also for another woman's broken arm (82), and he will go on to break Myrtle Wilson's nose (41). Ultimately, Fitzgerald's point is that Tom's brutal sexual power is alive in his “house” and that it is determinant in his struggles with both George Wilson over Myrtle and with Gatsby over Daisy. By contrast, no such force resides in Gatsby's fake “ancestral home” (162). Indeed, the futility of Gatsby's romantic denial of his biological identity and the violence of sexual selection is reflected in his well-trimmed lawn (which soon grew to be as long as Nick's after Gatsby's death) and the “thin beard of raw ivy” that covers his “tower” (188, 9).

Despite Tom's brutal strength, however, neither he nor any other individual in Fitzgerald's evolutionary world can rest secure. Frequently drawing attention to Tom's prehensile power, as Darwin referred to it (the male's physical tools—secondary sexual characters—for capturing and holding the female, as in the lobster's claws), Fitzgerald notes that Tom “broke [Myrtle's] nose with his open hand,” that “he put out his broad, flat hand with well-concealed dislike” when introduced to Gatsby, and finally that “his hand [fell] upon and covered” Daisy's, signaling the end of his struggle with Gatsby.20 By contrast at this conclusive moment, Nick leaves Gatsby “with his hands in his coat pockets … watching over nothing” (153). Still, Fitzgerald emphasizes that in this world where “there are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired” (85), Tom must be ever vigilant. As Nick observes in chapter one, even with two women, “something was making [Tom] nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart,” and when we see him last he continues in his “restless,” “alert, aggressive way, his hands out a little from his body as if to fight off interference” (25, 186).

Also one of the “pursuing,” Gatsby expresses his “restlessness” as well: “he was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand” (68). When told that “you can't repeat the past,” he looks around “wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand” (116-17); and, since Gatsby's past moment with Daisy is out of reach largely because of the inherent deficiency of his “house,” Fitzgerald presents Gatsby in a precarious state of balance: “he was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American” (68).

For similar reasons, in chapter one Fitzgerald depicts another of his main characters, the equally unattached and restless Jordan Baker, as “the balancing girl”; she had a way of holding her “chin … as if she were balancing something on it which was quite likely to fall” (13). Supplementing the precariousness of her social situation as a single woman who is both pursuer and pursued is her notably androgynous nature. A “small-breasted girl with an erect carriage” who looks “like a young cadet” and whom Fitzgerald identifies as the other athlete in his group, she displays, “a flutter of slender muscles in her arms” within the same sentence that captures the bright “lamp-light [on Tom's] boots” (15, 22). As others have noted, Jordan's androgyny appeals to Nick, who “enjoyed looking at her,” and seems part of Fitzgerald's effort to reveal Nick's own sexual ambivalence (15).

As Nick explains in chapter one, one of the reasons he went “east [to] learn the bond business” was to escape the rumors that he was engaged (7, 24), and during his time in the east he breaks off with two other women. With a history of being “privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men” whose “intimate revelation[s]” sometimes “quiver[ed] on the horizon … marred by obvious suppressions,” Nick will go on to tell of one of his most intimate moments in the east—when he reaches out to touch Mr. McKee, the “pale feminine man from the flat below” Tom's and Myrtle's. Minutes later, Nick and McKee “groaned down in the elevator” together on the way to McKee's flat (5-6, 34, 41-42). And, immediately after the strange brief scene in which Nick stands beside McKee's bed (where “between the sheets, clad in his underwear,” he shows Nick some of his photographs), Nick finds himself “half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station” (42). Aside from the possible reflections of Fitzgerald's and Nick's vague homoerotic desire that others have sensed in this scene, it would seem that Fitzgerald's emphasis on “down,” “below,” and “lower,” represent another dimension in his view of the social and evolutionary hierarchy.21

Further suggested by Tom's remark when meeting Nick unexpectedly at lunch, “How'd you happen to come up this far to eat?” Fitzgerald's references to up and down in regard to Nick's biological activities suggest his susceptibility to degeneracy (78). This possibility is further suggested in the uncorrected galleys, where Nick tells of having written the names of Gatsby's guests (names like Bull, Fishguard, Hammerhead, and Beluga) on an “old time-table [that was] degenerating at its folds.”22 That is, as a reference to Nick's sexual identity, the idea that he “groaned down in the elevator” suggests more than his possible moral degeneration, as someone like Max Nordau would emphasize. Rather, Jordan's androgyny and Nick's sexual ambivalence reflect on one of the darker aspects in the evolution of sex that Darwin brought to light in The Descent of Man: that “it has now been ascertained that at a very early embryonic period both sexes possess true male and female glands. Hence some extremely remote progenitor of the whole vertebrate kingdom appears to have been hermaphrodite or androgynous” (1: 207). Fitzgerald was certainly aware of this idea from his having read of Dr. Ledsmar's Darwinian experiment about hermaphroditism in plants (in The Damnation of Theron Ware), and probably from having read Haeckel's discussion of such “rudimentary structures” as “the nipple and milk-gland of the male” (265). At any rate, an important result of Fitzgerald's presentation of these possibilities in The Great Gatsby is that they contribute to Nick's being repelled by the chaotic nature of sex. “Half sick between grotesque reality and savage frightening dreams,” he withdraws from both the brutal male force that nevertheless fascinates him in Tom Buchanan, and from “the secret griefs of wild, unknown men,” though they fascinate him as well (he frequently “feigned sleep” when the “intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon” [154, 5-6]). He let one “short affair with a girl” “blow quietly away” when he was confronted with a violent male: “her brother began throwing mean looks in my direction” (61). Similarly, although he had come east to learn “the bond business,” when he found himself confined with the unlovely couples Tom and Myrtle and the McKees, Nick “wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park.” But “each time [he] tried to go [he] became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled [him] back” (40). Still a resoundingly Darwinian term in the early 1920s, “entangled” in this scene soon leads to the outburst of Tom's violence (when he breaks Myrtle's nose) that causes Nick to leave with the “feminine” McKee. As the scene in McKee's apartment ends, Fitzgerald suggests in the titles of the first two pictures in McKee's portfolio that Nick's underlying story has to do mostly with “Beauty and the Beast” and “Loneliness” (42).

If Tom's brutal male power represents the “beast” in Fitzgerald's imagination, Daisy's voice is the deadly instrument of beauty. At the end of This Side of Paradise Amory had begun “to identify evil with … strong phallic worship” and concluded that “inseparably linked with evil was beauty,” as in “Eleanor's voice, in an old song at night … half rhythm, half darkness” (280). There is certainly something of Eleanor's struggle with her female nature that lingers in Daisy: as Eleanor cried, “why am I a girl? … tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony,” Daisy wept when she learned that her baby was a girl, thinking “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool” (Paradise 237, Gatsby 21). But even as she is aware of her biological entrapment (as Hemingway would later refer to it in A Farewell to Arms23) she cannot refrain from voicing what is perhaps the most alluring appeal in American literature. Playing on Darwin's analysis of the sexual appeal of music and the voice, many writers had invested the female voice with such power, as in W. D. Howells's Lydia Blood and James's Verena Tarrant.24 But, whatever Fitzgerald's sources for this idea (Darwin, Haeckel, or any of the many “Darwinian” novelists), no writer dramatizes it more fully. He introduces the musical theme as part of the scene of natural history wherein the grass grows up from the beach into the Buchanan “house” and a sea “breeze … rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea” (12). Then Daisy began asking Nick

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


In his innumerable references to Daisy's voice, Fitzgerald identifies it as the principle instrument with which she casts her spell over Gatsby, compelling his belief in the kind of love that cannot exist in Fitzgerald's view of life. As Nick notes even in this first scene, “the instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said” (22). But the “deathless song” of Daisy's “voice held” Gatsby “with its fluctuating, feverish warmth because it couldn't be over-dreamed” (101). And when Gatsby tells Nick that “her voice is full of money,” Nick immediately realizes that “the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it [was] the cymbals' song of … the king's daughter, the golden girl.”25

As Daisy consciously or unconsciously wields her irresistible power, she becomes further entangled in the web of sexual struggle. When Gatsby left for the war after their brief romance, she had “suddenly” begun to date other men, only to find that, with her “evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed … she wanted her life shaped … by some force,” which soon proved to be the “force … of Tom Buchanan” (158-59); and even when she has not only Tom but possibly Gatsby, she looks back at Gatsby's house as she leaves the party, wondering, “what would happen now in the dim incalculable hours? Perhaps some unbelievable guest would arrive, a person infinitely rare and to be marvelled at, some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion” (115). She is instinctively aware of “the first law of woman”—that she is a competitor in the sexual arena, as Fitzgerald had treated this subject in 1924 in “Diamond Dick and the First Law of Woman.” Diana (“Diamond Dick”) Dickey's “nickname survived”—“she had selected it herself”—and she lived up to it by threatening a sexual competitor with a revolver (The Price Was High 69). “I think you've got my man” (82), she explains; “I wasn't made for anything like love” (79). No less a hunter than this Diana, or perhaps even Hemingway's Margot Macomber, Daisy is implicated in Myrtle Wilson's “accidental” death, as Fitzgerald suggests in Nick's concern that if “Tom found out that Daisy had been driving … he might think he saw a connection in it—he might think anything.”26

Gatsby himself can never conceive of such a grim possibility, for he is determined to deny his origins and wants to believe “that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing” (105). Nor can he accept the other part of his reality, as suggested in Fitzgerald's epigraph—that he was destined to perform the lover's dance in the biological struggle to be selected. He is always acted upon by the natural laws he cannot accept, as when the “universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain” one night as “the clock ticked” and his “tangled clothes [lay] upon the floor”; then “an instinct toward his future glory” led him on his way, first to St. Olaf College, and finally to his second opportunity to be selected by Daisy (105). Even then, “as if he were on a wire,” he seems unaware that his most effective moment comes, as Fitzgerald's epigraph and Darwin's theory suggest, when he proudly displays his ornamental attractions—the “many-colored disarray … [of] shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue” (91, 97-98). Not too subtly invoking the Darwinian idea when he has Gatsby explain that “a man in England … sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season,” Fitzgerald illustrates how effective is the power of beauty in sexual selection: “‘They're such beautiful shirts,’ [Daisy] sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds … ‘I've never seen such—such beautiful shirts before’” (97-98).

Certainly the most splendid peacock in American literature, Gatsby repeatedly wears his famous pink suit, has his man Klipspringer perform “The Love Nest” on the piano, and, in general, “deck[s] out [his illusion] with every bright feather that drifted his way” (100-01). Nothing could be gaudier to attract the female's eye for ornamental beauty unless it is perhaps the taxi cab that appeals to Myrtle Wilson: “she let four taxi cabs drive away before she selected a new one, lavender-colored with grey upholstery [in which the party] slid out from the mass of the station into the glowing sunshine” (31). The image of phallic power and beauty is evident here, as it is in “Gatsby's gorgeous car … [of] rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes,” and so forth (68). But as Fitzgerald suggests in the line from “Ain't We Got Fun?” (“nothing's surer / The rich get richer”), despite Gatsby's gorgeous ornamentation and phallic appeal, he is no match for Buchanan when they finally confront each other “with competitive firmness” (101, 138).

Gatsby manages moderately well in the dance, with his “graceful, conservative fox-trot” (112); and Tom reveals himself to be no more impressive at this natural feat, in which, as Fitzgerald knew in This Side of Paradise, people are “selected by the cut-in system at dances, which favors the survival of the fittest” (58). More restrained in this dance with Daisy than at the first raucous event that Nick attended, Gatsby conceals his instinctive sense that music and dance can be effectively combined in what Darwin called “love-antics and dances” (Descent of Man 2: 68). There he had requested that the orchestra play the “Jazz History of the World,” and it achieved its desired effect: “girls were putting their heads on men's shoulders … and swooning backward … into men's arms” (55). The trouble is, such primitive performances tend also to arouse the combative instincts that are inherent in the struggle for reproductive success. In a passage that Fitzgerald cut from the galleys, the “Jazz History of the World” is something like H. G. Well's evolutionary Outline of History, providing “a weird sense that it was a preposterous cycle after all”—one “discord” after another.27 In the novel, the scene ends with one “fight” leading to several others, and the frenzy of “dissension” and “flank attacks” subsides only when two “wives [are] lifted kicking into the night.”28

Of course, this is the way the struggle will end in The Great Gatsby, with the stronger male prevailing not so much for his beauty or “love,” as Gatsby might have hoped, but for the superior physical and financial strength that inheres in his “house.” Other American novelists had reached similar conclusions but in different ways: some of Howells's heroes in the 1870s, for example, who prevail over rival males because women select them for their moral as well as financial strength; or James's Basil Ransom, who prevails over weaker males (as well as a female competitor) because of his physical and mental power; or Harold Frederic's Joel Stormont Thorp because of his combined “never-force” and physical and financial strength, as well as the woman's attraction to his “frank barbarism of power”; or Edith Wharton's Cobham Stilling, in her story “The Choice,” because of his sheer physical strength without financial wealth (Mrs. Stilling possesses the wealth).29

Unlike any of these, Fitzgerald's plot is quite in accord with “the fundamental principle of biology” that he alluded to in The Beautiful and Damned, the “ontogenic fact” that in the “tiny globular egg cell” one is already bound within “the chain of generations” (Haeckel 63, 62, 143). Representing a different “strata” from Daisy's, Gatsby “had no real right to touch her hand”; and when she saw his “huge incoherent failure of a house,” it simply fell “in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes” (156, 188, 120). For such reasons Fitzgerald suggests in his closing paragraphs that there never has been a “new world,” only the “old unknown world.” The “fresh, green breast of the new world … pandered in whispers” to the first sailors, compelling their unwanted “aesthetic contemplation”; and beauty is still part of the “machinery under everything” that derives us toward an “orgastic future” (189). “The essential point,” as Haeckel remarked, “is not the ‘embrace’ … or the amorousness connected therewith; it is simply the introduction of the spermatozoa into the vagina” (139). Thus the imagined “pap of life” at which Gatsby would “gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” is destroyed by the “accident,” and by the grotesque reality of Myrtle's “left breast … swinging loose like a flap” (117, 145).


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise (1920; New York: Scribner's, 1970), 151; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned (1922; New York: Scribner's, 1955), 415-16.

  2. Discussions of these elements in Fitzgerald's life and work can be found, for example, in Jeffrey Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 1994), 1-3; and James W. Tuttleton, “Seeing Slightly Red: Fitzgerald's ‘May Day,’” in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: New Approaches in Criticism, ed. Jackson R. Bryer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1982), 196; in Matthew J. Bruccoli, “Preface” to The Great Gatsby (New York: Collier Books, 1991), xiv-xv; in Scott Donaldson, Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Congdon and Weed, 1983), 99-115, quote on p. 101; in John S. Whitely, “‘A Touch of Disaster’: Fitzgerald, Spengler and the Decline of the West,” in Scott Fitzgerald: The Promises of Life, ed. A. Robert Lee (New York: St. Martins, 1989) throughout his article; and in Judith Fetterly, “Who Killed Dick Diver? The Sexual Politics of Tender is the Night,Mosaic, 17:1 (1984), 124-26.

  3. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Jackson R. Bryer, eds., F. Scott Fitzgerald In His Own Time: A Miscellany (n.p.: Kent State University Press, 1971), 18.

  4. Edwin G. Conklin, Laboratory Directions in General Biology (n.p., n.d., held in the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University) 78; in his well-known book, Conklin builds toward his long last chapters on eugenics, arguing for example that “the promotion of human evolution [through eugenics] must be undertaken by society as its greatest work,” and that “individual freedom must be subordinated to racial welfare” (Heredity and Environment in the Development of Men 6th edn [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1929], 348-49).

  5. Stephan Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), 115.

  6. Letter from Fitzgerald to Edmund Wilson, dated July 1921, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Scribner's, 1994), 46-47.

  7. Lothrop Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (New York: Scribner's, 1922), 309, 308.

  8. The “Fitzgerald Book Lists” in the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers at Princeton University indicate that Fitzgerald owned and had signed a copy of The Riddle of the Universe, but that volume is not now contained in the University's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. These book lists include no volumes by Darwin. In his enthusiastic review of Dos Passos's Three Soldiers, Fitzgerald cited Owen Johnston's The Wasted Generation as an example of a current war story that paled by comparison, in part because “it abounded with … undigested Haeckel” (In His Own Time, 123).

  9. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, abridged edn, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, eds. Helmut Werner and Arthur Helps (New York: Knopf, 1962), 231; Spengler definitely rejected modern evolutionary thought, criticizing the shallowness of Darwinism and referring to the “soulless and soul-killing generation of … Haeckel” (132); Ernst Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper, 1900), 383.

  10. Some of these words and other key terms in the Darwinian lexicon (like tangle) are traceable in Andrew Crosland, A Concordance to F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (Detroit: Gale, 1975); Riddle of the Universe 252. As Haeckel notes here, he had first referred to Darwin in this way in 1868—long before Freud's more famous remark that after Copernicus' first great blow to human narcissism (by showing that the earth is not at the center of the universe), Darwin dealt the second or “biological blow” by proving the human's animal nature (Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey [London: Hogarth Press and The Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1953-74] 17, 141).

  11. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli, 27-28, 166-67.

  12. For a discussion of the Darwinian elements in A Chance Acquaintance and other novels of courtship and marriage by Howells, see Bert Bender, The Descent of Love: Darwin and the Theory of Sexual Selection in American Fiction, 1871-1926 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996).

  13. P. 237; another example of Fitzgerald's biological critique of sexual love and motherhood is contained in these remarks about the character Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned: “She knew that in her breast she had never wanted children. The reality, the earthiness, the intolerable sentiment of child-bearing, the menace to her beauty—had appalled her. She wanted to exist only as a conscious flower, prolonging and preserving itself. Her sentimentality could cling fiercely to her own illusions, but her ironic soul whispered that motherhood was also the privilege of the female baboon. So her dreams were of ghostly children only” (392-93).

  14. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Vegetable or from President to Postman (1923; New York: Scribner's, 1976), 25-28; it is worth recalling that when Tom Buchanan learns that Gatsby knows his wife, he complains that “these days … [women] meet all kinds of crazy fish” (110).

  15. P. 104; as many critics have remarked, Fitzgerald's earlier story, “Absolution” (1924), represents a preliminary effort to deal with the problem of his and his characters' origins. As I would put it, Rudolph in that story exemplifies the kind of anxiety about his fixed evolutionary state that Gatsby and other characters in Fitzgerald experience. Rudolph confessed his sin “of not believing I was the son of my parents” and so imagined himself as Blatchford Sarnemington, a character who then “established dominance over him” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald [New York: Scribner's, 1969] 187, 189). As Haeckel might remark of such figures as Rudolph and especially Gatsby, the “boundless presumption of conceited man has misled him into making himself ‘the image of God,’ claiming an ‘eternal life’ for his ephemeral personality, and imagining that he possesses unlimited ‘freedom of will’” (15).

  16. The Price Was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979) 132, 134.

  17. Upton Sinclair, The Book of Life, 2 Vols. in 1 (Chicago: Paine, 1922), 2, 9-10.

  18. Pp. 6-7; in Tender Is the Night, as Dick Diver surveys a battlefield on the western front, he remarks: “Why this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle” (Tender Is the Night [1934; New York: Scribner's, 1962], 68).

  19. P. 12; elsewhere, in many places, Fitzgerald is far more explicit in suggesting the human link to fish and the sea. In “The Swimmers” (1929), for example, the character Henry Marston enjoys swimming and feeling like a “porpoise,” and he thinks that Americans could better deal with their restlessness if they had developed “fins and wings”; he comments ironically on the American idea that we could “leave out history and the past,” “inheritance or tradition” (Bits of Paradise: 21 Uncollected Stories by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald [London: The Bodley Head, 1973], 201). Similarly, in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald remarks that “Nicole had been designed for change, for flight with money as fins and wings” (311).

  20. Pp. 41, 122, 152; discussions of other writers' work with the male's prehensile power are indexed in The Descent of Love, where, on pp. 143 and 191, for example, I discuss Henry James's use of these materials in The Portrait of a Lady. In his initial discussion of this male “secondary sexual character,” evolved in order for the male to gain an “advantage … over other individuals of the same sex and species, in exclusive relation to reproduction,” Darwin writes that “when the male has found the female he sometimes absolutely requires prehensile organs to hold her” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2 vols. in 1 [1871; Princeton University Press, 1981], 1, 256).

  21. For other controversial but insightful studies of androgyny and homosexual possibilities in The Great Gatsby that have only recently emerged (especially in the scene with Nick and McKee), see Keath Fraser, “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby,English Studies in Canada, 5:3 (1979); Patricia Pacey Thornton, “Sexual Roles in The Great Gatsby,English Studies in Canada, 5:4 (1979); and Edward Wasiolek, “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby,” The International Fiction Review, 19:1 (1992). Also in reference to Nick's evolutionary identity, consider the ironic possibilities of Gatsby's repeated way of addressing him as “old sport,” as on pp. 86-87.

  22. F. Scott Fitzgerald Manuscripts III The Great Gatsby: The Revised and Rewritten Galleys, intro. and arranged by Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Garland, 1990), 47.

  23. Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929; New York: Scribner's, 1932), 139, 320.

  24. Discussions of Howells's, James's and other novelists' uses of Darwin's observations about the sexual appeal of music and the voice are indexed in The Descent of Love. Whether Fitzgerald caught it or not, Darwin referred to Haeckel's “interesting discussion of this subject,” agreeing that “women … possess sweeter voices than men,” but concluding “that they first acquired [these] musical powers in order to attract the opposite sex” (Descent of Man, 2, 337).

  25. P. 127; among the innumerable parallels in Fitzgerald's story of a naive male's destruction in an encounter with the sexual reality, compared with Harold Frederic's in The Damnation of Theron Ware, are Celia Madden's several musical performances and Theron's fascination with “Miss Madden's riches”; the “glamour” of wealth “shown upon her,” the “veritable gleam of gold” (The Damnation of Theron Ware or Illumination, Vol. 3 of The Harold Frederic Edition [1896; Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985], 254). Both Fitzgerald and Frederic work with Darwin's point that human beings select for wealth and social position.

  26. P. 152; in Fitzgerald's story “The Dance” (1926) another sexual struggle between women ends in murder because “all the girls are good friends … except when two of them are try'n to get hold of the same man” (Bits of Paradise, 154).

  27. P. 36; something of Fitzgerald's early attraction to the evolutionary view of life is evident in the interest he showed in Wells's Outline of History, Being a Plain History of Life and Humankind, which, he remarked in 1920, was “Most absorbing!” (Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, eds. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret M. Duggan [New York: Random House, 1980], 73).

  28. Pp. 56-57; for similar remarks by Fitzgerald on the role of music and dance in sexual selection, see “The Dance,” which is set in a small town where life's affairs and scandals “live on all tangled up with the natural ebb and flow of outward life” (Bits of Paradise, 140).

  29. Discussions of these examples are indexed in The Descent of Love.

James D. Bloom (essay date spring 1999)

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SOURCE: Bloom, James D. “Out of Minnesota: Mythography and Generational Poetics in the Writings of Bob Dylan and F. Scott Fitzgerald.” American Studies 40, no. 1 (spring 1999): 5-21.

[In the following essay, Bloom draws parallels between Fitzgerald and singer Bob Dylan's life and works, arguing that both were anti-prophets who made myths of themselves and at the same time undermined those myths.]


