On May 3, 1924, the Fitzgeralds left New York for France aboard the Minnewaska. It was more as though they were fleeing than embarking on a pleasure trip. Only Perkins and Lardner had been let in on the secret, Ring having been entrusted with subletting their Great Neck home, on which the lease had not yet expired. Scott and Zelda left on the anniversary of their first sailing, but this time they were set on seeking a favorable climate for creation in Europe, as though Wilson's remarks on the stimulation afforded by a different culture had finally sunk in. In April Scott had finished writing the last of the stories that would enable him to start a new life; the story was called “John Jackson's Arcady,” and its author was now heading for an Arcady of his own. “We were going to the Old World,” he would write, “to find a new rhythm for our lives, with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind forever.” In his Ledger he wrote, “Out of the woods at last and starting novel.” Mention followed, as though parenthetically, of two parties, Gloria Swanson's and George Kaufman's, and then the note, “Decision on the 15th to go to Europe.”
The two items are closely linked: departure and novel combine to push aside everything that had hitherto fostered idleness and mediocrity. In the same week he wrote a long letter to Perkins to assure him of his determination to get out of the impasse he was in. He believed, if not too confidently, that he could complete his novel in two months. But he added that even if it took him ten times as long to finish it, he was resolved to outdo himself. “I cannot let it go out unless it has the very best I'm capable of in it, or even, as I feel sometimes, something better than I'm capable of. Much of what I wrote last summer was good but it was so interrupted that it was ragged and, in approaching it from a new angle, I've had to discard a lot of it.”
From the material he eliminated, he said, he had salvaged the material for his story “Absolution,” which was to be published in the June issue of The American Mercury, a magazine newly founded by Mencken and Nathan. When the story appeared and Perkins congratulated him on its excellence, Fitzgerald added a detail: “I'm glad you liked 'Absolution.' As you know it was to have been the prologue of the novel but it interfered with the neatness of the plan.” Ten years later he would amplify this to a critic in response to an analysis of the character of Gatsby. “It might interest you to know,” he wrote, “that a story of mine, called 'Absolution,' in my book Allthe Sad Young Men was intended to be a picture of [Gatsby's] early life, but that I cut it because I preferred to preserve the sense of mystery.”
From the start of his work on the novel, Fitzgerald lost interest in everything else (the sole exception being the rehearsals for The Vegetable). A letter Zelda wrote to Xandra Kalman in July 1923 confirmed his absorption in his new work: “Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy. He's horribly intent on it and has built up a beautiful legend about himself which corresponds somewhat to the old fable about the ant and the grasshopper. Me being the grasshopper.” Indeed, in his letter to Perkins two weeks before leaving for Europe, Fitzgerald lamented that he had played the grasshopper too long, and he confessed his “bad habits”:
“2. Referring everything to Zelda—a terrible habit; nothing ought to be referred to anybody until it's finished
“3. Word consciousness and self-doubt, etc., etc., etc., etc.”
He was nevertheless optimistic. “I feel I have an enormous power in me now,” he told the editor in his letter, “more than I've ever had, in a way, but it works so fitfully and with so many bogeys because I've talked so much and not lived enough within myself to develop the necessary self-reliance.” His writing up to then had been taken directly from personal experience. Now, for the first time, his imagination was taking command: “So in my new novel I'm thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world. So I tread slowly and carefully and at times at considerable distress. This book will be a consciously artistic achievement and must depend on that as the first books did not.” The letter ended on a note of contrition and humility: “If ever I win the right to any leisure again, I will assuredly not waste it as I wasted this past time. Please believe me when I say that now I'm doing the best I can.”
When he began to write the novel with the almost religious ardor Zelda described, he worked in a spirit of exorcism and purification. He was afraid of being swallowed up in the orgy of interminable parties in which he had dissipated his energies for the past two years. In describing Gatsby's childhood, he was returning to his own: the meaningful episode of the lie told in confession gave his hero occasion to relive intensely his own first moral crisis. Like the adult Gatsby, Fitzgerald was seeking the crucial moment, the crossroads in his life at which he had taken a wrong turn: “His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…” He wanted to be born again, to become the man he should have been. Fitzgerald lived on two planes, in himself and in the alter egos he called up in the holy moments of creation. For little Rudolph Millerin “Absolution,” the search for—and choice of—a personality also involves living a double life, although his attempt at liberation takes another tack: disavowal of his father, rebellion against family constraints, rejection of a stifling religion. Miller, whose German name reveals his social status, at the time only slightly above that of the Irish, invents a double with a magic name, Blatchford Sarnemington, whose polysyllables he thought clanged with a patrician English sound.
In the same way in the novel, Jim Gatz, a poor farmer's son, denies his name and family to build an identity as Jay Gatsby. The splitting process here was complicated for Fitzgerald by the fact that Nick, his narrator, and Gatsby, his hero, share certain essential traits that, in the last analysis, are borrowed from their creator. Nick, cowardly and erratic, recalls a Rudolph who is terrified by his violation of tribal laws. Gatsby, who has a Blatchford's aristocratic and romantic nature, can transform his dreams into action, can coincide with the archetypal ideal he wants to live up to. He wills himself to be the “son of God,” that is, of himself, of his imagination and will, absolved of the blemishes of his birth, immaculate, miraculously saved.
This had been a childhood dream of Fitzgerald's that had taken naive shape in The Romantic Egotist, in which Stephen Palms imagines himself a foundling who turns out to be a descendant of the royal Stuarts—a dream the author associates in an essay with other syndromes, with “my first childish love of myself, my belief that I would never die like other people, and that I wasn't the son of my parents, but a son of a king, a king who ruled the whole world.” Similarly, Nick, who does honor his father, pretends to descend from the Dukes of Buccleuch (thus recalling Fitzgerald's insistence on his connection with Francis Scott Key). Gatsby feels his parents are unworthy of him, “his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.” Fitzgerald's heroes cannot come to life until they shake off parental law. Even Amory Blaine's weak, insignificant father has to die before his son can come into his own; Amory's literary career begins with a sarcastic oration at the funeral. In The Beautiful, Anthony is indeed orphaned at eleven (Rudolph's age, too), but power over him rests with old Patch, his grandfather, who embodies the worst aspects of puritanism. Anthony's youth is spent in a sort of purgatory while he awaits the vast fortune he is to inherit. Only through this fabulous heritage can he be synchronized with his Platonic self-image. But the long wait for metamorphosis is more than his soul can stand. By the time the chrysalis is ready to open, the moment of mutation is long since past: pupa he was and pupa he remains.
The temptation to see in this a parable of the blighted author is irresistible. Everything points to it: Fitzgerald's smug expectation when he rewrote The Beautiful and Damned, his shilly-shallying, his compromises, his subterfuges, the alibi he gave himself about making a fortune from his play. His creativity suspended, he drifted—lolled, rather—responding to offers asthey came in, a shifty manager of a talent exploited for immediate gain. In Gatsby, haunted as it is by a sense of Sin and Fall, Fitzgerald assumed to himself all the weakness and depravity of human nature. He deliberately blackened the image he then held of himself, identified himself with the object of his repugnance and mirrored his horror in his character's fate.
Another protagonist had already been tried out as a scapegoat to exorcise his creator's specters: Gordon Sterrett, the empty, debauched artist in “May Day,” who tries in vain to turn his talent into money. This shadow play would be reenacted again in Tender Is the Night, in which Dick Diver and Abe North prefigure the failure of creative power Fitzgerald feared in himself. So, even, does the foolish Pat Hobby, the unsuccessful, drunken, flabby screenwriter who, during Fitzgerald's Hollywood days, would be contrasted in The Last Tycoon with a noble man of action and imagination, Monroe Stahr, in whom Fitzgerald was to celebrate the virtues of a hero after his own heart. In his first novel, his first stories, Fitzgerald's protagonists were handsome, young, overflowing with energy and charm. They could confound the law, defy opinion with impunity, as though they enjoyed some extravagant extraterritorial right. They chose their own reality, free of contingency and custom, in a realm far removed from daily routine, where their every action proclaimed that “the King is dead, long live the King!”
