In 1925 T.S. Eliot found himself as moved and interested by The Great Gatsby as he had been by any novel for a very long time. Since then the novel has attracted praise from a great many discriminating critics on both sides of the Atlantic, and the deep interest of first generation readers has been shared by others coming at a later time, and from different backgrounds. My own first reading of Gatsby is an experience I still recall vividly, and it has remained for me one of the few novels in any language (Tender Is the Night is another) for which the appetite regularly and pleasurably returns. Amazing enough, one reflects each time, that so short a work should contain so much, and its impact remain so fresh. Thirty-six years after its appearance 1 would say with confidence, then, that Gatsby has not only outlived its period and its author, but that it is one of the books that will endure.
Any new consideration must now, if this is so, be concerned with it as a work which belongs not only to American but to world literature; not only to the immediate soil from which it sprang (prohibition, big business, gangsters, jazz, uprootedness, and the rest) but to the tragic predicament of humanity as a whole. This is worth stating at the start, if only because an English critic might otherwise feel diffident about approaching a masterpiece which in many ways is so obviously American, and which has been cited so often in definitions of the peculiarly American experience of the twentieth century. An Englishman will miss, no doubt, many important nuances that to an American will be instantly obvious, and he will be less sure of himself in discussing ways in which Fitzgerald does, or does not, look forward to Salinger, Bellow, and other writers of our present Affluent Society. He might, however, hope to see other things (and I am relieved to find Leo Marx lending his support to this hope) which will prove no less important in a final assessment, and which might be less easily perceptible at home than abroad. This, at any rate, must be my excuse for venturing, in what follows, to bypass the type of sociological interest usually and rightly displayed, and to consider Gatsby as something even bigger than the demythologising of the American Myth. The squalor and splendour of Gatsby’s dreams belong, I shall suggest, to the story of humanity itself; as also does the irony, and judgment, of his awakening.
The action takes place in “the waste land” (this phrase is actually used), and is, at one level, the study of a broken society. The “valley of ashes” in which Myrtle and Wilson live symbolizes the human situation in an age of chaos. It is “a certain desolate area of land” in which “ash-gray men” swarm dimly, stirring up “an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.” This devitalized limbo is presided over by the eyes of Dr. 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.
Dr. Eckleburg is an advertisement for spectacles, now faded and irrelevant: put there by some “wild wag of. an oculist” who has himself, by this time, either sunk down “into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away.” As a simple but haunting symbol of the deus absconditus who might once have set the waste land in motion Dr. Eckleburg recurs at certain crucial moments in the novel. He is the only religious reference, but his sightless gaze precludes the possibility of judging the “ash-gray men” against traditional religious norms, and confers upon them the right to pity as well as to scorn. It ensures, too, that though the actual setting of the valley is American, and urban, and working-class (I intend to use the word “class” in this account again, without further apology), the relevance, as in Eliot’s own Waste Land, is to a universal human plight.
Beneath Dr. Eckleburg’s unseeing eyes the ash-gray men drift. “Drift” is a word used many times, and with the exception of Gatsby himself, who at least thinks he knows where he is going, it applies to all the main characters, including Carraway, the narrator.
Tom and Daisy, the “moneyed” class, have for years “drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.” Tom’s restlessness is an arrogant assertiveness seeking to evade in bluster the deep uneasiness of self-knowledge. His hypocrisy and lack of human feeling make him the most unpleasant character in the book, but he is also, when it comes to the point, one of the sanest. In the battle with Gatsby he has the nature of things on his side, so that his victory is as inevitable as it is unadmirable. The discovery that his sanity is even less worthwhile in human terms than Gatsby’s self-centred fantasy is not the least of the novel’s ironies.
Daisy is more complex than Tom, and far less real. Her manner has in it, as Carraway notes, all the promise of the world. Her eyes, “looking up into my face, promis[ed] that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see”; her voice held “a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.” But this is all yesterday and tomorrow. Today, there is only emptiness. “’What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?’ cried Daisy, ’and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’”
When Gatsby arrives with his “romantic readiness,” his unqualified faith in Daisy’s ideal and absolute reality, he is broken against her sheer non-existence. She turns out to be literally nothing, and vanishes from the novel at the very point when, if she existed at all, she would have to start being really there. Her romantic facade, so adequate in appearance to the dreams Gatsby has built around it, is without reality. She has no belief in it herself, and so it means nothing. It is no more than an attempt to alchemize the dreariness of an unsuccessful life into some esoteric privilege of the sophisticated. The account she gives of her “cynicism” is not without genuine pain. But the pain is transmuted in the telling into a pleasure—the only genuine pleasure, one feels, of which she would be capable.