“You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books. You're very well read. It's well known.” So runs a memorable line in Bob Dylan's “Ballad of a Thin Man” on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Not only did this song provide “an instant catchphrase for the moral, generational, and racial divisions” that, in Greil Marcus' formulation, separated the cognoscenti from the “squares” (8-9); this album also marked Dylan's controversial introduction to LP buyers of his paradigm-shifting hybrid, “folk rock.” Brian Morton's 1991 novel, The Dylanist, describes the appeal of this watershed: “Dylan gave … hope: He showed that you could make your life a work of art” (91). Morton's protagonist “loved the way” Dylan “remained fluid, reinventing himself endlessly, refusing to be trapped by other people's expectations.” Reflecting the pervasiveness of this appeal, Fred Goodman's social history of rock-music business declared Dylan “unquestionably the most influential artist of his generation” (96).

In view of Dylan's singular impact on his generation, his citation of Fitzgerald points to the aspiration and the achievement that place both writers among the select few, among a handful of modern writers who turned themselves into generational idols and their work into durable models. Dylan's famous 1965 breakthrough (the momentum of which persisted through his 1975 album Desire) clinched this icon status. The decisive point in this breakthrough occurred at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Dylan scandalized fans by marrying his signature acoustic folk protest style with a seemingly more “commercial” electric rock-and-roll idiom. Ratifying this sea-change, Dylan framed this “folk-rock” assault on generic boundaries with the release of two albums, Bringing it all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Fellow protest folksinger Phil Ochs' reaction to one cut on Highway 61 illustrates this impact: “Phil, a huge fan of Dylan to begin with, was thunderstruck by this latest composition,” entitled “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Ochs believed that “Dylan, already being labeled a spokesperson for his generation … had suddenly in the course of one song, come dangerously close to becoming a generation's poet” (Schumacher 82).

Beyond such claims for Dylan as the 1960s generational poet, which invite obvious comparisons with Fitzgerald's status as a generational novelist in the 1920s—another youth-centered decade, and beyond coincidental geographical parallels—each artist's bourgeois Minnesota origins, the affinity between the two artists rests most significantly on a shared career narrative and cultural critique. Dylan's early song, “North Country Blues,” a reminder of their shared Minnesota background, sums up this shared aesthetic as the discovery that “there ain't nothing here now to hold them.” This poetics of unmooring lies at the heart of what Ronald Berman characterizes as “the movement in Fitzgerald … toward existential heroism” (World 114) and the product of this movement: an art that recurrently depicts inconclusive arrivals, such as Tender is the Night hero Dick Diver's incessant beginnings of a “career … like Grant's in Galena” consisting well into middle age of “biding his time … in one town or another” (315), with each town-to-town movement impelled by the decision Dylan affirms in “A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall,” as the decision to keep “goin' on out,” the commitment reaffirmed throughout his songs, to “move on to the next hope” with “hard-eyed … skepticism” (Edmundson 54) in the face of whatever defeat or humiliation looms.


This sort of language also greeted the 1920 publication of Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, and the later turns in Fitzgerald's career that came to be regarded as betrayals by many of his fans (Mangum 3-7). This Side of Paradise came “to influence us profoundly,” according to the publisher, autobiographer, and self-appointed generational spokesman Donald Friede. Fitzgerald “set the pattern for the mood of the day,” laying a “solid foundation for the basic philosophy of the whole decade. … We were never the same again” (180). Favoring Dylan, English critic Michael Gray made the Fitzgerald-Dylan parallel explicit in suggesting that “there is a sense in which, more fully than Fitzgerald, Dylan created a generation” (5). Similarly, David Dunaway argues that “for the generation coming-of-age in the 1960s … there was no comparable … influence” to Dylan's. Dunaway elaborates by associating Dylan with earlier, cultural paradigm-shifters in an account recalling Fitzgerald's meteoric rise between 1920 and 1925. “Like that of Rimbaud, Dylan's recognition came impossibly fast, but being a god turns out to be a short-lived occupation.” Consequently, Dylan “has spent many years of his life trying to get to where he once was. To find another writer who so thoroughly affected his time, one has to probe in history—Voltaire, Shakespeare, Dickens” (154).

Dunaway's potted history of cultural change recalls Nick Carraway's mid-novel rhapsody in The Great Gatsby equating the eponymous hero with “a son of God” (105) as well as his closing summary of his own “awkward unpleasant” (185) effort to return home. Dunaway's view of Dylan points to Gatsby as the center of Dylan's debt to Fitzgerald's legacy and underscores the lasting vitality of that legacy. Dylan's seizure of this legacy constitutes an enrichment, in contrast to the appropriations of it that became especially marked during the Reagan-era plutocracy revival—the Jay McInerney era to chroniclers of American fiction. A Gatsby-like Roaring 20s look (derived from a 1974 screen adaptation starring Robert Redford as Gatsby) briefly colored fashion advertising in the early eighties (Hurowitz), and at the end of the decade Calvin Klein turned to Gatsby—along with Madame Bovary and The Sun Also Rises—to caption print-ads for a new fragrance called Obsession (Foltz), while New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis more solemnly devoted an entire column to the Reagan administration's uncannily Gatsby-like “emptiness” and the way it “corrupted the American Dream.” Four months earlier a Times editorial argued that “the eighties aren't so far past the twenties” inasmuch as “Jay Gatsby would be right at home today” in the company of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. More recently, an Atlanta antiques shop called Gatsby's drew national media attention when it bought the auctioned belongings of convicted CIA mole Aldrich Ames.

Unlike such merchandising ventures, Dylan's citation of Fitzgerald goes beyond name-dropping and glamour-mongering. In the context of Dylan's larger body of work, his Fitzgerald line belongs to an oeuvre-saturating acknowledgement of his debt to Fitzgerald and a profitable reinvestment of that legacy. In sarcastically singling Fitzgerald out as an index of cultural arrival, a measure of cultural-capital, Dylan prompts listeners to the songs of his most influential and most conspicuously literary period, between 1964-1975, to account for Fitzgerald's endurance as artistic resource and incitement.

This affiliation extends beyond obvious biographical parallels between the two Minnesota college dropouts who grew up non-Protestant in America's Lutheran heartland before heading east to triumph as artists, to transform radically their respective media, and to become generational icons. Dylan's pursuit of this Fitzgeraldian agenda seems most evident in his refashioning of Bobby Zimmerman into Bob Dylan. This move recalls how Jimmy Gatz, also a fugitive from the Lake Superior littoral, where he fatefully rescued a grateful tycoon's yacht, began refashioning himself into Jay Gatsby. The extent to which Dylan “sprang from a Platonic conception of himself” (106) and thus the extent to which Dylan, like Fitzgerald, regards “the crafting of identity as demiurgic activity” (Weinstein 131) resonates in Martha Bayles' image of “Zimmerman hanging around every coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, playing for pennies and promoting a mythic identity as ‘Bob Dylan,’ a precocious drifter who had spent his youth traveling the highways and byways and learning his music directly from the folk” (210-217). This mythic identity contrasts markedly with the prosaic stability of Dylan's Hibbing, Minnesota, boyhood in “the Jewish mercantile middle class of America's Midwest” (Friedlander 136) and his brief stint at the University of Minnesota before departing for Greenwich Village in 1960.

Such transformations involve efforts to ride the zeitgeists of their respective decades—in Gatsby's becoming a sporty Anglophile bootlegger and in Dylan's becoming an indignant bohemian iconoclast. “By taking a new name,” biographer Justin Kaplan notes, “an unfinished person may hope to enter into more dynamic—but not necessarily more intimate—transactions, both with the world outside and with his or her ‘true soul,’ the naked self.” The description of Gatsby's self-transformation in chapter 6 of the novel stresses its lack of “intimacy” and the extent to which both Gatsby himself as well as his various audiences only got to regard him at a distance: as an “invention,” as a “conception,” as a “legend,” and as “news” (103-104). This chapter also emphasizes the turbulence or “dynamism” of Gatz's metamorphosis with such verbs as “spin” and “rock” and “tangle,” complemented by images of Gatsby as a master of “bracing” outdoor manual labor (104-105).


As a commentator on his own pursuit of such dynamic transactions and on the conditions shaping it, Dylan also takes on attributes of Nick Carraway, the commentator and Fitzgerald alter-ego, who records Gatsby's transformations. Like Dylan, Gatsby changes his name, with Carraway registering both Gatsby's “dynamic transactions” and his own repression of intimacy. In the confession that opens Gatsby, Carraway remembers joining in disparaging college friends' “quivering … revelations” with an insistence that “the world be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (6). With its refrain, “I was so much older then / I'm younger than that now,” Dylan's 1964 song “My Back Pages” even more emphatically enunciates a similarly divided stance. After the singer recalls his quest for a world “at moral attention” by picturing himself “in a soldier's stance,” he stresses in the last stanza his once overly vigilant antipathy to intimacy: “my noble guard stood hard when abstract threats / Too noble neglect / Deceived me into thinking I had something to protect.”

Dylan's confession early in “My Back Pages” of having “dreamed / Romantic facts of musketeers / Foundationed deep somehow” pointedly aligns his persona with the most pronounced effort Gatsby's narrator makes: finding or making “something gorgeous” out of “everything for which I have unaffected scorn” (6). The tension this effort produces helps account for Carraway's admittedly “rather literary” (8) voice. This voice swerves repeatedly in its account of Gatsby, sometimes displaying and sometimes chastening its own romantic excesses. In their self-satisfied version, these excesses appear as “romantic readiness” (6) and, in the censorious version, as “appalling sentimentality” (118). Such responses to Gatsby, to “the romantic speculation he inspired” (48), reflect the narrator's own susceptibilities to sentimental and romantic constructions. These surface in his early attraction to Jordan Baker, to “the way the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face” (18)—an attraction for which he later fastidiously censures himself—and in the voyeuristic rhapsody his “restless eye” prompts as it “picks out the romantic women on Fifth Avenue” and follows home in “the enchanted metropolitan twilight” as “loitered” with fellow solitaries “in front of windows” (61-62). Recurrently showing Nick as a window-gazer (182, 184), Fitzgerald has him evoke and embody here the romance of voyeurism and resigned exclusion that the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's appreciation of Dylan locates at the core of his achievement: “His voice,” which sounds “like a kid standing at the window watching the rain” (345), like the rain repeatedly filtering Nick's and the reader's closing glimpses of Gatsby (180-183). This romance of voyeurism abounds in Dylan's writing, though perhaps nowhere as effusively and self-reproachfully as in the 1966 Blonde on Blonde cut, “Visions of Johanna,” which opens with the singer observing “Louise and her lover so entwined” and then tempting listeners with rumors of “the all-night girls' escapades out on the E train,” only to deride, after a drawn-out harmonica interruption, his Carrawayesque alter-ego as a “little boy lost” who “takes himself so seriously” while recalling her “farewell kiss to me.”

Despite the Dylan singer's projecting this voyeuristic self-regard onto an alter-ego and despite Nick's self-reassurance that “no one would ever know or disapprove” of his Romanticized voyeurism, of course both the reader or listener and retrospective narrator or singer “know,” though perhaps only Fitzgerald's narrator “disapproves.” While Nick's seemingly conclusive abandonment of the ambiguous metropolis for the straightforward Midwest—the “city” in the “West” where “dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name”—appears to confirm this censure, the confounding of any linear sense of arrival and departure at the end of Gatsby erodes the moral high ground on which Nick strives to stand, both in abandoning Eastern urban “sophistication and in reproaching his “younger and more vulnerable” (5) self.


The contrast between Carraway, the decamping narrator, and Fitzgerald, his doggedly metropolitan author, also anticipates Dylan's narrative geography and the array of inconclusive arrivals and provisional departures this geography contains. One of Dylan's geographical narratives transforms an abandonment of the Midwest, which Dylan also views retrospectively and metonymically as simply “the West,” into a disheartening inescapable “story of the West.” “Talking New York,” the very first song on Dylan's first album concerns a guitar-toting young man “ramblin' outta the wild West / Leavin' towns that” the singer claims to “love the best” as he “come into New York town.” Just as his incredulity at “buildings goin' up to the sky” echoes Carraway's memorable view of “the city rising up across the river as the city seen for the first time” (73), so too Dylan's image of his West as a congeries of towns in “Talking New York” calls to mind Carraway's confession of his preference for “the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio” over the “superiority” of the East (184). Dylan plays with familiar East-West “superiority/inferiority” tensions in showing the song's hero “in one of them coffee-houses” in Greenwich Village where the proprietor unwittingly affirms the narrator's western authenticity by rejecting him, telling him “You sound like a hillbilly / We want folksingers.” Calling someone a “hillbilly,” as Cecelia Tichi observes, encapsulates a broad historical and sociological narrative by which a monied, mannered, urban East has sought to exclude by disparagement and condescension a presumably vulgar, upstart, disruptive West (133-34). Carraway invokes this narrative with the realization that Gatsby “has been after all a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan, and I were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (184).

In an ironic turn at the end of “Talking New York,” the singer's return to the West, his announcement that he “headed out for them western skies” becomes self-canceling, like the first ending, the autobiographical homecoming ending of Nick Carraway's own narrative. After this first ending seems to resolve Nick's own autobiographical plot, Fitzgerald shows Nick recollecting a return to New York on business about a year after Gatsby's murder. This return prompts the novel's actual conclusion, Carraway's famous transhistorical meditation, his evocation and imaginative replacement of the suburban Long Island landscape where most of The Great Gatsby takes place (189).

Deferred and alternative endings abound in Dylan's songs, often turning on his signature switches between guitar and harmonica self-accompaniment. More memorably, endings turn on Dylan's management of lyrics and narrative, as in “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” In a false farewell reminiscent of Gatsby, Dylan's would-be Village folksinger in “Talkin' New York” welcomes the “western skies” to which he retreats with the phrase “Howdy, East Orange”—naming a suburban New Jersey city about ten miles from Manhattan, far closer to Times Square than even West Egg. This desire for and irreparable exile from the West surfaces comically in a single line on Dylan's next album, Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, in “Bob Dylan's Blues.” The line,

The Lone Ranger and Tonto
They are ridin' down the line
Fixin' everybody's troubles
Everybody's 'cept mine

sardonically deprives the singer of the superior virtue and justice public mythmakers customarily attribute to the West.

In a more elegiac vein, “Bob Dylan's Dream” on Dylan's next album, situates the Dylan persona “on a train going west,” a stance identical to Carraway's evoking “vivid memories” of school friends on Chicago-bound trains at the end of Gatsby (183). Here Dylan's narrator recollects “the first few friends I had” and the way “we longed for nothin' and were quite satisfied” in their illusion of immunity from “the world outside” and the conviction that “we could never get old.” Dylan's narrator seems to buy into Gatsby's illusion that “of course you can repeat the past” (116) until midsong, when he points out that the “chances” of recovering this state “really was a million to one” and in closing merges this Gatsby stance with the chastening Carraway position that opens this exchange, the reminder that “you can't repeat the past” (116). Just as Fitzgerald lets the gap between a diminished present and an irretrievable past linger by having both Carraway and Gatsby repeat the phrase, “can't repeat the past,” Dylan's recorded vocal and instrumental performance reinforces this gap. It punctuates each intimation of his diminished present by interrupting the vocal's steady guitar accompaniment with fermata harmonica solos.

Though elegiac strains in both works make time and history appear intractable, both Dylan's songs and Gatsby present space and geography as easily manipulated. Gatsby's striking relocation of San Francisco to a transcontinental “midwest” (67) and the drunken displacement of Biloxi to Tennessee (134) later in Gatsby belong to the same cartographic revisionism whereby Dylan places East Orange under “western skies.” Dylan also indulges in such remapping in “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues,” which sets a redundantly bilingual “Rue Morgue Avenue” in Juarez, and in “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream,” which shifts the Mayflower landing to “the Bowery slums.”

Dylan elaborates this Gatsbyesque move most extravagantly at the close of his 1975 ballad “Tangled Up In Blue,” a trans-American odyssey like Gatsby. The song opens with the singer “headin' out for the East Coast” and then abandoning a “car we drove as far as we could” somewhere “out West” and then working “in the great north woods and drifting down to New Orleans.” It ends with the narrator “still on the road headin' for another joint.” All this map-scrambling moves, like Fitzgerald's most accomplished prose, “in two directions at once” (McInerney 26), and culminates, like Gatsby, in giving the last word to the narrator's sententious recognition that “the past was close behind.” Thus Dylan's remembered odyssey ultimately fails, though providing much pleasure, in the form of verbal pyrotechnics, instrumental exuberance, and vocal surprise in reaching this realization. This argument between extravagance and fatalism gives narrative and descriptive credence to his closing realization that he and whomever he encountered on his odyssey “just saw” all the pursuit and evasion the song renders “from a different point of view.” With the acknowledgment of this contingency, the singer achieves a Carraway-like distance on his own odyssey. This distance promises liberation from youthful parochialism, the code of the Carraway “clan,” (7) or from the “illusion” that Dylan, voice dropping, associates with “all the people we used to know” at the end of “Tangled Up in Blue.”

This distance also provides both writers with the same sort of rhetorical leverage by turning their residual attachment to a lost home in the West into a distant, even Olympian, vantage point for viewing Americanness tout cort. According to David Minter, “Fitzgerald made the history and myths of the U.S.—promises kept and betrayed—his own” (112). Dylan claims a similar agenda as the omniscient first-person narrator who tells the history of American violence in “God on Our Side,” on his third album. Dylan follows Carraway in postulating the midwestern perspective as the national one: “My name it ain't nothing, my age it ain't less, the country I come from they call the midwest.”

This critical, even jeremiadic, distance presents all of U.S. history as a fiction, a story, a collection of hegemony-making books. In the last verse of “With God on Our Side,” Dylan admits that “words fill my head” rather than facts or convictions. A similar recognition informs both the self-referential epigraph to Gatsby and the opening paragraphs, which show the narrator mulling over his father's words, along with his subsequent timetable name-scribbling (64). Dylan's sense of reality as verbal construct appears most succinctly in “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”:

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall.

As Carraway illustrates at the end of Gatsby, the advantage of such a conviction lies in the susceptibility of “reality” to revision, critique, and erasure: “an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone” (188). Central to both writers' sensibilities is the understanding that the power of erasure and revision, which rest on an appreciation of the constructedness of our verbal and ideological universes, at once provokes and disciplines romanticizing impulses.

In Dylan's songs and in Gatsby this preoccupation with words extends to larger verbal packages, books. Early in “With God on Our Side” Dylan sings, “the history books tell it, they tell it so well the cavalry charged and the Indians fell,” while the next verse announces via poetic inversion, “the names of the heroes I was made to memorize.” The penultimate verse appeals to the most canonic book of all, citing the Bible's account of Judas betraying Jesus, but it leaves an opening for the reader to step outside its ordained constructions and those of school history books, by reminding the listener, “you'll have to decide whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” From Tom Buchanan's proto-Nazi reading recommendations in chapter one (17) to Gatsby's bookish self-fashioning as reflected in the Franklinesque plan-making that Mr. Gatz presents to the narrator before Gatsby's funeral and in the Hopalong Cassidy dime novel in which the narrator finds Gatsby's life-plan, a similar awareness of how books and words make people and peoples—or nations—pervades Gatsby. Fitzgerald plays on the distinctly American reverberations in the word “West” by inscribing Hopalong Cassidy, as does Dylan with recurring references to the dime-novel and Hollywood West: to the Lone Ranger, to the Cisco Kid, to cavalry-and-Indian battles.

Dylan's most conspicuous stress on the verbal and imaginative construction of America comes in “Bob Dylan's 115th Dream,” which provides a critical retrospect on the familiar stock of formative discovery and settlement narratives with references and allusions that recall the “Dutch explorers” and the “New world” that “pandered” to these explorers' utopian fantasies in Carraway's closing meditation. Dylan's singer frames his announcement, “I think I'll call it America I said as we hit land” (emphasis added), with references to “riding on the Mayflower” and to “Captain Arab” (for Ahab) “saying boys forget the whale.” The song closes with the narrator's abandonment of the New World, leaving “Arab stuck on some whale,” out West and “married to the deputy sheriff of the jail.” Dylan's dream song saves for last “the funniest thing,” his final encounter with “three ships” whose captain “said his name was Columbus,” to whom the singer “just said, ‘Good luck.’”

Standing at once beyond and within such constructions of self and nation, both Fitzgerald's narrator and the recurring voice of Dylan's first, most influential, decade strive for and achieve a cosmopolitan perspective that takes them and their audience beyond the U.S. western substratum of their work. The cover picture of Dylan's suggestively titled 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home depicts the artist very much at home, viewing the album's owner from a worldly rather than a parochial vantage point. Shot in “an old Victorian mansion” along the Hudson, this mockingly Gatsbyesque “stagy cover photo” situates the performer in “a setting” that was “elegant and chic” with Dylan looking “alert and interested … [,] not detached as he had been on his previous albums” and projecting an “image of choice—the sophisticated Bob Dylan—the jet-setter, arbiter of taste … [,] not some hayseed folksinger” (Spitz 272). The most emphatic announcement of Dylan's integrating worldliness—politics and commerce—with the imperatives of artistic expression appears in the foreground of this cover. A cover-within-a-cover picture of Time features President Lyndon Baines Johnson as man-of-the-year standing out in a field of competing covers, a blurred Jean Harlow magazine and a fanned-out pile of albums by blues and folk artists who influenced Dylan. The pairing here of the “respectable” history-producing Time, which with its ubiquitous, Big Brother-like “staring covers” threatened, according to Allen Ginsberg, to “run” every American's “emotional life” (“America”), with down-market fanzine, recalls Fitzgerald's agenda in “evoking newspapers, magazines, and their influence” in Gatsby: to indict the way the mass-circulation magazine “represents coerced common judgment” (Berman, World 135; cf.Gatsby48, 103) or, as the a clef Dylan figure in Scott Spencer's novel, Rich Man's Table, puts it:

What kills you is the consensus, what you read in the papers and hear on the television, it's an invisible fence of received wisdom, and government-inspected ideas, it's the conspiracy of common knowledge. Common knowledge is worse than lies. Common knowledge eats the truth and then shits it out and buries it.


In the background of this album cover, holding a bent elbow over LBJ's face, a swarthy raven-haired young woman in a short-sleeved red peignoir points a cigarette at an off-white neoclassical mantle while looking defiantly at the camera. Her pose intimates stereotypically Old World worldliness, if not decadence. Evidence of Dylan's attention to pitting clichés of European sophistication and corruption against equally compelling, equally hackneyed, ideas of American innocence and ignorance surfaced comically in the utopianly titled talking blues, “I Shall Be Free,” on Dylan's second album, in which the singer imagines:

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop.
It's President Kennedy callin' me up.
He said, ‘My friend Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?’

Posing as presidential confidant, the sort of mysteriously influential role popularly imputed to Gatsby (Gatsby 48, 103), Dylan recalls his counsel:

I said, ‘My friend, Jack, Brigitte Bardot, Anita Ekberg, Sophia Loren.’
(Put ‘em all in the same room with Ernest Borgnine.)

A similar though subtler play on images informs the Bringing It All Back Home cover: In contrast to the woman's pose, Dylan faces the camera with a weary gaze, his lips on the verge of pout. He wears all muted colors and shares the foreground of the photo with a gray long-haired kitten set between his hands and staring straight at the camera and with a Cold War-style yellow and black “fallout shelter” sign turned on its side and partly blurred by the overexposure-induced circle of light that serves as an inner frame for the photo. This mise-en-scene seems to aim at the “continuous and cumulative effect” Lionel Trilling ascribed to Fitzgerald's Gatsby style, which weds “tenderness” with “a true firmness of moral judgment” (243-44).