In short, the author sometimes identified himself with a prestigious double, found himself by disavowing a mutilating, humiliating lineage, asserted that he was a self-made man in the true sense of the term: the son of his works, who had broken loose from his moorings, burned his ships and striven to outdo himself. At other times Fitzgerald tried to dispel his worst fears by miring his character in impotence and renunciation.
In Gatsby, these two antithetical and heretofore alternating attitudes are juxtaposed, confronting each other in a dialectical relationship. No longer does the author identify with one or the other, shifting with the wind from fair to stormy. For the first time he is not speaking in his own name, in reaction to the events of the moment. He is detached, looking down from above, so distant from his immediate preoccupations that they become mere landmarks in a panorama that embraces his whole era, that stretches to the very horizons of America's history. Fitzgerald does not do this topically and anecdotally, as he did in The Beautiful and Damned, in which he thought he was meaningfully addressing the problems of his generation, but serenely and objectively, abandoning the half-truths of social realism to reach the symbolic truth of a global vision.
This vision relies for its effectiveness on a coexistence of contrasts, on their simultaneous operation. To register this new depth of field, this dual aim missing from his earlier work, Fitzgerald had to stretch his own limits, to venture into unexplored novelistic terrain. And there he built an intricatepalace of echoes and mirrors, a meticulous architectonic complex, all in trompe l'oeil that traps, refracts, fragments, reconstructs a reality in which he is invisible, but which reflects better than all his autobiographical writing the heart of the problems he and his generation faced.
He begins by creating a fundamental split between the character who is watching and judging and the one who dreams and acts. The first task is assigned to Nick Carraway, his narrator. Nick, newly arrived from his native Midwest in the spring of 1922, is skeptical, seemingly blase but, at bottom, incurably romantic. He is fascinated by New York life and dreams of making his fortune. As an underpaid stockbroker, he comes into contact with the tremendously rich Buchanans, his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom, whom Nick knew at Yale. They live in a posh mansion in East Egg, Long Island. Nick has rented a rundown cottage across the bay, in West Egg, where he is invited to the wild parties of his flamboyant neighbor, the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. This early experience in the world of the rich excites his caustic wit, toward the Buchanans, especially the proud and brutal Tom, and toward Gatsby, whose absurd lies and pathetic man-of-the-world pose Nick penetrates.
Thus is defined, in the book's first three chapters, the psychology of the man who will recount that summer's events. He has an objective observer's unflagging curiosity and a humorist's quick perception of the ridiculous. He sees himself as detached, cultivated, unprejudiced. In short, he presents a picture of a man with a sense of proportion and prides himself on a faintly amused tolerance for other people's follies. He makes a point of obeying the rules of propriety and is driven by his social inferiority to maintain a constant vigilance. The secrets he discovers or that are entrusted to him confirm his notion of his own importance and moral superiority.
These, however, are mere appearances. This flattering self-portrait is soon wiped away by Nick's constant lack of assurance and his immaturity. His true nature emerges as the story unfolds. Irresolute, timid, manipulated by those around him, he is a Middle Western cousin of those young people of good family who wander through nineteenth-century novels in search of an identity without ever really learning about love. Incapable of realizing his dreams or of loving wholeheartedly, he tries to give substance to his deepest aspirations by living vicariously. In Gatsby he finds a man who, despite his social sins, is richly endowed with all the qualities Nick lacks: creative imagination, tenacity, boldness, passion. Through Gatsby he will achieve a kind of grandiose romantic destiny that his withered soul and middle-class pretensions could never otherwise reach. In Gatsby, whom he'd have invented had he been a novelist, he recognizes the hero he wished to be and never will be. His sense of his own life is submerged, his potentialities flower, the superman's adventure becomes his own.
This identification is similar in many ways to what a reader or movie viewer feels, with the difference that Nick never suspends his critical judgment. Faithful to his character, he maintains his conventional moralist's reserve as long as he can. “Gatsby,” he says, represents “everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” He is won over to him only after a long and reluctant revision of his values. What is ridiculous about the man, his affected manner of speaking, his dandyish clothes, his ostentatious acts, all irritate and wound Nick's sense of reserve and sobriety, but they are informed with a dignity that commands respect.
In any case, these are only questions of manners. Nick finds it more difficult to accept the fact that Gatsby is an unscrupulous gangster, the alarming Wolfsheim's right arm. The narrator's respect for the proprieties has not prepared him to associate mystical flights of love with an outlaw's criminal behavior. Yet when he reaches his moral maturity, he takes Gatsby's side. The corrupt means Gatsby uses to achieve his ends have not altered his fundamental integrity, his spiritual intactness. His means reflect the corruption of the times; they are the only ones available to an indigent cavalier seeking his fortune. True corruption, Nick discovered, lies in the hearts of those who despise Gatsby, especially in Tom's.
The complete reversal of Nick's attitude toward Gatsby, from an amused disdain that Tom could share to a wholehearted, militant identification that blames Tom and those like him for his hero's death, this cross-current of judgments and feelings, provided Fitzgerald's talent with a broad compass that he exploited to the fullest. The whole gamut of comic effects comes into operation as the gap between subject and object narrows. Seen from a distance, when Gatsby is simply a ridiculous stranger, he is treated as a caricature. But when Nick shares his feelings, trying to keep his emotions under control, the humor is tender and compassionate, which still allows the narrator to stand off a bit. And when this reserve becomes impossible to maintain, when the subject identifies with the object of his interest and Nick, so to speak, blends with Gatsby, becomes Gatsby—for it is Nick alone, speaking with Gatsby's voice, who tells Gatsby's love story—the tone changes completely. What was at first grotesque is now sublime, mocking rejection has become passionate loyalty, ironic understatement has changed to lyric hyperbole. From then on, Fitzgerald brought to bear all the resources of his evocative and iridescent prose. Here again, the situation lends itself admirably to stylistic variations, modulations of tone, from fervor to nostalgia.
Fitzgerald had already experimented with these various modes in a fragmented, isolated way. In Gatsby, for the first time, inspired by his subject, he found a simple, effective technique for joining them, combining them within a single narrative, setting the changes in his narrator to them like the movements of a piece of music. More generally speaking, two modes, satiric and lyric, dominate the book, expressing its two major themes, which contrast with and complement each other. The first records the failure and inadequacies of an unsatisfied, disquiet, disoriented society in search of something in which to invest its unused energy, a society unable to realize itseagerness to live intensely without disorder and violence. Tom, Daisy, Myrtle, Wolfsheim and, in the background, the people who crowd into Gatsby's parties, embody this new world-weariness. The book's second theme celebrates a vision that transfigures the world and gives meaning and direction to these disappointed hopes and unsatisfied yearnings. His conversion accomplished, Nick exalts Gatsby's creative imagination, his “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.”
Something of the disorganized sterility of Fitzgerald's own recent history is in these scenes of manners. And it is the revival of his creative power, the liberation of his imagination that he was celebrating in exalting a hero who, despite his weaknesses, embodied that power and freedom: “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.”
The aim that emerges from the opposition of two forms of reality, two modes of expression, is not merely abstract or didactic. It is woven into a web of existence that is in itself profoundly meaningful and functional; its extraordinary poetic richness modulates, accompanies, deepens the writer's purpose.
