The Great Gatsby and the twenties
by Ronald Berman

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, seems to speak directly to its current audience about love and existential freedom. Yet the ideas we bring to the story may not be the ideas that the story brings to us. The book was written before most of its readers were born. It inhabits a different world, with barriers between men and women, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, rich and poor, capital and labor, educated and half-literate. It was a more defined and morally harder world then: at no point in the novel does Daisy Fay Buchanan ever appeal to the transcending authority of love, or Jay Gatsby to that of equality. Social judgment matters more. Daisy knows that life has many things more permanent than love, and Gatsby knows, or Fitzgerald knows for him, that equality is only a political virtue.

Part of the meaning of the text can be explained by sources, influence, background. Research on these things has concentrated on three broad issues: the novel’s development from Fitzgerald’s earlier writing about love and money; the influence of other writers like Joseph Conrad and T. S. Eliot; and its powerful retelling of the story of Scott and Zelda. Fitzgerald’s own “Winter Dreams” (1922) and “‘The Sensible Thing’” (1924) are both about men who need money, in love with women inaccessible without it. The first of these stories “examines a boy whose ambitions become identified with a selfish rich girl.” Part of it was absorbed into The Great Gatsby: “Indeed, Fitzgerald removed Dexter Green’s response to Judy Jones’s home from the magazine text and wrote it into the novel as Jay Gatsby’s response to Daisy Fay’s home.”1 He also cannibalized an extraordinary passage (“All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the ‘Beale Street Blues’” [GG, 218]) from “Diamond Dick and the First Law of Woman” (1924) in order to fit it into a description of Daisy Fay Buchanan as the goddess of jazz. Both “Winter Dreams” and “‘The Sensible Thing’” describe the loss of idealism, and the grand romantic theme of recapturing the vanished past which is so much a part of Fitzgerald’s work.

There are a number of external sources, and Fitzgerald’s debt to Joseph Conrad has been well handled: Almayer’s Folly (1920), for example, is about “the hero’s futuristic dream set in an ironic time perspective; his apprenticeship aboard the yacht of an old adventurer who has become rich, which marks his initiation into his dream; the young woman who seems to embody, but then repudiates, the dream” (Long, The Achieving of “The Great Gatsby”, 118). Fitzgerald read widely, and traces of that reading can be seen in the text. His novel, according to Richard Lehan (“The Great Gatsby”: The Limits of Wonder), echoes The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1922) by Van Wyck Brooks, The Waste Land (1922) by T. S. Eliot, even The Education of Henry Adams (1918). One of the classics of literary criticism, Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, makes a convincing case for it being the last in a great series of novels beginning in the early nineteenth century about the rise from poverty to wealth. The protagonist of Balzac, Stendhal, and Dickens tries to conquer the social world of London or Paris. He is able to do so because under the new industrialism, money has taken the place of class. So, what used to be a fairytale, the peasant turning into a prince, becomes a historical possibility. However, these novels are cautionary because success breeds its enemies.

Nowhere is this more true than in a series of novels that was much closer to home. The Horatio Alger stories about starting poor and ending rich were very much on Fitzgerald’s mind. They are less innocent than they seem. One of their principal messages is that getting rich is easier than being accepted. Alger’s working-class heroes in books like Sink or Swim (1870) or Strong And Steady (1871) must fight for their success. Money is not the problem: the social order is against them, usually personified by a rich man’s son who understands that when poor boys rise, rich boys have less space to breathe in. Fitzgerald had a lifelong interest in the theme, and his works feature antagonistic figures like Braddock Washington of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” (1922), Anson Hunter of “The Rich Boy” (1926), and Tom Buchanan of The Great Gatsby. They are all figures of control and exclusion. They are all threatening—and in each of their stories are responsible for at least one death.

Source studies on the lives of Scott and Zelda cover much of Fitzgerald’s fiction. Some leading biographies should be consulted, especially Matthew J. Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur (1981) and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love (1983). They establish the connections not only between the events of the Fitzgeralds’ lives, but the way in which they interpreted those events. There is a useful biographical interpretation of the short stories, Alice Hall Petry’s Fitzgerald’s Craft of Short Fiction (1989). James R. Mellow’s biography Invented Lives (1984) suggests that if art came out of the lives of Scott and Zelda their lives were also consciously shaped by art—a process somewhere between creativity and public relations that has been native to the American scene since Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain.