Critique also seems to inform the topical allusiveness that textures Gatsby: allusions to immigration-policy controversies; to popular songs, movies, and familiar advertisements (Berman, Modern 19-20, 24-28, 46-48, 128). Recurring snippets from the 1920s hit song “Ain't We Got Fun,” the looming image of an optician's billboard, Myrtle Wilson's utopian shopping fantasies, and Daisy Buchanan's vision of Gatsby as “you know the advertisement of the man” (125) all illustrate the extent to which consumption and mass entertainment contest Fitzgerald's narrator's opening demand for unstinting “moral attention” (6). Topicality (in the form of Bette Davis, Hitchcock's Psycho, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, boxers Davey Moore and Hurricane Carter, hit man Joey Gallo, No-Doz caffeine pills, and pillbox hats) functions similarly throughout Dylan's songs. Often this topicality belongs to an American exceptionalist utopianism and the claims to virtue it sanctions, as in Dylan's “Gates of Eden,” “The Hour that the Ship Comes In,” and Dylan's answer to the labor anthem, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” “I Dreamed I Saw Augustine.” In contrast to these compositions' meditative and elegiac politics, Dylan protest songs, such as “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carol” (Edmundson 52-3) and “Masters of War,” call to mind Nick Carraway's unsettling turn from “reserving all judgments” (5), the balancing of contraries and ironies and ambiguities that Fitzgerald judged the crux of genius in The Jazz Age, to the expressly moralizing sentence Fitzgerald has Carraway pronounce against the Buchanans at the end of Gatsby. Carraway states, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed things and creatures around them and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (187-88). Morally charged commentary in both artists' writings seems at once to prompt and to deny hopes of social betterment.


Both Fitzgerald's and Dylan's ambivalent stress on worldly, even topical, engagement demands a commensurate verbal style. In his reassessment of Gatsby, George Garret calls it a “wildly experimental novel” with a “composite style whose chief demonstrable point appears to be the inadequacy of any style (or any single means of perception or single point of view) by which to do justice to the story” (114). Dylan articulates just such an artistic credo in his early song, “Restless Farewell,” which begins complaining that “the silent night is shattered by the sounds inside my mind,” prompting the singer to turn back to consider “the signs,” just as Carraway ponders signs in the form of a Long Island Railroad timetable and an optician's billboard. After an interruptive, contemplation-provoking harmonica break, Dylan concludes:

I got the restless hungry feeling
That don't mean no one no good.

He then softens this confession of malevolence with a Whitmanesque gesture, a profession of egalitarian inclusiveness:

… everything I've been saying, friend,
You could say it just as good.
You're right from your side and I'm right from mine.
We're both just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind.

Dylan's rhyming here of “good” with itself hammers home the inadequacy, the inevitability of stylistic impasse, the recognition of which Garret imputes to Fitzgerald. This recognition echoes in Carraway's resignation at his failure to communicate with Tom Buchanan at the close of Gatsby: “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child” (188).

The management of such difficulty in Gatsby and Dylan's songs is remarkably similar. It consists of rehearsing the inadequacies Garret cites in order to overcome them, embracing stock vocabularies and tropes as a means of purging their staleness. Christopher Ricks (who treats Dylan as a legitimate heir to Fitzgerald's precursor, Keats) praised Dylan as Shakespeare's equal, citing Dylan's “intuition as to how a cliché may incite reflection, and not preclude” it (“Clichés” 61; Keats 98). Such an intuition surfaces in Fitzgerald's play on almost all of Tom Buchanan's global pronouncements—on the Nordic race (17), on “self-control” and in coining the cliché “Mr. Nobody From Nowhere” (137).

Fitzgerald's rendering of Wolfsheim's mawkish redundant reminiscence about the “old Metropole” rests on sustained elaboration of this intuition (74-75). While lunching with Carraway and Gatsby, Wolfsheim “brooded gloomily” under “Presbyterian nymphs”—a brutal counterpoint to the virile, Jewish, unabashedly corrupt Wolfsheim presiding over a space “filled with faces dead and gone. Filled with friends now gone forever.” The redundant phrase “dead and gone” and the presiding nymphs evoke a “sentimental atmosphere”—a decidedly clichéd ambience, which Fitzgerald empties of reassuring familiarity by having Wolfsheim turn from the cliché to a cheerful account of his friend Rosy Rosenthal's gangland-style execution at the Metropole, a turn the narrator stretches with the observation that “a succulent hash” prompted Wolfsheim to forget the “sentimental atmosphere” he had established. Fitzgerald completes this scene's alienation effect with an oxymoronic modifier, which at once stresses the inadequacy of language to depict Wolfsheim and the narrator's pleasure in trying: “he began to eat with a ferocious delicacy.”

Fitzgerald also purges “sentimental atmosphere” from matters even more susceptible to sentimentalizing, from “love” itself. As Leslie Fiedler observed, “For Fitzgerald, ‘love’ was essentially frustration and yearning” (316). Fiedler went on to ascribe Fitzgerald's antipathy to conventional, sentimental renderings of love to the way in which Fitzgerald “identified himself with that sexual revolution which the '20's thought of as their special subject.” As the voice of a successor “sexual revolution,” Dylan further unpacks the sentimental discourse of romance by disclosing its unspoken sexual underside, which the phrase “four-letter-word” usually fits, most forthrightly in the refrain and title phrase of “Love is Just A Four Letter Word.”

This impetus and talent for unpacking bromides and platitudes also shapes many of Dylan's rhyme-and-image sequences. The 1965 “Tombstone Blues,” for example, takes “Gypsy Davey” from an old English folk ballad and has him arrive with a “blowtorch” and an assistant from the Cisco Kid TV westerns, “his faithful slave Pedro.” Pedro provides a stamp collection and, with it the hoariest modern American cliché of all, a phrase right out of Dale Carnegie's best-seller—“a fantastic collection of stamps to win friends and influence. …” In the 1965 recording, Dylan's voice pauses at “influence,” thus calling into question its grammatical status: Is “influence” here Dale Carnegie's verb, minus its predicate, or a sentence-ending noun? After this pause, Dylan swerves away from Dale Carnegie's stock phrase and substitutes the expected predicate “people” with the phrase “his uncle.” This substitution reinforces the cliché-defeating switch by breaking the rhyme-pattern in the verse (camps / tramps / stamps—uncles) as Dylan does throughout “Tombstone Blues.”

The force of these lines also lies in their image juxtapositions, a characteristic of Dylan's style that peaked in the late sixties on the album Blonde on Blonde and in such narratives on the John Wesley Harding album as “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest.” In the Wolfsheim passage above, Fitzgerald presents Carraway as a student of “startling juxtapositions,” the most memorable of which may be the juxtaposition of Gatsby's soft, rich billowy shirts and Daisy's stormy crying (97-98). This stress on juxtaposition in Gatsby anticipates Fitzgerald's famous pronouncement in The Crack Up that “the test of a first-rate intelligence” is “the ability to hold to opposed ideas in the mind at the same time” (69). Just as Fitzgerald's Gatsby style results from the way his “sentences achieve an unhappy marriage” (Godden 80), Dylan's style in his most memorable songs rests on “awkward marriages” between melody and lyric, image and syntax (Thomson). The result in both writers' work is, in Philip Weinstein's assessment of Fitzgerald, art that “mocks both closure and exposure” (143) and writing, in Frank Kermode's verdict on Dylan, that's “tough on allegorists” (188).

Throughout American literary history such resistance to allegory and antipathy to closure has marked the aspiration and the differentia of distinctly American writing, as hallmarks of the poet Emerson famously summoned in 1844 the artist who provokes “the imagination … to flow and not to freeze,” the antithesis of the mystic who “nails a symbol to one sense, which was true for a moment but soon becomes old and false” (322). Leading up to Emerson's account of language as “vehicular and transitive,” this devaluation of belief in favor of irresolution echoes in the “transitory moment” at the center of the narrator's closing meditation in Gatsby, a meditation that follows from Nick's inconclusive departure from the East and from the romance he sought there.

The “un-American” “mysticism” that Emerson disparages also figures as Fitzgerald's antagonist in his rigorously ambivalent limning of Catholic priestcraft throughout his fiction. The most notable instances include Father Schwartz, whom Fitzgerald's sympathetically severe narrator leaves “muttering inarticulate and heart-broken words in ‘Absolution,’” which Matthew Bruccoli cites as Gatsby's precursor (Babylon 150; Gatsby vii-ix), and the defeated “papal cross” with which Dick Diver “blessed the [Riviera] beach” he created and from which his own corrosive charm and corrupting knowledge has banished him (Tender 5-6, 314). Similarly acknowledging the aesthetic appeal and the cognitive dubiousness of priestcraft, Dylan's 1967 anti-allegory, “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” features an unnamed pallbearer reminding listeners that “nothing is revealed” before announcing “the moral of this story, the moral of this song.” This “moral” boils down to an admonition: “Don't go mistaking paradise for that home across the road”—or, as Gatsby instructs, that home across the bay.

These two passages chasten utopianism while warning against the sort of “revelation” sanctioned by the apocalyptic and utopian ideologies to which Gatsby's eponymous hero and his Veblenian antagonist, Tom Buchanan, both subscribe. This convergence illustrates the role that Fitzgerald and Dylan share, as anti-prophets who made myths of their selves while in their art they undermined the very ground on which such myths rest.

Works Cited

Bayles, Martha. Hole In Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. New York, 1994.

Berman, Ronald. The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald's World of Ideas. Tuscaloosa, 1997.

———. The Great Gatsby and Modern Times. Urbana, 1994.

Dunaway, David. “No Credit Given: The Underground Bob Dylan.” Virginia Quarterly Review 69 (Winter 1993): 149-155.

Dylan, Bob. Lyrics, 1962-1985. New York, 1985.

Edmundson, Mark. “Tangled Up in Truth.” Civilization 4 (October/November 1997):50-55.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Writings. Edited by William Gilman. New York, 1965.

Fiedler, Leslie. Love and Death in the American Novel. 1960. Rev. 1966. Briarcliff Manor, NY, 1982.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. New York, 1934.

———. The Crack Up. Edited by Edmund Wilson. New York, 1945.

———. The Great Gatsby. 1925. Edited by Matthew Bruccoli. New York, 1995.

———. Tender Is the Night. New York, 1934.

Foltz, Kim. “A New Twist for Obsession.” New York Times (15 August 1990): D19.

Friede, Donald. The Mechanical Angel. New York, 1948.

Friedlander, Paul. Rock and Roll: A Social History. Boulder, 1996.

Garrett, George. “Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby. New Essays on The Great Gatsby. Edited by Matthew Bruccoli. New York, 1985.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco, 1956.

Godden, Richard. Fictions of Capital: The American Novel From James to Mailer. New York, 1990.

Goodman, Fred The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce. New York, 1997.

Gray, Michael. Song and Dance Man: The Art of Bob Dylan. New York, 1972.

Hurowitz, B. “The 20's Roar Back Into Style,” Macleans (2 August 1982): 30-33.

Kaplan, Justin. “The Naked Self and Other Problems” in Pachter, Marc. Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art. New York, 1979.

Kermode, Frank & Spender, Stephen. “The Metaphor at the End of the Funnel.” Esquire (May 1972): 109-118, 188.

Lewis, Anthony. “The Great Gatsby.” New York Times (6 August 1987): A 27.

Life Styes of the Rich and Shady. New York Times (7 April 1987): A24.

Mangum, Bryant. A Fortune Yet: Money in the Art of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, 1991.

Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. New York, 1997.

McInerney, Jay. “Fitzgerald Revisited.” New York Review of Books (15 August 1991): 23-28.

Minter, David. A Cultural History of the American Novel From Henry James to William Faulkner. New York, 1994.

Morton, Brian. The Dylanist. New York, 1991.

Murakami, Haruki. Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Tr. Alfred Birnbaum. 1991. New York, 1993.

Ricks, Christopher. “Cliches.” The State of the Language. Ed. Ricks & Leonard Michaels. Berkeley, 1981.

———. Keats and Embarrassment. London, 1974.

Schumacher. Michael. There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. New York, 1997.

Spencer, Scott. Rich Man's Table. New York, 1998.

Spitz, Bob. Dylan: A Biography. New York, 1989.

Thomson, Liz. “Fighting in the Captain's Tower.” New Statesman & Society (5 February 1992): 39-40.

Ticchi, Cecilia. High Lonesome: The American Culture of Country Music. Chapel Hill, 1994.

Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society. 1950. New York, 1953.

Weinstein, Arnold. Nobody's Home: Speech, Self, and Place in American Fiction From Hawthorne to DeLillo. New York, 1993.

Robert Seguin (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: Seguin, Robert. “Ressentiment and the Social Poetics of The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald Reads Cather.” Modern Fiction Studies 46, no. 4 (winter 2000): 917-40.

[In the following essay, Seguin uses the theme of “ressentiment” (loosely, the envy of the lower toward the upper classes) to explore Fitzgerald's social sensibilities in Gatsby, also noting similarities between Fitzgerald's novel and Willa Cather's A Lost Lady.]

Following his bout of emotional exhaustion in the mid-1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald came to describe what he called his “crack-up” in more than strictly personal terms. In his meditation on his depression, the crack-up expands outward in waves from Fitzgerald as individual, encompassing disparate social and cultural materials and achieving a certain allegorical intensity. At one point, the shape of Fitzgerald's psyche becomes expressive of the very curve of national history, from the bull-market twenties to the depressed thirties:

My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but I had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distil into little lines in books—and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural—unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.

(Crack-Up 84)

There is an extravagance to this declaration, an extravagance I want to take seriously. I will thus assume as my working hypothesis that Fitzgerald is entirely correct in this bit of analytical retrospection, and that the discontinuous sine waves of emotions and history can, in some exceptional cases, become temporarily synchronized. Indeed, the nexus mediating between the individual subject and the social ground in this passage seems principally an affective one, and in general Fitzgerald's writerly metabolism, its shape and trajectory through time, appears tied with unusual intimacy to a consistent and highly wrought emotional set. This affective matrix, as the above quote from The Crack-Up illustrates, is often self-consciously foregrounded as a kind of interpretive apparatus in its own right. What I wish to pursue in these pages, then, is the manner in which a particular affect can attain a deeper historical resonance, how it might furnish a singular set of conduits or relays between the facts of an individual life, a determinate set of aesthetic practices, and the specific rhythms of a given historical moment.

The social and political sources and functions of the emotions in general remain poorly understood, screened off in part by a tendency to grasp their material complexity as a matter of the individual subject as such, of one's own idiosyncratic makeup. The case of Fitzgerald prompts us, however, to explore a little further, to imagine the affective realm as one of concrete social expression, complete with precise temporal dynamics and figural embodiments which variously mediate social content and lived experience. The specific affect that I focus on here is, not happiness, but rather ressentiment, “resentment” in English. I retain the French to remind the reader of its Nietzschean usage, wherein it already begins to assume the form of a social-structural passion, as Nietzsche (in a politically conservative manner) positions ressentiment as the principal class affect—the “smouldering hatred of a peasant,” as Fitzgerald would describe his own attitude toward the upper classes (Crack-Up 77)—directed at the putatively superior aristocracy and related titled or monied groups. While it remains an ideological maneuver to interpret progressive and egalitarian political movements in terms of envy and hatred—a move that marks ressentiment's discursive translation into what Fredric Jameson has termed an ideologeme, one of the minimal units of antagonistic class discourse1—nonetheless ressentiment is real, a corrosive emotion that extends across the breadth of the class structure, the very tone of both its grim dramas of rising and falling and its petty quotidian power games alike. Such a choice of affect, one that already displays vivid social content, perhaps makes our overall task here somewhat easier, and allows us to specify at the outset that class dynamics—one of Fitzgerald's abiding interests—will be a central preoccupation in what follows.2

But things become complicated at once, as I suggest that what we discover in Fitzgerald is not so much ressentiment in its naked aspect but rather a kind of sublimated and softened form of it, its deeper energies still active but its surface manifestations, its characteristic linguistic expressions, having undergone a decided shift. Certainly the requisite familial context was in place for the early nurturing of social slights and resentments: Fitzgerald expressed lifelong shame over his déclassé upbringing and was haunted by his father's career failures, and as a child frequently prayed “that they might not have to go to the poorhouse” (Mizener 38). Though never actually in poverty, the experience of growing up on the frayed edges of more well-to-do neighborhoods marked him deeply, resulting in a lifelong sense of social unease and inculcating a kind of compensatory snobbishness. The full metamorphosis of such attitudes into an aesthetic practice occurs only with The Great Gatsby, and only after, I would argue, the intercession of another literary practice, that of Willa Cather's in A Lost Lady. It is only after Cather's literary mediation that Fitzgerald finds himself able to rewrite a certain personal history in consonance with economic and social developments, suffused with the characteristic notes of loss, of regret, of diminution—the lyrical echoes of feeling oneself to have been burned by History. Hence this essay will in a small way be a study of that rather old fashioned thing, literary influence, but in a new key, the emphasis upon affect and historical rhythm designed to aid in my larger purpose: a clearer understanding of the ultimate social grounds of the literary achievement that is Fitzgerald's in The Great Gatsby. I will begin by looking at the inter-textual currents flowing between the two writers before turning in the second part of the essay to a closer examination of The Great Gatsby itself.

In The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald invokes the voice of an unnamed woman who urges him not to think small but instead embrace his breakdown in world-historical fashion: “By God, if I ever cracked, I'd try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it's much better to say that it's not you that's cracked—it's the Grand Canyon” (74). By the end of his account, as we saw above, Fitzgerald seemed willing to entertain such an approach. In 1936, the same year that The Crack-Up was written, Willa Cather, in a famous remark in the headnote to Not Under Forty, echoed something of Fitzgerald's interlocutor: “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts” (v). Here Cather grandly names a crack in the world, and while there is no clear evidence that she suffered the sort of psychic ordeal that Fitzgerald experienced, still the year 1922 was an exceptionally difficult one for her: having undergone several operations related to gastrointestinal troubles, she was in poor health for much of the year; her great love Nellie McClung moved permanently to Europe; and her novel One of Ours was published that fall to harsh reviews that pierced her usual stoicism and wounded her sharply. As if seeking a kind of solace or retreat, she joined the ceremonious and tradition-oriented Episcopal church that December, signaling a renewed interest in religion and the beginnings of a slow movement into the past that would increasingly mark her fiction.

The novel that Cather published after this “year of the break” was A Lost Lady. In it, the prairie town of Sweet Water has decidedly seen better days. The town's leading citizens, the Forresters, are facing decline: Daniel Forrester, the incorruptible railroad magnate known mainly as the Captain, has suffered business failures and a stroke, while his beautiful wife Marian begins spending too much time with dubious locals like the unpleasant Ivy Peters, a crude and ambitious young man whose principal desire is to ascend the town's social ladder and displace the Forresters. Their troubles provoke a wave of hitherto suppressed and unsuspected bouts of spite and resentment from those who no longer regard the Forresters as models of civility and citizenship, or who no longer see in them the fulfillment of their own most powerful desires. In short, the veil of social decorum in Sweet Water is tearing apart, revealing a parched and bitter social and affective landscape.

As is well known, Fitzgerald read A Lost Lady in 1924, while he was working on the first draft of The Great Gatsby. He subsequently sent a copy of Gatsby to Cather with a letter acknowledging a writerly debt to her and even asking her leave for his close modeling of some passages in The Great Gatsby on A Lost Lady. Critical work on the precise nature of this debt has tended to follow Fitzgerald's lead and concentrate on the question of a certain transference of style.3 Others have pointed specifically to Fitzgerald's rendering of the first-person narrator in The Great Gatsby: the Nick Carraway we know today only fully emerges after Fitzgerald reads A Lost Lady, where there is, if not a first-person narrator, at least a limited third-person narrator who closely follows the perspective of Niel Herbert and his ambivalent fascination with the charming Marian Forrester (a relationship echoed in The Great Gatsby). While these stylistic and technical aspects are important, I prefer to grasp the matter of influence more in terms of an awakening or sharpening of an aesthetic or theoretical problem field. From this perspective, what comes into focus is the question of social representation, of how to narrate social and historical content, a primary concern as both Cather and Fitzgerald are equally concerned with questions of class and social structure. In particular, it is Cathers's use of affect as a means of charting social space and cultural change that Fitzgerald learned from but also altered for his own purposes: what is an aesthetic pedagogy is also, and at a certain level indistinguishably, an emotional pedagogy.

For it is indeed ressentiment, a searing, class-driven force, that grips Sweet Water. In addition to the hate-driven Ivy Peters, the townspeople in general are portrayed as sheer vermin whose sole purpose is to invade and bring down the Forresters' once elegant hilltop home. Even some of the wives of those “handworkers and homesteaders” who have settled the area, women who elsewhere in the Cather imaginary might merit considerable sympathy, fall prey to this bitter passion. When Marian Forrester falls ill, they have their opportunity: into the house they trounce, rooting through the closets and cellar and discovering, to their satisfaction, that in its diminished state there is really “nothing remarkable about the place at all!” (138).

Meanwhile, Niel Herbert, the young man who at first idealizes Marian only to become disillusioned with her once the household begins to decline, is himself marked as déclassé, a state that at length occasions his own bout of ressentiment. Niel's father has lost his property, and “there was an air of failure and defeat about his family” (30). Niel's status clearly informs his basic perspective: he can libidinally invest in the Forresters as representatives of a realm of wealth and beauty once available to him, but turns on Marian when the same fate befalls her after the death of her husband. Hence, the narrator's striking statement that “what Niel most held against Mrs. Forrester [was] that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men [that is, the bourgeois pioneers], and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged” (169), can be understood as less an exaggerated expression of pain at the passing of obsolete ideals than an externalization and transference of Niel's own self-hatred, the self-hatred of the déclassé whose imaginary escape from failure has been definitively blocked.

The resemblances to The Great Gatsby are evident. Nick Carraway shares with Niel an ambivalent attraction to those of higher social status as well as an air of failure (Nick does not finally make it in the East and returns to the Midwest, to the bosom of his family and the hardware business). The texts also share a concern with the real or imaginary fluidity of class positions—the apparent increase in the permeability of the upper social strata. What seems absent from the parched and intolerable social world of Sweet Water is any imaginative space of escape, or at least this space is present only minimally in the figure of the Blum boys, sons of German immigrants who are clearly marked as peasants (that is, Old World types who know nothing of American democratic ways). There exists between them and Marian a natural bond of sympathy, a note of interclass harmony at odds with the rest of the novel and very different from that “smouldering anger” of which Fitzgerald spoke.

If we imagine the vocation of narrative to be the working through of the various representational possibilities inherent in a given social content, the narrative task remaining after the aesthetic and ideological work of A Lost Lady is a more complete envisioning of some alternative or negation of Sweet Water's social bitterness. This task was taken up not only in The Great Gatsby but also by Cather herself in her next novel, The Professor's House, published in 1925, the same year as The Great Gatsby. In The Professor's House, this effort emerges first in a more fully elaborated version of the relationship between Marian and the Blum boys. Here there is a naturally harmonious relation between the Professor, a slightly aloof man of dark Spanish aspect who is figured as an aristocrat, and his peasant opposite, the earthy German seamstress Augusta. More crucial, though, is the figure of Tom Outland, described as an orphaned “tramp boy” who roams the Southwest as a cowboy until he eventually falls in with some Jesuits who clean him up and teach him some Latin. This rudimentary education soon launches him toward a metamorphosis into a scientific genius: chemist, physicist, and a mean amateur archaeologist to boot. Still, he retains a roughhewn and naive charm that wins over any social situation, and almost everyone in the novel is or was in love with him. In short, he's a wholly implausible fantasy figure, a utopian fusion of High and Low in all the cultural and social senses of those terms, a kind of “classless” narrative register. At some level Cather's novel recognizes this very implausibility, for Tom is already dead when the narrative opens. The only extended exposure to him that we receive is in the form of an interpolated first-person account of one of his Southwest adventures.

