“My book is wonderful”—Fitzgerald wrote Edmund Wilson from France in the fall of 1924—“so is the air & the sea. I have got my health back—I no longer cough and itch and roll from one side of the bed to the other all night and have a hollow ache in my stomach after two cups of black coffee. I really worked hard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.”
This book was The Great Gatsby. The hard work was the eleven stories and articles Fitzgerald wrote in six months to get himself out of debt after the failure of The Vegetable. When he finished these in April, he had just over seven thousand dollars, enough to get them to France and to keep them while he worked on the serious writing he desperately wanted to do.
The years in Great Neck had not been a total loss. They furnished setting and tone for The Great Gatsby, and they strengthened his resolve to be more than a fashionable magazine writer. Moreover, the most important personal acquaintance of these years had been a literary one, Ring Lardner, then thirty-eight and living nearby. Fitzgerald's tribute to him “Ring” (1933) is the only extended piece he wrote about a literary man, and his interest in Lardner's work in 1923 was largely responsible for the publication of a collection of Lardner's stories, “How to Write Short Stories” (1924). Among other reasons for the closeness of the two writers must have been Fitzgerald's attraction to an author as thoroughly contemporary as himself and with similar inclinations to self-destruction. Lardner had preceded Fitzgerald in coming into prominence as a popular writer, had an even more provincial background, a much more limited intellectual one, and an unequaled talent for capturing the sound, the feel, the tone of contemporary life. Fitzgerald's admiration and help aside, the relationship must have provoked more hard-headed talk about the craft of writing than Fitzgerald had yet experienced. It was after an evening of drinking with Lardner that he and Fitzgerald tried to pay their respects to Joseph Conrad who was visiting this country and staying on Long Island in the spring of 1923.
Conrad is surely the most important literary influence upon Fitzgerald's work during these years. References to him and his works during the years preceding The Great Gatsby become increasingly frequent and important. At the end of This Side of Paradise, Amory finds himself at the place Conrad was when he wrote Almayer's Folly. In defending his novel to President Hibben in 1920, Fitzgerald said his view of life was the same as the Theodore Dreisers and the Joseph Conrads. In 1922, he called Nostromo the greatest novel since Vanity Fair. In the same year, he referred to the “great Conradian vitality,” and in the next year implied in a book review that Conrad was a greater writer than H. G. Wells. “These enormous and often muddy lakes of sincere and sophisticated observation,” as he referred to the kind of novels being written by Dreiser and Wells, will clear the way for “the clear stream” of a Conrad, a Joyce, or an Anatole France. In another review of 1923, Fitzgerald began with a quotation from Conrad's “Youth,” calling it “one of the most remarkable passages of English prose written these thirty years.” In 1924, an interviewer reported Fitzgerald as saying, “… the writer, if he has any aspiration toward art, should try to convey the feel of his scenes, places and people directly—as Conrad does, as a few Americans (notably Willa Cather) are already trying to do.”
Finally, the many references to Conrad's work to be found during these years are supported by Fitzgerald's later testimony that he had reread the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus just before writing The Great Gatsby. The “magic suggestive-ness of music” and the writer's task, “by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel … before all, to make you see” were challenges to Fitzgerald's highest ambitions. James Miller summarizes accurately the novel's specific debts to Conrad: “for the use of style or language to reflect theme; for the use of the modified first person narrative; and for the use of deliberate 'confusion' by the re-ordering of the chronology of events.”
The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's best work, his most highly satisfactory novel. In recent years, it has been put forward by many critics as the best novel of Fitzgerald's generation. It has also provoked a ponderous criticism, some as silly as that which connects the two Eggs and Dr. Eckleburg's eyes through a multilingual pun. No novel, however, can be held accountable for the speculations of graduate students mildly deranged during the writing of dissertations. The chief merit of taking the novel seriously has been to help today's readers perceive Fitzgerald's announced intention of writing “something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”
Though the excellence of The Great Gatsby may seem startling when that novel is put beside This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned, it seems less startling when we observe how rapidly Fitzgerald developed as a writer and how much writing—and some of it very good writing—he did between 1920 and 1924. The accumulation of experience and feeling, his high aspirations, and his increased awareness of good writing offer further explanation. The material for The Great Gatsby is largely material Fitzgerald had used before; at the heart of it once again are the love affairs of Scott Fitzgerald with Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre. Shorn of its climactic events, the novel is the one story Fitzgerald said every writer only tells again and again. The mystery is the way in which all the elements seemed to come together and to say so well what Fitzgerald had to say.
The basic plot of The Great Gatsby, like other Fitzgerald plots, develops slowly toward a violently dramatic incident and an ironical conclusion. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner recently graduated from Yale, who sells bonds in New York City and rents a house on West Egg, Long Island. His neighbor is Jay Gatsby. Gatsby's dream of reviving the love he once shared with Daisy Fay, now married to Tom Buchanan, is the main thread of the story. Nick's attraction to Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy's, and Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle Wilson, a garage owner's wife, are the parallel plots. The dramatic climax, melodramatic but firmly controlled, is the accidental death of Myrtle Wilson, who is run down by Gatsby's car, driven by Daisy. Tom tells Wilson that Gatsby was driving the car that killed Myrtle, and Wilson walks to Gatsby's estate, kills him and then kills himself. Only Nick andthe minister, four or five servants and the postman from West Egg, one casual acquaintance, and Gatsby's father come to the funeral. Tom and Daisy have left New York temporarily, leaving no forwarding address. After the inquest, in which neither Tom's affair with Myrtle nor Daisy's guilt are brought out, Nick leaves for the Midwest, having had enough of the East for a time. The book closes with a prose poem on the eternal attractions and delusions of the romantic vision set against America's romantic expansion from the early Dutch settlement on Long Island to the far Pacific.