But, as far as sources are concerned, there may now be too much emphasis on the evolutionary aspect of Fitzgerald’s work, the silent assumption being post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Mutation matters as much. Fitzgerald agreed with his friend and critic Edmund Wilson, who had encouraged him to forget his earlier writing, and move on to new plots, characters, and ideas. In fact, he instructed his editor Max Perkins to have the jacket for his 1926 volume of stories All the Sad Young Men “show transition from his early exuberant stories of youth which created a new type of American girl to the later and more serious mood which produced The Great Gatsby and marked him as one of the half dozen masters of English prose now writing in America” (Life in Letters, 122). (A nice assessment on both points. There is much in The Great Gatsby that does not have a literary history. It is as accurate and self-justifying as a photograph—something often encountered in its pages.)

The Great Gatsby uses much contemporary historical material. The choice of place and subject, for example, was itself a statement. In 1924, H. L. Mencken, then the most influential American critic, identified the life of post-war New York City as one of the new subjects of the novel. That life was monied, vulgar, noisy, chaotic, and immoral, hence more interesting than anything that could be served up by the literature of gentility. He was fascinated by the same New York crowds that provide the background for Fitzgerald. He too understood their figurative meaning. The frenzied life of Manhattan, its open pursuit of sex, money, and booze was, Mencken wrote, a “spectacle, lush and barbaric in its every detail, [which] offers the material for a great imaginative literature.” A new kind of American novel might not only capture the moment but also understand a new experience in American history, the replacement of Victorian public conscience by modern subjectivity. As Mencken put his advice to writers, the New York scene—democracy in its current incarnation—“ought to be far more attractive to novelists than it is.”2

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922) had recently been deserved successes, both of them making the bestseller list. But, despite their example and his own capabilities, Fitzgerald decided to cover new ground. He and his main characters break with provincialism. An enormous amount of the telling of his story is about New York as well as about Gatsby. One of the reasons for the interest of the novel is his description of the city, and any study of the language must take that into account.

The modern moment had after all found its correlative: the great literary and artistic movement of the century’s beginnings saw the social world from the urban, dislocated point of view of The Waste Land. Modernism provided Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other writers not only with new tactics but a new sensibility. For example, as Susan Sontag writes of cityscape in photography, “bleak factory buildings and billboard-cluttered avenues look as beautiful, through the camera’s eye, as churches and pastoral landscapes. More beautiful, by modern taste” (Sontag, On Photography, 78). Ezra Pound had written about the aesthetic power of city lights; Hemingway began his description of Paris in The Sun Also Rises (1926) with its “electric signs” (14); Blaise Cendrars theorized that billboard-cluttered avenues had really for the first time made urban landscape visually interesting.3 Ordinary things were accepted—welcomed—by Modernist writers. They challenged the high seriousness of art and artiness. One of the great moments of twentieth-century fiction comes in 1929 with the sharp, clear description in A Farewell to Arms of a bowl of pasta asciutta eaten in a dugout without forks. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald writes with authority about ads, photos, automobiles, magazines, and Broadway musicals as if these things too fuel the energies of art: “the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile” (GG, 34). Production, entertainment, style, and consumption are native subjects of Modernism, often displacing what is merely natural. And in the case of a certain billboard featuring Doctor T. J. Eckleburg—both symbol and sign of the times—they become part of the weave of a great American novel.

Like any other intellectual movement, Modernism had its sacred texts: from its use of Baudelaire to that of T. S. Eliot it was self-referential. We can see the hand of the leading modern writers in The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises: Hemingway writes a reprise of a scene from Madame Bovary (1857), and Fitzgerald brings Almayer’s Folly up to date. Throughout Fitzgerald’s deeply symbolic novel we become aware of how far we have gone from the values of realism. As for subject, Mencken may have wanted a Great American Novel on social life in New York, but when it came out he did not recognize it. I think that he expected something that might have been called Prohibition on Broadway. He did not expect a romance, or a myth as powerful as that of The Waste Land—what Nick Carraway calls “the following of a grail” (GG, 116-17). As for style, Fitzgerald’s novel of New York is nowhere more Modernist than in its impressionism. Expecting hard-edged delineation of the manners and mores of the Jazz Age, we find instead evocations of yellow cocktail music and trembling opal and a moon produced out of a caterer’s basket. The Jazz Age is there, but the story is its own telling.

The Great Gatsby is a recollection of events that took place in the summer of 1922. Jay Gatsby, who began life as Jimmy Gatz, has moved steadily upward in an offbeat version of Making It in America. He has been farm-boy, student, and fisherman; steward and mate for the rich and mindless Dan Cody; eventually the brave and decorated Major Jay Gatsby. He has loved and lost Daisy Fay, and understands that in order to get her back he needs a good deal of money. When we meet him he is a “success”—but as a bootlegger and possibly as a swindler. We enter the story in its last stage, along with the narrator, Nick Carraway. A number of lives become swiftly entangled: Gatsby with Daisy Fay Buchanan; her husband Tom with Myrtle Wilson; Nick with Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker.