Is not Jay Gatsby a similar wish-fulfillment figure, intensely if variously invested in by those around him? His obsessive history with Daisy begins, of course, when he steps across the threshold of her house in Louisville, traces of his impoverished class background wiped clean by the “invisible cloak” of his military uniform. Bootlegger, Oxford man, distinguished veteran, rumored murderer: the sense of implausibility drapes him like a cheap suit. Rather than registering that implausibility indirectly, at the edges of the narrative as Cather does with Outland, Fitzgerald pulls that very uncertainty wholly within the perspective of Nick Carraway, creating a figure who alternately doubts and endorses Gatsby, or who sometimes seems to do both at the same time. Perhaps more importantly, the Nick/Gatsby dyad affords Fitzgerald the opportunity of critically restaging the thematics of ressentiment found in A Lost Lady. In Cather's novel, they had been used to chart in a lucid fashion the shifting social dynamics of Sweet Water; right alongside them, however, was a persistent register of idealized romanticism, waxing nostalgic about the faded ideals of the original Western pioneers. Cather puts some efforts into keeping these domains separate, marking the romantic imaginings as belonging to the past and the various resentments as part of the contemporary moment, but at certain points, particularly in the figure of Niel Herbert, the two strains are sufficiently conjoined, suggesting a rather more interdependent and symbiotic relationship.

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald seizes upon this more conflicted and ambivalent possibility, interweaving romanticism and ressentiment more intensely and in the process transforming both. Again, this is chiefly in the consciousness of Nick, where a related kind of splitting occurs. Characteristic of someone suffering from resentments of his own, Nick attributes ressentiment to all those around Gatsby, those who emblematize the “foul dust” that envelops and destroys him. Nick reserves for himself and Gatsby the more lyrical and romantic registers. It is the textual productivity of this conjoined affect machine that I wish to draw attention to here, one which seeks in its own fashion the eradication of the present. Fitzgerald's aesthetic practice creates a sensitive apparatus for the detection of new socio-historical content, one which has presented something of a conundrum to later critics in regards to its possible political and ideological valences. The novel has famously been taken as both a clinical exposé and a ringing affirmation of the American dream, as radical and conservative all at once. I think here of Fitzgerald's own characterization of himself in 1924 as “a pessimist, [and] a communist (with Nietzschean overtones)” (Bruccoli and Jackson 270), certainly an interesting phrase from our present perspective, implying as it does a simultaneous fealty and animus toward social hierarchy.4 Something of this dynamic is present in Cather as well, where some hierarchical relations are destructive while others point toward an imagined self-transcendence (though her generally conservative ideological investments are more readily limned). This works itself out in intricate ways in Fitzgerald.

In his 1932 essay “My Lost City,” one of several pieces collected in The Crack-Up which center on loss and dissipation, Fitzgerald recalls a striking moment from sometime in 1920 when This Side of Paradise was out and selling well, and he was on top of the world: “And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again” (29). His crying is precipitated, not by happiness itself, but via a secondary and temporally removed operation, as if Fitzgerald was at that moment imaginatively placing himself ten or twenty years in the future, a future already assumed to be diminished in comparison to that present, looking back on the moment and thereby generating what appears to be an intense regret. This recalls the stark process of inexorable declension announced at the opening of “The Crack-Up”: “Of course all life is a process of breaking down […]” (69). It is a process that follows various paths, with distinct temporalities: some psychic blows are registered quickly, while others are more stealthy and only come to consciousness long after the fact. The latter is the form taken by Fitzgerald's trauma, as he realizes that for two years he has been an empty shell, a man merely going through the motions of living. It is in either case a peremptory affair, seemingly less a matter of inexorable Spenglerian decline—a minor interest of Fitzgerald's, and another Nietzschean motif—than of a sudden rupture, or a series of staggered, unpredictable blows. In his writing from this period he broods on such rhythms, imagining, as above, similar occurrences much earlier in his life, in what amount to dress rehearsals for the definitive crack-up in the thirties. Recalling again in “Early Success” the time of his first rush of good fortune, he notes that “it is a short and precious time—for when the mist rises in a few weeks, or a few months, one finds that the very best is over” (Crack-Up 86). Or, after a distressing visit to Princeton during that same period: “But on that day in 1920 most of the joy went out of my success” (89). First months, then weeks, now days—what takes shape in the movement of these reminiscences is a kind of vanishing point of experience, a hole slowly opening up within the frame of a (now past) present such that immediacy is hollowed out and slips rapidly out of one's grasp. The duration of experience steadily shrinks until, as in the limousine, Fitzgerald is in a sense after or beyond the moment even as he lives it, caught in a complex movement of proleptic retroactivity and its attendant affective correlatives of loss and longing.

“But one was now a professional”: with this rather grim-faced assertion from “Early Success” Fitzgerald introduces what is in effect the counter-temporality to that more breach or rupture-oriented one just examined. The advent of this, too, occurs around 1920, when This Side of Paradise is due out: “While I waited for the novel to appear, the metamorphosis of amateur into professional began to take place—a sort of stitching together of your whole life into a pattern of work, so that the end of one job is automatically the beginning of another” (86). Here then is an unbroken continuum, a seamless expanse stretching to the ends of time, one whose inner logic maintains a peculiar symbiosis with the multiply-segmented breakdown line, at once a countervailing force and a kind of incitement.5 Fitzgerald never stopped lauding what he called the “old virtues” of work and courage, but he was also perpetually bitter over the extensive amount of inferior (he thought) writing he had to do, chiefly for popular magazines, in order to maintain his notoriously extravagant lifestyle—work which he felt kept him from his real vocation as novelist. A professional, then, is not quite an artist, or not only one; rather, a professional is someone for whom every moment is at least potentially one of work, a position familiar enough to intellectual and cultural laborers whose generally privileged and satisfying work is shadowed by this disconcerting temporal structure. This is overcoded in Fitzgerald's case by his early terror of the poorhouse, suggesting that he was being oddly evasive in his characterization of that peasantlike rage which supposedly marked his feeling toward the wealthy. Setting aside the anachronism, what emerges from the poorhouse in this society is not a peasant but a proletarian; the deeper fear of this potential destiny, like some alternate life line lodged inside his actual one, colored his class metabolism. It is thus striking that the chapter of Marx's Capital that he perhaps knew best was the central one on the working day (that “terrible chapter,” he called it [Crack-Up 290]). Here Marx precisely notes that, considered in the abstract, the very definition of the worker is that of a person whose every instant of lived time (minus the necessities of eating and sleeping) can be considered potential labor time. This is a “stitching together” into an infernal and inhuman continuity that resonates with Fitzgerald's own conception of his craft, constituting something like the “inner ressentiment” of the writing profession as such.

Signs of these competing temporalities are present throughout The Great Gatsby. Some of Daisy's remarks, remarkable for their simultaneous evocation of a breathless excitement and a peculiar sadness, elicit this competition: “‘In two weeks it'll be the longest day of the year.’ She looked at us all radiantly. ‘Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it’” (12). This is Fitzgerald again in the taxi, in some ways a textbook lesson about the absence of presence: you move toward a future moment, one which in this case promises some particular enchantment, then suddenly you are on the far side of it, “it” having never really taken place—or perhaps it took place without you, which might well be Nick's great fear—leaving you with only a vague regret. Or a slightly different version: “‘What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon?’ cried Daisy, ‘and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’” (118). Here, rather than the vanishing nodal point of the longest day, we have the setting up of a sharp anticipation, then, leaping across a suddenly empty-feeling thirty years, a desolate stretch perhaps more akin to the world of the “professional.” Jordan Baker catches the flavor of this: “Don't be morbid” she says at once to Daisy, at which point Daisy herself is on the verge of tears (118).

These examples rhetorically concretize and enact in miniature much of the prevailing mood of the novel as a whole, dramatizing the absent or hollow center which animates it—the invented life, the glamorous ephemera, the death in which it culminates. In them the present wavers just a little, not unlike those gaps or seams Nick perceives in Gatsby's self-presentation. These seams afford a glimpse of the dull machinery behind what Nick describes as the gorgeous “unbroken series of successful gestures” (2) that constitute Gatsby's personality. “My incredulity was submerged in fascination now,” Nick says when Gatsby informs him of war decorations received from the Montenegrin government. “It was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines” (67). This makes of Gatsby a virtual parable of the modernist crisis of Schein or aesthetic appearance,6 as a host of processes during this period—from painterly abstraction, to Dadaist interventions, to the increasing autonomy of narrative episodes and even of the sentence itself—threatened the aesthetic object with a collapse back into its initial raw materials: smudges of paint on canvas, black marks on a page, or (in Tolstoy's famous example of the theater) people milling about and occasionally talking on a raised platform. Indeed, Mitchell Breitwieser posits Gatsby as a kind of modernist impresario, a Long Island Le Corbusier whose enormous parties strive toward the totality itself, liquor-fueled villes radieuses which stand as prolegomena “to the construction of a society utterly responsive to unification by a single design” (32). But the trick can fall flat, the plan can be seen through, and those who have invested considerable time and effort participating in a particular elaboration of Schein can turn away in bewilderment and hostility (a hostility Nick will be quick to attribute to those around him and Gatsby). Gatsby as Gesamtkunstwerk thus falls short of realization and is shunned and disowned, a certain failure of aesthetic possibility being at one and the same time the allegory of the failure of a dual social and national possibility itself conceived largely in aesthetic terms. This is a persistent theme in American letters, from Hawthorne through Williams and West and beyond, and I will return below to its further implications.

There is a particular sort of excess figured in moments like Daisy's outbursts or in others like Gatsby's straightfaced offering of an anecdote of his life while seemingly doubled-up with laughter at the same time. They have in them something overwrought or histrionic, a straining to express more than is possible (“I'm p-paralyzed with happiness” [9]), or a rapid inflation and sudden deflation, like a balloon quickly filling then bursting. This excess, and there are perhaps different forms of it, is the most characteristic motif or pattern in the novel. This excess is produced when the generalized ressentiment of Cather and the social portrait she fashions is drawn within one centering consciousness or point of view, where it meshes with a certain expressive tonality and becomes a kind of aesthetic resource in its own right. Ressentiment in A Lost Lady already had a formal complexity to it, at once temporal and emotional: a rage directed at the present and the force of its circumstances and exigencies in the name of an imaginary past of idealized values that is at the same time the place of an original (and unrecognized) wound or insult—an intricate play of destruction and preservation. The animating irony, or even aporia, at work here is that the afflicted white bourgeois or petit bourgeois Americans of the story are precisely, as instigators of a pattern of historical modernization, the source of the wound in question. The temporality of the crack-up is, as Deleuze argues (though I think he too quickly assimilates the matter to alcoholism as such), strikingly similar, though it is wound-up more tightly and concentrated within the movement of a singularity: it is a kind of permanent past perfect (passé composé), a constant “I have been” in which a momentary hardness or intensity of the present (“I have …) invariably fades or takes flight into phantasmatic pasts (… been”). “It is,” Deleuze says, “at once love and the loss of love, money and the loss of money, the native land and its loss” (The Logic of Sense 160).7 He calls this the depressive aspect of Fitzgerald's condition, though Breitwieser, in examining the affective texture of The Great Gatsby, employs what strikes me as the more productive term, melancholia. He nicely characterizes this as an “anorexic” strategy designed to keep at bay the everyday viscousness of the Real and create a space for lyrical flights, “a chamber in which the dream can echo because the chamber is otherwise silent” (31). Here then is one register of the rather more sweetened form of ressentiment articulated by Fitzgerald seeking expression in those lyrical registers he learned so well from Keats (a lower-middle-class fellow with some fervid resentments of his own).

Melancholic, indeed, though this term risks remaining tied too closely to Fitzgerald's psychology and to a lyric embodiment. Hence it is together with those moments of “excess” that the full scope of the pattern detailed by Deleuze is played out. A certain level of excess in the novel is obvious enough: the lavishness of the parties, the Rolls Royces, the servants—the familiar trappings of Veblenesque leisure-class conspicuousness. But it extends down into individual narrative and linguistic moments in an instructive fashion. “He found her excitingly desirable,” (148) says Nick of Gatsby's initial reaction to Daisy. Not just exciting, or just desirable, but both, a little adjectival whirligig that spins and chases its own tail; this marks the origin of Gatsby's dream, which might well be recast as his obsession, a form of excess in itself. Think, too, of the wonderful, Homeric list of partygoers at Gatsby's that gathers a kind of deadpan comic momentum, or the old man selling dogs “who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller” (27), or (the already excessively Jewish) Meyer Wolfsheim's cufflinks made of human teeth that suddenly lend him the dark aura of some cannibal chieftain. There are as well those sheep rounding the Manhattan street corner, and Myrtle Wilson's pent-up, volcanic energy. All of these examples are moments or figures that momentarily exceed what they actually are, hijacking the world of present appearances and creating a parallel track of fantasy which flees into some alternative, but indefinite, realm. So, too, with the witness to Myrtle's death, the “pale well-dressed negro,” (140) whose appearance, as Breitwieser argues, exceeds narratological requirements: Why light skinned? Why well dressed? Is he too an aspirant, an outsider wanting in, not unlike Gatsby himself? We cannot know, as this figure vanishes at once, but the suggestion has been lodged. What to make, as well, of that odd and slightly notorious scene at the end of chapter 2 when Nick ends up beside Mr. McKee's bed, where the half-naked McKee shows Nick his book of photographs? An extravagant innuendo, at the very least (“keep your hands off the lever!” [38]), exceeding anything we might reasonably ascertain.

Finally, recall Gatsby's remarkable response to Nick's question about where he's from: the middle west, it turns out. What part of the middle west, asks Nick? “San Francisco” (65). Does Gatsby really think that San Francisco is in the Midwest? But this is a pointless inquiry. The sheer absurdity of the response, aside from giving it the aforementioned aspect of deadpan comedy, makes it another figure of excess, something that does not quite fit the container in which it is placed, threatening to burst things asunder. This already incredible answer of Gatsby's is in the midst of a longer and even less credible account offered of his Oxford education and his cavorting with European princes. Just as Nick seems about ready to call his bluff, Gatsby produces a photograph showing him with some other young men, holding cricket bats, with spires in the background. “Then it was all true,” says Nick, “I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart” (67). For the reader, however (less given to romantic leaps), the photograph does not exactly dispel all doubts: given the evident fabrications of Gatsby's tale, in what sense could it be simply “true”? What indeed is it really depicting? That is, rather than standing as some mundane arbiter of the facts of the matter, a simple registration of empirical realities, the photo instead becomes an exceedingly strange artifact, an excessive and even surrealistic object glowing with mysterious energies.

Such “excess” suggests the narrative and even rhetorical refiguration of the encounter between Fitzgerald's and Cather's particular instantiations of ressentiment. This stems at least in part from the very nature of ressentiment, which might itself be grasped as a form of excess, as it is an insistent, corrosive, and often malignant intensification of a certain class awareness, wherein what might have remained a discrete piece of social knowledge becomes an overriding passion or drive. Within the field of Fitzgerald's narrative and ideological practice, a form of splitting or fragmentation occurs, and different expressive forms of ressentiment crystallize. These range from Nick's snobbish asides, melancholic intimations of longing, and (one suspects) well-nigh permanently delayed gratification through to the notes and images of excess detailed above.8 Nick's romanticism tends to carry the more palpable affective charge and does the work of deflecting felt slights and cruel deprivations into a compensatory structure of fantasy which softens the rage into something more bittersweet. The figuration of excess is generally more affectively neutral, but all of this, I think—much like Daisy's utterances—involves a temporal component that seeks the sudden inflation and distortion of the present moment, a brief placement of the present sous rature or under erasure, as an early Derridean protocol had it, both absent and present, an incursion of the supramundane that renders the present temptingly fungible. Together these registers work to produce the simultaneous intensification and flight of the present: moments never quite realized, events that never quite took place, desires that were never quite fulfilled—or, as Deleuze more sharply puts it, they all were and were not in the one selfsame movement. “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (36), Nick muses in a formulation that nicely approaches what we are describing here.

The tension thus created stands as the very material index of the intricate and ambivalent positioning of the novel with respect to both its social ground and its exemplary place in the arc of Fitzgerald's career. Indeed, I like to imagine, in an Adornian fashion, a kind of utter subordination of the writer to his or her project, as a certain social and historical content, seeking, in the dynamism of its becoming, adequate aesthetic expression, seizes upon the accidental features of an individual life and psychology and draws them wholly within the process of its artistic self-elaboration. The artist in effect becomes a now fascinated and helpless appendage to this process—not passive, exactly, but one whose intentions and emotions themselves become transformed into so much literary raw material (what Goethe once spoke of in terms of “possession” by an aesthetic demon). It is to this social content that we can at last turn, by way of recalling that problematic of social representation that A Lost Lady embodied for Fitzgerald. For A Lost Lady is in some sense a narrative of social crisis, of rapid and debilitating social change that had implications for Cather's own aesthetic practice: in the twenties, after the world has “broken in two,” she can no longer write the same sorts of novels she once did. For Fitzgerald, however, this combined social and writerly crisis takes a rather different form.

Indeed, are the 1920s not themselves conventionally imagined as a period of excess, “roaring” from one over-the-top display to the next, with Fitzgerald himself as their duly-anointed chronicler? There are important truths in these popular images, though I think that sociologically speaking things were rather more complicated and ambivalent than this. While what I referred to above as a Veblenesque social structure was still much in evidence with its ostentatiously visible ruling elites, another material force to be reckoned with was on the scene, implying a rather different logic of social and ideological relations. I refer of course to the first full implantation of a mass consumer society in America: the assembly line, the five dollar day, the invention and aggressive extension of consumer credit, and the quantum leap forward in mass communication and advertising. This is much more than certain upper- or middle-class sectors buying commodities; this is the purchase of ever more and ever cheaper industrially produced goods by ever greater numbers of the whole population (including the working classes, numerically the greatest segment).9 This links for the first time what might be called the formalism of the profit motive—the restless, purely formal necessity for more pluses than minuses at the bottom of the accounting ledger—with consumption itself, now a formalized “more more more” en route to becoming a generalized social value for the first time (rather than a local “ethos” of this or that regional bourgeois fraction). Such a movement involves more than a simple ideology, but is a genuine material force, instantiated in practices, institutions, and social apparatuses, as well as ideologies, an excess which represents a problem for the kinds of leisure class representations of class content we normally associate with The Great Gatsby. This new sort of excess is of course nominally “democratic.” Unlike the Veblenesque scenario, which vividly dramatized class hierarchies and exclusions, the dynamic of consumption—partly ideologically but also partly for real, existing regardless of whatever patterns of status differentiation it becomes enmeshed with—this dynamic presented itself as at least tendentially available to all. This play of distinction versus leveling is interestingly complicated in the text by the figure of Gatsby, who is a transitional figure in that he himself uses conspicuous consumption to challenge and open up a still older form of distinction as represented by East Egg. Even this putative antiquity is deceptive, though, since the Buchanans—Midwestern interlopers themselves—happily take their place in it, testament to the difficulties involved in trying to preserve intact boundaries of wealth, exclusivity, and “breeding” that have essentially been generated out of thin air.

More crucially still, industrial production and its attendant dynamic of mass consumption encode within their historical deployment and elaboration the ultimate suppression or shearing away of older style class content, such that we end up, as in the contemporary period, with no functional or socially resonant representations of the ruling class (pop-cultural detritus like TV's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous in no way fulfilling this role). Fitzgerald's contemporaries, such as Leon Samson, an unorthodox socialist and analyst of American exceptionalism whose work deserves wider recognition, were beginning to notice this trend. “The more complete and complicated the American system becomes,” Samson wrote, “the more independent it gets to be of its owners and heirs […] American capital has succeeded in scaling such titanic heights that it has proletarianized even the capitalists themselves” (281-82). Samson here employs what was for him a characteristic mode of ironic overstatement, but the trend he calls attention to was genuine enough. The individualizing and leveling effects of mass consumption work over time to suppress the meaningful visibility of ruling groups, a visibility necessary for the cultural and discursive maintenance and presentation of the class character of society. I presume, of course, that ruling groups still rule; the problem, however, is with their representability, with the fashioning of a culturally credible image of this power, something beautifully allegorized in the novel in the contrast between the initial view of Tom and Daisy and our later glimpses of them. The opening is sweeping and cinematic:

The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy evening, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.


Later, however, after the accident that kills Myrtle, Nick does a little reconnaissance for Gatsby, in search of Tom and Daisy, who are now secreted away:

I walked back along the border of the lawn, traversed the gravel softly, and tiptoed up the veranda steps. The drawing-room curtains were open, and I saw that the room was empty. Crossing the porch where we had dined that June night three months before, I came to a small rectangle of light which I guessed was the pantry window. The blind was drawn, but I found a rift at the sill.

Tom and Daisy were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table […].


A dramatic decrease, then, in the Buchanans' visibility, an allegorical sequestering from public view whose now small-scale intimacy is itself tellingly described by Nick, who notes that “anybody would have said that they were conspiring together” (146). This is a remarkable premonition of what happens when the functionality of social groups is suppressed, a condition precisely identified by Jameson as the tendency “to dissociate the acknowledgment of the individual existence of a group from any attribution of a project that becomes registered not as a group but as a conspiracy” (Postmodernism 349). The cultural existence or presence of the economic and political agency of social classes is thus a signal casualty of our era and a development with serious social and political consequences. In the Marxian optic, of course, the very possibility of “real” politics—those that can significantly alter and improve the material well being and daily lifeworld of the broad masses of the population, indeed permitting them to undertake such a profound renovation for themselves—depends in large measure on at least some sort of tendentially dichotomizing dynamic (whose initial contours need not express themselves in strict class terms). In other words, the potential for working-class consciousness is itself dependent in part upon the perceptible reality of ruling groups.

So the excess of mass consumption is in tension with the excess of Veblen's conspicuous consumption. The latter is on the surface in The Great Gatsby, but I think it is the former which is at work in those more local, figurally striking moments. Such a reading is further suggested by the chief desire projected by Nick throughout the course of the story, a desire for security. This might be seen, for example, in his reluctance to involve himself in the uncertain play of human affairs (his “anorexic” tendency), the counterpoint to which are the moments when an unwanted public attention is turned upon him: “[Myrtle] pointed suddenly at me, and every one looked at me accusingly. I tried to show by my expression that I had played no part in her past” (35). Here the force of the Look pulls him out of his more comfortable spectatorial role; recall as well the suspicious glances of the women on the train as Nick bends to retrieve a dropped pocketbook. More crucial is the gravitational pull of that “warm center of the world” (3) represented by the Midwest of his childhood, to which his thoughts so often turn and to whose comforting embrace he has returned to write the narrative we now read. Indeed, he is now virtually as “safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (150) as Daisy herself. There is perhaps an infantile and Oedipal aspect to this, but before leaving it at that Freudian level it must be noted that security is also a value projected by mass consumption. Whereas the leisure class seeks to affirm itself via the direct or indirect class humiliation of everyone else, and thus promote a certain level of social insecurity, mass consumption promises something else. If, as Jameson notes, “we all do want to ‘master’ history in whatever ways turn out to be possible” (Postmodernism 342), and hence seek out a certain insulation from blind historical forces, then piles of more or less available commodities offer themselves up to recently proletarianized populations as another warm center of the world, something which again is more than mere ideological trickery but is bound up with materially dense forces of attraction and appeals to deep Utopian impulses.