Light and color were used to maximum effect in creating these secret atmospheres that are more climates of the soul than of places or events. Among these, as distinct in their natures and connotations as any other natural duality, the colors yellow and blue are the most significant; it is they that best reflect the fundamental duality of Fitzgerald's imaginary world. They are usually linked in such a way that their contrast underlines the nature of a given situation or moment. Their conjunction seems to be the sign of a fleeting instant of harmony and beauty, whereas their dissociation suggests disorder or latent conflict. There is nothing pat or preestablished about the effects they engender. Blue can be cold or tender or sentimental, yellow ardent or powerful or destructive, and these are just some of the associations that seem obvious. But their “meaning” is never frozen into an allegorical hierarchy. Glowing within a constellation of other symbols, a color can serve as a leitmotiv. For example, Gatsby, whose innermost nature is stamped by the influence of the moon, of water, of night, is associated with blue, the blue of the grass in his lawns and of his servants' uniforms. But the image he shows the world, a false one, is deliberately given a golden, sunlit gleam, as in his luxurious yellow automobile. Tom Buchanan is subject to no such ambiguity: he is determinedly sunny, aggressively sure of his power, a sturdy, straw-haired man of thirty who is first seen in the book standing booted and solid before his French windows as they glint with the gold of the setting sun. Fitzgerald's use of color could be purely descriptive, but rarely did he fail to aim at another reality beneath the surface. If there is one area in Fitzgerald's work in which realism is no more than a facade, it is in his use of color and light.
The story's realistic background is merely a prop. Blue is, of course, the color of water, the sky, twilight; whiskey, wheat and straw are golden. But these colors are concurrently literary qualities that draw the deep meaning of their relationships not only from this individual artist's imagination, but also from the collective imagination of a country, a history.
In American history, for example, yellow is the symbolic color of a deep cultural schism dating from the nineteenth century: the beneficent yellow of harvests, a color of fertility and abundance, and yellow gold, sterile and tyrannical. It was in 1896, the year of Fitzgerald's birth, that William Jennings Bryan, warmly supported by Hearst, thundered his warning that “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” in defending rural America against capitalism, banks and the gold standard. It was also the year in which the yellow press was born and the period in which Frank Norris wrote McTeague, a gold-washed novel if ever there was one. Yellow was the color of corrupting and destructive gold as well as of a sort of vulgar, raucous vitality, but it was also the color, for the turn of the century's intellectual anglophiles, of the aestheticism and decadence associated with Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley's The Yellow Book. For those who could read the contemporary French novels then bound in yellow paper, it was the color of passion and eroticism. This was a cultural sign effectively used by Henry James, for example, when he put three French books, two in pink covers and one in yellow, in little Maisie's hands to suggest how mature, quantitatively and qualitatively, her upbringing had made her. In one of his short stories, “The Story in It,” he summarized a woman's intellectual status by picturing her reading a book “covered in lemon-colored paper.” Later, to please a visitor who held that such books should be burned, she displayed another book covered in reassuring blue, “a pretty, candid blue.”
Fitzgerald was now using such calculated effects, nimbly and economically. We have noted that the May 1923 issue of Hearst's International marked the end of an era for him. It was an artistic turning point for him as well. In it was a highly inferior story, “Dice, Brass Knuckles and Guitar,” in which he waltzed through a wholly gratuitous exercise in pure virtuosity based on the color yellow: “There was something enormously yellow about the whole scene. There was this sunlight, for instance, that was yellow, and the hammock was of the particularly hideous yellow peculiar to hammocks, and the girl's yellow hair was spread out upon the hammock in a sort of invidious comparison.” The hero's car is painted yellow, and in describing the girl, he is struck by the “particular yellowness of her yellow hair.”
In a review of Aldous Huxley's novel Crome Yellow, Fitzgerald could not resist a similar temptation to play variations on a theme: “The book is yellow within and without—and I don't mean yellow in the slangy sense. A sort of yellow haze of mellow laughter plays over it. The people are nowlike great, awkward canaries trying to swim in saffron pools, now like bright yellow leaves blown along a rusty path under a yellow sky.” Better than such laborious eccentricity are the brief, expressionistic threads that sometimes glitter in Fitzgerald's pre-Gatsby texture, like the “yellow sobbing” of soldiers' wives on a station platform in The Beautiful and Damned, a notion that prefigures the “yellow cocktail music” of the parties in West Egg.
Close to this type of usage is the synesthesia by which a color in Gatsby is not only seen but felt, touched, tasted, savored in its density and weight. The specific density of yellow is as well a moral factor here as a physical one. In the heroic days of the pioneer settlements west of the Alleghenies, farmers who found it too difficult and costly to haul their crops over the mountains converted their grain into alcohol, which was lighter and less bulky; the alcohol was easily exchanged for gold, or replaced gold in local barter arrangements. Metamorphoses of yellow, its conversion from one form to another, the concentration of its substance that transforms its nature and distorts its original meaning: here we have a new and central metaphor in Fitzgerald's imagination.
The process is clearly perceived in the vegetable kingdom: in it, yellow appears as a ripening and perversion of green. The shoot eventually becomes grain, what is juicy becomes dry, what is flexible hardens from vegetable to semimineral. A bluish sprout turns green, then, as though by combustion, goes yellow. Temporally, blue and green are the colors of growth, yellow that of fructification. On the one hand we have a fluid span of time, on the other an instant, intense and concentrated. Yellow is a point of culmination, a state, a substance, whereas blue and green are merely hope, surge, change. Realization of green's promise implies loss of substance—sap —and the dynamic and creative thrust of growth. Potentialities shrink in the transmutation; this is an immense reduction of dream to experience.
And experience, the actual series of events, tastes of ashes and death. For wheat's fate is to be reduced to flour, just as a mineral crumbles into dust. Vegetation's opposite is parodied in the Valley of Ashes, on the road from West Egg to New York, which sits like a gigantic memento mori, a Dantesque spectacle of nature ravaged and reduced to dust, a “desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”
Gatsby's whole story and, behind it, that of a grand dream gone awry center on this symbol of contemporary America and its companion vision, on the book's last page, of a Long Island imagined in its primitive splendor, as the first navigators must have seen it: “as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of theold 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.”
The collapse of Gatsby's dream is implicitly paralleled in the next paragraph with the failure of the American dream: “And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
A new world's green freshness, the green light shining in the night: symbols of hope gone dry in the sun's heat. When wheat is ripe, its stalk, deprived of sap, goes to straw. Straw is sterile, inflammable, dangerous. When Nick takes the train to see the Buchanans on the hottest day of the year, his presence foretells the sun's victory, the conflagration that will disperse the book's characters; “the straw seats hovered on the edge of combustion.” He and Gatsby wear straw hats when they go to visit Daisy, an admirable touch in a story that generally ignores men's headgear; nothing else could quite so well have connected the desiccating powers of gold and straw. A quatrain in the epigraph defines Gatsby's relationship with Daisy as that of a “gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,” and Fitzgerald had briefly considered calling his novel Gold-Hatted Gatsby. The iconographic and symbolic nature of the detail is reinforced a few pages farther on when women's hats are seen as helmets of metallic thread. A fairy-tale touch is introduced in Gatsby's remark that Daisy's voice is golden; the remark is immediately linked to fable by Nick's evocation of the musical clinking of gold, his vision of a princess in a white palace, “the king's daughter, the golden girl.”
These few touches are enough to call up a legendary background. The two rivals, Buchanan and Gatsby, are competing in a tournament, and when they switch cars, it is meaningful because the machines then designate their drivers' real natures. Tom, the knight of the sun, the “sturdy, straw-haired man,” takes the wheel of Gatsby's yellow car while Jay, the straw-hatted schlemiel, appropriately drives his adversary's blue convertible coupe.
Fitzgerald had for a time thought of giving the straw-and-harvest motif considerably greater thematic importance. Proofs survive among his papers of an earlier version of the party in chapter 6 that clearly shows his intention. The festivities unfold in a bucolic setting of shafts of wheat, ears ofcorn and crossed rakes. Straw covers the ground thickly, and the bar is set up at the foot of a windmill with moving sails. “For those who came without country costumes, straw hats and sunbonnets were provided at the door.” Many of the guests wear similar costumes (Nick rigs himself out in a false beard that so irritates him throughout the evening that he finally rips it off), which results in a general confusion of identities. Who is hiding behind the masks and beards? How distinguish truth and falsehood?