Things look simple at the beginning: Nick Carraway, like Gatsby himself, wants to change his life through success. It is a grand American motif. However, getting to where you want to go is not at all simple: Jordan cheats at golf, Myrtle leads a double life, even the unseen but much-heard-of Walter Chase is “very glad to pick up some money” (GG, 104) with few questions asked. Nick quickly understands that the glittering social world he has come to conquer is built on ambiguities. One begins to expect that, after having “been everywhere and seen everything and done everything”; after becoming, as Daisy describes herself, “sophisticated” (17). But Nick does not expect the entire texture of lives and human relationships to be affected, and that is the point of his story. These characters are more than the sum of their own experiences: they constitute America itself as it moves into the Jazz Age. There is a larger story which swirls around them, and its meaning is suggested by Fitzgerald’s unused title for the novel: Under the Red, White, and Blue.

The Great Gatsby is about American issues. Just before Fitzgerald came of age, Walter Lippmann had stated that “those who are young to-day are born into a world in which the foundations of the older order survive only as habits or by default” (Lippmann, Drift and Mastery, xvii-xviii). And, soon after the publication of The Great Gatsby, John Dewey was to write that “the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well-nigh disappeared.”4 The world of The Great Gatsby is a version of the new social world feared by the tradition of American moralists from William James to John Dewey. It is a world of broken relationships and false relationships; a world of money and success rather than of social responsibility; a world in which individuals are all too free to determine their moral destinies. Daisy warns Nick and the reader about the way this world is when she says, “I think everything’s terrible anyhow” (GG, 17). Because she believes that, she is free to act any way she wants.

One issue of the novel is loyalty to love, another is loyalty to friendship. Nick himself exemplifies loyalty to people and ideas, while Daisy and Tom have freed themselves from troublesome conscience—and from even more troublesome self-awareness. They will be loyal neither to idea nor person. But their characters have not been chosen arbitrarily by Fitzgerald. Americans had long been advised of the perilous subjectivity of their lives. The strong tradition of social philosophy in America, its Public Philosophy, was known for concern with day-to-day issues. Few things better exemplify this than Josiah Royce on the need for loyalty, or William James on the moral life. There were the lectures and writings of Walter Lippmann, George Santayana, and especially John Dewey, all intensely focused on the American scene. In these works are thoughtful accounts of the good life as opposed to the way we live now; there was Walter Lippmann’s account of the American Dream (bearing very little relationship to current ideas about it); and there were deliberations about the way that Americans think, or refuse to think, about the implications of that dream. These works called the nation to account for the way it made and spent money, about its class relationships, about the state of American national character. Here is how Josiah Royce described the basic subject of Public Philosophy just before Fitzgerald went to Princeton:

Since the war, our transformed and restless people has been seeking not only for religious, but for moral guidance. What are the principles that can show us the course to follow in the often pathless wilderness of the new democracy? It frequently seems as if, in every crisis of our greater social affairs, we needed somebody to tell us both our dream and the interpretation thereof. We are eager to have life … But what life?5

Readers who come to Fitzgerald’s novel and to the twenties are inclined to think that the oft-mentioned subject of the American Dream is a matter of personal freedom and financial success. However, early twentieth-century thinkers like Josiah Royce and Walter Lippmann wrote about that dream in much more idealistic terms. They related it to the building of the nation in the eighteenth century, and to the qualities of character that implied. But Royce, for one, had recently written that the American Dream was getting difficult even to discern, much less to reconstruct. Perhaps it had already been lost. Were there even models left for Americans to understand? Milton R. Stern agrees, in The Golden Moment, that the possibility of even understanding the dream had diminished:

The poor, naive, believing son of a bitch. He dreamed of a country in the mind and he got East and West Egg. He dreamed of a future magic self and he got the history of Dan Cody. He dreamed of a life of unlimited possibility and he got Hopalong Cassidy, Horatio Alger, and Ben Franklin’s “The Way to Wealth.” What else could he imitate? (Stern, The Golden Moment, 247)

For Fitzgerald himself (and this has something to do with the title he finally chose for his novel) the dream was quite literally about the quality of greatness. It meant displaying in private life those daring unselfish qualities that had made America possible. To be “great” in this novel means to continue an American tradition. And American greatness was definitely on Fitzgerald’s mind in the twenties. We are fortunate that he defined it in the conclusion of his short story “The Swimmers” (1929):

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart. (Short Stories, 512)

It would be difficult to understand The Great Gatsby without that last line. But, as good as it is, it is not entirely original. It comes from a good deal of reading about the nature of Americans.

