Delusions of American Idealism
by Joyce A. Rowe


Fitzgerald‘s novel might be conceived as a latter-day meditation on that persistent American faith in the power of the individual to transcend his history, to create himself anew, for which Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s early essays serve as master text. For despite standard interpretations, The Great Gatsby seems to me no simple dramatization of either the moral futility of the American dream of success, nor the destruction of innocent aspiration in a fallen world; but, in fact, … [a] historically self-conscious consideration of the contradictory nature of American idealism and the social cost of its attempt to subdue the facts of history to the faith of myth…

Jay Gatsby, born of his Platonic conception of himself but nourished on the meretricious commodities of popular fantasy, rises in his quest for a transcendent identity from one level of experience to another. From the idolization of a dime-novel cowboy hero, he progresses to the filiopietism [excessive reverence for forebears], and patronage, of a debauched pioneer—a millionaire speculator in preciousmetals. Initiated into the world and its betrayals through Dan Cody and his paramour Ella Kaye, Gatsby climbs higher, aspiring to the thing that lies behind or beyond earthly show. But Gatsby is no Ahab [central character in Herman Melville‘s Moby-Dick] bursting through the world‘s pasteboard mask in search of the moral essence of the universe. His vision represents a kind of aestheticized materialism—the pursuit of a grail which conjoins wealth and power with all the beauty, vitality, and wonder of the world, which he incarnates in the fragile loveliness of the rich, well-born American girl.

Gatsby‘s biography can thus be read as an ironic recapitulation of the blueprint for spiritual ascent that Emerson lays out in “Nature.” And just as Emerson‘s assimilationist ethos works to deny problems of conflict, or dualism, by obliterating all tension between individual will and the world‘s resistance (the latter is termed the “NOT-ME” and includes everything but the individual soul, i.e., “nature and art, all other men and my own body”), so it does for Gatsby, the gangster-idealist, who claims for himself the power to dominate space and time, to repeat the past at will and bring the natural world (microcosmically expressed in East and West Egg) under his imaginative dominion.

It is this Emersonian myth of the individual as sovereign state, inviolable to the conditions and categories of other lives, that Fitzgerald presents as the persistent dream-wish of our national life. It is a vision of freedom that is not only cast as a backward longing but is also, paradoxically, reaffirmed precisely by that historical consciousness which must attest to its failure…

The Tension Between Myth and History

Alan Trachtenberg has observed that the tension between myth and history is central to all Fitzgerald‘s work; that myth and history project two opposing modes of consciousness, two ways of knowing the world which provide perspectives on each other. Although I do not believe Fitzgerald to have been as disinterested an observer of American life as this definition implies, it seems an especially suggestive insight for understanding how the interplay of the novel, despite our contrary expectations, prepares us for an ending in which history comes to validate myth, and myth to ennoble history. For though the major distinction between myth and history would seem to be dramatized in the neighborly opposition of Gatsby, the man of mythic action—whose home, with Gothic library, Norman towers, Marie Antoinette music room “is a world complete in itself”—and Nick Carraway, the ironic historian of reserved judgments and limited hopes—whose utilitarian bungalow houses the secrets of Midas and Morgan in the form of brokerage reports—their characters interpenetrate one another like the cut and uncut grass of their adjacent lawns.

If Gatsby is god-like, with his sun chariot car, his pink and gold accoutrements, his Olympian feasts, he is also a gilded Jimmy Gatz, self-created through getting. The corrupt materialism that dogs his aspirations creates morally antithetical meanings for all the symbols that surround him—gold, most obviously, representing both the impersonal energy and glory of the sun and a base metal dug out of the earth which has the most ancient associations with carnal power and avarice. Gatsby is, finally, … trapped by circumstances that mock the gorgeous possibilities of his dreams, and are themselves conceptualized by Nick, the historian, as nightmare myth—a spreading hell of dust and ashes which devours the spirit as it does the body and turns living men into impoverished specters, indistinguishable from the industrial wasteland they inhabit. Indeed, the very form that Gatsby‘s mythic impulse takes, his aspiration to evade the present by repeating the past, reflects the popular taste on which he has been nourished. For, as Richard Hofstadter has noted, this longing was historically conditioned, bred out of post-Civil War disillusion with the corruption of the Gilded Age and had been part of American sentimental and popular rhetoric at least since William Jennings Bryan.

But what seems generally to have been overlooked among critics‘ observations provides, to my mind, the most significant historical perspective on Gatsby‘s character. This is notthe obvious fact of his crypto-gangster dealings, but the implications to be drawn from the social form which his enterprise takes. The constant irruption of the telephone into Gatsby‘s public life reminds us that despite his apparent isolation, Gatsby does not act alone. The calls that link him to agents in the West hint at a labyrinth of “gonnections” which replicates in negative the interlocking corporate structures of the legitimate world in which Nick labors at his more conventional version of the bond business. It is these “gonnections” that provide the pedestal of wealth on which Gatsby seems to stand in lonely splendor. From this perspective his heroic individualism is a self-deluding sham, fittingly expressed in the meretricious guise of “castle,” car, and clothing. It represents a popular dream-wish which serves as a defense against the dislocations and complexities of a changing society.