The Great Gatsby suffers as much as most good novels from having its plot thus extracted and set forth. Directness and simplicity are fundamental characteristics of the novel, but the technique of slowly and enigmatically creating the character of Gatsby, of seeing the novel largely through Carraway's eyes, and of making the most of atmosphere and suggestion make the novel seem longer than its actual length of about fifty thousand words. The story takes place within a single summer, but the chronology does not move straightforwardly along. The first fifty-six pages relate the events of three nights several weeks apart in which Nick Carraway appears at East Egg with his cousin Daisy and Jordan Baker; in New York with Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson; and in West Egg with Jay Gatsby. Immediately after these scenes, Carraway breaks into the narrative to give an account of his ordinary life during and after the events described. The introductory section comes to a kind of climax when Carraway's interest in Jordan Baker leads to two crucial observations: Jordan is “incurably dishonest,” and he himself is “one of the few honest people I have ever known.”
The next section begins with the Gatsby of parties and rumors. The date, appropriately noted on an old timetable, is July, 1922. The people who come to Gatsby's house are presented in mock-epic fashion. It is the catalogue of ships; the summoning of forces. It even ends with an epic cadence: “All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer.” Carraway, who meets Gatsby, hears from him a history as fantastic in its entirety as the single bit of documentary evidence he offers as proof. The scene at Gatsby's party is parallel with the next scene, a meeting between Nick, Gatsby, and Meyer Wolfsheim, the man who fixed the1919 World Series. At this point (p. 75), the narrative shifts to Jordan Baker and, through a story she tells to Nick Carraway, back in time to Daisy Fay's house in Louisville in 1917. This was where Jay Gatsby, an obscure second lieutenant, met and fell in love with Daisy. By the end of Chapter Five, then, the reader is able to see the Gatsby of the past and of the present; he still remains something of a mystery, but the forces drawing the various characters together are clearly evident at this point.
Chapter Five, the meeting between Gatsby and Daisy, is at the precise center of the book. The scene is the most static in the novel. It is, by design, timeless. For a moment, after the confusion of the meeting, the rain, and his own doubts, Gatsby holds past and present together. As if to prolong this scene in the reader's mind, Chapter Six leaves the narrative, shifts the scene to the reporter inquiring about Gatsby, and fills in Gatsby's real past. “I take advantage of this short halt,” Nick Carraway says, “while Gatsby, so to speak, caught his breath.” The deliberate pause illustrates the care with which the novel is constructed. The Gatsby of his self-created present is contrasted with the Gatsby of his real past, and the moment is prolonged before the narrative moves on. The rest of Chapter Six focuses on the first moment of disillusion—Gatsby's peculiar establishment as seen through Daisy's eyes. It ends with Gatsby's central speech: “'Can't repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. Why of course you can!'”
With the beginning of Chapter Seven, the novel gains momentum and the mood changes. The lights in Gatsby's house fail to go on. Heat and sweat become the dominant images. It is as if Fitzgerald were moving the reader from Father Schwartz's early remark in “Absolution” that “When a lot of people get together in the best places things go glimmering,” to his later warning: “But don't get up close, because if you do you'll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.” All the climactic events are packed into this chapter, the longest in the book—almost twice as long as any of the others. The prose quickens; events move from the trip to New York and Gatsby's first clash with Tom Buchanan to the accidental death of Myrtle Wilson and the vigil Gatsby keeps outside Daisy's window.
The sustained narrative obviously cannot be pushed much further without a break, and the chapter ends with Gatsby “standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” The first part of Chapter Eight pauses while Gatsby and Nick awaitthe events to come. This was the night, Carraway says, that Gatsby told him the story (its factual details have been told earlier in the novel) of his early life. The purpose of the telling here is not to reveal facts but to try to understand the character of Gatsby's passion. The final understanding is reserved for one of those precisely right utterances by which the characters reveal themselves so often in this novel: “In any case,” Gatsby says, speaking of Daisy's love for Tom, “it was just personal.” The scene ends with Nick pronouncing a kind of benediction over Gatsby as he leaves, “They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.” The resolution comes quickly. The narrator makes a shift in scene, a slight flashback in time, and, as if reported by a detached but on-the-spot observer, Wilson is followed step by step until he finds Gatsby floating on a rubber mattress in his pool and kills him and then himself.
The forward movement of the novel stops there. Chapter Nine is told as it lives in Nick Carraway's memory two years later. The last tales of Gatsby come through Wolfsheim and Mr. Gatz. Like “Benjamin Button,” Gatsby's story is a tale of growth to birth. We arrive inexorably in the past—September 12, 1906, to be exact—and read the copy-book maxims of the young James Gatz. The last section pushes Nick Carraway similarly back in time, with that memorable passage about his memories of coming back West from preparatory school. The last page pushes Gatsby, Nick, Daisy—all of us—back into the past. The Dutch sailors' eyes are our eyes, and we are indeed—in the very movement of the novel—“boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This detailed examination of the structure of The Great Gatsby calls attention to one of the novel's great virtues: the tight inevitability of its construction. Abstracting from specific details, we see a pattern of movement and withdrawal, and at the center, a moment of dead calm, possession. The scenic character of the first half is heightened by the swiftness of the narrative in the last half. And much of the novel's success in creating a feeling of timelessness despite the story's sharply contemporary events is traceable to the effect of matching the swiftly on-going narrative with a less swift but powerful movement into the past. The image of “the old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes” has been expertly prepared for,and the story comes to its final line with the inevitability of all high art. Many of Fitzgerald's best efforts were achieved by reworking or re-ordering his material. This final arresting image was originally written as the conclusion of Chapter One. By the time he had finished his corrected first draft, he recognized that it would provide an effective conclusion and transposed it with very few changes to the final page.