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said… I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.
Behind the facade of the rich, the “rather distinguished secret society” to which they belong, is money and carelessness—the two protections upon which, in moments of crisis, they fall back, leaving those outside to sink or swim as best they can.
The social break-up at this level is paralleled in the working class. Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, is the quintessence of vulgarity. Her “class” is no strong, peasant culture, but a drifting wreckage of the spiritless and defeated. Her only hope is to escape—and it is her one positive quality, her vitality, which leads her to seek happiness in a role other than that to which she is born. With Tom’s prestige and money behind her she sets up a town establishment, throws parties, apes the rich, outgrows her husband (“I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe”), looks down on her own class with aloof disdain (“Myrtle raised her eyebrows at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. These people! You have to keep after them all the time.’”) In playing this moneyed role, she achieves most of its actual corruptions whilst adding the new ingredient of vulgarity. One minute she avoids the word ’bitch’ when buying a dog (“’Is it a boy or a girl?’ she asked delicately”), the next takes for granted that a total stranger will want to sleep with her sister.
And yet, in a universe of ash-gray men represented by her husband and presided over by the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg, it is difficult to feel she is very obviously to blame. Fitzgerald’s ironic awareness of life’s perversities is symbolized in the fact that her one positive quality, her vitality, should find expression in the waste land only as vulgarity and disloyalty, and that it should become the instrument of her death. In the same way, Gatsby’s great positive quality—his faith, and the loyalty to Daisy that goes with it—finds expression only as a tawdry self-centredness, and it, too, contributes to his death.
Among these rootless people Carraway comes to live: implicated to a certain extent in the action which he records, and controlling the tone of the narrative. His implication is impersonal, in that his own emotions and destiny are not centrally involved: personal, in that his humanity forces him, even against his will, to understand and pity Gatsby, and that this amounts to a not uncostly selflessness which turns out to be the most important moral positive the novel has to offer.
Carraway is the one middle-class character in the novel—vaguely at home in the worlds both of Daisy and of Myrtle, but belonging to neither, and so able to see and judge both very clearly. He is conscious of “advantages” of moral education that enable him to see through false romanticisms to their underlying insincerity, and savour their bitter ironies. Yet he, too, has his restlessness, as uprooted as everyone else in truth, though more determined than the rest to preserve some “decencies,” to cling to some principle of order and sanity in the wreckage.
His family comes from the Middle West. It is proud of having a Duke somewhere in the family tree, but relies in practice for its safety and self-respect on big-business—the “wholesale hardware business” which Carraway never wholly loses sight of as his birthright. He has been made restless by the war, and is now looking for some sort of armour against life in detachment and moral alertness. The “intimate revelations of young men” bore him. He is tolerant of other people, but would escape from the sloughs of emotional despond into some simple pattern of control and acceptance.
Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.
Cast into the situation which is the subject of the novel, his attitude is from the first ambivalent. “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” He sees the sordidness, the unreality of the New York “rich,” and his ironic observation upon it is habitually devastating. But he is able to hope, even while seeing as clearly as he does, that the vitality, the variety, the promise of excitement, may not be wholly false. Infected with the restlessness that he records in others, he is half convinced that some rewarding experience might lie behind the world of throbbing taxis, rich perfumes, gay parties, if one could only find a way through to it. “I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.” He responds almost equally to the haunting loneliness of it, and the unceasing promise. His imagination is willing to entertain what his intellect and experience of life rejects: “Imagining that I, too, was hurrying towards gayety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well.”
Carraway’s attitude towards Gatsby is, from the first, typical. He recognises in Gatsby the epitome of his society, and is accordingly enchanted and repelled by him in the highest degree. His conscious moral instinct is to disapprove: but his imagination is fascinated since perhaps here, in this extraordinary man, the romantic promise is at last fulfilled. He wavers, therefore, between almost complete contempt for Gatsby, and almost complete faith in him; and this ambivalent attitude persists until Gatsby’s collapse, after which it gives way to a deeper, and costlier, attitude of pity, towards which the whole novel moves. The eventual shattering of Gatsby’s high romantic hopes against an inexorably unromantic reality turns him, for Carraway, into a tragic figure. The quality of the ironic observation reflects this change, and Carraway’s closing meditation, rising above the particular events, finds a universal, and tragic, significance in Gatsby’s fate.
Carraway’s first mention of the hero, some time before he actually appears, is a clear statement of his own judgment upon him: “Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.” But it is an acknowledgment also of the fascination which Gatsby exerts over him. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.”