First, the opposite of this idea: against Royce’s panoramic vision of national development, responsibility, and obligation, a character like that of Tom Buchanan is a compendium of American failures: he is rich with no conscience, moralistic without being moral, exclusionary, racist, and, above all, true only to himself. As for his American dream, that seems undisclosable. He is Royce’s nightmare and the nightmare of the Public Philosophy, a classic figure of ressentiment and of absolute, selfish subjectivity. How is Gatsby himself to be measured?

The values that Fitzgerald recalled from the years before the Jazz Age did not consist wholly of moral prohibitions. William James did indeed preach fully conscious responsibility for American moral decisions; George Santayana did lecture the American public about its responsibility to create a meaningful social order; and John Dewey did repeatedly outline the conditions for an informed public adapting to necessary social change. But more was implied than public morality. James, in a letter to H. G. Wells that has become part of American intellectual history, once remarked on the new and alarming “worship of the bitch-goddess success” in America (Cotkin, William James, Public Philosopher, 91). He saw that prosperity and power might in themselves become trivial and boring. Life demanded intense powers of imagination—even of romantic love and devotion. He argued for dedication to people and ideas, and against the state of mind which lost itself in meaningless subjectivity. Life demanded goals, sacrifice, and a certain amount of risk. In fact, James once wondered idly if the last heroes in America might not be outside the law, choosing not to be prudentially middle class. So far as he could see, there was nothing wrong (although excess would clearly be dangerous) in Americans dedicating themselves emotionally to a cause, and losing themselves in it. The characters of The Great Gatsby enact many a drama scripted by American philosophy, and its language mirrors the language of debate about a country becoming ever more monied and less heroic, less true—except for Jay Gatsby—to the grand passions of its past.

Gatsby has the capacity for the pursuit of happiness. He believes in his dream and in Daisy as its object. Except for Nick Carraway and poor George Wilson he is the only figure in the novel to have a passion for belief, and to care deeply about someone else. He may be wrong about the kind of happiness that is possible, and about the woman who represents that happiness, but he has committed himself to the dream. Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy against impossible odds is perhaps the final form of the American will to wring a new life from destiny.

Of course, Gatsby is imperfect: in spite of his idealism, his idea of the good life seems merely to be the acquisition of money, things, property. Possibly the most famous literary possession of the twentieth century is his car, in “a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and toolboxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns” (GG, 51). In this book we tend to see the sun as it is reflected by produced things. Gatsby’s house (like Myrtle’s apartment) is a showcase of consumption. And yet: an enormously shrewd essay by George Santayana in 1920 (entitled “Materialism and Idealism in American Life”) had pointed out that materialism and idealism do not necessarily cancel each other out. Gatsby is materialistic because Americans do not have many other alternatives. Material life offers one of the few recognized ways in which the American can express his idealism. This is how Santayana puts the issue:

For the American the urgency of his novel attack upon matter, his zeal in gathering its fruits, precludes meanderings in primrose paths; devices must be short cuts… There is an enthusiasm in his sympathetic handling of material forces which goes far to cancel the illiberal character which it might otherwise assume… his ideals fall into the form of premonitions and prophecies; and his studious prophecies often come true. So do the happy workmanlike ideals of the American. When a poor boy, perhaps, he dreams of an education, and presently he gets an education, or at least a degree; he dreams of growing rich, and he grows rich … He dreams of helping to carry on and to accelerate the movement of a vast, seething progressive society, and he actually does so. Ideals clinging so close to nature are almost sure of fulfillment; the American beams with a certain self-confidence and sense of mastery; he feels that God and nature are working with him. (Santayana, Character and Opinion in the United States, 108-9)

Money, after all, has been only a means to express otherwise inchoate ideas. Santayana was convinced that this was a kind of secular theology, which is not a bad way to approach Jay Gatsby’s own ideas. One of the central themes of Fitzgerald’s novel is the application of religious feeling to secular experience; one of the central themes of Santayana is the representativeness of this American conception. Perhaps William James said it best: “faith based on desire is certainly a lawful and possibly an indispensable thing” (James, The Will to Believe, 29). For us, the secular and religious have been long intertwined.