The construction of The Great Gatsby is the more remarkable because the crucial ordering of the material did not come until after the book was in galley proof. [The remarks about the revisions on the galley proofs are based upon my study of the galleys in the Fitzgerald collection at Princeton University and now available in a facsimile edition.] In its simplest form, the change was that of taking the true story of James Gatz's past out of Chapter Eight and bringing it forward to the beginning of Chapter Six. Thus, as I have noted, the static center of the novel—that moment when Gatsby is alone with Daisy and can hold past and present together—extends itself on into Chapter Seven. The story of the Gatsby who sprang from his Platonic conception of himself is placed precisely where it will make its greatest impact: between that moment of suspended time at the end of Chapter Five and Gatsby's beginning to be aware of the vanity of his own dreams in the party scene of Chapter Six.
That Fitzgerald was consciously striving for this effect is indicated not merely by the transposition of this section but by the very careful and extensive revisions made on almost every page of the galley proofs of these central chapters. The second party, for example, has been changed in many subtle and moving ways. That remarkable image of the motion picture director and his star was originally a part of Gatsby's first party. Fitzgerald apparently recognized its power of “magic suggestiveness” when he removed it there and wrote it into the later scene:
It was like that. Almost the last thing I remember was standing with Daisy and watching the moving-picture director and his Star. They were still under the white-plum tree and their faces were touching except for a pale, thin ray of moonlight between. It occurred to me that he had been very slowly bending toward her all evening to attain this proximity, and even while I watched I saw him stoop one ultimate degree and loss at her cheek.
Such a passage is one of dozens which could be cited to illustrate the excellence of Fitzgerald's style, maintained at its highest degree of polish in The Great Gatsby. The big changes in the galley proofs are the transposing of materials and the rewriting of scenes involved in that transposition. But throughout the galleys, small changes continually occur to remind us of how Fitzgerald's highly polished style was achieved.
Many of these changes are in individual words: “silhouette” for “shadow,” “vanished” for “gone,” “soiled” for “spotted,” “the blue honey” of the Mediterranean for “fairy blue.” A few changethe inflections of a speaker's voice: “snapped” instead of “said,” cried “ecstatically” instead of “excitedly,” “looked at me absently” instead of “replied.” Occasionally a better phrase is found: “freedom from money” rather than “spending capacity”; “corky but rather impressive claret” for “wine”; “as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart” for “as if his sturdy physical egotism wasn't enough for him anymore.” A slight change, like having Myrtle Wilson say “had my appendicitis out” rather than “appendix” adds to the delineation of character.
The accumulation of such small changes add up to that Fitzgerald stylistic touch which can only be defined satisfactorily by citing passages. Gatsby's reference to the medal he had received from little Montenegro, for example, was in the galley proof: “Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them—with a faint smile.” But when Fitzgerald went over the galleys, he substituted “his” for “a faint” and wrote in that brilliant gloss which now fills out the paragraph: “The smile comprehended Montenegro's troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro's warm little heart.” The most celebrated of Fitzgerald's afterthoughts in composing The Great Gatsby is probably that concerning Dr. Eckleburg's eyes. As Arthur Mizener has recounted that incident, Fitzgerald did not create the symbol until he saw a dust jacket which “intended to suggest by two enormous eyes Daisy brooding over an amusement park version of New York.” He wrote to Maxwell Perkins: “For Christ's sake don't give anyone that jacket you're saving for me. I've written it into the book.”
More often than not in the most heavily revised sections of the galleys, Fitzgerald cut passages, tightened dialogue, and reduced explicit statements in order to heighten the evocative power of his prose. A phase like Gatsby's “I came here to remember, not to forget,” is crossed out to let the passage create the attitude rather than have the phrase spell it out. That final remark of Gatsby's had originally followed this speech: “ 'I drift here and there trying to forget the sad thing that happened to me.' He hesitated. “You'll hear about it this afternoon.'”
Action is character, Fitzgerald wrote in his notes for The Last Tycoon. His galley proof revisions of The Great Gatsby reveal his continuing attention to that precept, particularly in his quickening of the dialogue through which the novel often makes its vital disclosures and confrontations. The truth of Gatsby's connection with Oxford was originally revealed to Nick Carraway in a somewhat flat though detailed conversation with Gatsby in which Gatsby tries to define his feeling for Daisy. Most of that conversation was cut out and the Oxford material worked into the taut dialogue between Tom Buchanan and Gatsby in the Plaza Hotel, which prefaces the story's sweep to its final action.From almost any of Fitzgerald's original manuscripts, observations like the above can be multiplied to explain the excellence of his style and how that excellence was achieved. Suffice to say here that these observations on The Great Gatsby are all drawn from an examination of changes on the galley proofs; they are the final changes which only came after much previous tuning and blending and refining of that superb instrument which was Fitzgerald's style.