And so, finally, Gatsby's shirts: another very famous scene, usually taken as emblematic of the commodity-drunk twenties and the mediation of Gatsby and Daisy's relationship by these commodities. Let me instead suggest a somewhat different reading, inspired in part by Richard Godden's observation that Daisy's precise action—“she bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily” (93)—to the extent that she does not simply collapse with abandon into them, implies more consideration than is normally supposed, a kind of distance or gap between herself and the shirts (Fictions 86). Rather than try, as Godden does, to ascertain what is really going through Daisy's mind here,10 I would simply observe a certain tension or agon between these two images, the leisureclass woman on the one hand, and on the other the pile of commodities whose very logic threatens to erase her social visibility. Allegorical tears, then, from a character whose “disappearance” will be as marked as (if, as so often with this class, rather less violent than) that of her working-class double, Myrtle Wilson.

Hence, in the end, the profound ambivalence and unique achievement of this novel, as the narrative tracks the emergence of new social content whose laws of operation will suppress the very social meaning of those images and representations from which Fitzgerald's aesthetic practice drew its initial and enduring inspiration. As in some devil's pact—though in this particular pact the two moments of charmed existence and terrible payment are coterminous—Fitzgerald's aesthetic impulses seize upon (or are exploited by) an historical dynamic that both sustains and destroys, and which portends the ultimate extinction of his writerly vocation and being. And, at some obscure level, this is at once known and fearfully cherished: getting burned by History as a kind of ecstatic self-realization. This dynamic issues in the complex movement of splitting and sublimation of ressentiment that we have discussed here, with its simultaneous intensification and undermining of present reality, its vivid excess and sharp longing, its romantic nostalgia and quiet bitterness (at once love and the loss of love, money and the loss of money). These all remarkably dovetail and spiral around one another in an effort to vehiculate a dense and tense knot of social, and essentially class, relations, themselves in complicated transition. This effort to capture and portray what is in the end an historical conundrum is one that perhaps can only end in exhaustion, and indeed, from this point onward Fitzgerald's career will never be quite the same. Writing will never again come so easily to him, and will at times, as during the writing of Tender is the Night, become a veritable torment.

Thus it is appropriate that the novel ends (as we, and so many other commentaries on the text, also end) with Nick sprawled on Gatsby's beach, his thoughts returning to the dawn of the New World. Here we are at that moment of the break with the old world, that moment of breathless Utopian possibility when the project of “America” rises in the imagination as an essentially aesthetic project, something it has largely remained ever since. But with remarkable echoes of Adorno's interpretation of Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens, Fitzgerald offers a rhetorically complex version of a dialectic of myth and enlightenment. In Adorno, the aesthetic (the Sirens' song, heard only by the bound master Odysseus) and exploited labor (the oarsmen, deaf with plugged ears to the fatal temptation) split off from one another at the very outset of “western” culture.11 Fitzgerald's Dutch sailors are themselves afforded a moment's aesthetic contemplation before the frenzied plunge into the continent which will inaugurate that very historical dynamic destined to vitiate the aesthetic dream, namely the stupendous eruption of human labor aimed at extracting as much wealth as possible: that is to say, class dynamics as such, the very ones so consistently disavowed in the dream of America and now materially masked by the advent of mass consumption. What results is a kind of spatio-temporal loop or prison, a seemingly forward movement that leads only backward: “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him […]. And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (182). Like Fitzgerald in the taxi, or Daisy awaiting the summer solstice, what is evoked here is a vanishing point in time that amounts finally to a foreclosure on the future, a condemnation to empty longing and repetition without issue. This includes both Fitzgerald's future, left now with only the insidious and changeless grind of sheer professionalism and its particular ressentiment (an omen of the crack-up to come), as well as our collective future as such. Here is the kernel of materialist insight that emerges from the political unconscious of this text and its serendipitous interaction with the details of Fitzgerald's writerly metabolism: no ultimate political or social future is possible without that class dynamic which The Great Gatsby at once dramatizes and effaces. Until such a development, a spectral “America” remains suspended in mythic brooding over the trauma of its always-failed attempts to realize itself.


  1. For this discussion, see Jameson, The Political Unconscious 201-205.

  2. Here and throughout I intend the term “class” not only in its more mainstream sense of income stratification but also and more crucially in the Marxian sense of a hierarchical organization of the labor process which affords the imposition of surplus labor and the extraction of surplus value via the production of commodities.

  3. On this, see Quirk. I have written in more detail on A Lost Lady and The Professor's House in my forthcoming book, Around Quitting Time: Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction (Duke UP).

  4. Compare as well the following, taken from a letter Fitzgerald wrote to Max Perkins (March 5, 1922): “I'm still a socialist but sometimes I dread that things will grow worse and worse the more people nominally rule. The strong are too strong for us and the weak too weak” (Kuehl and Bryer 57).

  5. For this terminology of break and segmentation, see the brief discussion of “The Crack-Up” in Deleuze and Guattari 198-200.

  6. The term Schein comes from German idealist aesthetics, where it designates the aesthetic effect achieved by the application of some process of construction upon a given set of raw materials. Its English equivalents (aesthetic appearance or illusion, fiction) tend to suggest some truth or reality existing behind the mere appearance, an implication not present in the German original. For a useful discussion of these issues, one which also broaches the problem of modernism, see Jameson, Late Marxism 165-176.

  7. I think that this passé composé can shift into a futur antérieur (“I will have been”) from time to time, though Deleuze, with characteristic schematic rigor, attributes this latter tense exclusively to another literary alcoholic, Malcolm Lowry.

  8. Though there has been much debate over his ethico-political status as narrator, I take Nick's snobbishness as a given. Not only is it announced on the first page—“as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat”—it is effectively performed. His father's advice, after all, concerned the need to be mindful of the disparate “advantages” available to people; it counseled, in a liberal and democratic spirit, a certain forbearance in the face of material inequality. Nick translates this into the unequal distribution of “a sense of the fundamental decencies,” an altogether more vaporous and idealistic matter far more open to corruption by class attitudes. This of course leads into Nick's oft-noted belief that he “reserves judgment,” when he is in fact busy judging left and right.

  9. For a persuasive periodization of the full creation of consumer society, one nicely grounded in the details of economic history, see Livingston.

  10. Godden suggests that Daisy momentarily recalls here the “original,” uniformed and classless Gatsby she knew from Louisville; the awful distance between that earlier, innocent figure and the improbable parvenu before her sparks her tears.

  11. See Horkheimer and Adorno, 33-4. I follow the widely shared feeling (by no means provable) that this astonishing rewrite of the myth, given its sheer dialectical brilliance and concentration, must be Adorno's doing, rather than that of the more prosaic Horkheimer.

Works Cited

Breitwieser, Mitchell. “The Great Gatsby: Grief, Jazz, and the Eye-Witness,” Arizona Quarterly 47.3 (1991): 17-70.

Bruccoli, Matthew J. and Jackson R. Breyer, eds. F. Scott Fitzgerald in His Own Time: A Miscellany. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1972.

Cather, Willa. A Lost Lady. 1923. New York: Vintage, 1972.

———. Not Under Forty. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1988.

Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia UP, 1990.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crack-Up. Ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions, 1945.

———. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner's, 1925.

Godden, Richard. Fictions of Capital: The American Novel from James to Mailer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. John Cumming. New York: Continuum, 1972.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

———. Late Marxism; or, The Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso, 1990.

———. Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Kuehl, John and Jackson Bryer, eds. Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald/Perkins Correspondence. New York: Scribner's, 1971.

Livingston, James. Pragmatism and the Political Economy of Cultural Revolution, 1850-1940. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994.

Mizener, Arthur. The Far Side of Paradise. New York: Avon, 1974.

Quirk, Tom. “Fitzgerald and Cather: The Great Gatsby.American Literature 54 (1982): 576-91.

Samson, Leon. The American Mind: A Study in Socio-Analysis. New York: Cape, 1932.

Mitchell Breitwieser (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Breitwieser, Mitchell. “Jazz Fractures: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Epochal Representation.” American Literary History 12, no. 3 (fall 2000): 359-81.

[In the following essay, Breitwieser explores ways in which Fitzgerald used the phrases “the Jazz Age” and “The Last Tycoon” to define epochs in American literary history, prefiguring the discipline which would become American studies.]

An earlier version of this essay was presented at “History in the Making: The Future of American Literary Studies,” a conference held at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in late March 1999. At the beginning of my talk, I remarked that I had grown up in Monona, a small town about five miles from the campus, and that I earned my BA from UW-Madison in 1975. Preparing for the talk, I confessed, had stirred up memories, among them my first reading of The Great Gatsby (1925), which powerfully evoked what F. Scott Fitzgerald called the promise of life. My students, I noted, hearing again that elusive tune I had heard 25 years before, tend to dislike, affably, my middle-aged reading, for instance my claims concerning Nick Carraway's bad faith or my preference for the centrifugal disturbances of Tender is the Night (1933). In the difference between my reading and theirs I see that, though Fitzgerald still interests me deeply, he has changed, or rather, the center of his gravity has for me moved not only to the discoveries of his later fiction but also to certain facets I had not noticed in The Great Gatsby, where he begins to think critically about history, about race, class, region, nationality, and about how the intersections of such powers provoke, shape, and frustrate desire. Fitzgerald's writing seems to me now less an expression and celebration of pure longing than an archaeology of American desire—not the unbroken lineage from Dutch explorers to Jazz Age dreamer that Fitzgerald posited at the end of his most famous work, but a sedimentation of desires, like the layers of Troy or the layers of meanings Freud peeled away in the analysis of the symptom—“America” as a condensation, aggregate, or depository of subject-residues, rather than a mystical being. This, I would say, is where Fitzgerald parts company from Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway and keeps company with William Faulkner and Zora Neale Hurston, his historical sense laying the foundation for what would be called American studies and prefiguring some of the disciplinary transformations within literary study that were the topic of “History in the Making.” To sketch out something of that prefiguration, I reflected on two terms, “the Jazz Age” and “The Last Tycoon.” Since the term “Jazz Age” appears in the 1931 essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” a postmortem of the 1920s, we have in both phrases an announcement that an American epoch has ended, an implied analysis of the subjective forms that the epoch produced, and speculations concerning the forces that brought about the end. I differentiated the two terms by contrasting the melancholia that typifies endings in The Great Gatsby and the 1931 essay with some new ways of thinking about social and personal coherence that Fitzgerald was exploring at the time of his death in 1940.

First, then, the “Jazz Age.” For Fitzgerald the term may have resonated humorously with Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age—periodizations of archaic humanity that came into use among archaeologists during the second half of the nineteenth century. If so, the irony is two-sided: first, whereas an “age” used to span centuries, the velocity of change is now such that we run through an age in 10 years or so, as long as it takes a culture-defining group of young people to follow the arc of its third decade; and second, whereas the universal plastic material that defines us used to be substance—stone, bronze, iron—it is now an intense, ungraspable cultural energy, jazz, “an arrangement of notes that will never be played again,” as Nick Carraway says of Daisy Buchanan's voice (11).1

As fundamental material, jazz saturates the culture of its epoch, supplying people, events, and artifacts with the character by which they are most succinctly grasped. The term “Jazz Age” therefore imputes to 1920s jazz what Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar call “expressive causality” (310), which “describe[s] the effect of the whole on the parts, but only by making the latter an ‘expression’ of the former, a phenomenon of its essence” (316). Althusser and Balibar's “but only” indicate their conviction that “expression” is a restrictive way to understand a society, that there are more complex and satisfying ways to think about parts and wholes, an idea, I will eventually argue, that Fitzgerald was approaching as he wrote The Last Tycoon (1941). But for now, let's stay with the idea of expressive causality, with, in Fitzgerald's case, a temporary national whole of which the parts are expressions, which is what makes an epoch—when the parts break away from their expressivity, become dark and single, then begin to recohere around a new core, the epoch gives way to its successor. Fitzgerald's commitment to expressive structure is especially evident in his post-Emersonian linkage between charisma and history, his belief, first, that in their alertness to the spirit of the epoch, remarkable individuals such as Jay Gatsby, Dick Diver, and Monroe Stahr are like “those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away” (6), and second, the belief that such harbingers will catalyze a similar spirit among those who enter the remarkable man's zone of self-display. Expressing the whole, the members of a transcendent avant-garde lead lesser persons to discover their latent character as symbols of the nation. Like his social vision, Fitzgerald's symbolist aesthetic is undergirded by his passionate theoretical commitment to the transcendent whole, his spiritual and libidinal nationalism appropriating the emotional and theoretical energies of his Roman Catholic upbringing—the essence of the nation bestows the kiss of worth on objects that then partake of its splendor by expressing it symbolically.2 America is where the Eucharist couples with the commodity fetish, a fervent articulation of American exceptionalism that influenced such literary works as On the Road (1957) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and that anticipated in fiction the line of scholars from Henry Nash Smith and Charles Feidelson through Richard Slotkin to Sacvan Bercovitch. Perhaps even more than Nathaniel Hawthorne, Fitzgerald is the prose poet of what Lauren Berlant calls the “National Symbolic”—“the order of discursive practices whose reign within a national space produces, and also refers to, the ‘law’ in which the accident of birth within a geographic/political boundary transforms individuals into subjects of a collectively-held history. Its traditional icons, its metaphors, its heroes, its rituals, and its narratives provide an alphabet for a collective consciousness or national subjectivity; through the National Symbolic the historical nation aspires to achieve the inevitability of the status of natural law, a birthright” (20).

The symbolicity of the symbol—its character as vessel containing abstract reality or as portal opening onto wonder—supplies the symbolic thing with its vitality. Failing that access, the thing is a mere thing, a dispirited outcome that in The Great Gatsby is figured as “foul dust” or ashes—devitalized remainder (6). These symbols of nonsymbolicity are extremely interesting to me, because they are the valleys where Fitzgerald, or his narrator at least, confines social life that fails to express the ideal (revulsion marking that place where insight will later appear). Insofar as a person is a living seismograph of the ideal, a pure register of abstract national content, he is truly vital, alive, luminous; insofar as he is particular—a person with projects, worries, tics, pleasures, and sorrows, all of them inflected by ethnicity, region, religion, class, gender, parental neurochemistry, and so on—he is a failure, merely particular, an outpost in which the rhythms of the capital have long since been forgotten. Determination by real circumstance and the complexity that this yields are markers of inadequacy. This is why Gatsby is great: he is always and only desirer-of-Daisy, and not desiring her as a particular woman, but desiring her for the abstract stuff that she is “full of” (94).

To exemplify the spirit of the nation is therefore to be a knight of desire, like Søren Kierkegaard's knight of virtue, for whom purity of heart is to will one thing. But what if the one thing that the symbol incarnates—the essence that makes the epoch an epoch—is not itself at one with itself, but rather fractured, internally complex? As my title suggests, this brings us back to jazz, the primal X of the decade. Jazz is mentioned most often in Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, Nick's excited account of the first party he attended across the lawn at Gatsby's: “By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz and between the numbers people were doing ‘stunts’ all over the garden while happy vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky” (51). A little later,

There was the boom of a bass drum, and the voice of the orchestra leader rang out suddenly above the echolalia of the garden.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he cried. “At the request of Mr. Gatsby we are going to play for you Mr. Vladimir Tostoff's latest work which attracted so much attention at Carnegie Hall last May. If you read the papers you know there was a big sensation.” He smiled with jovial condescension and added “Some sensation!” whereupon everyone laughed.

“The piece is known,” he concluded lustily, “as Vladimir Tostoff's Jazz History of the World.”

However: “The nature of Mr. Tostoff's composition eluded me, because just as it began my eyes fell on Gatsby, standing alone on the marble steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes” (54). This is a briefly puzzling moment—if Nick is simply distracted by Gatsby's appearance, why doesn't he say, “but I didn't hear the piece because” rather than “the nature of the piece eluded me because”? Several years ago I found the answer to this question in Fitzgerald's manuscript, which includes a long description of the “Jazz History” that was cut from the final version:

“The piece is known,” he concluded lustily, “as Les Epstien's Jazz History of the World.”

When he sat down all the members of the orchestra looked at one another and smiled as tho this was after all a little below them after all. Then the conductor raised his wand—and they all launched into one of the most surprising pieces of music I've ever heard in my life. It fascinated me. perhaps it was the champagne I've never heard it since and perhaps it was the champagne but for about fifteen minutes I don't think anyone stirred in their chairs—except to laugh now and then in a curious puzzled way when they came to the end of a movement.

It started out with a weird, spinning sound that seemed to come mostly from the cornets, very regular and measured and inevitable with a bell now and then that seemed to ring somewhere a good distance away. A rythm became distinguishable after a while in the spinning, a sort of dull beat but as soon as you'd almost made it out it disappeared—until finally something happened, something tremendous, you knew that, and the spinning was all awry and one of the distant bells had come alive, it had a meaning and a personality somehow of its own.

That was the first movement and we all laughed and looked at each other rather nervously as the second movement began. [new paragraph mark] The second movement was concerned with the bell only it wasn't the bell anymore but two intrum wi a muted violin cello and two instruments I had never seen before. At first there was a sort of monotony about it—a little disappointing at first as if it were just a repitition of the spinning sound but pretty soon you were aware that something was trying to establish itself, to get a foothold, something soft and persistent and profound and next you yourself were trying to help it, struggling, praying for it—until suddenly it was there, it was established rather scornfully without you and it stayed there seemed to lurk around as with a complete self-sufficiency as if it had been there all the time.

I was curiously moved and the third part of the thing was full of an even stronger emotion. I know so little about music that I can only make a story of it—which proves I've been told that it must have been pretty low brow stuff—but it wasn't really a story. He didn't have lovely music for the prehistoric ages with tiger-howls from the trap finishing up with a strain ffrom Onward Christian Soldiers in the year two B. C. If wsn't like that at all. There would be a series of interruptive notes that seemed too fall together accidently and colored everything that came after them until before you knew it they became the theme and new discords were opposed to it outside. But what struck me particularly was that just as you'd get used to the new discord business there'd be one of the old themes rung in this time as a discord until you'd get a ghastly sense that it was all a cycle after all, purposeless and sardonic until you wanted to get up and walk out of the garden. It never stopped—after they had finished playing that movement it went on and on in everybody's head until the next one started. Whenever I think of that summer I can hear it yet.

The last was weak I thought though [ ] most of the people seemed to like it best of all. It had recognizable strains of famous jazz in it—Alexander's Ragtime Band and the Darktown Strutter's Ball and recurrent hint of The Beale Street Blues. It made me restless and looking casually around my eye was caught by the straight, graceful easy figure of well proportioned well-made figure of Gatsby who stood alone on the his steps looking from one group to another with a strange eagerness in his eyes. It was as though he felt the necessity of supplying, physically at least, a perfect measure of entertainment to his guests. He seemed absolutely alone—I never seen anyone who seemed so alone.

(The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile 54-56)

Startling, fascinating, ultimately dismaying, and even frightening in its manifest but inexplicable logic, the “Jazz History” seems not to express its audience, but rather to stand in sardonic or satiric relation to them, making them drop their hilarity and mutuality, and to look to one another for a reassurance that none can supply to the others. But the dismay and consequent revulsion Nick feels do not overwhelm an obvious interest: “I was curiously moved.” The nature of the piece eludes him, he says, just when he seems to be about to have it in hand: it seems to have a core, but it veers off just when about to present itself. The performance does not venture into the unexpected in order to return to the domestic consolation of familiar motifs or melodies: even the return of familiar elements is uncanny and threatening, since those elements, when they recur, are embedded in a miasma that distorts them not beyond recognition, but in such a way that recognition and disorientation become the same thing. The music seems to amplify rather than to soothe the party's echolalia.

Such a contortion of the familiar world breaks out at several points in the novel, for instance in Nick's speculations concerning Gatsby's last moments: “[H]e must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid too high a price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about …” (169). Material, without being real: only the ideal confers real reality on material things, and lacking it they become nightmares. “[D]isruptions in the realm of the National Symbolic,” according to Berlant, “create a collective sensation of almost physical vulnerability: the subject without a nation experiences his/her own mortality and vulnerability because s/he has lost control over physical space as a part of his/her inheritance” (24).

Even when the East excited me most … it had always a quality of distortion. West Egg especially still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman's name, and no one cares.


The wonder, interest, and horror of “The Jazz History of the World” is that its distortion of the world is a deliberate human production, rather than a symptom of postepochal decay: it is an artifact, not a ruin. Nick and Fitzgerald are baffled by and irresistibly interested in what seems to them to be the enormous perversity of the act of intentionally disconnecting things from their expressivity and turning them into stranded, carefully fashioned monstrosities—terminating expression, dissevering the conduit that makes things really real, assiduously producing a residue of unique creations that only a rather total failure of attention could assign to a category such as ashes or junk. Though the excised passage does not associate such intentional distortion with African-American cultural practice, a 1926 letter thanking Carl Van Vechten for a copy of his novel Nigger Heaven (1926) makes the connection clearly: “[Your novel] seems, outside of its quality as a work of art, to sum up subtly and inclusively, all the direction of the northern nigger, or, rather, the nigger in New York. Our civilization imposed on such virgin soil takes on a new and more vivid and more poignant horror as if it had been dug out of its context and set down against an accidental and unrelated background” (Fitzgerald, Letters 490).3

Those readers who listen to jazz may have concluded that, despite the incomprehension and ethnocentric or racist revulsion, Fitzgerald realized what jazz is. Compare his account of “The Jazz History of the World,” for instance, with André Hodeir's analysis of Louis Armstrong's “Butter and Egg Man,” written in the 1950s about a recording from the time Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby:

In this record, Armstrong manages to transfigure completely a theme whose vulgarity might well have overwhelmed him; and yet his chorus is only a paraphrase. The theme is not forgotten for a moment; it can always be found there, just as it was originally conceived by its little-known composer, Venable. Taking off melodically from the principal note of the first phrase, the soloist begins with a triple call that disguises, behind its apparent symmetry, subtle differences in rhythm and expressive intensity. This entry by itself is a masterpiece; it is impossible to imagine anything more sober and balanced. During the next eight bars, the paraphrase spreads out, becoming freer and livelier. Armstrong continues to cling to the essential notes of the theme, but he leaves more of its contour to the imagination. At times he gives it an inner animation by means of intelligent syncopated repetitions, as in the case of the first note of the bridge. From measures 20 to 30, the melody bends in a chromatic descent that converges toward the theme while at the same time giving a felicitous interpretation of the underlying harmonic progression. This brings us to the culminating point of the work. Striding over the traditional pause of measures 24-25, Armstrong connects the bridge to the final section by using a short, admirably inventive phrase. Its rhythmic construction of dotted eighths and sixteenths forms a contrast with the more static context in which it is placed, and in both conception and execution it is a miracle of swing. During this brief moment, Louis seems to have foreseen what modern conceptions of rhythm would be like. In phrasing, accentuation, and the way the short note is increasingly curtailed until finally it is merely suggested (measure 25) how far removed all this is from New Orleans rhythm!