All this parallels Gatsby's flaunting of his wealth on Daisy's first visit. The motive then was to compete with the past, to equal, even surpass in mystery and magnificence the charms of Daisy's cool house in Louisville. Now, at the rustic festival, it is the present that Gatsby is trying to vanquish, Tom's solar power that he seeks to eclipse. By a final effort of metamorphosis, he wants to establish himself as the conquering summer, keeper of the seal of abundance, haloed in life-giving harvest yellow.
The entire, instructive incident was eliminated from the proofs in favor of a version that is more sober, more elegant, but deprives the narrative of a certain thematic richness in the development of the pastoral motif. This motif was already central in Fitzgerald's thinking when he had Rudolph Miller, Gatsby's forerunner in “Absolution,” grow up in wheat country. His final version of Gatsby eliminates the contrapuntal effect to be obtained by linking the rustic party to two other metaphors that are also handled as parody and are also based on nostalgia for a fake pastoral order. One concerns the Trianon-Gardens decor of Myrtle's apartment; the other is the story of the former owner of Gatsby's palace, who died of chagrin because the villagers refused to reroof their houses with thatch. Both of these imply absurd efforts to connect with a bogus, pseudo-bucolic tradition, to identify with a vanished historical order. In all three incidents, disguising a physical setting betrays a desire for more encompassing camouflage. These homes are as much a part of the fancy-dress party as the people who live in them. No more proof is needed than the appearance of Gatsby's palace, a “factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy,” which, like Nick at the party, also wears a false beard: it is “spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy.” With the disappearance of the harvest ball, a chance was also lost to deepen the harmonics sounded by the Valley of Ashes, another mockery of fertility. Dust from the valley does not filter into Gatsby's house until after the disaster of the party. Doesn't the dying Gatsby see himself threatened by a shadow from the valley, an “ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees”?
We can see how ably Fitzgerald worked rhythms and contrasts, this counterpoint in which yellow straw diverges from, and blends with, gray dust and ash. But we can also see how right he was to eliminate the scene; this proliferation of dryness and yellowness would certainly have upset the book's balance. For in Gatsby the glare of this golden drought is perceivedin a dialectical relationship with its opposites, blueness and wetness. Gatsby's secret, nocturnal aspect might have been eclipsed by his daytime persona, which is all sham and make-believe.
The static scene would also have weakened the dynamism of the yellow, which everywhere else in the book bespeaks a Dionysian elan. During the first evening of partying, “two girls in twin yellow dresses” drift to the strident sound of yellow music, their appearances punctuating the swirling movement of the bacchanal. Set clearly apart from the other guests (they are always designated by the color of their dresses), the girls nevertheless reflect the endless variety of entertainments devised for the party. They are really the spirits of the evening; by their vitality, gaiety and unfailing readiness to join in the fun, they emphasize the party's innocent, naive side. It is symptomatic that they disappear when the discordant people from East Egg corrupt its mood. Their presence, like their absence, is an index to the naturalness and spontaneity of the festivities.
The many roles played by the two girls in yellow reveal the color's instability, its perpetual changes in pigment, density, substance. During the preparations for the party, hundreds of oranges and lemons liquefy at the press of a thumb, roasted turkeys turn to burnished gold. A similar transformation occurs to Gatsby's Rolls-Royce. When Nick first sees it, he thinks of it as cream-colored, more white than yellow. When it is involved in an accident, Michaelis sees it as pale green. Only one other witness, the black, is precise and objective: “'It was a yellow car,' he said, 'big yellow car. New.'” Early that afternoon, when Tom stops for gas, Wilson is also sure of the color; “'It's a nice yellow one,'” he affirms. In the brilliant sunlight the car's Olympian splendor and vibrant color cannot help but strike the ailing Wilson, vegetating in the gray dust of the valley. With its winged form and glittering windshield, it symbolizes for him the difference between his world and that of the demigods. It combines the attributes of what is needed to win Daisy: the color of gold and the wings of success. It is the instrument by which Gatsby hopes to achieve the program proposed in the epigraph:
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too…
Another gold object functions as mediator between Gatsby's fears and Daisy's embarrassment during their first meeting at Nick's apartment; once she recognizes a gold brush as a mark of success and of belonging, Gatsby regains his poise.
It is a precarious poise, however. The color gold is indeed the sign of an irresistible impulse, of a seemingly inexhaustible and almost supernatural superabundance. But its energy can become repolarized and generate destructive power at the very source from which benefaction was thought to spout. Its suggestive power is such that even when it is seen in the valley's desolation,it triggers Nick's imagination. When he drives Tom to Wilson's yellow-brick garage, he cannot accept the obvious reality. “It had occurred to me,” he muses, “that this shadow of a garage must be a blind, and that sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead.” This yellow, shining in the surrounding grayness, is a clear reference to Myrtle, whom Nick has not yet met. His description of her and the image he uses to suggest her sensuality are a kind of commentary on a color contrast: “There was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smoldering.” The last time he sees Myrtle, the “romantic” apartment has turned for her into the prison in which Wilson is holding her. It is from there that she escapes when the yellow car reappears with her lover, she believes, at the wheel—a final illusion. The winged chariot, emblem of freedom and power, becomes the death car in a newspaper headline.
Almost always, the juxtaposition of blue and yellow signals a state of balance and euphoria. The girls in yellow, for example, sound the trumpets of happiness in Gatsby's blue gardens. The two colors are sometimes allied in smiling landscapes that are simply colored projections of the characters' joyousness. The opening scenes of Tender Is the Night unfold under the twin signs of sea and sun, the dark yellow sand dissolving into the pale blue sea. This dichromaticism recurs in Fitzgerald's description of his characters, with a few touches of pink and red added. The surging of the sea and the contours of the landscape extend, for example, to the portrait of Rosemary, with her blue eyes and ash-blond hair; they are present in the juxtaposition of Abe North's blue bathing suit and golden, leonine mane. This is a moment of harmony and happiness, indicated by the consonance of characters and elements. Blond Rosemary longs only to live in this blue and gold paradise, to lose herself “in the bright blue worlds of (Dick's) eyes.”
This special image of juxtaposed blue and gold occurs again and again in flashes of gold on windows in the blue twilight. What is important here is the relationship of values rather than specific differences in pigmentation. Blue's tendency, as we shall see, is to darken, yellow's to brighten. Even when the two related colors pull away from each other, the blue toward a dull black and the yellow toward shining white, as they do in Tender Is the Night, the effects of their association are unchanged. The verb “to bloom,” frequently used in conjunction with them, reveals the secret nature of colors that glow only at night, against a shadowy background, but are dried and withered by sunlight. This is why it is important to see yellow, the sun's prevailing color, apart from the sun's other two attributes, its heat and light. It reaches all its varnished intensity, its gleaming clarity, only when it is shielded from the light around it, contrasted with dark blue or displayed like a jewel against the velvety blackness of night. Daytime yellow is intolerably strident.
Removed from this night-colored casket, which demarcates it and servesas a foil for it, yellow glares, grows hostile. Its light burns and cracks what it touches, becomes the color of disintegration and chaos. It is beneficial only at a distance. A spectator must also stand off from it, in creative shadow; if he nears the light, it bursts into flame. The tyranny of the senses overwhelms the fervor of contemplation. But if proper precautions are taken, then yellow, resplendent in the darkness, becomes the emblem of a mystical vision. In “Absolution” Fitzgerald came closest to formulating an aesthetic—even an ethic—of yellow, merging it with the festival spirit, but carefully distinguishing its sacred and profane aspects. He speaks in the voice of the priest urging Rudolph to visit an amusement park:
“Go to one at night and stand a little way off from it in a dark place-under dark trees. You'll see a big wheel made of lights turning in the air … and everything will twinkle. But it won't remind you of anything, you see. It will all just hang out there in the night like a colored balloon —like a big yellow lantern on a pole.”
Father Schwartz frowned as he suddenly thought of something. “But don't get up close,” he warned Rudolph, “because if you do you'll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.”
This may have been the lesson Gatsby learns. Hadn't Nick told him that his brilliantly lighted house resembled a fairground? At his parties he always remains aloof from his guests, never joining in their games, their dancing; he stands alone in the moonlight on the top step of the marble stairs leading to his door. This separation in space reflects a distancing in time as well. Removed from the present, he lives in memory a love reduced to its essence, for it too is sheltered from “the heat and the sweat and the life.”