A great deal has been written about the central theme of The Great Gatsby, but over and above everything else, it seems to me, is Fitzgerald's attempt to capture the essential truth of the romantic vision. Such truth is ambiguous because the particulars by which it often discloses itself—such as Gatsby's shirts, the green light on the dock, Daisy herself—are far from visionary; in themselves, as often as not, they are false, petty, or meretricious. So, too, Gatsby, who believes in the romantic truth, is often gauche, maudlin, and vulgar. Yet, the vision is not in itself false; and the truth does gleam there at the center, hard and bright and true, an inexhaustible lure to man, an ineradicable part of the vision that gives him his worth.
Trying to illuminate that essential truth is, in the large pattern of the novel, a matter of disposing the characters around Gatsby, who is at the center. Nick Carraway is at the side—too cool, too reasonable, too moral, too much both the realist and the observer ever to do more than touch the center. His honesty, which at most is fidelity to fact, will not permit him to remain there. Jordan Baker, who seems somewhat extraneous to the novel, is a realist of a different kind; “fundamentally dishonest,” she is therefore intensely concerned with fact as it can be used to present what she wants it to. She is not dishonest for reason of being possessed with imagination; her dishonesty is rather that which is enslaved to fact and to ego and which denies vision. Tom Buchanan is gross sensuality, a beast lacking in imagination, incapable of clear sight, much less vision. Daisy is the hardest to define. In a sense, she is truth unable to perceive itself, beauty necessarily constrained to take on material form, an ideal consumed in its realization. Thus, the romantic truth is that which arouses awe: “that the rock of the world was foundedsecurely on a fairy's wing,” that truth is vision, and that fidelity to it is loneliness, greatness, and terror.
There is much in common between The Great Gatsby and The Heart of Darkness. The difference may be that Conrad's concern is moralistic; Fitzgerald's, in part at least, aesthetic. Few figures in literature are as alone as Kurtz and Gatsby at the end, both driven there by their faithfulness to a vision: Kurtz, the idealist, losing touch with feeling; Gatsby, the romantic egotist, losing touch with reason. Kurtz and Gatsby arrive at the same end—the horror at the center of truth to any consuming vision. Kurtz is under the moral rod for having kicked himself loose from the universe; Gatsby is chastised by beauty herself for having been consumed by his infatuation.
Nick Carraway's position as narrator and point-of-view character and the breaking up of the chronology of narration are two other similarities with Conrad's work. Like Marlow, Carraway claims to be the completely honest man; and as in The Heart of Darkness, in The Great Gatsby he violates his code for reasons that bear upon the central theme. Nick lies twice, once to Tom Buchanan when Tom charges Gatsby with being a bootlegger (Nick surely knows), and once again to Tom when Nick has the chance to tell him that Daisy was driving the car that struck Myrtle Wilson. The point is not so forcefully made as is Marlow's deliberate lie to Kurtz's fiancee, but it may be a more subtle point. Obviously, Nick denies what he knows to be true, in the first instance, in defense of Gatsby. Scrupulously honest as he claims to be, he already prefers to side with the gaudy fantasy of Gatsby against the crude truth of Tom Buchanan. The second instance, coming as it does at the end of the story, is an acceptance of the futility of truth in the face of grossness, here displayed as Tom's maudlin sentimentality: “When I saw that damn box of dog biscuits sitting there on the sideboard, I sat down and cried like a baby.” Both points heighten Carraway's role as the man in between, faithful to the superiority of what Gatsby represents if incapable of being like Gatsby, and ultimately repelled by the Buchanans.
The morality in The Great Gatsby is old-fashioned—provincial squeamishness, Nick calls it. It is a morality based upon spirit over matter, faith over reason, feeling over intellect, and with a kind of Augustinian strain that any beauty short of celestial is likely to draw men into the center where the heat and sweat are. Fitzgerald's attitude toward beauty oftentimes seems moralistic; corruption dwells with beauty; evil hides itself there. The equation of beauty with sin appears in many stories.
Another of the large meanings to be found in the novel is the contrast between the American East and West. This subject has been well explored in Robert Ornstein's “Fitzgerald's Fable of East and West,” (College English [December, 1956]). Briefly stated, Fitzgerald's “fable” contrasts America's romantic Western past with her unromantic Eastern present. Both Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby are Westerners, the one from Minnesota, the other from North Dakota. Both are uncomfortable in the East. Both live on West Egg, the unfashionable section of Long Island, just as the Buchanans live on East Egg. Nick returns to the West when the novel is over, and the author concludes with an image of the settlers on Long Island when “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 story of Gatsby himself becomes the story of Western energies which at one time went into settling the continent; at the time of Dan Cody, into exploiting it; and, at Gatsby's time, into illicit activities in the East on the one hand and vain pursuit of an ideal on the other. For Gatsby, the frontier is closed, and the frontier virtues are not adequate for the civilized world in which he has to pursue his dream. The East in which the story takes place is that of “the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” But this is the city at a distance, as seen from the Queensboro Bridge. It is also the city that lies “west” of the ash heaps of Long Island. Up close, the city is pretty much the “unreal city” of Baudelaire and Eliot. The sordid meetings between Tom and Myrtle and the ugly confrontation between Tom and Gatsby both take place in the city. And, entering or leaving the city, one cannot escape the valley of ashes and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. George B. Wilson lives on the ash heaps, and at the end, too late, even he envisions getting a fresh start in the West.