Romantic Delusion on a Mythic Scale

As the common, middle-class ideal of the self-made man rising through his own efforts to a position of social and economic power … was becoming an obsolete reality, so his fictional counterpart was more intensely romanticized in the image of the lone cowboy or outlaw, loyal to his own moral code and enduring a solitary existence in the wilderness. In The Incorporation of America, Alan Trachtenberg has shown how this popular myth persisted to deny the reality of corporate control which arrived with post-Civil War industrial expansion.

Gatsby, through his two surrogate fathers, the buccaneer Dan Cody and the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, unites the imagery of free-wheeling plunder in the Gilded Age [late nineteenth century] to that of the Jazz Age [end of World War I through the 1920s], but by traditional codes of loyalty, both these fathers ultimately betray him. Dan Cody promises him a legacy, but the debauched old frontiersman no longer has the mind or will to ensure its disposition. Wolfsheim, whoclaims to have “made” Gatsby, to look on him as a son, will not risk appearing at his funeral. Far from personifying those qualities of rugged individualism associated with the frontier myth, both Cody and Wolfsheim are victims of ‘forces” and “circumstances” which they seem unwilling or unable to control. When Gatsby met Cody the latter was already a vacuous, played-out figure, captive to a scheming woman, Ella Kaye—whose name, it has often been noted, rhymes with Daisy Fay. Meyer Wolfsheim‘s name, like his molar cufflinks, may allude to the ferocity of the forest, but he is more akin to the ambiguous “grandma” of the “Little Red Riding Hood” fairy tale than to a feral beast. In his office, he hides from Nick behind a woman and then excuses himself from attending Gatsby‘s funeral with a string of sentimental platitudes worthy of Uriah Heep [fawning, hypocritical clerk in Charles Dickens‘s David Copperfield].

Ultimately, Gatsby‘s relation to these fathers seems more contractual than personal. Their betrayals are largely failures of obligation; on either side, there is little energy of personal feeling. As Nick learns when he confronts Wolfsheim, questions of affection and emotional concern only mask the real interest—which is business. (“I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter,” says Wolfsheim proudly. “I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was an Oggsford I knew I could use him good.”) Gatsby‘s relations with these men, as with his agents, turn out to be a paradigm of the larger social order depicted in the book—a collection of isolated beings whose interconnections are coded in terms of the use each can make of the other.

Yet, if the Great Gatsby, viewed from an historical perspective, is only a self-deluded con-man, the energy of his delusion matches the mythic scale of America‘s own. Guilt-free but deeply secretive, guileless but amorally corrupt, Gatsby embodies the essential contradictions of our national history and our national faith…

His unblinking indifference to the ugly and criminal aspects of his own nature serves as the psychic counterpart to America‘s historical innocence about the sources of its own wealth, its tie to the exploitative realities of a fallen world, which Daisy (the driver of the “death car”) comes to embody. Like his country‘s, Gatsby‘s illusions about the self and its powers are matched by his illusions about history, by hisfaith that “of course you can” repeat the past. He may be better than the other characters (“worth the whole damn bunch put together”), but Nick‘s obsessive ambivalence toward him (“I disapproved of him from beginning to end”) would seem to suggest that ultimately he is not good enough.

The Lost Promise

That Gatsby is not just the mythic embodiment of an American type but personifies the outline of our national consciousness is demonstrated by his structural relation to the other characters and, in particular, to the narrator, Nick Carraway.

Despite differences of class and taste, despite their apparent mutually antagonistic purposes, all the characters in this book are defined by their nostalgia for and sense of betrayal by some lost, if only dimly apprehended, promise in their past—a sense of life‘s possibilities toward which only Gatsby has retained the ingenuous faith and energy of the true seeker. It is in the difference between vision and sight, between the longing for self-transcendence and the lust for immediate gain—for sexual, financial, or social domination— that Nick, his chronicler and witness, finds the moral distinction which separates Gatsby from the “foul dust” of the others who float in his wake. And this moral dichotomy runs through the structure of the entire work. For the rapacious nature of each of the others, whether crude, desperate, arrogant or false, is finally shown to be a function of their common loss of vision, their blurred or displaced sense of possibilities—punningly symbolized in the enormous empty retinas of the oculist-wag, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. Thus Gatsby and those who eddy around him are, reciprocally, positive and negative images of one another; but whether faithless or true all are doomed by the wasteful, self-deluding nature of the longing which controls their lives and which when it fails leaves its adherents utterly naked and alone, “contiguous to nothing.”