A whole connotative system is thus erected in climates and seasons of the spirit. A thorough study could bring out the isomorphism of yellow, the sun, heat, dryness and shrillness, for example, in contrast with their opposites, blue, the moon, coolness, moisture and depth. The qualities of day and night, of dawn and dusk, summer and winter are subject to the attraction of these magnetic poles dissociated from their alternation in time, making their influence felt not only in clock and calendar time but in interior space. In the last resort, the countless elements in these two constellations can only be identified by what is most immediately visible in them, the yellowness or blueness of their brightest stars, which thus take on the status of ultimate, indivisible meanings, of the grand, antithetical system that pervades Fitzgerald's universe. Finally, yellow and blue become primary elements, essential qualities toward which gravitate the material and spiritual principles on which the specific character of Fitzgerald's work is based. They can rightly be considered the monads of his imaginary cosmos.
Among the theoreticians of color, Goethe—who attributed substantial qualities to it—could best have realized its specificity in Fitzgerald's aesthetic, rather than Newton, who saw in color merely a superficial optical effect. For color is seldom merely a surface tinting in Gatsby; it is an intimate part of what seems to be the book's substance, its structure. Color is not just paint applied over form. Nor is it a dye that penetrates the fibers of Fitzgerald's aesthetic and brings out its essence. Color is that essence itself, just as perfume is. A rose is rose-colored, and that rose color is the rose: its color, perfume and form are indissolubly linked in each species; to name any one of these qualities is to evoke the others. Thus, in an exemplary synesthetic series, Fitzgerald suggested the yellowness of jonquils and the whiteness of hawthorn simply by mentioning their smell, which in turn evokes the visual impact of their petals: “Daisy … admired the gardens, the sparkling odor of jonquils and the frothy odor of hawthorn and plum blossoms and the pale odor of kiss-me-at-the-gate.”
Declension of the substances it impregnates reveals a color's whole paradigm. Certain properties of yellow, for example, emerge from the different materials it infuses: it is dry and combustible matter (straw), or ardent (whiskey) or metallic (gold). Infinite variations are possible and these are made still more complex and subtle by their combination with other colors, other substances. A single example will show the flexibility of this grammar of signs. It is an extreme example, because the yellow in it is no longer simply associated with blue but is paradoxically mixed with it, although their specific pigmentation is neither altered nor blended, as might be expected, to form green. It is extreme also because of the fact that blue, when it stands alone, can be reflected in the surface of yellow.
During the evening he spends with Myrtle, Nick's thoughts wander several times to escape the vulgar cacophony around him. His mind drifts above the cackling of a woman telling him about her disagreeable trip to the French Riviera, and he dreams of traveling on his own. He stops listening in order to bring his vision into focus: instead of the routine Riviera of tourists and casinos, he sees a sun-washed sea that he imagines reflected in the windows overlooking it: “The late afternoon sky bloomed in the window for a moment like the blue honey of the Mediterranean.” This might merely be a picturesque detail were it not for the important connotation of the word “honey.” In the hierarchy of Fitzgeraldian substances, honey isthe opposite of straw. Its unctuousness and suaveness lend themselves to metamorphosis. It softens and moistens yellow's brilliance; blue can be mirrored in its surface without changing its essence or diminishing its vital force. Nick's vision is a symbol of divinity, a symbol confirmed here by the fact that it is miraculously imbued with both azure and gold at the same time.
Nick's reverie is thus revealed as more than an escape toward distant horizons. It constitutes a judgment on the stupidity and chaos surrounding him. The honey that he associates with the Mediterranean is not a contemporary image; his imagination is moving not in space but in history. This honey is as much a property of Mount Hymettus as it is of the sea; we are truly dealing here with the quintessence of classical antiquity and its distillation of wisdom and harmony. Through this unexpected association of two contrasting colors, this “blue honey,” we see a longing for that Grecian order so often evoked by Keats, a longing for a balance between action and meditation, which were so sharply dissociated in Fitzgerald's society.
But isn't their very combination a snare, a final illusion granted to souls in search of an absolute? The theme of illusion, central to The Great Gatsby, is introduced by the green light that shines in the night, green being a blend of blue and yellow. This theme is repeated and developed in the book's dominant symbol, in which the two principal colors continually operate in dialectical opposition. It is the billboard in the Valley of Ashes, showing two blue eyes framed in yellow glasses, the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, whose description immediately follows the one we have already cited of the desert the characters must cross on their way to New York:
But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic— their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.
Fitzgerald took this image, which would become the book's focal point, from a cover design showing two big blue eyes shining out of a dark face, gazing at a nighttime New York stylized in the form of an amusement park. The artist F. Cugat, may have remembered a D. W. Griffith movie, Enoch Arden, in which the screen is filled by a close-up of Lillian Gish's eyes. In an August 1924 letter informing Perkins that the book was almost finished, Fitzgerald implored, “For Christ's sake, don't give anyone that jacket you're saving for me. I've written it into the book.”
Ideas that were probably still murky may have crystallized around this image. An examination of Fitzgerald's manuscript shows how essential a motif this chance find gave the book; it became the vehicle for a whole series of ideas that are never explicitly stated, a subliminal image that gives the entire composition its meaning.
After first having succumbed to the temptation to let his narrator reveal this profound meaning immediately, Fitzgerald later settled for giving subtle clues. He fragmented the meaning, releasing it bit by bit in different contexts, through different characters, tracing a path for the reader that leads him irresistibly toward the crucial scene in which Dr. Eckleburg's eyes become, for George Wilson, the very eyes of God.
This brings us to an epiphany, to use the Joycean term, the dramatic effect of which was heightened by the elimination of all details that might have nipped it in the bud. It is Wilson, devastated by his wife's death, who in his fashion expresses one of the image's buried meanings. This man who has abandoned religion, yet talks of nothing but God, is struck by a vision of God. This has its ironic counterpoint in the remark by the young Greek, Michaelis, “You ought to have a church, George, for times like this.”
At dawn, when the wake for Wilson's wife ends, the incarnation suddenly appears. There is new power in the familiar billboard image emerging from the darkness, and the reader, through Michaelis's incredulous eyes, is faced with the supernatural: “Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the dissolving night.
“'God sees everything,' repeated Wilson.
“'That's an advertisement,' Michaelis assured him.”
The contrast between the yellow spectacles and the blue eyes in them takes on a primary meaning in the message read by George, setting him on the trail of his wife's alleged murderer. Blue appears as the color of revealed depth that confirms the apparition's divinity, while yellow bespeaks violent and destructive action, the earthly mission assigned by a revengeful God.
This interpretation, following from Fitzgerald's logic of color, by no means exhausts the meanings to be read in Dr. Eckleburg's eyes. Is it the gaze of a compassionate God that the characters see, or a vengeful God? Or the empty gaze of an abandoned idol? We may see a hint of this deity's nature in the attitudes the author gives his characters toward the problem of God. We know that Fitzgerald himself, strongly influenced by his Catholic education, found it difficult to detach himself from the religion he had learned in childhood. All the gods are dead, Amory maintains in the final pages of This Side of Paradise. And again in Gatsby we see the image of a defunct god abandoned in the heart of a desert. But this god, like that of the Gnostics, is the creation of a higher power whose name he has usurped. This is the demiurge, disavowed by the Spirit and regnant over the material world. The Spirit has disappeared, has refused to gaze upon evil. Nick'ssarcastic reflections hence take on a quite different meaning; we perceive a kind of metaphysical irony: the Great Oculist, the “wild wag,” left the creation of the world to an inferior god and has rejected or forgotten it. It is not men who have abandoned God, it is God who has deserted men in an uninhabitable, senseless material universe.