The theme and attitude are familiar ones in Ameriean writing of the early twentieth century. The loss of a rural paradise haunts many writers—even those, like Sinclair Lewis, who ostensibly sneered at the provinces. Fitzgerald's attitude makes The Great Gatsby almost a fictional counterpart of Frederick JacksonTurner's The Frontier in American History. Being deprived of that edge of the frontier against which energies, ambitions, ideals, can be freshly honed, the American character must undergo change. The virtues of small-town Christian morality—which appear strikingly in Howells' work—are the kind of measuring rod by which Nick Carraway not only judges but withholds judgment. The myth of the second chance which misleads both Gatsby and Carraway grows out of the common Western experience of pulling stakes one place and trying it again further West. Finally, success, seen in terms of the acquisition of tangible goods, comes to Dan Cody (and to Tom Buchanan's family) from the application of raw energies to the wresting of raw materials from the American earth. At an earlier day, we suppose, Gatsby might have been just such a man, “the pioneer debauchee,” as grossly materialistic as the immediate transmutation of base metal into negotiable wealth was likely to make a man, and having that, neither needing nor capable of visualizing the tinsely dream that was Daisy. He is hardly better off as we see him: his vision creates both the mythic past and the orgiastic future; the present time has sullied the one and the other is always just beyond reach.
The American dream and the American disillusion come together in The Great Gatsby. The image of the Western past is the green past; the image of the ash heaps, the contemporary wasteland. Tom Buchanan and Daisy are both provincials and both have come East, he vowing to stick it out. Both are careless and corrupt, two qualities for which modern America has been condemned by a succession of writers from the close of the century on. So strong is Nick's reaction to both the dream and the disillusion that he cannot separate Jordan Baker from the society which infects her. He can only leave her behind and go his way alone to the West.
These considerations of larger meaning in the novel set aside the particulars of character, scene, and action. It is, however, only because of the excellence of the particulars that general meanings suggest themselves. The novel is as brilliant in its characterizations, in its individual scenes and its dialogue as in its general effects. We could restrict its scope to that of the novel of manners and still find the novel an admirable achievement. The characters are constantly measuring themselves or inviting us to measure them on a scale of social values. In one scene, for example, Tom Buchanan, the person with highest social position, fulminates against the colored races; yet he defers to Myrtle Wilson, the garage owner's wife, who, in turn, sneers at the bellboy bringing the ice. Farther down the social scale, Mrs. McKee speaks disparagingly of the “Kike” who is far below her. The carefully maintained distinctions between the people of West Egg and East Egg and between the aristocracy living on family money and those who have money still stained, so to speak, by the sweat of their own efforts, are other aspects of the book as the novel of manners. The treatment of society is ironical throughout—the basic irony is that of the “great” in the book's title. The character of Nick Carraway permits a consistent, ironic, point of view that keeps the author from being deluded by the glitter he creates.
The final observation concerns the various excellences which keep the novel fresh through many rereadings. Characterization is, without exception, brilliant. Tom Buchanan, in the description of his physical strength, his past history, his arrogance and his uncertainty, his sensuality and his prudishness, is exactly right. Daisy is probably the weakest of the main characters perhaps because so much is asked of her in the general pattern of the novel. The minor characters are struck off with that terse exactness which is apparent in much of Fitzgerald's work. Mr. Chester McKee, for example, emerges fully created in the mere fact that he had photographed his wife 127 times since they were married, as does the man in Gatsby's library, who discovers the books are real but the pages uncut. Individual scenes similarly create character, fix moods, or shape attitudes. Tom's buying the dog for Myrtle, the man sent by Gatsby to cut Carraway's grass in the rain, Meyer Wolfsheim displaying his cufflinks, the director all through the second of Gatsby's parties slowly inclining to kiss the cheek of the actress, “a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman”—all are examples of such scenes.
The character of Nick Carraway is one of the book's triumphs. The somewhat shifting character of Gatsby is kept stable by the firmness of Carraway's characterization, and it is almost always through or in relation to Carraway that we learn of Gatsby. Because of the solidity of Nick's character, Gatsby is able to stand as a character very shadowily created and to gain from that very lack of specification. In all of Fitzgerald's novels, the central male character is designed to impress the reader as possessing qualities superior to those actually displayed in the novel. The failure of both Anthony Patch and Dick Diver is authenticallymoving to the reader only if he really believes that something extraordinarily fine has disappeared in them and from life. Amory Blaine is a “radiant boy”; but, when the radiance is not shining, he is often merely silly. Only in Gatsby, even in his gorgeous pink rag of a suit, does Fitzgerald succeed in creating a hero whose death, mean as it is, affects a reader in a tragic way. The reason is, in part, that Gatsby is not created so much as a real person but as a mythical one; what he is never emerges clearly and forcefully enough to distract the reader from what he stands for. As Carraway himself sees him, so do the readers: as a person “of some undefined consequence,” even though he may simply be the proprietor of an elaborate road-house next door.
Finally, the skill with which Fitzgerald handles violence in the novel is remarkable. Tom's brutality to Myrtle is the first example: “Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.” Myrtle's death and the killing of Gatsby are the other examples, both taking place off-stage, so to speak, and both described tersely and powerfully. Smacking as it does of contrivance, Myrtle's death has to be done so surely and with such impact that the reader will grant Fitzgerald his contrivance and be moved to accept Gatsby's death without cavilling. Language could be employed no more skillfully than Fitzgerald does in ending that scene: “they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.”