What are the obstacles to Gatsby’s dream, apart from intractable human nature, time, and chance? Gatsby does not want only to be a success, he wants to be a gentleman. Meyer Wolfshiem reminds us several times that he has fulfilled both of his desires, but Wolfshiem turns out to be less than a reliable judge. One of the most important things for readers at the beginning of a new century to remember is that democratic life was different in 1922. Throughout Fitzgerald’s novels and stories we see aspiration meeting rejection. The text refers to a democracy that current readers may not recognize; it is defined by caste. Nick, Wolfshiem, Tom, and even Myrtle Wilson have an ideal social type in mind. So does Gatsby. We might be disposed to think that, especially in America, a self-made man would be proud of his achievement. But Gatsby hides his past—although it has been interesting enough to have provided the material for a dozen novels. He begins life on a worked-out farm, learns how to read and think with not much help, goes on his wanderjahre, becomes irresistible to women, rescues a yacht from disaster, tops it all off by becoming (Basil Duke Lee dreams of this) a gentleman criminal. If this reminds us of famous lives and books, it is intended to. Every literary-biographical theme we can imagine has been part of his forgotten life: there are echoes of David Copperfield, Julien Sorel, Compton Mackenzie, Horatio Alger, Joseph Conrad, even Raffles, the suave society crook admired by Fitzgerald and also by George Orwell when they were schoolboys. But this adventurous story remains profoundly uninteresting to Gatsby, although it fascinates Nick.

Gatsby does not want to be praised for what he is, but for what he is not. In this, he represents the tensions of the early twenties. Wolfshiem has virtually no social class—he is almost dizzyingly beyond conceivable arrangements—but he thinks about Gatsby being “a perfect gentleman” and “a man of fine breeding” (GG, 57). Myrtle Wilson has married her husband George “because I thought he was a gentleman.” She pumps gas, but says the same thing as Wolfshiem about the ideal social type: “I thought he knew something about breeding” (30). Her friend Lucille McKee, who is by no means Mrs. Astor, has dropped a suitor, she says, because “he was way below me” (29). Even Tom Buchanan, with his delusions of science and art and all that, wants badly to assert patrician responsibility, and assert the values of his social class.

When Gatsby says, “Here’s another thing I always carry” (53), it is final proof that his early life has disappeared, a photo “of Oxford days” showing that he has always belonged, so to speak, among his peers. Gatsby is not only the leading man of the Jazz Age but the last great figure of the gentleman hero. He understands and accepts that inequality is characteristic of his democratic moment. Unfair, but there is a benefit: his character is thickened, made more intense, by obsolete qualities of courtesy, thoughtfulness, and honor. Whether dealing with Nick Carraway or Daisy or with a girl who has torn her gown at his party, he has that nobility unknown to West Egg, forgotten by East Egg, and by our national memory. The irony of the novel is that he has become far more of a gentleman than his social adversaries—“the whole damn bunch” (120) of them—who have no use for honor. But, by succeeding, he has made himself vulnerable. By retreating from loyalty and honor, Tom and Daisy have protected their unfeeling lives.

Before The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald dealt with the educated and literate world. He told us possibly more than we want to know about the privileged life of Princeton and its college-boy weekends in Manhattan. The creation of Jimmy Gatz, Myrtle Wilson, and George Wilson shows how far his understanding developed. In his correspondence with Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, Fitzgerald went so far as to state that Myrtle Wilson was a more achieved character than Daisy Fay Buchanan. There are reasons for that: Daisy and Gatsby do not have the same hard delineation as their surrounding cast. They are partly mythical and even allegorical, so that the quality of diffusion is understandable. Myrtle belongs to the everyday world; Fitzgerald’s tactic in establishing her is to describe in detail her relationship to that world—and to allow her to reveal her taste and style. Daisy, rarely described directly, is part idea; Myrtle, often described directly, is understood through her countless acquisitions. Her apartment has as much to say about her conception of herself as Gatsby’s palace has to say about his:

The apartment was on the top floor—a small living room, a small dining room, a small bedroom and a bath. The living room was crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles … Several old copies of “Town Tattle” lay on the table together with a copy of “Simon called Peter” and some of the small scandal magazines of Broadway. Mrs. Wilson was first concerned with the dog. A reluctant elevator boy went for a box full of straw and some milk to which he added on his own initiative a tin of large hard dog biscuits—one of which decomposed apathetically in the saucer of milk all afternoon. (GG, 25)