Fitzgerald's color dynamic is valuable here in isolating and specifying the meaning of this dereliction. No one any longer worships this idol with its faded, discolored, weathered eyes. Its colors have lost their brightness, and when blue and yellow fade, their effects change radically. “When it lightens, which does not suit it at all, blue seems distant and indifferent,” the painter Vasili Kandinsky wrote. The closer yellow approaches white, on the other hand, the more piercing it becomes: “This property of yellow, which always tends toward pale tones, can reach an intensity that is insupportable to the eye and to the soul. In this degree of power, it resounds like a shrill trumpet that is being blown louder and louder.” So we simultaneously see sky blue fade and earthly yellow grow more intense: a withering of spiritual power and a corresponding increase in materialism. For those glasses are there to sell a product that makes people see more clearly. But by its form and color, the idol implies that the cost of any improvement in efficiency is a decline in man's spiritual power, in his capacity to see and understand.
Dr. Eckleburg's eyes are surrounded by an optical instrument the function of which is to correct their vision, adapt it, turn it toward the material world. Pale blue is enclosed in yellow circles in a combination that reverses the relationship of what had been seen as a sign of harmony: yellow enclosed by dark blue. Because of this shift in relationships, the vanquished blue is veiled, it recedes into infinity, while the spectacles come forward, their presence becoming more assertive as the gaze within them weakens. What strikes a traveler crossing the valley is not so much the eyes themselves, but the image as a symbol of technique triumphant—the techniques not only of manufacturing but of marketing as well.
What are they peering at, these triumphant lenses that seem to grow stronger as the light behind them fades? If we move away for a moment from the spectator's point of view, that of Nick or Tom, and stand behind those lenses, we see a ravaged land of useless agitation, where humans are no more important than the dust their shovels stir, raising “an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” Is the remedial power of this optical system strong enough to give meaning to this despairing vision of the contemporary world? Can greenness and fecundity be glimpsed through this gray, parodic cloud? Or should we see in this mortal dustiness the effects of a catastrophe, the vestiges of a conflagration caused by these lenses' intense radiation?
Such is the scope of the problem we are going to try to solve. God,demiurge, new deity, idol of a new age, or simply an advertising billboard—Dr. Eckleburg's eyes may simultaneously represent all these, mutually exclusive as they seem to be. They seem simultaneously to be the eyes of the material world and of the hereafter.
Dr. Eckleburg's spectacles are a striking prefiguration of pop art in their linear simplification, lack of relief and perspective, and contrasting primary colors. They are a product of contemporary commercial civilization. This idol of the twenties planted in a desert of ash, as strange as Shelley's Ozymandias lost among the sands, stands midway between the cool greenery of West Egg and the mineral whiteness of New York; and it marks the geometric intersection of failure, degradation and death. The failure of the American Dream, which could only be materially realized at the cost of this debasement of nature. The failure, too, of the people who live there, whose physical and moral decay are exemplified in George Wilson. And, as well, of the desperate attempt by Myrtle, the only person really alive in this no-man's-land, to escape from it: the blood from her horribly mutilated body is drunk by the dust. In this hell, human sacrifice brings neither redemption nor remission.
In this devastated land, under a leaden sun, huge eyes contemplate the swirling dust and the equally vain attempts of humankind to revel—an impenetrable look, which, like the Sphinx's, implies a riddle to which the answer is sometimes Man and sometimes God.
It is significant that the anonymous artist responsible for the billboard illustration used the same method that Byzantine artists used to represent a new concept of holiness: a frontal gaze, dominant, omnipresent, impossible to escape because it sweeps across every corner of space. The billboard's colors are the basic colors of Byzantine mosaics, azure and gold, but they do not have the mosaics' brilliance, their spiritual radiance. Just as a mosaic, lacking perspective, dominates the holy place beneath it, being one with the curve of the vault, so these eyeglasses are the dominant element in the landscape, inaccessible, always remote from the viewer, always hanging over him. In Greco-Roman art a god was sculptured as a body, an object around which a worshiper could move, which he could touch, could contemplate in all its aspects. Nor were those aspects themselves permanent. They varied with the time of day and the play of light. The god participated in man's attributes; his space and time were man's space and time. In the Valley of Ashes, on the other hand, as in Byzantine art, man is no longer the spectator of a deity that exalts humanity's image; he is himself a spectacle contemplated by an immutable and disincarnate gaze. Man no longer delves familiarly into the mystery of a god who resembles him; it is God, prodigiously remote and strange, whose omniscient eye pierces to the heart of man's mystery. The relationships are reversed: the creature loses his statusas the subject who contemplates and is relegated to that of a scrutinized object. This is the transcendental equation that explains the hypnotic power of Dr. Eckleburg's eyes. Their height forces humans to look up to them, inspires in people a confused awareness of their obsessions, their guilt, their fear, their lust for vengeance.
Dr. Eckleburg's eyes, a pop version of the eyes of the Byzantine God, share with them the power to transform subject into object, to force it into an awareness of its own insignificance and frailty. The eyes suffer, however, from an ambiguity that is brought out by the different tones the narrator uses in describing them, an ambiguity clearly summarized by the antithetical attitudes of George and Michaelis when we see them for the last time (it's God/it's an advertisement). This duality disappears if we think of them not in relation to the book's characters but from a distance, thus bringing into clear focus the cultural panorama they contemplate. The reversed relationship between creator and creature postulated by the Byzantine aesthetic has its counterpart here in the reversed relationship between the individual and society that became so glaringly obvious at the start of the twenties. These eyeglasses can thus be thought of in their materiality as an advertising device—indeed, as the very symbol of advertising triumphant, ironically appearing in a place where ruin is the sole residue of industrial prosperity.
Here is realized a prophecy by the Goncourts of a new iconography that would express the new nature of the deity in industrial societies: “Sometimes I think that a day will come when modern peoples will be blessed with an American-style god … his image no longer elastic and adaptable to painters' imaginations, no longer floating on Veronica's veil, but caught in a photographic portrait… Yes, I picture a god who will appear in photographs and who will wear glasses.”
The god imagined by the Goncourts did not have the face of Carnegie or Rockefeller, but the features of the anonymous Advertising Man. There was no longer a place in the national imagination for the pioneers of production in this period of abundance in which the great problem, the new myth, concerned marketing. Now the new hero of daily life was the seller, the hustler, the ad man. The only real tragedy written by an American playwright, the only one deeply rooted in his people's mythology, is in fact Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
Rivaling the expressive force of colors and icons were other, more imponderable images, perhaps the most effective of them all: those that extended the suggestive power of forms through the language of music. Or, rather, through a language half made up of the obsessive lyrics of popular songs, through dance tunes floating in a diffuse area in which the words took on a new meaning, irrefutable, incantatory, made more persuasive by the fact that one's whole body, in dancing, received and assimilated theirmessages. Countless love scenes were set to these songs, engraved in people's memories by the words and music.
Along with movies, the press and advertising illustrations, songs are among the surest pointers to the popular attitudes of an era—the songs we hear a hundred times, that we know without ever having learned them and that mark particular periods in our lives. Fitzgerald seized music's incomparable power to fix special moments in our memories, to revive in us feelings we thought were dead but that flood back into our minds in all their poignant nostalgia when we happen to hear an old melody again. Vinteuil's sonata, in which Swann and Odette heard “the national anthem” of their love, is to the cultivated world in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past what pop tunes are to Fitzgerald's less refined world.
Few of his stories do not contain at least one such song title as a milestone and commentary for his readers. To us today this is a language stripped of its basic associations, but we can still translate its meaning by noting how it affected Fitzgerald's characters. When Basil, for example, hears “his tune of tunes, 'Chinatown,'” he is filled with real emotion; “his heart quickened, suffocating him.”