Though the total effect of The Great Gatsby raises it above Fitzgerald's earlier work, many traces of the early work are to be found in the novel. The details of Gatsby's and Daisy's love affair all come from Fitzgerald's own experiences—already used in This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned (Anthony's affair with Dorothy Raycroft), and in “The Sensible Thing.” The New York that both fascinated and repelled Nick Carraway is to be found in “May Day”; Gatsby's early history in “Absolution”; and a short version of the entire novel in “Winter Dreams.” A Saturday Evening Post story of 1924, “John Jackson's Arcady,” is about a man's attempt to recapture his romantic past. When he and his childhood sweetheart meet again and vow their pastand present love, the narrator writes: “He felt that he had established dominance over time itself, so that it rolled away from him, yielding up one vanished springtime after another to the mastery of his overwhelming passion.” The whole passage which follows strongly suggests The Great Gatsby.
Even in small details, the novel often seems to put to real use that which had appeared before. The Long Island scene had been used for finger exercises in a number of articles and short stories written in 1923-24. Oxford and its attractions were previously mentioned in This Side of Paradise. The growth of Amory from a personality to a personage, urged seriously but in an amateurish way there, is still in mind when Fitzgerald describes how the “vague contour of Jay Gatsby had filled out to the substantiality of a man.” Anthony Patch's fight for his inheritance has a distant kinship with the fact that Gatsby too had received a legacy but lost it in some legal technicality. Citing such connections does not detract from the singularity of the achievement in The Great Gatsby, but makes the novel seem less like an isolated masterpiece springing unaccountably into existence.
Just when The Great Gatsby was begun is difficult to determine. The Vegetable, which was Fitzgerald's major writing task in the winter and spring of 1922-23, could hardly have occupied him to the exclusion of other work. He makes mention of working on a novel during these same months; he seems to have turned to it again during the summer and then, with the excitement of getting his play on stage, to have dropped it. “Scott has started a new novel,” Zelda wrote in July, 1923, “and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy.” A letter to Maxwell Perkins in mid-October, 1923, tells of putting aside the novel, probably because Fitzgerald found himself $5000 in debt and was uncertain about the prospects of The Vegetable. After the play failed in November, the succeeding months were confined— as we have noted—to writing magazine articles and stories. The work he had done on The Great Gatsby before he left for Europe—April, 1924—helped him to focus his intentions, but not all of it was usable in the novel his mind was now turning toward.
The Fitzgeralds were not established at St. Raphael until June, but they settled on the Riviera in the off-season largely because it promised a cheap and isolated place to work steadilyon the novel. By November, despite the first serious rift with Zelda over her infatuation for a French aviator, Fitzgerald was able to send the manuscript of The Great Gatsby to Scribner's. It was apparently a completed, polished manuscript, although Fitzgerald continued to send in revisions and made major changes in the structure after the manuscript was set in type.
The response to The Great Gatsby at the time of its publication was a mixed one. Gilbert Seldes, who reviewed the book in terms of highest praise for The Dial, noted that the press had not been enthusiastic about the novel. Indeed, the reviews which reached the widest audience were mostly unfavorable. The New York Times reviewer found the book “curious, mystical, glamorous”; and, for reasons hard to find in the novel, he called the review, “Scott Fitzgerald Looks into Middle Age.” The Herald Tribune called it “negligible,” “uncurbed melodrama,” “a tragedy with the flavor of skim milk.” In the literary journals and from the best critics The Great Gatsby received its due, but even Mencken's praise was strongly qualified.
To Fitzgerald, both the reviews and the sales must have been disappointing. Though the novel was taken seriously as the earlier ones had not been, the sales were mediocre. A year after its publication, it had not sold thirty thousand copies. At the other extreme, the novel had provoked high praise not only from discerning critics but from Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and T. S. Eliot. Probably even that did not seem enough. From the time he wrote to Edmund Wilson in October, 1924—“My book is wonderful,” to a later letter to John Peale Bishop, “The novel I'm sure of. It's marvellous”—Fitzgerald had a sure feeling that he was writing something extraordinary. He was still naive enough and hopeful enough to assume that a very good novel would sell better than a competent or mediocre one. The August after its publication, in another letter to Bishop, he thanked him for his discerning letter about the book: “It is about the only criticism that the book has had which has been intelligible, save a letter from Mrs. Wharton.” “Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic,” he. wrote to Edmund Wilson, “not one had the slightest idea what the book was about.”
In the long run, the fact that it made so little money may have been more consequential to Fitzgerald than that it was not adequately understood. Obviously, the Fitzgeralds should have been able to live on $36,000 a year, or on $26,000 or $16,000 for that matter. His total income from 1920 through 1926 was about$130,000, almost $22,000 a year. But his income from his novels alone was considerably less. By the end of 1926, the three novels together had made less than $40,000 (excluding sales of movie and stage rights) and a negligible continuing sale would have added little more in the years to come. If, at any point in his career, Fitzgerald had chosen to confine his energies to the novel, he would have had to be a far better manager of his finances than he seemed capable of being.
In any consideration of Fitzgerald's use of his talent, his inability to manage money is a central fact. Financial instability is, however, only one aspect of a larger recklessness that cannot be extracted from Fitzgerald's character without destroying his accomplishments as well as modifying his failures. Disappointed as he undoubtedly was by the direct sales of the novel, he soon had the satisfaction of having it taken up by the stage and the movies. The $35,000 he received from both sources certainly removed immediate financial pressures. He responded by producing little writing in 1926 (only five pieces appeared in magazines in 1927), though he did try to get started on a new novel. He had an idea for one sufficiently in mind to call it to Maxwell Perkins' attention by August, 1925, and the idea stayed firmly in his mind throughout that year and the next. Not very much got into finished form, apparently, for when he finally abandoned the idea, salvaging some of it for Tender Is the Night, he had completed about twenty thousand words—a poor showing for three years of effort for writers of much less gift than Fitzgerald.
