The most striking formal characteristic of The Great Gatsby is its scenic construction, and Scott Fitzgerald himself … spoke of it as a ‘dramatic’ novel. In this respect, it shows extraordinarily close affinities with the theory and practice of Henry James’s later fiction. James’s vivid account of the little diagram he drew in order to explain the structure of The Awkward Age to his publisher corresponds exactly with what we find in Gatsby:
I drew on a sheet of paper … the neat figure of a circle consisting of a number of small rounds disposed at equal distance about a central object. The central object was my situation, my subject in itself, to which the thing would owe its title, and the small rounds represented so many distinct lamps, as I liked to call them, the function of each of which would be to light with all due intensity one of its aspects… Each of my ‘lamps’ would be the light of a single ‘social occasion’ in the history and intercourse of the characters concerned, and would bring out to the full the latent colour of the scene in question and cause it to illuminate, to the last drop, its bearing on my theme. I revelled in this notion of the Occasion as a thing by itself, really and completely a scenic thing.
The ‘central object’ of The Great Gatsby is clearly Gatsby himself, and the chapters of the novel are in the main a series of dramatic scenes, each illuminating some new aspect of his character and situation. The scenes are invariably ‘social occasions’; often they are parties, in that special sense which is so fundamental to Fitzgerald’s understanding of the 1920s. Chapter I is built around the dinner party at the Buchanans’ at which Nick Carraway discovers the subtle charm and the inner corruption of Daisy and of the American rich—the woman and the class which Gatsby has made the object of his dreams. Chapter II presents the ‘foul dust’ that floats in the wake of his dreams. It opens with a poetic and atmospheric evocation of the valley of ashes, but its main source of energy is once again dramatic—the raucous Prohibition-style party in Myrtle Wilson’s apartment. In Chapter III, Nick visits one of Gatsby’s own parties for the first time, and begins to understand the equivocal nature of the latter’s creative powers—his capacity to mix the beautiful with the vulgar, the magical with the absurd. Chapter IV functions like an act in two scenes, each revealing a contrasted aspect of Gatsby’s identity: the lunch in New York, at which Nick meets Meyer Wolfsheim and has a glimpse of Gatsby’s underworld connections; and the tea during which Jordan Baker tells him the story of Gatsby’s wartime affair with Daisy. The dramatic focus of Chapter V is the tea party at Nick’s house, when Gatsby and Daisy are reunited; and in Chapter VI Nick attends a second party at Gatsby’s, at which Daisy herself is present. Chapter VII, like Chapter IV, is an act in two scenes: the lunch party at the Buchanans’ where Tom realizes for the first time that Daisy and Gatsby are lovers; and the abortive cocktail party at the Plaza Hotel in New York, where Tom not only ends the affair, but succeeds in destroying Gatsby’s ‘platonic conception’ of himself. Only in the last two chapters does Fitzgerald largely abandon the dramatic method, and, even here, some of the most vivid moments depend on effects which are scenic in character— Mr Gatz’s arrival at Gatsby’s house, Nick’s second meeting with Meyer Wolfsheim in New York, and Gatsby’s funeral…
This principle of construction affects every aspect of Fitzgerald’s artistry: in particular, the language of The Great Gatsby often rises at moments of intensity to the level of dramatic poetry; and the element of social comedy, which gives the novel its predominant tone and colouring, always findsexpression through specifically theatrical effects of action and spectacle. The structure of a dramatic novel, however, is not an end in itself: each scene, to use James’s metaphor, is a lamp illuminating a central object, and it is this object which must remain the reader’s primary concern. For this reason, a scene-by-scene analysis is by no means the best way to approach The Great Gatsby, and a thematic treatment is far more likely to bring out the true nature of Gatsby himself: …his dramatic identity—his essentially comic nature.…
It is easier to discuss Gatsby’s significance and the nature of his experience … than to say what kind of fictional character he is. A number of early readers of the novel, including Edith Wharton and H.L. Mencken, felt that as a character he virtually didn’t exist. Most later critics have evaded the problem altogether by elevating him to the status of a mythic figure. Approached in this way he becomes a symbolic abstraction, the vehicle for a few school-book platitudes about American history, and the question of whether or not he is a tangible dramatic and human presence conveniently disappears. If one simply reads the novel, however, his dramatic and human presence obstinately and delightfully remains:
Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantelpiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock, and from this position his distraught eyes stared down at Daisy, who was sitting, frightened but graceful, on the edge of a stiff chair.
‘We’ve met before’, muttered Gatsby. His eyes glanced momentarily at me, and his lips parted with an abortive attempt at a laugh. Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head, whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers and set it back in place. Then he sat down, rigidly, his elbow on the arm of the sofa and his chin in his hand.
‘I’m sorry about the clock’, he said.
My own face had now assumed a deep tropical burn. I couldn’t muster up a single commonplace out of the thousand in my head.
‘It’s an old clock’, I told them idiotically.