In one sense Gatsby is the apotheosis of his rootless society. His background is cosmopolitan, his past a mystery, his temperament that of an opportunist entirely oblivious to the claims of people or the world outside. His threadbare self-dramatisation, unremitting selfishness, and attempts to make something out of nothing are the same in kind as those of the waste-land society, and different only in intensity. Yet this intensity springs from a quality which he alone has: and this we might call “faith.” He really believes in himself and his illusions: and this quality of faith, however grotesque it must seem with such an object, sets him apart from the cynically armoured midgets whom he epitomizes. It makes him bigger than they are, and more vulnerable. It is, also, a quality which commands respect from Carraway: since at the very least, “faith” protects Gatsby from the evasiveness, the conscious hypocrisy of the Toms and Daisies of the world, conferring something of the heroic on what he does; and at the best it might still turn out to be the “way in” to some kind of reality beyond the romantic facade, the romantic alchemy which, despite his cynicism, Carraway still half hopes one day to find.
Gatsby’s first appearance is in his garden at night looking out at the single green light which is the symbol of his dreams. He is content to “be alone”: and isolation is an essential part of his make-up, a necessary part of his god-like self-sufficiency. He is next heard of as a mystery: the man whom nobody knows, but whose hospitality everybody accepts.
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
When Carraway meets him as a host, and first hears that “old sport” which becomes so moving at the end, he does not even know that it is Gatsby. This social gaffe is an occasion for the sublime courtesy and forgiveness that Gatsby has to dispense, the “charm” which is too deeply a part of his act for any accusation of insincerity to be even remotely appropriate.
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face— the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished…
As Gatsby’s guests become more hilarious, his own “correctness” grows. He is apart from the chaos which his money has mysteriously called into being, presiding over it with benevolent detachment: considerate to his fellows when they are careless, decorous when they are disorderly. As the party finishes, he remains alone on the steps of his mansion—his formality and his solitude an intriguing enigma, that has still to be explored.
A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.
This, then, is the setting. The novel is concerned with Gatsby’s reasons for appearing out of the blue and becoming host to half the rich “moths” of New York. He is, it turns out, in love with Daisy. The whole elaborate decor has been constructed for the sole purpose of staging a dramatic reunion with her: a reunion which will impress her with Gatsby’s “greatness,” and eradicate, at a stroke, the five years of married life which she has drifted through since seeing him last.
As we soon learn, his affair with Daisy had been a youthful romance, one among many, and nurtured in an atmosphere of cynicism, deceit, purposelessness. But it had, unlike Gatsby’s other affairs, been complicated first by Daisy’s casualness, and then by their unavoidable separation: and somehow, during the muddle, Gatsby had fallen in love, and the affair had become the “greatest thing in his life.” The romantic promise which in Daisy herself was the merest facade became, for him, an ideal, an absolute reality. He built around her the dreams and fervors of his youth: adolescent, self-centred, fantastic, yet also untroubled by doubt, and therefore strong; attracting to themselves the best as well as the worst of his qualities, and eventually becoming an obsession of the most intractable kind.
As Carraway comes to know Gatsby, he wavers between scepticism and faith. He sees, clearly, in Gatsby the faults which he scorns in others—“charm” that is simply a technique for success, self-centredness masquerading as heroic vision, romantic pretensions based on economic corruption and a total disregard for humanity—yet he is impressed, despite himself, by the faith which transmutes all this into another pattern. Gatsby is different from the others in that he means every word he says, really believes in the uniqueness of his destiny. His romantic cliches, unlike those of Tom or Daisy, are used with simple belief that they are his own discovery, his own prerogative, his own guarantee of Olympian apartness and election. He is “trying to forget something very sad that happened … long ago.” He has “tried very hard to die, but … seemed to bear an enchanted life.” To listen to him is like “skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”—and yet is not like that at all, since Gatsby’s faith really has brought the dead cliches back to life again, or at any rate to some semblance of life. So much in his account that might have been empty boasting turns out to be true. He has been to Oxford—after a fashion. His credentials from the commissioner of police for whom he was “able to do … a favor once” are genuine—they prevent him from being arrested for breaking a traffic law. His love for Daisy, too, is real, up to a point: there is a moment when it seems that he has achieved the impossible, and actually realized his fantastic programme for returning to the past.