The Siren Song of the American Continent

However, Nick‘s insight into the distinction between Gatsby and others does not free him from his own involvement in the world he observes. His acute awareness of his own self-division (toward Gatsby as toward all the others) turns out to be the mirror inversion of his subject‘s unconscious one; it accounts for the sympathetic bond between them…

Moreover, it is Nick‘s own confused responsiveness to his cousin‘s sexual power and charm that allows him subsequently to understand Gatsby‘s equation of Daisy with all that is most desirable under the heavens—ultimately with the siren song of the America continent. Nick cannot help but be compelled by the buoyant vitality which surrounds her and the glowing sound of her “low, thrilling voice,” which sings with “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, as the shadow of his double, Nick‘s response to Daisy is qualified by his discomforting awareness of the illusory and deceptive in her beauty. Her smirking insincerity, her banal chatter, the alluring whiteness of her expensive clothes—most of all, the languid boredom which enfolds her life—suggest a willing captivity, a lazy self-submission to a greater power than her own magical charms: the extraordinary wealth and physical arrogance that enable Tom Buchanan to dominate her. And Nick‘s visceral dislike for the man Daisy has given herself to, fanned by his intellectual and moral scorn for Tom‘s crude attempt to master “ideas” as he does horses and women, allies him with, as it prefigures, Gatsby‘s bland disregard of Tom as a factor in Daisy‘s existence.

Nick‘s experience of Daisy is, in fact, commensurate with his experience of the East. For like Daisy and her husband, transplanted Westerners who have drifted to the new center of energy and power, the East turns out to be the America of the moment—America experienced as a wilderness of opportunity, with all the ambiguity this implies.

West Egg, with its raw wealth and promiscuous mix of classes and types, is a metaphoric reminder of frontier society; while East Egg has all the decorum and snobbery of those who have “arrived” at least one generation earlier. (The Buchanans live in a house built by “Demaine, the oil man.") Together, the Eggs, with their smashed bottoms, serve as a metaphor for American actuality—the social barnyard of the present in which money and power breed ever-more-corrupt versions of a once-bright historical ideal … But from a distance their shore lines are enticing.

Nick comes East for the same reason that his forebears went West—he is restless, seeking adventure, excitement, freedom from the monotonous regularity and control of an established pattern of life and established social expectations. In the East he feels like a path-finder. There is a sense of things growing faster, of time and motion speeded up (as in a movie), of unexpected if illusory joy. The towers of New York rise “up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps… The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.” Like the aura that emanates from Daisy, it is a magical place where anything can happen. “Even Gatsby could happen.” And yet the ugliness, greed, and human sterility he discovers in this raucous wilderness are far worse than anything in the grey world of worn-out traditions that he has left behind…

Although some critics claim to find in Nick‘s return to the Midwest a saving alternative to the futility of Gatsby‘s example, this reading seems to me to be itself a wishful dream out of a more sober historical moment. For the Midwest of Nick‘s allusions is hardly the moral alternative to the East that it has often been taken to be. Rather, the moral distinction at issue… turns out to be a choice between the world [and] one‘s vision of it—not between what life might offer in one or another geographical context.

The Decline and Fall of American Hopes

The actual West, we are told at the beginning of the book, is a place of chronic anxiety, the “ragged edge of the universe,” where an evening is hurried “toward its close, in a continually disappointed anticipation or else in sheer nervous dread of the moment itself.” Daisy and Jordan, with their cool, impersonal “absence of desire,” buoyed by privilege and wealth, serve as the vanguard of a process symbolized in the drift from West to East that includes all characters in the book. More than malaise, it is a creeping spiritual paralysis that shows itself in chronic anxiety and dread before itreaches the acute stage of anomie that Nick finds at the pinnacle of American social power. Ironically, it is the restless rich, with their greater freedom to experience life‘s possibilities, to seek fulfillment in action and experimentation, who most clearly reveal the aridity at the heart of the American faith that the way to wealth is the way to a new status, a new essence, that through wealth one may rise “to a loftier place in the mysterious hierarchy of human worth.” They have moved farther and faster from the old America that Nick recognizes in the dreams of Gatsby and the still unquenched longings of the Wilsons—the coarse vitality of Myrtle‘s body, the “damp gleam of hope” in George‘s eyes. It is, therefore, metaphorically fitting that it should be Daisy and Tom who together cause the “holocaust” in which these three give up their lives.

Nick reminds us at the end of the book that all the characters are Westerners, “that this has been a story of the West, after all.” I take this to mean a story of the decline and fall of American hopes—the West in its largest sense standing for the westward course of empire, for the dream of America as mankind‘s last best hope for social and moral redemption.8


Excerpted from Joyce A. Rone, Equivocal Endings in Classic American Novels. (1988)


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