When we see Myrtle’s arrangements we see the inside of her mind. There are many things that are admirable about her but, like Gatsby, she has never understood essential models of style. He wants to be a gentleman, she wants to be a lady: what are the odds? Myrtle, who is blue-collar, has surrounded herself with the artifacts of the middle class. She does not understand even these things very well, which argues that her understanding of Tom, who exists many levels above the middle class, is itself deficient. Everything about the apartment suggests that Myrtle, like Gatsby, has gotten her ideas about style and class from the mass market. Not only are the magazines and books in plain sight; the furnishings are a demonstration of what she has learned from newsstand culture. One of Fitzgerald’s tactics in the scene of Myrtle’s apartment is to quantify to the limits of comprehension. There are more objects and things described in this apartment than the mind can easily register. Myrtle has tried to accumulate her social character. She has installed the tapestried furniture because it provides her with a self-image that is more grandiose than we might guess at first sight, when all she seems to have is carnal intelligence. She has bought books, magazines, furniture, pictures, and a “police dog” (24) because of the urgings of advertisements which promise status through acquisition. Her catalogue of all the things she’s “got to get”—a massage, a wave, a collar for the dog, a wreath, an ash tray—is a blueprint for becoming what she knows she is not (31). But, as Stern suggests, even the possibilities of imitation have diminished. That word “small,” repeated four times in a paragraph, says something about great expectations compressed into limited psychological space.

It might be as difficult to cover the language of The Great Gatsby as it would to do full justice in brief space to each of its characters. But there are some major patterns, relationships, and repetitions drawing attention to the work they do. The narrative itself is tactically repetitive: we find ourselves continually walking through Gatsby’s house; seeing Tom and Daisy’s place again; reading the small biographies embedded in the novel which refract point after point of the main story. Key ideas and words are mentioned in repeated sequence:

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. (11)

“it’s very romantic outdoors… It’s romantic, isn’t it, Tom?… Very romantic.”


“She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’

I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’ ” (17)

“It just shows you … It just shows you … It just shows you.” (135)

Fitzgerald was a student of speech patterns, and these show how people without much verbal agility tend to repeat themselves while they believe they are explaining themselves. In the last of these citations, Mr. Gatz thinks that the connection between things is real and visible; saying that it is, makes it so for him. One of those “It just shows you” belongs to Nick, politely drawn into this frail world of belief and assent. Daisy has romance on her mind, but what we hear is the increasingly flat, reiterated tone of a phrase that does not have a place among those using it. The more it is repeated, the less it means, as when Tom tiredly agrees (“Very romantic” [16]) about something that to him means nothing. Daisy’s voice may be golden, but not her speech: she is often at a loss for words, and can express sincerity or the appearance of sincerity only through repetition.

The book’s imagery has drawn the most attention from critics, but I think it difficult to rely solely on imagery as a criterion. There are many visual descriptions of people and things, but they are counterbalanced by the failure of perception which is so large a theme in the narrative. To see things unclearly is, Fitzgerald implies, about as close as we get to essences. And, the failure of perception in this story seems to me to correspond to the nature of human relationships. Nick sees things unclearly because almost no relationship holds true. What matters as much as the object perceived is the mist and darkness in which it is viewed. (Nick calls history itself a “vast obscurity” [141], and this sense of impeded understanding applies to the way that we understand ourselves within the present moment.)

The book’s language is famously about color and its implications. Fitzgerald wrote that Gatsby’s house was “gaudy with primary colors” (34) and the text itself is full of them. It has long been argued that each color stipulated has some meaning: a good place to look over the categories is Robert Emmet Long’s The Achieving of “The Great Gatsby.” Green, for example, is the color of hope, of the green light at the end of a mysterious dock, of “the… green breast of the new world” (GG, 140). The novel is full of unmediated yellows, implying always in the background the color of gold and the theme of Midas who turned all he touched into gold. Colors frame each other: “high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl” (94). Yellow is also the color of transmutation, and it appears at intervals, as in the novel’s third chapter, to suggest the alchemical powers of great wealth. The creation of a golden world is, evidently, only a matter of intention:

his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains… Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York… On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold … and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music… two girls in twin yellow dresses … With Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine we descended the steps. (33-6)

We are intended to recognize that money can make the world over, an idea occupying Fitzgerald’s imagination since at least 1922, when he published “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” But color is impermanent; and not necessarily evidential: a white daisy with its golden heart may be supremely deceptive. There is an allegorical moment at Gatsby’s first party in which a chorine is singing: “the tears coursed down her cheeks—not freely, however, for when they came into contact with her heavily beaded eyelashes they assumed an inky color, and pursued the rest of their way in slow black rivulets” (42). It is a reminder about surfaces, and all of the metaphorical applications of the idea of surfaces.