I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor.
The reality of Gatsby’s character here is, overwhelmingly, comic, and it is this comic Gatsby—not a shadowy abstraction—who dominates the novel.
The Great Gatsby itself is best regarded as a social comedy, but the phrase doesn’t perhaps sufficiently convey the extent to which the comic is the vital creative element in Fitzgerald’s achievement. The term social comedy usually implies a mode of writing which is satirical and moral, and this is certainly true of his treatment of a number of characters and episodes—in particular of Tom Buchanan. But frequently his writing rises to a level of rich absurdity where comedy is not subordinated to a satirical or moral point, but is itself the point—the truly creative thing. Such a moment occurs in the episode in which Myrtle Wilson buys a dog:
We backed up to a grey old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller. In a basket swung from his neck cowered a dozen very recent puppies of an indeterminate breed.
‘What kind are they?’ asked Mrs. Wilson eagerly, as he came to the taxi-window.
‘All kinds. What kind do you want, lady?’
‘I’d like to get one of those police dogs; I don’t suppose you got that kind?’
The man peered doubtfully into the basket, plunged in his hand and drew one up, wriggling, by the back of the neck.
‘That’s no police dog’, said Tom.
‘No, it’s not exactly a police dog’, said the man with disappointment in his voice. ‘It’s more of an Airedale’. He passed his hand over the brown washrag of a back. ‘Look at that coat. Some coat. That’s a dog that’ll never bother you with catching cold.’
‘I think it’s cute’, said Mrs. Wilson enthusiastically. ‘How much is it?’
‘That dog?’ He looked at it admiringly. ‘That dog will cost you ten dollars’.
The Airedale—undoubtedly there was an Airedale concerned in it somewhere, though its feet were startlingly white—changed hands and settled down into Mrs. Wilson’s lap, where she fondled the weatherproof coat with rapture.
‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ she asked delicately.
‘That dog? That dog’s a boy’.
‘It’s a bitch’, said Tom decisively. ‘Here’s your money. Go and buy ten more dogs with it’.
To say that this incident illustrates the false gentility of Myrtle Wilson or the crudeness of Tom Buchanan’s desires would be true but inessential. What really matters is the irresistibly joyous and liberating sense of the ridiculous which Fitzgerald conveys—that quality in literature which we call, not loosely but precisely, Dickensian. As Grahame Smith admirably expresses it in his study of Charles Dickens a proposof Mrs. Gamp—’we recognize that we are enclosed in a magic circle of pure comedy from which it is impossible to break out with explanations of satirical intent or didactic purpose’. The whole ensuing scene of the party at Myrtle Wilson’s apartment is conceived on the same level of pure comedy. Nick Carraway’s two encounters with Meyer Wolfsheim have the same quality. Wolfsheim isn’t in the novel to give us tangible proof of Gatsby’s underworld connections—the cryptic telephone calls the latter occasionally receives are enough to do that. Wolfsheim’s monstrous absurdity—his nostrils, his cuff buttons, his sentimentality and his philosophy of life—is an end in itself. It is significant that Edith Wharton considered him (’your wonderful Jew’) the best thing in the novel.
Fitzgerald’s greatest success by far in this mode of comedy, however, is the character of Gatsby himself. It is the comic element in Gatsby which makes him seem credibly alive—which gives him an independent existence as a fictional character. We depend on Nick Carraway’s testimony for much of what we believe about him. Without the benefit of Nick’s wide privilege of interpretation, and the assurance of his sober integrity, we should not be able to guess at the stupendous imaginative life that lies beneath Gatsby’s trivial aspirations. But we don’t need Nick to tell us how funny Gatsby is—we see it for ourselves. Here, Nick no longer interprets and guarantees, he merely records—he might almost as well not be there. We should probably be less ready to take his word even for Gatsby’s imagination, if Gatsby were less comic. His sole creative talent—it is one of which he is entirely unconscious—is his power to arouse wild incredulous laughter. His life has the aspect of a nonstop theatrical performance—an ‘unbroken series of successful gestures’; even his name, Jay Gatsby, is a farcical stunt. He does not provoke the superficial kind of laughter which is a mere brief contortion of the facial muscles; he appeals to a profound comic sense which makes life seem richer and fuller than it normally is. When one laughs at his car, his clothes, his parties, his manner, his autobiographical confidences, one is not merely amused, one is responding, through him, to the fertile, creative ludicrousness of life itself…
The most successful of Gatsby’s theatrical gestures are his parties. At the simple level they are fun, an aspect of the novel’s meaning which is as true and as important as Nick Carraway’s moral disapproval of Gatsby’s guests. We are reminded once again of what Henry James and Henry Adams were forced to concede, however reluctantly—that the charm, the success, of American life is in democratic manners, even in social chaos. The corresponding failure of the aristocratic experiment—the stuffy, boorish, hypocritical life of the Buchanans—is clear enough, and throws Gatsby’s achievement into sharp relief. Daisy finds—and this is perhaps the sole basis of her love for Gatsby—that there are romantic possibilities in the disorderly riot of his world totally absent from her own. Even the dissipations he offers, or condones, at his house are frank, lively and diverting—very different from Tom Buchanan’s crude and furtive relaxations.
