The Great Gatsby: The Authorized Text by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with notes and a preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Highly recommended.
The west was conquered and the midwest cultivated, so in The Great Gatsby set in the 1920s we turn our attention back east, where to midwestern narrator Nick Carraway and his neighbor Jay Gatsby the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ East Egg dock seems to represent the fertile promise of America, and the dreams and the money that are supposed to make them reality. Some dreams, like the dream of recapturing a romantic past that never really was, become nightmares.
Although he witnesses and participates in deception, including both sides of the Buchanans’ infidelity, Nick wants to appear to be a reliable narrator, which he emphasizes when he says up front, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me.” Later, Nick identifies himself with “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.” Nick’s authorial viewpoint sets the tone for his story and his observations of the brutish Tom Buchanan; his shallow and unsatisfied wife, Daisy; his class-climbing mistress, Myrtle Wilson; and the mysterious Jay Gatsby, the hero of the different unbelievable fictions he tells (when Nick asks him what part of the middle-west he is from, Gatsby responds enigmatically, “San Francisco.”) A confused Nick hears solemnity in Gatsby’s voice and sees sincerity in his look, despite the obvious prevarication.
The most influential literal voice is that of Daisy Buchanan. Lacking the romantic substance for which Gatsby has idealized her as the symbol of his youth — his real youth — Daisy becomes a siren with a siren call. Nick writes, “The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said.” Her friend, Jordan Baker, tells Nick, “. . . and yet there’s something in that voice of hers. . . .” Later, Nick mentions that the “exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain,” and “I think that voice held him [Gatsby] most with its fluctuating, feverish warmth because it couldn’t be over-dreamed — that voice was a death song.” Nick says of Daisy, “Unlike Gatsby and Tom, I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs . . .” By contrast, Myrtle is earthy, with “an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continuously smoldering.” Tom, whose affairs we are told have included a hotel chambermaid, seems mostly unsusceptible to Daisy’s voice, while even Nick notes its influence and Gatsby is destroyed by it and by his desire for the real past that every story he tells effectually effaces.
A compact novel concentrated on only a few months in the lives of a few characters, The Great Gatsby is rich with symbolism. During his reunion with Daisy, Gatsby almost stops time literally by knocking Nick’s clock down, but instinctively he catches it before it falls. “We all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor,” Nick writes. Gatsby even apologizes as though he had broken the clock and as though it were a significant loss that his countless money can’t replace. As the reunion continues, Nick says of Gatsby, “. . . in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock.”
Throughout, time is a consistent theme; it is part of what Gatsby futilely endeavors to recapture. He can reinvent a past in which he was “educated at Oxford because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years,” but he and his means cannot recreate the real past. As Nick observes, “Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” He adds later, “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.”
The Great Gatsby reminds me of The Count of Monte Cristo. Both Gatsby and the count start life as ordinary men and, through circumstances and the determination to achieve a much-desired goal, transform themselves into extraordinary men, ciphers to all but the most observant of their fellows. One seeks to revenge a past wrong; the other ignores the present and tries to reinvent the past as though there had never been a Tom Buchanan and as though Daisy had never loved him. Both efforts take time and unlimited patience and money, but only one is successful. The count revenges his past so he can live better in the future, but Gatsby fails because he does not understand, or want to understand, that the past is written and that the future begins with the present.
Somewhat lacking in heart — the only character who displays genuine emotion is Tom Wilson, Myrtle’s despised husband — The Great Gatsby captures the jaded excesses of the post-World War I era and the American faith in time, money, and effort as the sources and creators of success. The novel also shows the greater power of circumstance and fate. I’ve read The Great Gatsby only once, but to appreciate its structure, symbolism, and richness would take several re-readings. Read once for pleasure, then read again to explore Fitzgerald’s craft.
21 December 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf