I have classified Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as “perfect” for a special reason. In each case the author has created something totally unreal, yet at the same time totally satisfying, a dazzling artifact, compact, cohesive, a fine hard jewel that can be turned round and round, and admired from every angle. In each case the author has stripped himself, or herself, of the aids on which a reader normally relies to relate the page before him to some familiar aspect of his own environment. The author has deliberately chosen to be exotic. We see the conjurer, the magician at work.
A woman punished for life for a single fault, a monster of inhumanity on the Yorkshire moors, a bootlegger who lives in a fantasy world—the creators of such protagonists cannot rely on their readers’ recognition or identification. They are dealing almost with myths.
Now just what do I mean by that? I mean that they are dealing with human stories which, with the use of a little imagination, can be made to relate to any time or condition of man. We can be thrilled by these stories without everwholly understanding them. Are myths ever meant to be wholly understood? Like Delphic oracles, they invite each man’s interpretation. They have something to say to everybody…
In The Great Gatsby Scott Fitzgerald makes a hero out of a kind of monster. Jay Gatsby, born James Gatz, acquires a fortune, or at least what appears to be one, by the age of thirty, by means that are far from clear but that are certainly dishonest. He starts with bootlegging, but in the end he seems to be engaged in the theft or embezzlement of securities. As Henry James leaves to our imagination how his heroes made their money (because he did not really know), so Fitzgerald allows us to make up our own crimes for Gatsby. But there is no doubt that he is a crook and a tough one, too. He has no friends, only hangers-on, no intellectual interests, no real concern for people. His entire heart and imagination are utterly consumed with his romantic image of Daisy Buchanan, a selfish, silly, giddy creature, who turns in the end into a remorseless hit-and-run driver. What seems to attract him to Daisy is the sense of financial security that she emanates: she has always been, and somehow always will be, abundantly, aboundingly rich. She is the tinselly department store window at Christmastime to the urchin in the street. Her very voice, as Gatsby puts it, “is full of money.”
Fitzgerald is a courageous author. For what is Daisy, dreadful Daisy, but his dream and the American dream at that? He seems to make no bones about it. Vapid, vain, heartless, self-absorbed, she is still able to dispel a charm the effect of which on Gatsby is simply to transform him into a romantic hero. The American dream, then, is an illusion? Certainly. It is all gush and twinkle. But nonetheless its effect on a sentient observer is about all life has to offer.
Is Fitzgerald then seriously telling us that to fall in love with a beautiful heiress with a monied laugh, even if she’s superficial, selfish, and gutless, is a fitting goal for a man’s life, and one to justify years of criminal activity? Perhaps not quite. What he may be telling us is that he, the author, by creating the illusion of that illusion, may be doing the only thing worth doing in this vale of constant disillusionment.
To create his illusion of illusion Fitzgerald must set downthe dismal atmosphere of Gatsby’s life: the senseless, drunken parties, the dull, hard people, the inane conversations, the curious juxtaposition of the luxury of West Egg with the huge garbage dumps of Flushing—and yet make the whole gleam with a hard brittle beauty. It is difficult to see just how he does it, but he does. It is a book of beautiful sentences. Consider this passage in the epilogue:
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.
To me there is much in common between Fitzgerald’s prose and the paintings of Edward Hopper. Hopper selects dull houses, drab streets, plain people, and invests them with a glow that is actually romantic. No matter what we think of Jay Gatsby and the triviality of his dream, it is impossible not to see what he sees and even feel a bit what he feels. I find myself almost embarrassed, in the end of the book, at regretting his sorry death. As one character says,"He had it coming to him.” He certainly did. But Fitzgerald has caught the magic as well as the folly of Gatsby’s dream.
There is a peculiar power in these three novels that may stem from the isolation of their protagonists. [The Scarlet Letter’s] Hester lives in a world that is consistently cruel to her. Even those who care about her treat her harshly: her husband tortures her; her lover allows her to be punished alone. [In Wuthering Heights,] Heathcliff lives in a world that hates him and that he despises. Gatsby lives in a world where nobody understands him, except, in the very end, the narrator. Yet Nick Carraway’s ultimate understanding of his friend costs him his own romance with Jordan Baker. He perceives at last that with her he does not even have the short-lived hope that Gatsby had of sharing with Daisy a perfect life.
The reader’s experience with these three lonely characters is itself a lonely one. It is difficult to say just why one’s reaction is so intense. Sometimes I think it is only self-pity. One likes to identify with a person as unjustly treated as Hester; it makes one feel the single sensitive soul in a world of horrid gaolers, and hence something finer than the world. One likes to identify with a dreamer like Gatsby whose dreams are better than anyone else’s. Or even with Heath-cliff, who revenges himself on a world that has mistreated him and then throws that world away. But the term “self-pity” may be simply denigrating. The business of living is a lonely one for all of us, and these novels repeat, embellish, and illuminate our own inner feelings.
Published in The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others by Louis Auchincloss (1994).