The tragedy—for it is a tragic novel, though of an unorthodox kind— lies in the fact that Gatsby can go only so far and no further. Faith can still remove sizeable molehills, but is absolutely powerless when it comes to mountains. The ultimate romantic affirmation, “I’ll always love you alone” cannot be brought to life: certainly not in the waste land; not when people like Daisy, and Gatsby himself, are involved. Gatsby’s faith has to break, in the end, against a reality radically incompatible with it. But in so breaking, it makes him a tragic figure: and unites him symbolically with many men more worthy than himself—with, indeed, the general lot of mankind.
Gatsby’s whole project is characterized by that mingling of the fantastic and the scrupulously correct which is his settled attitude to life (the phrase “old sport” is itself a masterly fusion of the two extremes). He approaches Carraway with his all-important request not directly, but by way of Jordan Baker. And why? Because “Miss Baker’s a great sports-woman, you know, and she’d never do anything that wasn’t all right.” His “correctness,” like most of his other qualities, is peculiarly inverted, but not wholly a sham. He uses it exclusively to get his own way, and yet he is so wholly taken-in himself that he cannot be accused, as anyone else might be, of hypocrisy.
And what does Gatsby want of Carraway? “’He wants to know,’ continued Jordan, ’if you’ll invite Daisy to your house some afternoon and then let him come over.’”
He wants Carraway, to put this bluntly, to help him capture a friend’s wife—and this simply because Carraway happens to be the man living next door, from which a spectacular view of the Gatsby mansion is to be enjoyed. “The modesty of the demand shook me,” Carraway comments: and it is part of the greatness of the novel that though Carraway sees the whole situation very clearly, and has no bias in favor either of emotional extravagance or of Gatsby himself, his comment is not wholly ironical. It is not even primarily ironical, since Carraway is already beginning to see also, in all its tawdry splendor, the nature of Gatsby’s vision: and given that, the demand really is modest.
He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths—so that he could “come over” some afternoon to a stranger’s garden.
Carraway’s comment to Jordan (“Did I have to know all this before he could ask such a little thing?”) is again only marginally ironic. The situation is too unanchored for simple moral judgments—partly because, given Gatsby’s faith among the ashes, it is difficult to find norms against which to judge; partly because Gatsby is, after all, “big,” so that nothing he does can be simply contemptible; and partly because Carraway himself is not given to conventional attitudes towards human relationships, so that his judgment rises out of a growing awareness of a complex situation and is in no sense imported from outside. He readily agrees, in any event, to Gatsby’s request, his “unaffected scorn” of the man wholly overcome, now, by fascinated interest in the unfolding events. The actual meeting of Gatsby and Daisy is the central episode of the novel. Everything leads up to it, and what follows is a working out of I implications which are in the meeting itself. There is the tension as Gatsby waits, and the embarrassing absurdity of the first “few minute together—the irony here highly comic, and very much at Gatsby’s expense. Then comes the moment of happiness, when the ideal seems to have been actualized. Daisy herself is carried away by the elation of the moment.” ’I’m so glad Jay.’ Her throat ’full of … aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.“[“’I’m glad, Jay. Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.” The Great Gatsby, p. 108. [A.M.]] And Gatsby is transfigured: he “literally glowed; without a word or a gesture of exultation a new well-being radiated from him and filled the little room.”
This is followed by the slow hint, in the next hour or so, that the dream has already started to shatter against reality. Now, the irony becomes tragic rather than comic in tone, as Carraway’s sympathy veers round towards Gatsby, and starts to become engaged. No reality, however great or vital, could have stood up to an illusion on the scale that Gatsby has constructed.
Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything… No amount of fire and freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.
And Daisy, far from having “fire and freshness,” has only her pale imitation of it. She has grown up in her world of money and carelessness, where “all night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues,” and dawn was always an hour of disenchantment. What Gatsby demands of her is that she should go to Tom and say, in all sincerity, “I never loved you.” This is the unadmirable impossibility upon which his faith is staked: and Carraway’s warning to him, as soon as the full extent of the “rather harrowing” intention becomes clear, is a striking example of the way in which the most elementary commonsense can sometimes knock a man’s private world to pieces.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.” “Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why, of course you can!”
Gatsby has ignored, and disbelieved in, such depressing commonplaces as Carraway’s—the depressing commonplaces which are at the heart of Daisy’s cynicism, and of the grayness of the ash-gray men. In his own private world past and future can be held captive in the present. His faith allows almost boundless possibilities to be contemplated: and if the “universe” which has “spun itself out in his brain” does happen to be one of “ineffable gaudiness,” this does not alter the fact that it is more remarkable, and colorful, than the realities against which it breaks. Like Tamburlaine, Gatsby has made a “Platonic conception of himself” out of the extravagant emotions and aspirations of an adolescent. Like Tamburlaine, too, he has made himself vulnerable by acknowledging the power of a Zenocrate. It is only poetic justice, perhaps, that his own Zenocrate should turn out to be Daisy. But whoever it had been, the result would have been the same.