(qtd. in Hadlock 30)

Hodeir is free of the discomfort that suffuses the Fitzgerald passage, but the point is the same, which makes Fitzgerald's excised fragment—itself set adrift from the novelistic whole it would have quite significantly failed to express—one of the first perceptive reactions to jazz performance among white American writers. By contrast, Rudy Vallee's dismay seems much less alert: “Truly I have no conception of what ‘jazz’ is, but I believe the term should be applied … to the weird orchestral effects of various colored bands up in Harlem. … These bands have a style all their own, and at times it seems as though pandemonium had broken loose. Most of the time there is no distinguishable melody. … [I]t is absolutely impossible for even a musical ear to tell the name of the piece” (qtd. in Stearns 182). Though partaking of Vallee's perplexity, Fitzgerald anticipates Hodeir's understanding that jazz by design offers no reunion with the already known, but rather, by way of improvisation, disconnects the familiar from its familiarity, making it do startling things. To someone as intensely and deeply committed to a sacramental and holistic conception of art and society as Fitzgerald was at this time in his life, such created tension could only appear as a fracture, a break in the body of the work and in the body politic, an alienation shared even by so recent and influential a critic as Ted Gioia:

An aesthetics of jazz would almost be a type of non-aesthetics. Aesthetics, in principle if not in practice, focuses our attention on those attributes of a work of art which reveal the craftsmanship and careful planning of the artist. Thus the terminology of aesthetic philosophy—words such as form, symmetry, balance—emphasizes the methodical element in artistic creation. But the improviser is anything but methodical; hence these terms have only the most tangential applicability to the area of jazz. The very nature of jazz demands spontaneity; were the jazz artist to approach his music in a methodical and calculated manner, he would cease to be an improviser and become a composer. For this reason the virtues we search for in other art forms—premeditated design, balance between form and content, an overall symmetry—are largely absent in jazz. In his act of impulsive creation, the improvising musician must shape each phase separately while retaining only a vague notion of the overall pattern he is forging. Like the great chess players who, we are told, must be able to plan their attack some dozens of moves ahead, the jazz musician must constantly struggle with his opaque medium if he hopes to create a coherent musical statement. His is an art markedly unsuited for the patient and reflective.


Fitzgerald's perception of jazz performance in the excised passage might seem to be more astute than a remark in “Echoes of the Jazz Age”: “The word jazz in its progress toward respectability has meant first sex, then dancing, then music. It is associated with a state of nervous stimulation, not unlike that of big cities behind the lines of a war” (16). But notice that Fitzgerald does not say this is what jazz is, but rather this is what jazz has meant and what it has been associated with. He is not really departing from the insight of the excised passage, but rather changing the subject from jazz to the image of jazz in the middle-class white popular imagination. His feeling for the distinction accords with the subsequent judgment of cultural and social historians: thought of primarily in terms of its conspicuous and propulsive rhythm, jazz came to emblematize for white Americans both an erotic vitality nearly lost in an effete society (but still effective among African Americans) and the pace of postwar technological modernity. This is the image of jazz, jazz understood as energy and velocity, that is implied in the term “Jazz Age” and embodied in Gatsby, the restless, not-quite-really-white roughneck with the world's most extraordinary car. Leopold Stokowski succinctly articulated this understanding of jazz: “Jazz has come to stay because it is an expression of the times, of the breathless, energetic, superactive times in which we are living, it is useless to fight against it. … America's contribution to the music of the past will have the same revivifying effect as the injection of new, and in the larger sense, vulgar blood into dying aristocracy. … The Negro musicians of America are playing a great part in this change” (qtd. in Ogren 7).4 Jazz could signify both primitivity and hypermodernity because in both cases it is thought of as raw energy preceding or outrunning form—a beat, rather than a conversation, a meditation, a paraphrase, or a discovery. An alternative form so radically disparate from popular performative norms as to be aesthetically unrecognizable to unexperienced listeners, jazz seems not to be form at all, only outburst.

When I talk about “real jazz” I mean to appeal only to a formal authenticity: we can, for example, say whether a poem is or is not a sonnet without recourse to mystical essentialism. The distinction between real jazz and the image of jazz became more tangled, however, when popularizers began to compose, perform, and record music that reflected the popular image of jazz. As such simulation gathers steam, the distinction between, say, the performances of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and what those performances are imagined to amount to is succeeded by the distinction between the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and, say, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, which was generally thought to be America's premiere ensemble. According to Burnett James, “Paul Whiteman, though called the ‘King of Jazz,’ fronted an orchestra of semi-symphonic proportions. His jazzmen had their way from time to time, but in essence only as a sideline” (15). Marshall Stearns expands this point:

The number of prosperous dance bands at the popular level multiplied, while the jazz content remained slight. At the same time, dancing the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and the Lindy was highly popular and the bands tried to oblige by playing a little hot jazz. … None of these large dance bands, however, could swing as a whole. The formula consisted of importing one or two “hot” soloists, or “get-off” men, letting them take a chorus once in a while surrounded by acres of uninspired fellow musicians. “Society band leaders like Meyer Davis and Joe Moss always wanted to have at least one good jazzman in their bands,” says clarinetist Tony Parenti. Bix Beiderbecke was doing this for Paul Whiteman in 1927. Beiderbecke was very well paid and his colleagues all looked up to him—the “hot” soloists were always the elite—but the frustration of being allowed to play so little, when he was hired because he could play so much, led to all kinds of personal problems and, indirectly, to the after-hours “jam session,” where a musician could play his heart out.


Kathy Ogren agrees with this assessment of the dance bands, especially Whiteman's:

Whiteman, who became the “King of Jazz,” saw his role as that of dignifying and legitimating jazz. He … explained away certain characteristics and performance practices original to the music. Whiteman warned musicians against using syncopation, which “gives a sense to the ignorant of participation in the world's scientific knowledge.” But, Whiteman continued, with a sense of relief, “Syncopation no longer rules American music … as we use it in the United States [it] is an African inheritance … but to-day it is no longer a necessary thing. It has been retained much as an ornament.” Whiteman's popular music became so closely identified with jazz that many Americans had no knowledge of its Afro-American origins. Whiteman himself, who disliked the association with jazz and dance music, titled his Aeolian Hall concert an “Experiment in Modern Music.”


The Aeolian Hall concert is a key cultural locus for my argument: commencing with some horsing around on “Livery Stable Blues” (1917) (introduced by Whiteman as “an example of the depraved past from which modern jazz has risen” [Ogren 161]), the orchestra proceeded through Tin Pan Alley numbers such as “Yes We Have No Bananas” (1923), escalated to the debut of “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), with George Gershwin on piano, and concluded with Edward Elgar's “Pomp and Circumstance” (1901-07). The sequence of the performance thus seems like a progression from energy to art, an effect that depends on agreeing with Whiteman's pronouncement that the structural core of jazz is an African ornament that can be sacrificed without significant loss in order to move to an aesthetic high ground. Where we might see a nonjazz orchestra equipped with a couple of jazz “stunts,” whinnying trumpets, and some boosted drumming, Whiteman claimed that his music was jazz emerged from its cocoon, its inner necessity fulfilled.

Thanks to extensive advance publicity, the Aeolian Hall concert was packed—invitations had been sent to Stokowski, Fritz Kreisler, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Van Vechten, and many other prominent white New Yorkers—and the response was tumultuous (Jablonski 66-67; Stearns 165-67). The concert was performed on 12 February 1924, a couple of months before the Fitzgeralds sailed for France; their celebrity at the time was such that they may have been included on the guest list, though I have been unable to discover whether they were invited or attended. In any case, the coverage in the New York papers after the concert was so extensive that Fitzgerald could not have failed at least to hear about the occasion. I am satisfied that the Aeolian Hall concert was the prototype for “The Jazz History of the World,” a lineage first suggested, as far as I can tell, by Darrell Mansell.6 (Mansell suggests that Fitzgerald may also have been thinking of jazz-inflected works by Darius Milhaud and Igor Stravinsky.) If Fitzgerald is in fact alluding to Whiteman's hubristic and ethnically defamatory extravaganza, the allusion is rather biting: though the excised passage seems at points to describe “Rhapsody in Blue,” it nonetheless alludes to, stays close to, what jazz is at its core, to what Whiteman called unnecessary ornament, a trope not far from Fitzgerald's “foul dust.” The performance at Gatsby's party, therefore, were Fitzgerald to have left the excised fragment in, would have put on view a rather fabulous cultural reversal, jazz per se reviving or breaking out at the heart of an event staged to curtail jazz and to appropriate its aura, not only an overturning of Whiteman's pretension but also an exuberant betrayal of the aesthetic norms governing the book in which it would have been enclosed. Though it is as hard to say for sure what Fitzgerald listened to as it is to prove he was at the Aeolian Hall concert, I am quite sure he would have heard the real thing as well as the smooth simulacrum: it is hard to imagine him not joining in on Van Vechten's Harlem fieldtrips, and in France Fitzgerald's friend and fellow émigré Gerald Murphy made a point of having the latest jazz records on hand—his yacht, the Weatherbird, took its name from an Armstrong record that he had sealed in the yacht's keel, a recording made two years after “Butter and Egg Man” (Tomkins 32, 116-17).

But if Fitzgerald heard jazz per se, his narrator nevertheless responds with aversion to what Thelonious Monk would later call jazz's ugly beauty, and the excised passage shows no awareness of the African-American motivations for jazz performance. If the serial paraphrasing that Nick hears seems to him to be a prolonged deformity or brutalization, to the performer improvisation means a kind of circumstance-based freedom, taking an element from the dominant culture, twisting it, turning it around and inside-out, seeing if it will serve ends other than the usual and familiar ones. Like experiment in general, it seeks to discover avenues of possibility through the midst of inevitability, and to do so without special worry about the survival of coherence. It is useful to recall Ralph Ellison's praise of Armstrong in the preface to Invisible Man (1952):

Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music. Once when I asked for a cigarette, some jokers gave me a reefer, which I lighted when I got home and sat listening to my phonograph. It was a strange evening. Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you're never quite on the beat. Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That's what you hear vaguely in Louis' music.


Willfully putting fidelity to the original aside, the performer liberates cultural matter, puts it into motion. Though this sort of individual departure from script seems to Nick to endanger the coherence and recognizability of the whole—to endanger the sort of expressive structure that Fitzgerald saw in his vision of American sacramentalism—in fact it adumbrates a radically different vision of cohesion, if not of wholeness in its ultimately metaphysical sense. Martin Williams explains this other vision well:

In all its styles, jazz involves some degree of collective ensemble improvisation, and in this it differs from Western music even at those times in its history when improvisation was required. The high degree of individuality, together with the mutual respect and co-operation required in a jazz ensemble carry with them philosophical implications that are so exciting and far-reaching that one almost hesitates to contemplate them. It is as if jazz were saying to us that not only is far greater individuality possible to man than he has so far allowed himself, but that such individuality, far from being a threat to a co-operative social structure, can actually enhance society.


My feeling that Fitzgerald came to a similar conclusion about jazz's motive brings me to The Last Tycoon, the novel on which he was working when he died of heart failure in 1940. Monroe Stahr, loosely based on Irving Thalberg, is Hollywood's most successful producer, dominating and organizing the ensemble of labor at his studio—drunken writers, extras, peevish celebrities, lighting men, etc.—with a firm, bluff, equable, brilliant, and self-assured demeanor that commands instant respect from all and yields successful collective enterprise. He thus recapitulates the social potency of Gatsby and Dick Diver from the preceding novels, but because he has found a young industry in a young place, his potency can exercise itself in legitimate business triumph rather than in crime, Riviera beach parties, or obsession with the daughters of old money. Because Hollywood is the last new industry and California is the geographical terminal beach for the series of longings that began with Dutch sailors staring at Long Island. Stahr is the last tycoon. He therefore culminates and closes an epoch somewhat longer than the Jazz Age, the century, more or less, from Andrew Jackson's election to the time of the novel. The commencement date is established early on in The Last Tycoon, when three characters enduring a long stopover during a transcontinental flight take an early-morning cab ride out to Jackson's mansion, The Hermitage. The first couple of times I read the novel this interlude seemed rather pointless, until it occurred to me that Fitzgerald meant us to see Jackson as the first tycoon—not a businessman, but a charismatic and unorthodox westerner who marshaled broad-spectrum appeal independently from established elites, creating in the process the economic domain in which the subsequent tycoons down to Stahr would flourish. From Jackson to Stahr, then, we have the Tycoon Age, with Stahr's life being the epoch's sunset, the moment when structure crumbles and the individuated pieces shed their expressivity, the luster they enjoyed while they stood firm in Stahr's light.

The novel is very unfinished. In what we do have, Fitzgerald launches the plot along two arcs, the thematic relations between which are not at first clear. First, Stahr is suffering the strain of overwork to the point of risking his life. Producing effective charisma is no longer an effortless or fulfilling enterprise, in part because Stahr's belief in the worth of his work, in the quality of his films, is diminished; and this subterranean slippage is aggravated by widening divisions in the studio, conspiratorial maneuverings by rivals whose crass profiteering is an index of their contempt for the moviegoing public, and advancing unionization among the laborer-writers. Such splitting and fraying suggests to Stahr that, despite his titanic labors, he only has a limited number of rabbits left in his hat.

In the second plot line, Stahr meets by chance a woman named Kathleen who closely resembles his dead wife Minna, an actress, and the resemblance stirs him from his apathy into a desperate and eerie erotic pursuit that recalls Edgar Allan Poe's “Ligeia” (1838) and anticipates Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958): “It was Minna's face—the skin with its peculiar radiance as if phosphorus had touched it, the mouth with its warm line that never counted costs—and over all the haunting jollity that had fascinated a generation” (64). As in those texts, the generative problem is the quandary of second love. If one is destined to love some one, then the act of doing so expresses his fundamental inner truth, his profoundest self, the continuity to which all changes can be subordinated. When love is seen this way, there can be no second love—either the first or the second must have only seemed to be love—because a second love would mean that the lover had a fluid or split core, and that change can therefore be radical. Recall Gatsby's incredulity when Daisy says she loved Tom too. The narrative of the second beloved who reincarnates or exactly resembles the first papers over this fracture in desire and in the desiring self by allowing the supposition that the second love is the first beloved redevivus. But in several quite stirring and uncomfortably beautiful encounters, Stahr seems to discover Kathleen's mystery, her difference from Minna, and this discovery only deepens the attraction, without provoking any severe crisis in self-image. Relinquishing the obsessive and coercive concern with near-exact repetition that predominates in Poe and Hitchcock, Fitzgerald quickly establishes Kathleen's not-Minnaness, with wisps of abiding uncanny reminder, as if, perhaps, second love improvises on the first, “to repeat yet not recapitulate the past” (89).

It should be clear what I consider to be the deep link between the two plot lines, the opening of divisions within what had seemed to be secure wholes—between Stahr and his profession, within his professional world, within his ambition and within his desire—splinterings that Fitzgerald emblematizes as the dispersal of light-sources: “Other lights shone in Hollywood since Minna's death: in the open markets lemons and grapefruits and green apples slanted a misty glare into the street. Ahead of him the stop-signal of a car winked violet and at another crossing he watched it wink again. Everywhere floodlights raked the sky. On an empty corner two mysterious men moved a gleaming drum in pointless arcs over the heavens” (62). This dispersed glow recurs later, on a Pacific beach near a half-completed house Stahr is having built. He takes Kathleen there one night for what turns out to be one of the most frank and moving sexual encounters to be found in Fitzgerald, who is usually prudish where the act is concerned. It is both funny and touching when their postcoital barefoot stroll along the ocean brings them into a field of squirming light, dozens of sparkling, spawning grunion, shiny, sexual, fecund, an extraordinary organic improvisation on what happened just moments before in Stahr's oceanside hermitage: “It was a fine blue night. The tide was at the turn and the little silver fish rocked off shore waiting for 10:16. A few seconds after the time they came swarming in with the tide and Stahr and Kathleen stepped over them barefoot as they flicked slip-slop in the sand. A Negro man came along the shore toward them collecting the grunion quickly like twigs into two pails. They came in twos and threes and platoons and companies, relentless and exalted and scornful around the great bare feet of the intruders, as they had come before Sir Francis Drake had nailed his plaque to the boulder on the shore” (92-93).7 In Fitzgerald's novels, African Americans commonly appear at the moment when the main characters' world is deeply disturbed, as if breaking-up is also breaking-open. Only in The Last Tycoon, though, is that disturbance refreshing and inexplicably inspiring—a sense of possibility perhaps enhanced by the echo between Drake's arrival in California and the transfixed gaze of the Dutch sailors at the end of The Great Gatsby. The man on the beach tells Stahr and Kathleen that he doesn't really come for the fish, but rather to read Emerson, a copy of which he is carrying in his shirt. His pensiveness is confirmed a moment later when, on hearing that Stahr makes movies, he remarks that he and his children don't go to the movies, “because there's no profit in it.” He continues down the beach, “unaware that he had rocked an industry” by shining this harsh light on Stahr's already-uneasy feeling of professional worth (93).

“Now they were different people as they started back” (94). The conversation with the man on the beach and the sexual interlude with Kathleen upset the elementary articles of Stahr's self-image, his commitment to his work, and his loyalty to his desire for his wife, but these inner fractures turn out not to be premonitions of subjective decay of the kind Fitzgerald described in “The Crack-Up” (1935) and depicted in Tender is the Night. Instead, they crack Stahr open, rather than up, investing him with an intuition of life below the monolithic, frozen unities of the tycoon and romantic love systems. This post-epochal intuition runs underground while he drives Kathleen home, then surfaces. We should recognize the terms Fitzgerald uses to describe Stahr's anomalous epiphany:

Winding down the hill he listened inside himself as if something by an unknown composer, powerful and strange and strong, was about to be played for the first time. The theme would be stated presently but because the composer was always new, he would not recognize it as the theme right away. It would come in some such guise as the auto-horns from the Technicolor boulevards below or be barely audible, a tattoo on the muffled drum of the moon. He strained to hear it, knowing only that the music was beginning, new music that he liked and did not understand. It was hard to react to what one could entirely compass—this was new and confusing, nothing one could shut off in the middle and supply the rest from an old score.


Lest we be ignorant of the source of such music, Fitzgerald immediately adds: “Also, and persistently, and bound up with the other, there was the Negro on the sand” (96). Without the disgust—“he liked and did not understand”—Fitzgerald returns to the insight of the excised fragment, acknowledging jazz's cultural origins and motivations, its allegiance to a future contemplated as something more interesting than the return of fulfillment.

Fitzgerald's early death strikes all the more sharply, for me at least, when I think about this new way of thinking that he was laboring so hard to convey, the series of discoveries of the real that The Last Tycoon would have been about—desire that is not a suburb of commodity-fetishism, labor politics, uninhibited capitalism, the self and the nation as diverse and nonself-identical. He was on the verge of something, like Stahr's unbuilt house, permanently unbuilt.

How did he come to that continental extremity? Perhaps something of an answer lies in the difference between Emerson's “Representative Man,” who has something, some mystical X that he bestows, and Gatsby, who has only desire, that is, who lacks rather than has, bestowing only a sharply focused version of others' more diffuse lacking. Gatsby apprises one that he shares an absence at the core, a vacancy that precedes the fantasms that address themselves to that vacancy—mystic nationhood, voices full of money, and fresh green breasts. If Fitzgerald found himself in the predicament Nick surmises in Gatsby, “[paying] too high a price for living too long with a single dream” (169), then he may have turned to face the constitutive deficit that the pursuit of the dream had been designed to distract him from. If the common feature of the artifacts in the American archaeological dig is longing, then perhaps the common feature of American experience is not the nation but rather the absence of the nation, temporalized as not yet. This feeling of the absence of the nation is historically produced by the deep belief that there ought to be—and that there could be—a nation, that is, a political and spiritual object that compensates for the extreme losses that typify the experience of modernity. I derive this conception of the nation as imaginary compensation from Benedict Anderson:

The extraordinary survival over thousands of years of Buddhism, Christianity or Islam in dozens of different social formations attests to their imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering—disease, mutilation, grief, age and death. Why was I born blind? Why is my best friend paralyzed? Why is my daughter retarded? … At the same time, in different ways, religious thought also responds to obscure intimations of immortality, generally by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin, etc.). In this way, it concerns itself with the links between the dead and the yet unborn, the mystery of re-generation. Who experiences their child's conception and birth without dimly apprehending a combined connectedness, fortuity and fatality, in a language of “continuity”?

Shortly later, Anderson addresses the predicament of modernity:

[I]n Western Europe the eighteenth century marks not only the dawn of the age of nationalism but the dusk of religious modes of thought. The century of the Enlightenment, or rationalist secularism, brought with it its own modern darkness. With the ebbing of religious belief, the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. As we shall see, few things were (are) better suited to this end than the idea of a nation. If nation-states are widely conceded to be “new” and “historical,” the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.


“The nation,” Homi Bhabha contends, “fills the void left in the uprooting of communities and kin, and turns that loss into the language of metaphor. Metaphor, as the etymology of the word suggests, transfers the meaning of home and belonging, across the ‘middle passage,’ or the central European steppes, across those distances, and cultural differences, that span the imagined community of the nation-people” (291). The US is of course one of the special cases, since its immemorial pasts are European and Native American: the past of the locale entails ethnic difference, whereas ethnic continuities are not local, that is, they connect to other nations. In large measure, Fitzgerald's reference to the Dutch sailors has seemed to many readers an attempt to say, we do have our own time immemorial now, finally, and thereby to transfigure or positivize the peculiarly originary place that lacking has occupied in the imagination of American national self-constitution. What I am proposing is that Fitzgerald may in his last years have begun to shift his focus from fantasmatic reimbursements—the green breast in all its avatars—to constitutive hunger or deficit, and to contemplate such deficit as an opportunity, rather than as an occasion for stoic resignation. If I am right, this development would echo with Claude Lefort's notion of democracy (rather than of nation):

Power was embodied in the prince, and it therefore gave society a body. And because of this, a latent but effective knowledge of what one meant to the other existed throughout the social. This model reveals the revolutionary and unprecedented feature of democracy. The locus of power becomes an empty place. There is no need to dwell on the details of the institutional apparatus. The important point is that this apparatus prevents governments from appropriating power for their own ends, from incorporating it into themselves. The exercise of power is subject to the procedures of periodical redistributions. It represents the outcome of a controlled contest with permanent rules. This phenomenon implies an institutionalization of conflict. The locus of power is an empty place, it cannot be occupied—it is such that no individual and no group can be consubstantial with it—and it cannot be represented.


Gazing from a Swiss mountain, Dick Diver observes a crucial vacuum that rivals, in its transfigured sorrow, Melville's Grand Armada, a play of figurality which is not restrained by a clear distinction between the thing and its shadow: “On the centre of the lake, cooled by the piercing current of the Rhone, lay the true centre of the Western World. Upon it floated swans like boats and boats like swans, both lost in the nothingness of the heartless beauty. It was a bright day, with sun glinting on the grass beach below and the white courts of the Kursal. The figures on the courts threw no shadows” (Fitzgerald, Tender 147-48).8 If the center is nothingness, then loneliness—the historical circumstance to which nationalism so ferociously and unsuccessfully responds—might come to seem mysteriously opportune, people and their things freed from the burden of symbolizing, finding their way through an epoch's ruin: “They sat on high stools and had tomato broth and hot sandwiches. It was more intimate than anything they had done, and they both felt a dangerous sort of loneliness, and felt it in each other. They shared in varied scents of the drug-store, bitter and sweet and sour, and the mystery of the waitress, with only the outer part of her hair dyed and black beneath, and, when it was over, the still life of their empty plates—a silver of potato, a sliced pickle and an olive stone” (Fitzgerald, Love [The Love of the Last Tycoon] 85).