The novel is “time-haunted,” permeated with hundreds of references to the escape of memory from our lives (Bruccoli, New Essays on “The Great Gatsby” 10-12). Throughout, these references to the passage of time convince us of an underlying argument. The novel operates under two different schemes of time, human and cosmic. For example: a powerful irony is generated when the time-bound consciousness of Daisy Buchanan—“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon,” cried Daisy, “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?” (GG, 92)—is set against the machinery of the uncaring cosmos. Sun, moon, sky, and stars are in The Great Gatsby not entirely because they are the counters of romanticism but because they correct the impressions of Nick and Jordan and, especially, of Jay Gatsby, who want to think that we can in fact see life “beginning over again” (7). The further we get into the narrative, the less comfort there is in nature.

There is a powerful opposition beneath the skin of the novel between the language of navigation and will, and that of drift and unconsciousness. That opposition comes from Public Philosophy. Language reflects some of the national themes that I have mentioned. The description of vital energy, for example, implies strength of character. That energy in Jay Gatsby, in Myrtle Wilson, and, from time to time, in Nick Carraway, suggests the ability to lead a life of feeling. It states the intensity and emotional commitment that are so rare among others in this story. So, when we see Gatsby at rest—as near to rest as he gets—we see his readiness for experience:

He was balancing himself on the dashboard of his car with that resourcefulness of movement that is so peculiarly American—that comes, I suppose, with the absence of lifting work or rigid sitting in youth and, even more, with the formless grace of our nervous, sporadic games. This quality was continually breaking through his punctilious manner in the shape of restlessness. He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand. (51)

“Vitality,” “energy,” and the “restlessness” that Gatsby displays are common terms of the early twentieth century. Their cognates are used, as in the speeches and writings of Teddy Roosevelt, to typify American character and its creative possibilities. Always in motion, Gatsby is intended to remind us of qualities praised not only by novelists, but by those who believed that in order to have a moral life one had first to have great energy, concentrated will, and high resolution. Against the language of this passage we need to pose the language describing others in the text. They are sensed through terms of indolence, inertia, withdrawal, and even paralysis. Daisy Fay Buchanan’s languor (“What do people plan?” [13]) shows the life of the Lotos-eaters. Jordan seems not only situationally “bored” but existentially; and she is, of course, too wise or, like Daisy, perhaps too “sophisticated” to dream. Background figures are sick, silent, “lethargic,” or paralytically drunk. All display the dull unconsciousness of mind without will that T. S. Eliot had stamped upon the year 1922.

Fitzgerald picked up the national implications of personal and cultural “drift” in unexamined lives:

Why they came east I don’t know. They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together. This was a permanent move, said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it—I had no sight into Daisy’s heart but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game. (8-9)

The term “drift” is inherited from William James, who called it the complete opposite of moral consciousness; and from Walter Lippmann, who had used it as part of the title of a famous book, Drift and Mastery. Fitzgerald reminds his readers of debates very much unfinished: Lippmann had said that if you did not use your freedom you hardly deserved it. And, indeed, you would not have it long. When Fitzgerald describes Tom and Daisy and the rest he brings back to his audience Lippmann’s contemptuous line about Americans who have become a “nation of uncritical drifters,” mindless and self-absorbed (Lippmann, Drift, xvii). A fatal lack of energy is implied, and, necessarily, of any moral tension. The language tells us, a long time before Tom and Daisy and Jordan ever make their decisions, how those decisions are likely to be made.

Fitzgerald opposes harmony and dissonance, literally and figuratively. For example, Gatsby’s first party begins formally, but by evening’s end, “most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.” One particular song ends in “gasping broken sobs,” and we exit to a “bizarre and tumultuous scene” of collision amid the “harsh discordant din” of auto horns (GG, 42-4). Those “caterwauling horns” are not merely background noise, they constitute a cultural metaphor. Amanda Vaill’s biography of Gerald Murphy, Fitzgerald’s much admired friend, shows that this particular sound was in the Modernist domain by the mid-twenties. Murphy collaborated with Fernand Leger on a film of Ballet mecanique which featured the sound of machinery, including the “automobile horn” (Vaill, Everybody Was So Young, 189). The harsh, blaring noises of its uncaring mechanical “moving objects” were perfectly calculated to represent not only the tone but the moral dissonance of industrial life.