The truth about the twenty months in Europe following the publication of The Great Gatsby lies in Fitzgerald's terse description of the summer of 1925: “1000 parties and no work.” The closest he came to describing his own malaise is in “The Rich Boy,” done between April and August, 1925, and the best piece of writing he was to do for the next two years: “There were so many friends in Anson's life—scarcely one for whom he had not done some unusual kindness and scarcely one whom he did not occasionally embarrass by his bursts of rough conversation or his habit of getting drunk whenever and however he liked.” Drinking in 1926 and 1927 was long past being either social custom or a bad joke. “I'm very glad to meet you sir,” Fitzgerald is reported as saying in 1927. “You know I'm an alcoholic.” Excessive drinking was wrecking him for short periods and long, not only as awriter but as a social being. “Then I was drunk for many years,” he wrote in his notebooks, “and then I died.”
That most frightening scene in Tender Is the Night, the brutal beating Dick Diver suffers in Rome, was transcribed from a drunken fight with a taxi driver in Rome in 1924. This was the same period in which he wrote to John Peale Bishop, “Zelda and I sometimes indulge in terrible four day rows that always start with a drinking party but we're still enormously in love and about the only truly happily married people I know.” After the publication of The Great Gatsby, the Fitzgeralds continued to live abroad—in Paris and Cap d'Antibes for the remainder of 1925; in the Pyrenees, Paris, Juan-les-Pins during 1926. They returned to America in December, 1926.
Fitzgerald's third collection of short stories, AH the Sad Young Men, was put together in the months after the publication of The Great Gatsby and was published in February, 1926. Despite the presence of three of Fitzgerald's best stories, the collection is disappointing chiefly because he had more stories to choose from than for either of the previous collections, and even then some very bad stories are included. Only nine stories are in the collection, but only the best, “The Rich Boy,” “Winter Dreams,” and “Absolution,” seem worth including. All the rest are contrived magazine fiction—“cheap and without the spontaneity of my first work,” to use Fitzgerald's own description. The cheapness is only partially masked by paragraphs of effective writing, and it is often worsened by triteness or sentimentality.
The badness of such stories as “Hot and Cold Blood” and “Gretchen's Forty Winks” begins to raise the serious question of what the effect of such deliberately false work is going to be upon Fitzgerald's serious writing. Fitzgerald never wrote a worse scene or created a falser situation than the one in “Hot and Cold Blood” in which the hero refuses to give up his streetcar seat for a woman who turns out to be his pregnant wife. Nor is the essentially hollow quality in “Gretchen's Forty Winks” and “The Sensible Thing” less objectionable because both stories are interesting commentaries on significant experiences in Fitzgerald's life.
“The Sensible Thing” is the fictional counterpart of the article Fitzgerald wrote for the Post—“Who's Who—and Why”—describing his early success. George O'Kelly, the hero, is a construction engineer rather than a writer, but he succeeds just as suddenly, in the bush of Peru, by being the man to take over the project when the chief engineer dies. Before this sudden change of fortune, he was an honor graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had fallen in love with “a dark little girl” he had met while on a construction job in Tennessee. When the story begins, he has come back to New York from that job and is unable to find any better employment than that of a $40-a-week clerk in an insurance firm. O'Kelly's misery in New York, the girl's “nervousness” in Tennessee, his trips to see her, and their break-up draw directly upon Fitzgerald's experience. His triumphant return—bronzed, assured, a success—to win the girl but not to recapture the precious feeling of their first love, concludes the story.
“Gretchen's Forty Winks” draws less directly upon experience, but it still uses a situation patterned upon Fitzgerald's early success. This time, the couple is married. The young man, Roger Halsey, is trying to establish an advertising agency and needs “six weeks that'll decide whether we're going on forever in this rotten little house in this rotten little suburban town.” If the layouts he is working on get the big account, his fortune is made. While he's working, his young wife must somehow be kept from growing restless. The situation is complicated by the appearance of George Tomkins, whose successful, orderly, but uncreative life is contrasted with the still-promising, overstrained, creative life of Roger. Roger succeeds in finishing the sketches and in keeping Gretchen by putting her to sleep and taking away her shoes.
“Rags Martin-Jones and the Pr-nce of W-les” is a better story than the three just mentioned; but, considering that it is the third story to use the same framework, it should be. “Myra Meets His Family” (1919) and “The Off-Shore Pirate” (1920) are the earlier tales. The pageant created by the hero in this story is designed to win Rags Martin-Jones, the ineffable girl—a girl so rich that all experience bores her. The characters are amusing, the pageant is admirably created (it involves a night club, gangsters, police officers, intrigue, and gunplay), but the story has the air of having been rehearsed too often.
“The Adjuster” and “The Baby Party” come closest to the best stories in this collection, but neither is very close. Both were published in magazines in 1925, both drew upon Fitzgerald's early married experience, and both involve couples withone small child. “The Baby Party” begins as farce, engages itself in reality, and, unfortunately, ends sentimentally. The amusing quarrel which breaks out at a party for Baby Ede becomes a family altercation between the Androses and the Markeys. The description is vivid; the fight between John Andros and Joe Markey is effectively done. The relationships between the two husbands and their wives and between parents and child are illuminated by Fitzgerald's fresh and precise perceptions, but the story's total impression is slight.