The battle between Gatsby and Tom is at one level the battle between illusion and reality. Tom has the nature of things on his side, and it is Part of the nature of things that he and Daisy belong together. Daisy has to say to Gatsby not “I loved you alone,” but “I loved you too.” This too” is Tom’s victory, and he can follow it up by equating Gatsby’s romance with his own hole-in-the-corner affair with Myrtle—calling it
“presumptuous little flirtation” and announcing that it is now at an end. After this Gatsby has no weapons left for the fight. He goes on watching over Daisy to the end, but half aware himself, now, of the annihilating fact that he is watching over nothing. “So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.”
He has “broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice”: and for this reason he can now be pitied, since Tom’s attitude, though conclusively realistic, is also hard, and inhuman, and smaller than Gatsby’s own. The reality turns out to be less admirable, less human than the fantasy. The events leading to Gatsby’s death symbolize, very powerfully, that his downfall, though inevitable, is by no means an unambiguous triumph of moral powers. His death is brought about by Daisy, who first lets him shield her and then deserts him: by Tom, who directs the demented Wilson to the place where he is to be found; and by Wilson himself—a representative of the ash-gray men who comes to Gatsby, in his disillusionment, as a terrible embodiment of the realities which have killed his dream.
[Gatsby] must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.
A nightmare of this kind demands some sympathy: and if Dr. Eckleburg is unable to provide it, as he looks down unseeingly upon the drama, then there is all the more call for humanity to supply the need. But Gatsby’s “friends” fade away in the hour of death: and Gatsby, whose contribution to his own death has been loyalty to Daisy (the one real and valuable emotion bound up with his fantasy), is left alone at the end.
But not completely alone. His father turns up, with pathetic evidences of Gatsby’s youthful aspirations and his generosity as a son; one of the guests who has attended Gatsby’s parties attends the funeral; and Carraway himself remains, determined to act in a decently human way. “… it grew upon me that I was responsible, because no one else was interested—interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which every one has some vague right at the end.”
Carraway is also, by now, converted to Gatsby: “I found myself on Gatsby’s side, and alone.” His final compliment to Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd… You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” may not add up to much, but it is at least true, and a statement to which everything has been moving. At the very least, it is a recognition that being right about the nature of things is no excuse for being inhuman. In its broader implications, it is part of the larger meaning of the novel: which is that in a tragic and imperfect world scorn and condemnation can often come too easily as attitudes. Human warmth and pity may not be able to set everything to rights: but they are costlier and more decent attitudes than mere judgment; and in the waste land, perhaps juster than judgment itself.
Carraway’s befriending of Gatsby is certainly not easy for himself. The cost is symbolized in the ending of his short affair with Jordan Baker. He had been attracted to Jordan in the first place by her self-sufficiency (“Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me”), partly by her appearance of “moral attention.” (“She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.”) and partly by the needs of his own loneliness. But Jordan turns out, in the end, to be as worthless as the rest: “moral attention” may be necessary at times in self-defense, but as a total attitude to life it has its limits. Carraway’s desire for emotional detachment had, from the start, a certain pessimism underlying it—an acceptance of disenchantment which finds expression in some of the most characteristic of his reflections.
I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade… Thirty—the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.
He cannot make reality more acceptable than it is, or find a way out of the waste land, or suggest a cure for the cynicism which is eating out the heart of society. He can, however, prize the highest human values that he sees, and respond to the misfortunes of others with a pity which has in it a feeling for human suffering as a whole. It is characteristic that in the closing sentences he should find in Gatsby’s tragic awakening a symbol of the disenchantment of mankind as a whole— and end on a note which, transcending both Gatsby’s personal fate, and the folie-de-grandeur of the America which he also represents, achieves a universal tragic vision as haunting as any I can think of in a novel.
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.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
“The Great Gatsby: Thirty-Six Years After” by A. E. Dyson. From Modern Fiction Studies VII (Spring 1961). Copyright (c) 1961 by the Purdue Research Foundation. Reprinted by permission of the author and the Purdue Research Foundation.
A. E. Dyson is professor at the University College of North Wales at Bangor. His essay on Fitzgerald appeared in Modern Fiction Studies’ Fitzgerald number in the Spring of 1961.