In Fitzgerald’s novel, assonance on every level of meaning is displaced by dissonance. The extraordinary scene at the Plaza Hotel is built around the interruption of rhythm or predictive expectation. Nick, Daisy, Jordan, Tom, and Gatsby overhear a wedding—very much a symbolic event in this story—on the floor below their rented suite. But the wedding’s music is overpowered by “compressed heat exploded into sound.” The “portentous chords of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March” are quite literally drowned out by a much less mellifluous and harder-edged “burst of jazz” (GG, 99-100). From this point on the novel’s lyrical language becomes broken, dissonant. In fact, Nick describes words as “babbled slander,” while Gatsby exits to “clamor” and “tumult” (106), implying the failure of meaning and intention. The new, broken rhythms are the equivalent of operatic themes. But there are further implications. The people at both of Gatsby’s parties (and at Myrtle’s party also) represent “New York,” not simply a place but an idea. “New York” is itself dissonant, it being widely understood in the twenties that the city is no longer entirely white, native, or Christian. In fact, “the most fundamental charge being brought by its critics against New York is the charge that here is an ‘alien’ city, literally un-American and anti-American in its make-up… the city has gone foreign” (Merz, The Great American Band Wagon, 235-6). That is one of the reasons why the language of the novel applied to the life of New York is harsh, discordant. Names matter a great deal, and such drastically unfamiliar aggregates of syllables as Wolfshiem and Da Fontano and the Bembergs and Beluga the tobacco importer are objects of suspicion not only to Tom Buchanan but to the framers of the Immigration Bill of 1924, the year of the novel’s composition. The splendid procession of names that begins Fitzgerald’s fourth chapter implies the uneasy presence in America of those who have come (all too recently) from the wrong parts of Europe. In Manhattan, Nick and Jordan hear that “foreign clamor on the sidewalk” (GG, 106) which has made everyone uneasy. It is in the course of things that “Gatz” from Mitteleuropa should become the anglophone “Gatsby.” Lily Shiel (Fitzgerald’s Jewish-Cockney lover, with a name difficult to scan) herself became Sheilah Graham, metrically-socially a happier choice.

Breakdown is characteristic of both story and language. We begin with harmonic, rhythmic statement, with long, assured, and sweeping sentences, with language that easily imitates music: “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees” (GG, 7). But things move inexorably from harmony to chaos. Starting with the sober, careful, and practiced enunciations of Jay Gatsby we go to another mode featuring the “harsh discordant din” and “violent confusion” and exhaustion which dominate the later telling and experiencing of the story. The language changes from rhythmic precision of statement to cacophony. We move from day to night—and from the description of dreams to that of nightmares. Harmony and discord have the same relationship to each other as expectation and reality. Dissonance in the text is proleptic, and keeps urging us to foresee the ending: those sad, wailing horns of W C. Handy’s Beale Street Blues (1916) that we hear about in the text accompany a lyric: “bus’ness never closes til somebody gets killed.”


Quotations in this chapter are from the 1991 edition of The Great Gatsby. For details see Bibliography.

1 Matthew J. Bruccoli, in The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Bruccoli, 217. All citations from the stories are from this edition.

2 “Totentanz,” in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy, ed. Terry Teachout, 181. Mencken’s essay is from Prejudices: Fourth Series.

3 Cited by Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment, 9.

4 From Dewey, The Public and its Problems (1927). Cited by Christopher Lasch in The Revolt of the Elites, 84.

5 “William James and the Philosophy of Life,” The Basic Writings of Josiah Royce, 2 vols., ed. John J. McDermott, i: 212, 215. The essay was delivered as a lecture in 1911, so that the war it refers to is the Spanish-American War of 1898.


AA Afternoon of An Author

ATSYM All the Sad Young Men

B&D The Beautiful and Damned

B&J The Basil and Josephine Stories

F&P Flappers and Philosophers

GG The Great Gatsby

LT The Last Tycoon

LOTLT Love of the Last Tycoon

PH The Pat Hobby Stories

TJA Tales of the Jazz Age

TITN Tender is the Night

TSOP This Side of Paradise

Apprentice Fiction The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Kuehl)

As Ever, Scott Fitz As Ever, Scott Fitz: Letters Between F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Literary Agent, Harold Ober 1919-1940 (ed. Bruccoli and McCabe Atkinson)

Bits Bits of Paradise

Correspondence The Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli and Duggan)

Crack-Up The Crack-Up (ed. Wilson)

Dear Scott/Dear Max Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (ed. Kuehl and Bryer)

Ledger F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Ledger (ed. Bruccoli)

Letters The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Turnbull)

Life in Letters  F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (ed. Bruccoli)

Notebooks The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)

Price The Price Was High: The Last Uncollected Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald (ed. Bruccoli)

Short Stories The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald: A New Collection (ed. Bruccoli)

Stories The Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald



Ronald Berman is Professor of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He has published many articles and books about Shakespeare and seventeenth-century drama, and has written “The Great Gatsby” and Modern Times (1994), “The Great Gatsby” and Fitzgerald’s World of Ideas (1997), and Fitzgerald, Hemingway and the Twenties (2000).

Published in The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald edited by Ruth Prigozy (Cambridge University Press 2002).