Gatsby’s parties, too, are virtually his only genuine acts of creation. His dream of Daisy and the way of life she represents, whatever imaginative intensity he puts into it, is an absurd and vulgar illusion. His ‘platonic conception’ of himself does not differ very significantly from the pattern of Dan Cody’s career—the robber baron turned playboy. But his parties are triumphant expressions of that Vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty’ which … is one of the most characteristic manifestations of American life. When Nick tells Gatsby that his house looks like the World’s Fair, and reflects that his guests ‘conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with an amusement park’; or when Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby’s car a ‘circus-wagon’, the implications are clearly unfavourable. And yet, taken in relation to the parties themselves, these gibes help to direct our attention to something very different: ‘There was music from my neighbour’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.’
The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who move here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the centre of a group, and then, excited withtriumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and colours under the constantly changing light.
That Gatsby should have brought to life all this miraculous shimmering ephemeral beauty and excitement places him among the great artist-showmen of America—the architects who designed the World’s Fairs and Expositions; the circus ringmasters, and the gifted mountebanks of the state and county fairs; the directors of Hollywood epics and musicals; and the scientists, astronauts and media men who, between them, turned the Apollo moon-shots into the best television entertainment ever made.
To these creative gifts, Gatsby adds the gift of comedy. His parties always seem about to bubble over into a burst of irresistible laughter. Even the mechanical housekeeping arrangements have a comic effect: the servants who toil ‘with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before’; the caterers who, with tempting foods, yards of canvas, and hundreds of coloured lights, turn Gatsby’s gardens into an enormous Christmas tree; the crates of oranges and lemons which arrive like expected guests from New York, have theirjuice extracted, and leave his back door in a ‘pyramid of pulpless halves.’ When, a little later in the evening, Nick Carraway speaks of ‘the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket’, the whole scene seems to hover between the magical and the absurd…
As Nick’s evocation of the atmosphere of Gatsby’s parties gradually modulates into his account of the first one he actually attended, the comic element becomes more explicit. At the beginning, it is like a ripple of suppressed laughter half-heard in the general concert of sounds, but soon, like the mounting hilarity of the guests themselves, it becomes unmistakably the dominant note. It is at this phase of the evening that Nick and Jordan find the owl-eyed man admiring Gatsby’s library. Then the rhythm of the party changes again—from hilarity to comic uproar: a drunken soprano performs with tears of black mascara streaming down her face, and, in the riotous finale, the owl-eyed man reappears—as the uncomprehending passenger of a car which has lost one of its wheels. The presiding genius at this scene of comic revelry is Gatsby: he surveys his departing guests from the steps of his house, his hand raised, amid the din of motor-horns in a formal gesture of farewell.
It is in this respect that he most resembles Trimalchio, a character who was very much in Fitzgerald’s mind while he was writing The Great Gatsby. When Gatsby abruptly stops giving his parties, Nick remarks that ‘his career as Trimalchio was over’; and at one stage Fitzgerald actually considered Trimalchio and Trimalchio in West Egg as possible titles for the novel. Trimalchio’s banquet, the longest episode in the Satyricon of Petronius, is one of the great comic scenes of classical literature, and has certain obvious resemblances with Gatsby’s parties. Both are set in times of wealth and decadence… The guests in each case are a motley collection of adventurers and entertainers, while the two hosts are nouveaux riches with the uncertain taste common to that position. In both entertainments the life and virtue are comic, and both reach their dramatic climaxes in scenes of comic disorder. Gatsby’s pose—aloof, dignified, ceremonial almost—is in ludicrous contrast with the turmoil of farcicalmisunderstandings and caterwauling motor-horns in his drive. The debacle of Trimalchio’s banquet has the same relation to the whole, and contains similar comic incongruities. In order to parade his wealth and liberality, he has his will brought in and read aloud. As his slaves and guests weep drunkenly, he is inspired by the thought that they can pretend the occasion is his funeral wake. He lies down on a couch as if he were the corpse, libations are poured out, and a brass band is summoned to play suitable music. But the leading performer gives such a piercing blast on his instrument that the whole neighbourhood is awakened. The fire brigade is aroused, and the guests flee in terror as the firemen rush in with their axes and buckets of water.
While it is almost certain that Fitzgerald learned something from Petronius about the dramatic organization of such scenes—about the mounting rhythms that run through huge entertainments—his comic sense is entirely his own… The Great Gatsby is the only work in which Fitzgerald realized the full potentialities of his comic genius, but in this one novel he equalled the masters of world literature.
Excerpted from F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Art of Social Fiction by Brian Way (1980)