  1. All future parenthetical references to the novel will refer to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: The Authorized Text (1991) unless noted otherwise.

  2. My understanding of the connection between nationalism, symbolization, and the simplification of historical reality is heavily indebted to John F. Callahan, The Illusions of a Nation:

    What, in America, have been the relations between complex human personality, history, and those myths summoned to explain the facts of history? What in the national past tempts succeeding generations to evade their history and seek mythologies of fraudulent innocence/particularly misleading, when applied to history, is the mythic mode's assumption that ongoing experience endlessly repeats past patterns of action and policy. Nevertheless, history and myth raise the same question for America: how does history rationalized subvert personality? How have dominant myths swayed consciousness away from complexity and freedom? Why have fixity, stereotype and a one-dimensional, denotative perception won out over fluidity, archetype, and personality in the round?


  3. I apologize for entering the term “nigger” into print. Would that it died out from misuse. But Fitzgerald's comment concerning the “direction” of African-American culture in New York seems important to me.

  4. This quotation originally appeared in Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), but I found it in Ogren. Ogren's book has been extremely helpful. I am also indebted to Burton Paretti, The Creation of Jazz (1992); Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition (1983); Samuel Charters and Leonard Kunstadt, Jazz: A History of the New York Scene (1962); Arnold Shaw, The Jazz Age: Popular Music in the 1920s (1987); Stearns; Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1968); and Gioia. I have been deeply affected by (and would like sometime to write an essay on) Sidney Bechet's autobiography, Treat it Gentle (1960). I am especially indebted to Richard Hadlock, both for his Jazz Masters of the Twenties, and for his weekly Sunday night radio show, “The Annals of Jazz,” from KCSM in San Mateo, CA, also at on the Web.

  5. I am continually surprised that an extended comparison of the careers of Beiderbecke and Fitzgerald has not been attempted, perhaps because of their different performative media. The resonances are many: in addition to death from drinking, they share an upper midwestern origin, rapid and somewhat scandalous celebrity, the pressure of coming to terms with the constraints imposed by success, and a fine strain of alluring and disturbing melancholia.

  6. For a discussion of the relation between jazz and symphonic performance during this period, see Bernard Gendron, “Jamming at Le Boeuf: Jazz and the Paris Avant-Garde” (1989-90).

  7. My feeling that this is for Fitzgerald a breakthrough (rather than a breakdown) moment, and that he felt it to be so, is reinforced by the presence of an item from his personal erotic code, bare feet. In a ledger he composed to help him recall his early years, Fitzgerald recalled that in August 1901, he “went to Atlantic City—where some Freudean complex refused to let him display his feet, so he refused to swim, concealing the real reason” (Turnbull 9). For July 1903, he writes: “There was also a boy named Arnold who went barefooted in his yard and peeled plums. Scott's freudian shame about his feet kept him from joining in” (Turnbull 11). In This Side of Paradise (1920), Amory Blaine is at one point the victim of a fantasmatic tormentor who leers at Blaine as if in full knowledge of Blaine's worst traits: “Then, suddenly, Amory perceived the feet, and with a rush of blood to the head he realized he was afraid. The feet were all wrong … with a sort of wrongness that he felt rather than knew. … It was like weakness in a good woman, or food on satin; one of those terrible incongruities that shake little things in the back of the brain. He wore no shoes, but, instead, a sort of half moccasin, pointed, though, like the shoes they wore in the fourteenth century, and with the little ends curling up. They were a darkish brown and his toes seemed to fill them to the end. … They were unutterably terrible … (113). The “terrible incongruity” anticipates the “Jazz History,” so it is not surprising that the issue of race would surface shortly after: “The elevator was close, and the colored boy was half asleep, paled to a livid bronze. … Axia's beseeching voice floated down the shaft. Those feet … those feet …” (114).

  8. See Callahan 82 on this passage.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis, and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left, 1970.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1983.

Berlant, Lauren. The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Bhabha, Homi. “DisseminNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 291-322.

Callahan, John F. The Illusions of a Nation: Myth and History in the Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1972.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” The Crack-Up. Ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions, 1945.

———. The Great Gatsby: The Authorized Text. New York: Scribner's, 1991.

———. The Great Gatsby: A Facsimile of the Manuscript. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. Washington, DC: Microcard Editions, 1973.

———. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ed. Andrew Turnbull. New York: Scribner's, 1963.

———. The Love of the Last Tycoon. New York: Scribner's, 1994.

———. This Side of Paradise. New York: Scribner's, 1986.

———. Tender is the Night. New York: Scribner's, 1962.

Gendron, Bernard. “Jamming at Le Boeuf: Jazz and the Paris Avant-Garde,” Discourse 12.1 (1989-90): 3-27.

Gioia, Ted. The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Hadlock, Richard. Jazz Masters of the Twenties. New York: Da Capo, 1988.

Jablonski, Edward. Gershwin: A Biography. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1987.

James, Burnett. Bix Beiderbecke. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1961.

Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory. Trans. David Macey. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

Mansell, Darrell. “The Jazz History of the World in The Great Gatsby.English Language Notes 25.2 (1987): 57-62.

Ogren, Kathy J. The Jazz Revolution: Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Stearns, Marshall W. The Story of Jazz. New York: Oxford UP, 1959.

Tomkins, Calvin. Living Well Is the Best Revenge. New York: Viking, 1962.

Turnbull, Andrew. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Scribner's, 1962.

Williams, Martin. The Jazz Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

George Monteiro (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Monteiro, George. “Carraway's Complaint.” Journal of Modern Literature 24, no. 1 (fall 2000): 161-71.

[In the following essay, Monteiro discusses possible sources for the last passage in Gatsby, in which Nick muses on how Long Island might have looked to the early explorers.]

In one of the most familiar passages in twentieth—century literature, Nick Carraway thinks back on the late Jay Gatsby, who had suffered so grievously from the hard malice of the Buchanans and their like in the inhospitable East. It begins as an elegy but turns into a lament for humankind's capacity for wonder and awe in the face of the hard truths of history. Disillusioned, sad, sentimental, this child of the Midwest looks out, through the mind's eye, across Long Island Sound and re-imagines the “old island” as it must have looked four centuries earlier to the Western sailors who were but the advance guard of the adventurers, immigrants, and settlers to come. Like the psalmist who sits by the rivers of Babylon, lamenting the lost Zion, he, too, weeps for what is past and will not return. It bears repeating.

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. 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. … 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—to-morrow 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.1

These final sentences of The Great Gatsby take on a strange and surprising significance when they are read against Fitzgerald's immediate sources for them in the literature about Columbus and the New World. Behind Nick's words and sentiments lies a vast body of Western literature on notions of a terrestrial paradise. Since Fitzgerald ties this “fresh, green breast of the new world” to a New York island that “flowered once,” as Carraway imagined, for “Dutch sailors' eyes,” it is possible to pin down his principal if not sole source for Nick's last rueful vision.

Washington Irving's A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, first published in 1809 and attributed to the fictional persona of “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” is a problem for the genre purist. While the book often mocks history and historical writing, it otherwise suits perfectly Fitzgerald's fictional imagination. For among other matters, it demonstrates how one fabulating writer confronts the stuff of history, drawing on his considerable folkloristic ability to turn historic materials into the romanticized stuff of national legend and Western myth. Irving's history describes the first look which those “honest Dutch tars” had of the New World when their ships “entered that majestic bay which at this day expands its ample bosom before the city of New York, and which had never before been visited by any European.”

The island of Manna-hatta spread wide before them, like some sweet vision of fancy or some fair creation of industrious magic. Its hills of smiling green swelled gently one above another, crowned with lofty trees of luxuriant growth, some pointing their tapering foliage towards the clouds, which were gloriously transparent, and others loaded with a verdant burden of clambering vines, bowing their branches to the earth, that was covered with flowers.2

Irving's description echoes earlier accounts of what the so-called “terrestrial paradise” might look like. In Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus (1828), Irving places Columbus' considerations of this theme within a greater tradition of such speculation, beginning with the “Grand Oasis of Arabia,” where, he writes, “exhausted travellers, after traversing the parched and sultry desert, hailed this verdant spot with rapture; they refreshed themselves under its shady bowers, and beside its cooling streams, as the crew of a tempest tost vessel repose on the shores of some green island in the deep.”3 He also summarizes St. Basilius' discourse on “Paradise”:

There the earth is always green, the flowers are ever blooming, the waters limpid and delicate; not rushing in rude and turbid torrents, but welling up in crystal fountains and winding in peaceful and silver streams. There no harsh and boisterous winds are permitted to shake and disturb the air and ravage the beauty of the groves; there prevails no melancholy nor darksome weather, no drowning rain nor pelting hail, no forked lightning nor rending and resounding thunder; no wintry pinching cold nor withering and panting summer heat, nor any thing else that can give pain or sorrow or annoyance; but all is bland and gentle and serene; a perpetual youth and joy reigns throughout all nature and nothing decays and dies.4

Later, in A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828), Irving summarizes Columbus' own thinking about the shape of the earth and the nature of the vast new world before him. “Philosophers had described it [the earth] as spherical,” he wrote,

but they knew nothing of the part of the world which he had discovered. The ancient part, known to them, he had no doubt was spherical; but he now supposed that the real form of the earth was that of a pear, one part much more elevated than the rest, and tapering upwards toward the skies. This part he supposed to be in the interior of this newly found continent, and immediately under the equator. … He beheld a vast world, rising, as it were, into existence before him; its nature and extent unknown and undefined, as yet a mere region for conjecture. Every day displayed some new feature of beauty and sublimity. Island after island, whose rocks he was told were veined with gold, whose groves teemed with spices, or whose shores abounded with pearls. Interminable ranges of coast; promontory beyond promontory, stretching as far as the eye could reach; luxuriant valleys, sweeping away into a vast interior, whose distant mountains, he was told, concealed still happier lands, and realms of still greater opulence. When he looked upon all this region of golden promise, it was with the glorious conviction, that his genius had, in a manner, called it into existence; he regarded it with the triumphant eye of a discoverer.5

Irving's major source for Columbus' speculations, theories, and convictions were Columbus' letters reporting on his four voyages to the New World. It was in his third-voyage letter that Columbus explained that the earth was in “the form of a pear … or like a round ball, upon one part of which is a prominence like a woman's nipple, this protrusion being the highest and nearest the sky, situated under the equinoctial line, and at the eastern extremity of this sea.”6 So important did he think his discovery to be that he repeated it in the same letter, in pretty much the same terms, only a few sentences further on. Therefore, when he reached the island of Trinidad, he was not surprised to find “the temperature exceedingly mild; the fields and the foliage likewise were remarkably fresh and green,” adding:

all this must proceed from the extreme blandness of the temperature, which arises, as I have said, from this country being the most elevated in the world, and the nearest to the sky. On these grounds, therefore, I affirm, that the globe is not spherical, but that there is the difference in its form which I have described; the which is to be found in this hemisphere, at the point where the Indies meet the ocean, the extremity of the hemisphere being below the equinoctial line. And a great confirmation of this is, that when our Lord made the sun, the first light appeared in the first point of the east, where the most elevated point of the globe is. …7

That Fitzgerald was acquainted with Columbus' letters may be confirmed further by his account of hardships suffered on his fourth voyage. As echoed later in Fitzgerald, he writes of “currents [that] were still contrary,” “currents still oppos[ing]” the progress of ships “in the worst possible condition” but “always beating against contrary winds.”8

If the finale of The Great Gatsby owes a good deal to Washington Irving, it is curious to note that Fitzgerald's novel might have had its own small share in a later historian's rendering of Columbus' Spanish in his letter on the third voyage. Samuel Eliot Morison, finding the existing translations of Columbus' letters into English to be unsatisfactory, informs readers of his Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (1942) that he has made his own translations of the original Spanish. Morison renders “de la forma de una pera … ó como quien tiene una pelota muy redonda, ye en un lugar della fuese como una teta de muger alli puesta9 as “the earth was not round after all, but ‘in the shape of a pear,’ or, like a round ball ‘on one part of which is placed something like a woman's breast.”10 “This breast,” continues Morison, “reached nearer Heaven than the rest of the world, and on the nipple the Terrestrial Paradise was located.”11 Interestingly, the English scholar Stephen Reckert, who quotes Morison's explanation for Columbus' miscalculations, also provides his own translation of the passage from Columbus' third voyage letter, which reads in part: “I began to think this about the world: I find it is not round …, but the shape of a quite round pear, and in one place like a woman's breast …, and this nipple part is the highest and nearest to Heaven. …”12

Foreshadowing Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, Columbus sets down his impressions on first looking at what would come to be called the New World:

All these islands are very beautiful, and distinguished by a diversity of scenery; they are filled with a great variety of trees of immense height, and which I believe to retain their foliage in all seasons; for when I saw them they were as verdant and luxuriant as they usually are in Spain in the month of May,—some of them were blossoming, some bearing fruit, and all flourishing in the greatest perfection, according to their respective stages of growth, and the nature and quality of each. … The nightingale and various birds were singing in countless numbers. …13

For the dreamer, as Dick Diver learns in Tender Is the Night, the nightingale of the imagination knows no spatial limitations. It has no natural habitat. But it does for Nick Carraway, of course, whose plaintive anthem evokes Columbus' vision as it is replayed for Dutch sailors, first in Irving, then in Fitzgerald. Gatsby embodies a twentieth-century version of their dream—it was William Butler Yeats's notion, it will be recalled, that man embodies truth but cannot know it—but he cannot get past the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, which has signaled from the start the absolute barrier to the realization of his dream of Daisy and the recoverable past.14

Of course what is problematic about Gatsby's dream is that it not only has roots in the past but that it is intended to remake the past. In short, it is temporally disoriented, for the dreams of Columbus and the others, including the Dutch sailors, are keyed to the possibilities of the future. Henry David Thoreau quotes Humboldt's words on Columbus as he first faces the New World:

The grateful coolness of the evening air, the ethereal purity of the starry firmament, the balmy fragrance of flowers, wafted to him by the land breeze, all led him to suppose (as we are told by Herrara, in the Decades) that he was approaching the garden of Eden, the sacred abode of our first parents. The Orinoco seemed to him one of the four rivers which, according to the venerable tradition of the ancient world, flowed from Paradise, to water and divide the surface of the earth, newly adorned with plants.15

Thoreau reveals his own wonderment, as he looks out over the beach at Cape Cod, that “men do not sail the sea with more expectation. Nothing remarkable was ever accomplished in a prosaic mood. The heroes and discoverers have found true more than was previously believed, only when they were expecting and dreaming of something more than their contemporaries dreamed of, or even themselves discovered,” he continues, “that is, when they were in a frame of mind fitted to behold the truth.” Thus, even the quixotic “expeditions for the discovery of El Dorado, and of the Fountain of Youth, led to real, if not compensatory discoveries.”16 Such quests differ from Jay Gatsby's, though, for there can be nothing compensatory when, as in his case, the risk is absolute.

Washington Irving's History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus also anticipates Carraway's simile connecting the egg to Columbus in the first chapter of The Great Gatsby:

Next to the countenance shown him by the king and queen, may be mentioned that of Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza, the grand cardinal of Spain, and first subject of the realm; a man whose elevated character for piety, learning, and high prince-like qualities, gave signal value to his favours. He invited Columbus to a banquet, where he assigned him the most honourable place at table, and had him served with the ceremonials which in those punctilious times were observed towards sovereigns. At this repast is said to have occurred the well known anecdote of the egg. A shallow courtier present, impatient of the honours paid to Columbus, and meanly jealous of him as a foreigner, abruptly asked him whether he thought that, in case he had not discovered the Indias, there were not other men in Spain, who would have been capable of the enterprize? To this Columbus made no immediate reply, but, taking an egg, invited the company to make it stand upon one end. Every one attempted it, but in vain; whereupon he struck it upon the table so as to break the end, and left it standing on the broken part; illustrating in this simple manner, that when he had once shown the way to the new world, nothing was easier than to follow it.17

Irving then adds a footnote: “This anecdote rests on the authority of the Italian historian Benzoni. … It has been condemned as trivial, but the simplicity of the reproof constitutes its severity, and was characteristic of the practical sagacity of Columbus. The universal popularity of the anecdote is a proof of its merit.”18 Interestingly enough, Mary Shelley borrowed the anecdote of Columbus and the egg from the 1828 edition of Irving's Columbus. In her 1831 preface to Frankenstein, she writes:

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos; the materials must, in the first place, be afforded: it can give form to dark, shapeless substances, but cannot bring into being the substance itself. In all matters of discovery and invention, even of those that appertain to the imagination, we are continually reminded of the story of Columbus and his egg. Invention consists in the capacity of seizing on the capabilities of a subject, and in the power of moulding and fashioning ideas suggested to it.19

This is not a bad explanation for what encourages Jay Gatsby to think that he can re-fashion the factual past, bringing it into line with his clear dreams and hazy ideals, much like the Dutch sailors with all time and place seemingly opening out before them. So too, Jay Gatsby, that young student of “needed inventions,” succeeds in becoming both his own Dr. Frankenstein and his own creation. He is, after all, to Nick's amazement, his own best invention: the product of his Platonic conception of himself. Like Mary Shelley's monster, he is not accepted by the villagers, from whose ranks will come his murderer.

Behind Fitzgerald's story of New York and the East, however, lies still another major source, this time not for the anecdote about Columbus' triumph over his carping critics, but for the fable of failure that is the story of the two Eggs, West and East. Into the mix out of which emerged The Great Gatsby had gone Sherwood Anderson's “The Triumph of the Egg.” Published in The Dial in March 1920 and collected in 1921 in a volume bearing the same title as the story, Anderson's story, from one point of view at least, offers a major criticism of that version of the American Dream promising success to those who work honestly, hard, and long, especially to those independent souls who strike out on their own into the adventurous but dangerous realm of small business.

Like The Great Gatsby, “The Egg” (its final title) is a first-person retrospective narrative. A son recalls his boyhood, his mother and father, his father's attempts to succeed. He meditates on the dark metaphysics of raising chickens and the darksome effects on a child of living among the daily dying of chicks and chickens. Not so mysterious diseases decimate the population, and the stupid chicken has a predilection, like a character in Gatsby, for running out into the road and being struck dead by passing vehicles. The chicken farm fails (compare the Uncle Sol of E. E. Cummings' poem “Nobody Loses All the Time,” who, after committing suicide, finally starts a successful business, a “worm farm”), and the father starts a restaurant. But chickens and eggs are in his blood. He has a collection of monster chicks, with two heads, multiple legs, and the like, preserved in jars, and he has learned to perform tricks with eggs. Anxious to satisfy his ambition for himself and his family (when single he had his own horse), his desperation takes a singularly American turn toward Barnumism. He will attract customers to his restaurant by exhibiting his chicken wonders and doing magic tricks that he will not hesitate to explain to his customers. The showing of his exhibits is doomed from the start. It would take a rare bird, indeed, to order a fried egg sandwich or a Western omelet as a bizarrie of chicken freaks before him suspended in preservative alcohol stare out at him.

The father on this day, to amuse and bemuse his only customer, moves anxiously and excitedly to his magic tricks. He promises to do the real trick that Columbus said he would do but did not.

“Well,” he began hesitatingly, “well, you have heard of Christopher Columbus, eh?” He seemed to be angry. “That Christopher Columbus was a cheat,” he declared emphatically. “He talked of making an egg stand on its end. He talked, he did, and then he went and broke the end of the egg.” My father seemed to his visitor to be beside himself at the duplicity of Christopher Columbus. He muttered and swore. He declared it was wrong to teach children that Christopher Columbus was a great man when, after all, he cheated at the critical moment. He had declared he would make an egg stand on end and then when his bluff had been called he had done a trick.20

The father proceeds to his trick. He will make the egg stand alone by rolling the egg between the palms of his hands, claiming that he was coaxing the electricity from the human body into the egg. When he does bring off the trick, however, his customer is not looking, and by the time the latter looks back, the egg has fallen over.

It does not seem to be far-fetched to think here of Gatsby's grand entertainments designed to attract Daisy, weekend parties that have no other meaning for Gatsby beyond that one purpose. Of course, they too fail ultimately. Nick Carraway early on foreshadows the notion of the Columbian sham that so angers the father in Anderson's story “The Egg” when he describes West Egg and East Egg, “a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals,” he continues, “—like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end.” With Columbus on his mind, it is no wonder that Nick describes himself as “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler.”21 For all of his Barnum-like tricks and Columbus-like antics, Gatsby will fall before the “hard malice” of others. Fitzgerald was, of course, not rewriting Anderson's story. But it might have been one of its starting points, not the least of which was the ironic, elegiac, rueful tone of its retrospective narration.22

Nick is carried away with his narration, his mythologizing, his defense of Gatsby the criminal with an impossibly sentimental ideal that fails to recognize both the incarnation in Daisy of the grail which he is in the quest of and the realities of the human condition, among the contingencies of which is inevitable mutability and the passage of time. The battle of East Egg and West Egg is over, and there is no winner.

The Columbus and egg story surfaces also in the William Faulkner story “The Bear.” “Cass” McCaslin Edmonds presents his cousin Isaac McCaslin with a global overview of an exhausted Old World just before the New World is discovered. For a “thousand years … men fought over the fragments of that collapse until at last even the fragments were exhausted and men snarled over the gnawed bones of the old world's worthless evening until an accidental egg discovered to them a new hemisphere.”23 That new hemisphere provided him with opportunity, but at a cost, as Faulkner reported to the Delta Council, a Mississippi group honoring him in 1952:

By remaining in the old world, we could have been not only secure, but even free of the need to be responsible. Instead, we chose the freedom, the liberty, the independence and the inalienable right to responsibility; almost without charts, in frail wooden ships with nothing but sails and our desire and will to be free to move them, we crossed an ocean which did not even match the charts we did have; we conquered a wilderness in order to establish a place, not to be secure in because we did not want that, we had just repudiated that, just crossed three thousand miles of dark and unknown sea to get away from that; but a place to be free in, to be independent in, to be responsible in.24

Yet, as “The Bear” indicates, this continent was already owned by men “while He—this Arbiter, this Architect, this Umpire—condoned—or did He? looked down and saw—or did He? Or at least did nothing: saw, and could not, or did not see; saw, and would not, or perhaps He would not see—perverse, impotent, or blind: which?”25 Faulkner's indifferent or uncaring deity is an avatar of Fitzgerald's Dr. T. J. Eckleberg, whose vacant eyes overlook the valley of ashes on the way to Mana-hatta. So Faulkner joins the story of Columbus' egg with arguably Fitzgerald's most famous Modernist image, dropping the entire matter, in all its aspects, into heady ruminations about history and divinity in Yoknapatawpha.

Just as his use of the Columbus anecdote emerges in Faulkner's great hunting story, so Fitzgerald's sorrowful look into the past for the green light and the paradisal hopes the Dutch sailors saw in the promised land of New York shores has lived on, one imagines, in the breasts of many, each manifestation taking its own form and seeking out its own expression. One of the more striking versions of Nick Carraway's vision is wonderfully emblematic—the words of a professor of literature later turned university president and, still later, baseball commissioner:

[Baseball] is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. … It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised. Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.26

In this piece, published in the Yale Alumni Magazine in 1977 when he was president of the university, Bart Giamatti gives a new emphasis and a re-focused meaning to Gatsby's dreaming, and he does so in a voice that sounds a bit like Nick Carraway's. It was not inappropriate that the young Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, the author of a doctoral dissertation later published as The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic, had served an apprenticeship at Princeton, teaching Dante, Petrarch, and Spenser, before journeying home to New Haven. “Columbus thought he had found the blessed land across the wide waters,” Giamatti had written in the Earthly Paradise, “and he was certainly not the last man to search.”27

In notes toward his last novel, now known as The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western (note, a “Western”), Fitzgerald has his female narrator, a young woman named Cecilia, tell of her first sight of sheep in the flesh:

I thought of the first sheep I ever remember seeing—hundreds of them, and how our car drove suddenly into them on the back lot of the old Laemmle studio. They were unhappy about being in pictures but the men in the car with us kept saying:


“Is that what you wanted, Dick?”