The language of popular songs is, moreover, often the only one in which characters can articulate their feelings or, rather, the accepted, codified, cataloged feelings of which the songs' titles and lyrics are the repertory. Josephine, for example, is a master strategist in love, but she cannot express herself on paper. Her letters are childish; the seeming maturity of her language is “snowed under by ineptitude.” She makes out by “much quoting of lines from current popular songs, as if they expressed the writer's state of mind more fully than verbal struggles of her own.” Nicole uses the same device in Tender Is the Night in declaring her love for Dick to elude the constraints of more formal language that is harder to handle and more easily misunderstood. Communicating through song lyrics gives the partners a common system of references, with the added advantage of conveying the message in such a way that it can be taken as a meaningless joke. Nothing these frothy words say is irreversible; the speaker can be the composer or the girl singing the words, as circumstances require. Old love affairs blend and fuse with the new one aborning, “holding lost times and future hopes in liaison,” functioning as models, insistent, affirming the primacy of romantic love. A secret monologue made up of bits of current tunes pleads for Nicole when Dick joins her to hear the latest records from the States: “They were so sorry, dear; they went down to meet each other in a taxi, honey; they had preferences in smiles and had met in Hindustan, and shortly afterward they must have quarrelled, for nobody knew and nobody seemed to care—yet finally one of them had gone and left the other crying, only to feel blue, to feel sad.” The system's efficiency is shown at the end of the chapter by Dick's mute emotion when he recognizes this medley as “the essence of a continent.”
In a short short story, “Three Acts of Music,” published in 1936, we see two people wholly identified with three songs heard at three different moments in their love affair. It's all in dialogue, and only the songs' titles and the names of their composers are given, each evoking a different period and mood. The songs are “Tea for Two” by Vincent Youmans, Irving Berlin's “Blue Sky Overhead,” and Jerome Kern's “Lovely to Look At.” Significantly, the lovers' names are not mentioned, nor are we told why their affair is doomed. All that matter here are the emotions relived through, and identified with, the songs. “You're all those things in the song,” the man says fifteen years later. “Let's not say anything about it,” the woman replies. “It was all we had and everything we'll ever know about life.”
Thus emotion flows into a musical mold, appropriates music to itself. Music gives emotion its language and its durability. Words here are merely mnemonic devices, as rhyme first was in poetry, which need not mean anything as long as they perform their mnemotechnical duty. What is missing, and what counts, is the music itself, without which the lyrics lose their expressive power. So that what these characters feel, whatever emotions they share, are visible to us only as ripples, as the wakes that intense moments leave going by; attitudes remain to us, silences, unimportant phrases that reflect still earlier attitudes confirmed by other arts and repeated until their very familiarity made them seem real and essential.
The incommunicability of such feelings is avowed at the end of chapter 6 in Gatsby when Nick, having described the events on the November night that sealed Gatsby's fate, admits that he cannot understand them. Yet he had participated in his hero's mystical visions, had heard as Gatsby did the music of the infinite, the lights buzzing in the darkness and, after a long wait and a long silence, “the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.” But the core of the events' meaning, vaguely hinted, almost recognized as a memory, remains elusive, inexpressible. “I was reminded,” Nick says, “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 incommunicable forever.”
In this we spy the writer pondering his problems, precisely measuring how much to say and how much not to say, reaching to the limits of the expressible to give the reader more of a chance to supply the inexpressible, to help him make the jump from trivial circumstances to the spiritual meaning they generate. Not that Fitzgerald tried to express the inexpressible. The paragraph quoted above is all that remains of six pages added in the galley proofs. Between the first and penultimate paragraphs of this extensive insert he had written a dialogue between the two men in which Gatsby madesome interesting revelations. When Nick tells him that Daisy was “a pretty satisfactory incarnation of anything,” a disillusioned Gatsby replies, “She is … but it's a little like loving a place where you've once been happy.” Most striking in this lesson is the way Gatsby admits and analyzes his essential hollowness: “'But the truth is I'm empty and I guess people feel it. … Daisy's all I've got left from a world that was so wonderful that when I think of it I feel sick all over.' He looked around with wild regret. 'Let me sing you a song—I want to sing you a song!'” Gatsby's song, written when he was fourteen and quoted in its entirety, confirms Nick's opinion of Gatsby's appalling sentimentality. This is all the man adds up to, an imitation of a popular song of which he confesses that “the sound of it makes me perfectly happy. But I don't sing it often because I'm afraid I'll use it up.” It is after this sequence that Fitzgerald wrote the final passage cited earlier, one that is far more suggestive and effective in its very inability to penetrate Gatsby's secret than all the explanations given in the pages that were later deleted.
This journey into aesthetics is also a voyage through appearances, an effort to reach an essential core. Written here, beyond the world of phenomena, is Fitzgerald's spiritual biography. Gatsby is his climactic statement of a twin vision: the world's temptations displayed, offered and refused, and conscience's retreat into its own valley of ashes. What is denied on the one hand is affirmed on the other. The old Janus mask contrasting a lust for life with despair at what has not been accomplished is seen here in a new disguise. It is at this point, when language admits its inadequacy and when colors fade, that jazz—or, rather, two of its harbingers, ragtime and blues-is heard. It was already there, in the background, but it could not be heard because it blended as intimately with the arabesques of language and color as the beating of a heart does with the writhings of imagination. And yet, unconsciously captured on the ear and mimed by the body, that music anticipates, perhaps promotes, the polychrome festival we actually see.
This is another language, immediately perceptible, hard to separate from the noise of his century, that Fitzgerald recognized without having learned it. A primary language of emotion, however, for the rage for ragtime and the popular dances it engendered coincided, as we shall see, with the first flutterings of Fitzgerald's emotions in his teens. This was the music that won its prestige by dethroning the waltz and the mazurka, music that belonged to the flowering twentieth century and its young Americans, not just heard, but sung and danced to in a dialogue with its listeners' voices and bodies. It's no wonder that in its rhythms we find the acoustic and dynamic equivalent of the dialectical play in Gatsby.
In ragtime a pianist alone replaces a full dance band, maintaining a fast base beat with the left hand while the right works out syncopated variations on a theme. Thus the left hand does the work of the rhythm section, especially the drums vital to Afro-American music, while the right hand replaces the strings, improvising in the high notes on familiar violin and banjo tunes.
In this use of two registers, two series of contrasting and complementary tones, we find structures like those on which Fitzgerald built The Great Gatsby. The two great, antithetical magnetic fields wheeling around blue and yellow correspond in tone to the two registers of ragtime: the left hand plays a grave blues rhythm, its throbbing beat like a call, or, rather, a wistful recall, of the inaccessible. It was this call that summoned Gatsby, with his “instinct toward his future glory,” to leave his parents and the small college where he found only a “ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny” and to make instead for Lake Superior. Destiny was waiting for him there. Dan Cody's yacht, which symbolized to the young man “all the beauty and glamour in the world,” convinced him to change his name: henceforth he would be Jay Gatsby, and Cody gave him an initiate's vestments: a skipper's cap, blue blazer and white trousers. This was when “he invented just that sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” It was born of the Platonic notion he had of himself and was made to serve “a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” This projection of an adolescent ideal was crystallized in the image of a diurnal Gatsby to whom Fitzgerald assigned the emblematic color of the sun, and of gold.
The rag pianist's right hand gives a striking musical equivalent of the gamut of sharp, hyperactive yellows when it runs to the end of the keyboard to improvise on familiar themes. But the rolling base is always behind it, testifying to the durability of the music's primary impulse, an immense nocturnal yearning that is trying to realize its form and so satisfy itself, an impatient beat that throbs, recalls, returns to send the agile fingers fluttering off again in search of sparkling new variations. It is as though this yen were trying to exhaust itself, to fill an intolerable emptiness, to appease its anguish with offerings of interminably varied arabesques, each nimbler and more explosive than the last, in the hope of finding, suddenly and miraculously, the form it was meant to take.
In 1896, the year Fitzgerald was born, when crowds were flocking to the first films and pictures from The Yellow Kid frowned from a thousand walls, a black pianist named Ben Harney, who played in a nightclub on New York's Fourteenth Street, first sounded the obsessive ragtime rhythms that were to sweep America over the next fifteen years. Until then rag had been known only to blacks, played by the pickup bands in black honky-tonks. Two years later ragtime was being heard throughout the country; in 1899 Scott Joplin wrote his classic “Maple Leaf Rag,” which sold by the hundreds of thousands of copies. White composers took up the beat, and in 1911 Irving Berlin wrote his famous “Alexander's Ragtime Band.”