“The Adjuster” is a serious story in which a typically sophisticated Fitzgerald woman, ill-suited to her marriage, to domestic life, and to rearing a child, is forced by circumstance to abandon her desire for a divorce and become wife, nurse, and mother. Both of the couples in these stories are in their mid-thirties and have difficulty in reconciling themselves to being the parents that their consciences say they should be. Of most interest in “The Adjuster” is Dr. Moon, a figure by turns realistic and fantastic who is “the adjuster” of the title. He or his presence effects the redemption of the selfish wife by holding her to her obligation through her husband's nervous collapse, through the death of her first child, and through her repeated desires to walk out.
The stories just noted are among Fitzgerald's weaker stories, just as the three best in Ml the Sad Young Men are among the better ones in all his short fiction. “Winter Dreams” is, as Fitzgerald noted, a short version of The Great Gatsby, without the melodrama which brings Gatsby to his tragic end. Much of the feeling for locale which so intensifies “The Ice Palace” permeates this story. Fitzgerald's deepest feelings about his status, his desires, his hunger for love and for worldly success, are also well set forth. The story has been discussed in Chapter I, and I add here only an observation about the difference between “Winter Dreams” and The Great Gatsby. Without Nick Carraway to give meaning to Gatsby's character, the finely controlled and essentially tragic ending of the novel would probably not come off. Lacking that, and the attitude and skill which created it, the same story in “Winter Dreams” ends far short of tragedy and even of resolution. Fitzgerald in his best work does not often evade; in work below that level he often chooses to mask an evasion in a burst of poetic prose. In “Winter Dreams” there is the burst of Sherwood Anderson rhetoric at the end: “Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but nowthat thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come no more.”
“Absolution” has been mentioned previously as the story which provides a background for Jay Gatsby and as the most explicitly Catholic story in Fitzgerald's work. As has been mentioned before, the story, for all its excellence, is more derivative from naturalistic fiction of the early twentieth century than any other Fitzgerald story. Despite the desires on the part of some readers for more information about Gatsby's past, Fitzgerald's instincts were right in leaving him shadowy. Understatement, suggestion, and mystery do more for his character in the novel than the explicit details do for Rudolph Miller's character in “Absolution.” The best part of “Absolution” is the last scene between Father Schwartz and the boy, in which the connection with Gatsby is stronger in tone and in imagery than the more explicit connections of place and time earlier in the story.
“The Rich Boy,” one of Fitzgerald's very long short stories, was originally published in two installments in Red Book in January and February, 1926. It is a well-known story, closely identified with Fitzgerald's fascination with money. “Let me tell you about the very rich,” the narrator says. “They are different from you and me.” It was this line which supposedly provoked Hemingway's blunt reply, “Yes, they have more money.”
The story follows Anson Hunter from childhood, through Yale and World War I, through one real love affair which breaks off short of realization, and one abortive affair with a girl he doesn't love. Toward the end of the story he has a chance meeting with Paula Legendre, the girl he loved most, and he suffers the torments of the bachelor friend permitted to gaze upon another's domestic bliss. At the close, still a bachelor, Anson goes overseas. He is preoccupied with being thirty, devoid of emotion except when drinking, and then inclined to seek someone to love him, “responding to him like filings to a magnet, helping him to explain himself, promising him something.” As a portrait of a rich man, Anson Hunter is more convincingly drawn than Anthony Patch, but he still is patently modeled upon F. Scott Fitzgerald. Anson's love affairs, central to the story, have little to do with his money, and a great deal to do with Fitzgerald's romantic longings. And what Fitzgerald sees in Anson is probably not so much what is characteristic of the rich as what is characteristic of Fitzgerald when he insisted upon living like the rich. The insistent need for assurance of superiority does not strike usas the quality likely to be foremost in a man whose being is solidly based upon fifteen million dollars; rather it is a characteristic of a man who has come into money through his continuing efforts and who has had to convince himself of its reality, as well as of his right to possess it.
“The Rich Boy” and, to a lesser degree, “Absolution,” show a control of material and a more fully developed understanding of that material than do the earlier stories. “Winter Dreams” does not quite know how to close out the loss of youth and illusions. It hints at almost everything that Fitzgerald was to define more carefully in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. “Absolution,” too, is closely related to that central achievement of Fitzgerald's career but, as in “Winter Dreams,” intense seriousness still has a way of depending upon borrowed effects, and the author often seems to be urging more for the character and situation than they warrant. “The Rich Boy” achieves, and over longer space, a more consistent tone—one of the marked achievements of The Great Gatsby. The attitude toward Anson Hunter hardly varies, and the story ends on the same dispassionate tone with which it began. Though the narrator in that story remains anonymous, he moves into certain sections of the story as strongly as Nick Carraway moved into The Great Gatsby. The closing section of “The Rich Boy,” seen explicitly through the narrator's eyes, has almost the precise quality that Carraway's presence and reflections give to the novel.
With the publication of AH the Sad Young Men, Fitzgerald's books were at an end until the appearance of Tender Is the Night, eight years later. As could be expected of a writer creating his work so directly out of his life and feelings, the titles of his books are peculiarly fitting to his experiences. All the Sad Young Men captures in a phrase the feeling that Fitzgerald had of losing the most vibrant experiences of life even before age took them away. The next chapter recounts briefly a life that became increasingly sad from 1926 to 1934; the following chapter is an account of the short fiction and articles written during that period.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald (Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36) by Kenneth Eble (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).