“Isn't that swell?” And the man named Dick kept standing up in the car as if he were Cortez or Balboa, looking over that grey fleecy undulation. If I ever knew what picture they were in I have long forgotten.28

It is the narrator who refers to “Balboa or Cortez” as the one who first looks out over the Pacific Ocean. One of them is commonly accepted as the first European to do so. The narrator confesses to confusing the two Spaniards. Her confusion recalls John Keats, of course, whose poem mistakenly credits this primary experience to Cortez. The confusion in The Love of the Last Tycoon is not, of course, Fitzgerald's. That he introduces it into his fiction, however, suggests that he found the confusion meaningful or at least suggestive of meaning.

There are, for example, the parallels between the Spaniards (represented by Balboa and Cortez) and the Dutch sailors who first saw in wonderment the greenness of Mana-hatta. It is the wonder that each experiences at new discovery which each feels brings them together. Just as the whole of the Pacific Ocean lies before the Spanish Europeans, the whole of the North American continent lies before the Dutch Europeans. Just as Keats can imagine how Balboa (or Cortez) felt, along with his men, so too can Nick Carraway imagine how the Dutch sailors felt. But what is more important is the parallel between Keats and Carraway. Each has had to resort to a simile to define his amazement. Keats's “discovery” of Chapman's translation of Homer is like Carraway's discovery of Gatsby and his intransigent dream. Only the discovery of a new planet or the sight of a new ocean can reveal the depth and magnitude of discovering Chapman's Homer. Only the one-time awe of the Dutch sailors can reveal the depth and magnitude of Gatsby's American dream. So Carraway has to reach for a new loop in the coda to his narrative to put that narrative in its proper historical-mythic perspective.

Interestingly, the effect that Fitzgerald achieves is, in a funny way, something like that of the Dutch girl pictured on the cleanser container. Fitzgerald as author stands to Carraway as Carraway as author stands to Gatsby, while Gatsby stands to the East Egg world as, in history, the first Dutch sailors stand to the green islands before them. Keats saw in Balboa silence and in his men “wild surmise.” History has told us what such “wild surmise” led to with the brutal violence and bloody conquests of Cortez. Yet the Gatsbys stay the course. They will not learn the lessons of history. If they are doomed to repeat the mistakes, they will keep the dreams (though they be violent and destructive) both alive and verdant. They shall persist if not prevail, like the boats beating against the current, doomed to fail at the last.

Of course, in Keats's time, Europe's “discovery” of the Western hemisphere was not much deplored, nor was Britain's still-expanding empire much questioned except by her rivals in empire building. For Fitzgerald, however, who would soon discover Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West, the discoverer's egg turned out to be the great humpty-dumpty. It could never be put back together again any more than Gatsby could fix the past or Sherwood Anderson could abandon the hopeful mystery he cast over his “almost beautiful,” single-truth grotesques.29


  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Scribners, 1925), pp. 217-18.

  2. Washington Irving, A History of New York, from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (Author's rev. ed.) (David McKay, 1891), pp. 80, 81.

  3. Washington Irving, Voyages and Discoveries of the Companions of Columbus, ed. James W. Tuttleton (Twayne, 1986), p. 333.

  4. Irving, Voyages and Discoveries, p. 337.

  5. Washington Irving, History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (G. and C. Carvill, 1828), II, 184, 187-88.

  6. I quote from Christopher Columbus: Four Voyages to the New World, Letters and Selected Documents, ed., and trans. R. H. Major, intro. John E. Fagg (Citadel, 1992), p. 130. This is a bilingual edition of Select Letters of Christopher Columbus, with Other Original Documents, Relating to his Four Voyages to the New World (Hakluyt Society, 1847).

  7. Fagg, Four Voyages, pp. 132-33.

  8. Fagg, Four Voyages, pp. 180, 188.

  9. Fagg, Four Voyages, p. 130.

  10. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus (Little, Brown, 1942), p. 557.

  11. Morison, Admiral, p. 557. In a later translation of the same passage, Morison substitutes “teat” for “breast” (Journals and Other Documents of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, trans., ed. Samuel Eliot Morison [Heritage Press, 1963], p. 286).

  12. Stephen Reckert, Beyond Chrysanthemums: Perspectives on Poetry East and West (Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 179, n. 40.

  13. Fagg, Four Voyages, p. 5.

  14. In the same year that saw the publication of The Great Gatsby, William Carlos Williams rendered Columbus' vision: “[W]e saw the trees very green, and much water and fruits of divers kinds. … Bright green trees, the whole land so green that it is a pleasure to look on it. Gardens of the most beautiful trees I ever saw. … I walked among the trees which was the most beautiful thing which I had ever seen” (In the American Grain, intro. Horace Gregory [New Directions, n.d.], pp. 25-26).

  15. Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, intro. Paul Theroux (Penguin, 1987), pp. 139-40.

  16. Thoreau, Cape Cod, pp. 139-40.

  17. Irving, Life and Voyages, I, p. 275.

  18. Irving, Life and Voyages, I, p. 275. See William A. Fahey, “Fitzgerald's Eggs of Columbus,” ANQ, VIII (1995), pp. 26-27. Girolamo Benzoni's anecdote appears as an epigraph to Columbus' Egg: New Latin American Stories on the Conquest, ed. Nick Caistor (Faber and Faber, 1992).

  19. Mary Shelley, Introduction (1831), in Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, Volume I of The Novels and Selected Works of Mary Shelley, ed. Nora Crook, intro. Betty T. Bennett (William Pickering, 1996), pp. 178-79.

  20. Sherwood Anderson, “The Egg,” in The Portable Sherwood Anderson, ed., and intro. Horace Gregory (Viking, 1949, p. 459).

  21. Fitgerald, Great Gatsby, pp. 5-6, 4.

  22. Until Anderson's “collapse” with the publication of the novel Dark Laughter Fitzgerald's attitude toward his work had always been laudatory. In 1923, he had reviewed the novel Many Marriages favorably, and even as late as 1925 he still considered Anderson, as he wrote to Maxwell Perkins, “one of the very best and finest writers in the English language today” (The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull [Scribners, 1963], p. 187). By 1927, however, he had changed his mind. It was Hemingway who, since “Anderson's collapse,” was “the best we have, I think,” as he informed Mencken (Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret M. Duggan [Random House, 1980], p. 210).

  23. William Faulkner, “The Bear,” in Go Down Moses (Random House 1963), pp. 257-58.

  24. William Faulkner, “Address to the Delta Council” (Cleveland, Mississippi, May 15, 1952), in Essays, Speeches & Public Letters, ed. James B. Meriwether (Random House, 1965), p. 128.

  25. Faulkner, “The Bear,” p. 258.

  26. A. Barlett Giamatti, “The Green Fields of the Mind,” in A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti, ed. Kenneth S. Robson, foreword by David Halberstam (Algonquin Books, 1998) pp. 7, 12-13.

  27. A. Bartlett Giamatti, The Earthly Paradise and the Renaissance Epic (W. W. Norton, 1989), p. 4.

  28. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 9-10.

  29. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio, intro. Glen A. Love (Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 8.

Brian Sutton (essay date fall 2000)

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SOURCE: Sutton, Brian. “Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.Explicator 59, no. 1 (fall 2000): 37-9.

[In the following essay, Sutton examines the significance of a recurring image of the framing of Tom and Daisy in a frame of artificial light in Gatsby.]

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Gatsby goes to spectacular lengths to try to achieve what Nick Carraway calls “his incorruptible dream” (155): to recapture the past by regaining Daisy Buchanan's love and getting her to tell her husband, Tom, that she never loved him (111). For much of the novel, Gatsby seems likely to succeed, not only because his efforts are so extraordinary, but because Daisy's marriage seems so miserable and corrupt that she must surely be looking for the chance to escape. But Daisy herself proves to be corrupt and thus perfectly suited for marriage with Tom, with whom she shares membership in an exclusive society from which Gatsby is barred. Whenever Fitzgerald emphasizes the resilience of Tom and Daisy's corrupt marriage, he relies on a recurring image: He portrays Tom and Daisy together, side by side, framed by a square or rectangle of artificial light.1

The image first occurs late in the opening chapter. Although at this point Fitzgerald hasn't yet established the possibility that Daisy might leave Tom for Gatsby, he has clearly shown how miserable Daisy seems within her marriage. When the narrator, Nick Carraway, attends a small dinner party at Tom and Daisy's mansion, Daisy publicly blames Tom for a bruise on her knuckle, suggesting physical violence (12). She calls him “a brute” and “hulking,” repeating the latter word immediately after he “crossly” says he doesn't like it (12). She belittles his ideas, twice winking at Nick during Tom's comments about a book he claims to have read (13-14). Then she abruptly leaves the dinner table to retrieve Tom after he has left to answer a telephone call, evidently from his lover, Myrtle Wilson (14-16), and when Daisy is alone with Nick, she complains bitterly about her marriage and her life (17-18).

Yet the instant she finishes her complaint, Nick “felt the basic insincerity of what she had said,” and a moment later she looks at Nick “with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged” (18). Therefore almost from the beginning of the novel, Fitzgerald hints that despite or perhaps because of the corruption in the marriage, Daisy is content to be married to Tom. And when Nick leaves for the night, Fitzgerald uses the square of artificial light to frame an image emphasizing Tom and Daisy's basic compatibility with one another. At their front door, they “stood side by side in a cheerful frame of light” (20). Tom and Daisy speak like a happy couple, agreeing with one another and referring to themselves as a unit:

“We heard you were engaged to a girl out West.”

“That's right,” corroborated Tom kindly. “We heard you were engaged.”


By the time we encounter the second instance of the frame of light, near the end of chapter 6, Gatsby has become Daisy's lover. Once again the image occurs at the conclusion of a party, this time one of the larger, wilder parties that Gatsby throws. Again events of the evening underscore problems in the marriage, problems that by now suggest that Daisy may indeed leave Tom and end up with Gatsby. She spends a considerable portion of the evening dancing with and talking alone to Gatsby, whereas Tom spends much of the evening pursuing a woman he has met (106-07). Besides being irritated with each other's flirtatious behavior, Daisy and Tom are both disdainful of the other's potential lover: Daisy describes the woman Tom pursues as “common but pretty” and sarcastically offers him a pencil to write down the woman's address (107). Tom describes the party as a “menagerie” and says of Gatsby, “A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know” (109). But this snobbishness, although expressed through bickering, ultimately unites Daisy and Tom within the “distinguished secret society” Gatsby cannot penetrate. Although Daisy defends Gatsby when Tom mocks his party, she too is “offended” and “appalled” by the party's garish, drunken-Broadway atmosphere and joins her husband in a mutual distaste for Gatsby's world. At the end of the evening, standing side by side framed in “ten square feet of light” emanating from Gatsby's front door, Tom and Daisy leave together, and Gatsby admits to Nick, “She didn't like it. […] I feel far away from her” (110-11).

When at the end of chapter 7 the frame of light appears for the third and final time, it is at the close of a day in which Gatsby has forced the love triangle to its inevitable crisis. Once again he at first seems likely to succeed: Daisy's facial expression and tone of voice have made Tom sense that she loves Gatsby (119), and Daisy calls Tom “revolting” after he obliquely acknowledges having had a succession of adulterous affairs (132). But when Gatsby takes the ultimate step of asking Daisy to tell Tom that she has never loved him, her immediate reaction makes clear that “she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all” (133) about leaving Tom. When Tom brings up the shady means by which Gatsby has made his fortune, Gatsby's chances of winning Daisy are dead, not because Daisy now finds Gatsby immoral, but because Gatsby is now firmly established as a mere social-climbing bootlegger, in contrast to Tom and Daisy who were born into wealth. When Tom learns of Gatsby's relationship with Daisy, his initial reaction is indignation that “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere” could threaten his marriage (130). And in the end, Daisy thinks much the same way Tom does, rendering Gatsby's dreams hopeless.

Although this encounter is disastrous for Gatsby, worse is to follow. Driving back to Long Island in Gatsby's car, Daisy accidentally runs over and kills Myrtle Wilson. With violence hanging in the air, Gatsby is reduced to hiding in the bushes near Tom and Daisy's house, hoping to protect Daisy in the event that, as he says to Nick, her husband “tries to bother her about that unpleasantness this afternoon” and “tries any brutality” (145). Although his concern for Daisy's safety is undoubtedly genuine, Gatsby may also hope for an outburst from Tom, because Gatsby's only remaining chance to win Daisy would be if Tom were to drive her away through violence.

But when Nick goes up to the house to “see if there's any sign of commotion” (145), he comes to “a small rectangle of light” at a window and finds Tom and Daisy framed within that light, sitting together, his hand covering hers, and Daisy nodding in agreement as he speaks (146). Once again, the artificial light frames a scene portraying Tom and Daisy as well matched, united in mutual corruption. Nick observes, “There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said they were conspiring together” (146).

Judging from later events, perhaps Tom and Daisy were “conspiring together.” Daisy evidently allows Tom to believe that Gatsby was driving when Myrtle Wilson was killed. And when Tom encounters Myrtle's husband, who is armed and deluded with grief into thinking that whoever ran over Myrtle had been her lover and had killed her deliberately, Tom directs him to Gatsby's house. Myrtle's husband then murders Gatsby and commits suicide. Thus, whereas Tom and Daisy and their marriage survive, Gatsby is killed for running over Myrtle—something Daisy did—and for being Myrtle's lover—something Tom was. It is ironic that despite the repeated imagery of Tom and Daisy together in a frame of light, in the end it is Gatsby who is framed by Tom and Daisy.


  1. For a contrasting analysis of this image pattern, one correlating the pattern with the novel's themes related to the American Dream and the first European explorers' encounter with the American wilderness, see Lawry.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner's, 1925.

Lawry, J. S. “Green Light or Square of Light in The Great Gatsby.Dalhousie Review 55 (1975): 114-32.

Chikako D. Kumamoto (essay date fall 2001)

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SOURCE: Kumamoto, Chikako D. “Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.Explicator 60, no. 1 (fall 2001): 37-41.

[In the following essay, Kumamoto explores Fitzgerald's use of the “egg and chicken” metaphors as part of Gatsby's structure.]


Having moved to the suburbs of New York City, Nick Carraway makes the now-famous comparison between his neighborhood and its adjacent community: “Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy of bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great barnyard of Long Island Sound” (Fitzgerald 9).

One may inquire, however, whether Nick means the egg metaphor simply as a felicitous coincidence or as a surreptitious carrier of his narrative thesis. Among theme-clarifying studies of Fitzgerald's major images in the novel—studies by Lehan, Geismer, Johnson, Laying, Miller, and Sutton, for instance—only Kermit Moyer comments specifically on the egg-shaped setting as Fitzgerald's structural design shoring up the parallel between the novel's narrative circularity and the circular geography (45). In my essay I examine this and also investigate how Nick's seldom-critiqued “a pair of enormous eggs,” as well as other heretofore unnoticed egg-inspired images in the narrative, acts as his submerged thematic signals.

Plausible meanings of egg references can be traced to two sources, the first of which is Fitzgerald's known attraction to “The Feast of Trimalchio” in Petronius's The Satyricon. Fitzgerald scholars document the frequent correspondence between Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins chronicling Fitzgerald's obsession with using Trimalchio as part of the final title, as in Trimalchio or Trimalchio in West Egg, before he settled down to The Great Gatsby.1 The recent Cambridge University Press publication of Trimalchio: An Early Version ofThe Great Gatsby also makes us privy to the history of the Trimalchio text that would eventually become The Great Gatsby (West xiii-xix). As Gatsby's literary antecedent, Trimalchio appears to have provided Fitzgerald with a keen awareness of the elevating effect of classical inscriptions on the Gatsby character. As Brian Way speculates, Fitzgerald must have learned from Petronius something of “the dramatic organization of such scenes [Gatsby's parties]—about the mounting rhythms that run through huge entertainment” (105-06). I argue, then, that this Trimalchio link can further intimate Fitzgerald's possible secondary awareness of the satiric suggestiveness of images of eggs and fowls underscoring Gatsby's “vast, vulgar, and meretricious” dream shared by the social-climbing Trimalchio (104).

It is in this respect that Gatsby's parties revisit Trimalchio's, where Roman celebrities and adventurers are courted with rare dishes of peahen's eggs, oriole, and other fowls:

We, meanwhile, were still occupied with the hors d'oeuvres when a tray was carried in and set down before us. On it lay a basket, and in it a hen, carved from wood, with wings outspread as though sitting on her eggs. Then two slaves came forward and, to a loud flourish from the orchestra, began rummaging in the straw and pulling out peahen's eggs which they divided among the guests. Trimalchio gave the whole performance his closest attention. “Friends,” he said, “I ordered peahen eggs to be set under that hen, but I'm half afraid they may have hatched already. Still, let's see if we can suck them.” We were handed spoons […] and cracked open the eggs. […] I heard one of the guests, obviously a veteran of these dinners, say, “I wonder what little surprise we've got in here.” So I cracked the shell with my hand and found inside a fine fat oriole, nicely seasoned with pepper.

(Petronius 30-31)

Roman feasts like Trimalchio's were a popular social institution where the host enhanced personal status by expending great care and effort on the visual sumptuousness of the food (Donahue; D'Arms 308-20). Moreover, hen's eggs were a highly prized item in the Roman diet, and fabulous public feasts were judged incomplete without various dishes of eggs, chicken, ducks, and other fowls (Smith 551-55; Macrobius). In the notes to his translation of The Satyricon, William Arrowsmith explains that during the Republic peahen eggs were considered a fabulous delicacy and that an oriole (or fig eater) is a brilliantly colored bird whose habit of stuffing itself on ripe figs endeared it to Roman epicures (Petronius 192). In Petronius's Menippean pen, the egg and fowl dishes coalesce into a satiric iconography of Trimalchio's pretensions to social status and his attempts to belong to Roman patrician society. From such egg and fowl lore of antiquity, one can infer Fitzgerald's intertextual ambition to heighten the irreconcilable social gap between West Egg, with a chauffeur clad “in a uniform of robin's egg blue,” and East Egg, “with a single green light” (26, 45). Like Trimalchio's, Gatsby's parties attract guests with illegal liquors, rare foods, popular entertainment, and upstart celebrities, in spite of “Tom and Daisy's aversion to them” (West xviii).2

Fitzgerald expands the Petronian association in chapter 7, in which Gatsby desperately clings to his dream of having what he believes to be the status of the American patrician. Fitzgerald first pays homage to his classical indebtedness by writing that “his career as Trimalchio was over” when Gatsby stops his Saturday night parties (119). He then adds a satiric bite to the egg and fowl allusions with the aid of the idiomatic meanings of “chicken” when he describes Nick's glimpse of Tom and Daisy “sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale […] conspiring together” (152-53). By this point in the narrative, Nick has learned from Gatsby that it was Daisy who was driving the car that killed Myrtle Wilson. Lexical sources from as early as 1400 and 1630 use “chicken” to mean people who are cowardly and have lost their nerve at crucial moments, in phrases like “cherles chekyn” and “Not finding the Defendants to be Chikins, to be afraid of every cloud or kite” (Barnhart 120; Rogers 56). Another connotation of “chicken” for Fitzgerald's contemporaries was general prosperity for the masses, as in “a chicken in every pot, a car in every garage,” the slogan of the Republican Party in the 1928 presidential campaign (Hurwitz 107). What better symbol of the death of normal human conscience, courage, and empathy at the heart of the narrative action than the picture of cold chicken appropriated to Tom and Daisy, paired with Nick's tiptoeing away, which renders all those colloquial meanings of chicken ironically apt? On one hand, the term “chicken” points to Daisy's panicky self-absorption in the face of her punishable crime. Most damningly, Tom's lawless, face-saving exercising of social privilege (his callous unconcern with his mistress's death) colludes with Daisy's ready renunciation of her talismanic power that has so attracted Gatsby (“Once in a while she looked up at him [Tom] and nodded in agreement”). Thus the chicken trope unmasks the cowardly Tom and Daisy's “conspiring together” to re-establish the unbreakable, unholy alliance of marriage, cash, and status—a fundamental cause of Gatsby's tragedy.

More than a show of witty conceit, “a pair of enormous eggs” and fowls are visual analogs for Fitzgerald's ironic gaze, obliquely trained on the bitter abilities of inherited rank and the magic of money to subvert genuine human connectives like love.


  1. The following sources document Fitzgerald's title-naming history: West xi; Bryer and Kuehl; Turnbull 478; Bruccoli and Duggan 153.

  2. James L. W. West III, the editor of the recent Cambridge edition of Trimalchio, notes that one of the differences between the early version and the final The Great Gatsby is the reader's increased awareness of “Gatsby's courting of celebrities—and Tom and Daisy's aversion to them” (xviii).

Works Cited

Barnhart, Robert K., ed. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. New York: Harper, 1995.

Bruccoli, Matthew J., and Margaret M. Duggan, eds. Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Random House, 1980.

Bryer, Jackson R., and John Kuehl, eds. Dear Scott/Dear Max. New York: Scribner, 1971.

D'Arms, John. “The Roman Convivium and the Idea of Equality.” Sympotica: A Symposium on The Symposition. Ed. Oswyn Murray. Oxford: Clarendon. 308-20.

Donahue, John F. “Euergetic Self-Representation and the Inscription at Satyricon 71.10.” Classical Philology 94.1 (January 1994).

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Macmillan, 1992.

Geismer, Maxwell. “F. Scott Fitzgerald: Orestes at the Ritz.” The Last of the Provincials: The American Novels 1915-1925. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1947. 316-20.

Hurwitz, Howard. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of American History. New York: Washington Square, 1970.

Johnson, Christine. “The Great Gatsby: The Final Vision.” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1976: 109-15.

Laying, George W. “Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.Explicator 56.2 (Winter 1998): 93-95.

Lehan, Richard D. “The Great Gatsby.F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Craft of Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1966. 91-122.

Macrobius. “Saturnalia Convivia, III. 13: The Bill of Fare of a Great Roman Banquet. 63 BCE.” Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources. Ed. William Stearns Davis. Vol. 2. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13. Available through Ancient History Source Book,›.

Miller, James E. “Fitzgerald's Gatsby: The World as Ash Heap.” The Twenties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama. Delena: Everett/Edwards, 1975. 181-202.

Moyer, Kermit W. “The Great Gatsby: Fitzgerald's Meditation on American History.” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, 1972: 45-49.

Petronius, Arbiter. The Satyricon of Petronius. Trans. and introd. William Arrowsmith. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1959.

Rogers, James. The Dictionary of Clichés. New York: Ballantine, 1985.

Smith, Martin. “Ducks Eggs in Statius, ‘Silvae’ 4.9.30?” Classical Quarterly 44.2 (July-December 1994): 551-55.

Sutton, Brian. “Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.Explicator 55.2 (Winter 1997): 94-95.

Turnbull, Andrew. The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Scribner, 1963.

Way, Brian. F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction. London: Arnold, 1980.

West, James L. W., III, ed. Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby. By F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.


Essays and Criticism