The song is mentioned in Fitzgerald's Ledger for August 1911 and repeated in September of the same year, just before he began at Newman. He was fifteen then, about to leave the family circle for the first time and, the following winter, to begin going to the Broadway theaters. In May 1913 he attended a performance of Sunshine Girl, in which Vernon and Irene Castle introduced the Castle walk; they popularized the new, syncopated rhythms composed for them by black bandleader Jim Europe, who also invented the fox-trot and the turkey-trot for them around 1914.
In his essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald recalled the dance craze that gripped America then: “We graybeards … remember the uproar when in 1912 grandmothers of forty tossed away their crutches and took lessons in the Tango and the Castle-Walk.” The whole country sang ragtime and blues tunes, and this musical atmosphere saturated Fitzgerald's teens.
Blues, a basically vocal musical form, emerged from obscurity a few years after ragtime, around 1902. It proposed a new attitude toward life's hard knocks. Instead of finding satisfactions for one's longings, finding diversions to still the heartache, the approach now was to sublimate affliction, to make it tolerable by plunging deeper into it. Blues is melancholy and disillusioned; it knows the vanity of all things, knows that there is no life without pain. But it can also stand back and mock the cause of heartache. Its favorite form is dialogue, an appeal-response technique that fathers humor both black and tender and brings a note of redemption to its elegiac complaint: however tough the breaks are, a man can always overcome them.
When William Christopher Handy came out with “The Memphis Blues” in 1912, the vogue he launched thrust ragtime back into the shadows. Two years later his “St. Louis Blues” made him world-famous, and other blues tunes were adapted for dance orchestras, especially the “Beale Street Blues” (1917), which conquered America during the war years.
These are the poignant rhythms that comfort a doleful Daisy while Gatsby is at the front: “Orchestras … set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in new tunes. All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the gray tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.”
The two attitudes united in jazz are in this paragraph, “sadness” and “suggestiveness.” The music's “hopeless comment” by the “sad horns” sets up a counterpoint to the dancing feet and the faces drifting in time to the beat. Dancing is a median condition between the soul's sadness and the body's demands. Daisy moves in this “twilight universe” that combines renunciation and hope, the coordinated attractions of the day and the night. She wanted to escape this uncertainty, this ambiguity. “…somethingwithin her was crying for a decision. She wanted 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.”
There was no satisfying Daisy's impatience for life with the mournful delights urged by the blues. She was not made to watch the party from afar, in the blue distance of memory. She had to break the circle, find new rhythms, live in the present. And that is what happens. “Daisy began to move again with the seasons.” In “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald says jazz became popular because it was a way to dissipate this vast restlessness, this enormous, objectless hope. He saw the reasons for his own success in this, too: “It bore him [the present writer] up, flattered him and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did, that something had to be done with all the nervous energy stored up and unexpended in the War.” He went on to link the music to sex and dancing: “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.”
Fitzgerald saw dancing as a circular movement with no beginning and no end, closed as a merry-go-round, an image of life itself. This carousel vision is briefly suggested in a paragraph in Gatsby in which Daisy tries to break out of the circle into another sphere in which she is no longer an object but a subject, no longer a spectator of her own yearning but an actress again, improvising on her longings; in this sphere she could react to the “suggestiveness of life,” could leave the “sad horns” of memory behind her. The “Beale Street Blues,” then, stands for a time gone by, a time of weary waiting, a harking back to old pain. Daisy's life will pulse to the same new rhythms that beat in the nation's altered attitudes at the end of the war.
This is when jazz, a fusion of ragtime and blues, was born. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band made its name at Reisenweber's Cafe in New York in 1917. Like blues, jazz is essentially vocal; jazz instrumentalists tried to imitate a singing style, mainly in dialogue form in solos or in solo rides against a band's group harmonies. Jazz adopted ragtime's principle of improvisation on what was usually a short theme, as in blues, that is repeatedly picked up throughout the number. It also borrowed ragtime's accentuated syncopation, with stress on the unaccented beats in its four-four time. The piano is still there, but its function as the basic rhythm section is largely usurped by the drums, banjo and bass, while the right-hand work is taken over by the standard instruments of the New Orleans marching bands. Jazz's polyphony also distinguishes it from ragtime; now everyone in the band could improvise simultaneously instead of just the soloist.
Gatsby's orchestra typifies the form jazz took from 1920 on. It is a big band, “no thin five-piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos, and low and high drums.” It played dance music, but could obligingly switch beats andbegin improvising when one of the guests started singing. The band could also play more ambitious pieces, notably an experimental work that had made a sensation at Carnegie Hall, Vladimir Tostoff's “Jazz History of the World.”
In the novel's final version, only the title of this piece is mentioned because, just as the symphony begins, Nick's attention is caught by the solitary figure of Gatsby. The manuscript and proofs, however, contain a long passage, with amendments, on the music. Here, Nick's remarks on this new music, which both disconcerts and seduces him, seem oddly appropriate to the very method Fitzgerald was then developing, working feverishly even on the proofs, which he told Perkins would be the costliest since Flaubert's. The duality of ragtime's rhythms can be seen in the Tostoff work; so can the dialogues of blues in its infinite complexity of notes that blend and separate and pop up in unexpected places. There is nothing linear about the piece despite its title; its structure is always changing, reversing relationships and developing themes and their accompaniments in space, not in time.
Fitzgerald's passage is not entirely successful; the many corrections he made show that he did not feel completely at ease as a music critic. He might nevertheless finally have done a satisfactory job on it had he not lost interest, probably because it would have slowed down the fast pace of chapter 3, sitting in it as a kind of long, static pause amid a series of brief and lively scenes. This descriptive passage really stands apart from the novel's structure. It is not a miniaturization of the whole work, as the play within a play is in Hamlet. Instead, it is like a buried preface, an anamorphic projection of the book's operative principle. It even estimates readers' probable reaction to its structural novelty:
It [the music] 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 great distance away. A rhythm 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… The second movement was concerned with the bell, only it wasn't the bell any more, but a muted violincello 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 emotions. I know so little about music that I can only make a story of it … but it wasn't exactly a story … there would be a seriesof 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 got 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 a preposterous cycle after all, purposeless and sardonic…
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 hints of the Beale Street Blues.
A significant passage in The Last Tycoon would add a dimension to this aesthetic of the unsayable. It removes the last obstacle to our understanding, the intervention of a narrator. For the first time we see into the character's soul at the crucial moment when the musical message is about to take form. This is the only long description of interiorized music to be found in all Fitzgerald's published works. It functions very much as Vinteuil's Septet does in Remembrance of Things Past when it develops themes that are only sketched in the sonata:
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 that the music was beginning, new music that he liked and did not understand. It was hard to react to what one could not entirely encompass—this was new and confusing, nothing one could shut off in the middle and supply the rest from an old score.
This music is only imminent, however, not yet heard. Its silence subsumes the whole experience of the search in Fitzgerald's work for the present, an unshakably convincing present that no apparent fulfillment can thrust into the past as a thing achieved. It admirably illustrates the message of Ode on a Grecian Urn, which locates happiness on the curved flanks of the urn, in the pursuit of desire and not in its realization, in imagination rather than reality—in short, in a silence more eloquent than any music.
All Fitzgerald's work seems to aspire to these instants of suspension and equilibrium in which the search for a hero and a style tend to blend, in which the action's silence seems to reply to another silence of inner music that destroys itself if it is heard. The slow movement that, from rejection to rejection, bears a hero to transcendence matches the writer's progress. More poet than novelist, he evokes a world of sound and fury only to make more audible the murmur of another, more distant world, one that is inaccessible except through forms perceptible solely to those who, like Gatsby, no longer hear the tumult of existence.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Andre LeVot (French: Paris: Julliard, 1979; English: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983 - translated by William Byron).