In length, the book barely qualifies as a full-sized novel. In subject, it is about an American bootlegger who nourishes an adolescent dream about a golden girl he can’t have. Its plot does little more than tell us who the protagonist is and get him killed off in the end by the down-and-out husband of the blowsy mistress of the rich brute who has married the girl whom the hero wants but can’t have. Its manner of telling is disjointed, albeit by the literary design of the author, and accompanied by some seemingly casual moralizing by an omnipresent narrator sounding suspiciously like the author and sort of occupying himself at other times by taking an interest in a woman golfer who cheats, the only other substantial character in the novel if we except a denizen of the underworld, the mistress’s dog and friends, Gatsby’s father, a bunch of assorted party goers, and one mourner.
From this perspective, the adulation The Great Gatsby has received may seem totally out of proportion. For half a century, it has held a high place among twentieth-century novels. Its numerous reprintings around the world and its successive presentations on film have made Gatsby as identifiable an American figure as Huck Finn. It has revived the twenties, set current fashions, and provided dialogue for three generations of devoted readers. In these respects alone, the question of its literary merits set aside, it qualifies as a great American novel. For clearly, it has added a name to that relatively small number of factual and fictional Americans by which Americans know themselves and are knownby the world. And it has done so by means of a writer’s craft working within the traditional form of a long fictional narrative. If a substantial claim is to be made for The Great Gatsby as the great American novel, it will have to be made by a more considered examination. What I propose here is to examine the novel’s relationship to the concept of the “great American novel”; the substance of the novel, its “great argument,” as Edith Wharton phrased it; and the novel’s structure and style, its excellence as a literary work, a novel.
John William De Forest, less than a great novelist himself, raised the question of “the great American novel” in an essay with that specific title in 1868. The literary nationalism that spawned the concept had already been expressing itself for at least half a century and had resulted in such documents as Joel Barlow’s Columbiad, Royall Tyler’s The Contrast, and Emerson’s “The American Scholar.” The novels that De Forest could measure the concept against were not a promising lot. Their authors are largely forgotten by now—Paulding, Brown, Kennedy, and Simms: “ghosts,” who “wrote about ghosts, and the ghosts have vanished utterly.” Melville escaped De Forest’s attention, much as Moby-Dick, for all its bulk, escaped most critics’ notice until the twentieth century. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was there to be considered, but De Forest found the novel, as others did also, too insubstantial, too provincial, to be either novel enough or American enough to qualify. The novel he did single out was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had a sufficiently broad, true, and sympathetic representation of American life to make it worth considering. De Forest was biased here by his own understandable preoccupation with the Civil War and its aftermath, although Uncle Tom’s Cabin deserves more attention than it gets. Edmund Wilson has pointed out: “It is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect. The first thing that strikes one about it is a certain eruptive force.”
By the time Fitzgerald began to write, seekers after the great American novel had a much wider choice, and since then a still wider choice. Edith Wharton’s essay, “The Great American Novel,” in the Yale Review in 1927, expressed skepticism toward the very idea. As far as she could determine, “The great American novel must always be about Main Street, geographically, socially,and intellectually.” This was a restriction she did not accept, and most of her essay is about the limitations such insistence places on the novelist. Moreover, what might be expected of American novelists when Main Street, she argued, offered “so meagre a material to the imagination?” Still, she pointed out Robert Grant’s Unleavened Bread, Frank Norris’s McTeague, and David Graham Phillips’ Susan Lenox as not only “great American novels,” but great novels.
Fifty years later, Philip Roth, writing The Great American Novel in name if not in fact, offered The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl as possibilities. To be precise, these are the choices of a “Vassar slit,” presumably schooled by a modern American English department and badgered into responding to Roth’s fictional Hemingway roaring: “‘What about Red Badge of Courage! What about Winesburg, Ohio! The Last of the Mohicans! Sister Carrie! McTeague! My Antonia! The Rise of Silas Lapham! Two Years Before the Mast! Ethan Frome! Barren Ground! What about Booth Tarkington and Sara Orne Jewett, while you’re at it? What about our minor poet Francis Scott Fitzwhat’shis name? What about Wolfe and Dos and Faulkner?’”
Roth has Hemingway decide, “‘It hasn’t been written yet,’” and to his boast that he will write it, a seagull croaks, “Nevermore.” Perhaps gulls, if not Poe, have the last word on this matter. Frank Norris said something similar about the time Fitzgerald was born: “The Great American Novel is not extinct like the Dodo, but mythical like the Hipogriff.” He also said that the great American novelist was either “as extinct as the Dodo or as far in the future as the practical aeroplane,” which suggests that there should be dozens of them around today. Norris had many things to say about the novel, favoring novels that were “true” and with “a purpose,” and embracing both “realism” and “romance.” He surmised that in his time, the great American novel must be “sectional,” and yet he foresaw a unified America and American novelists reaching a “universal substratum” common to all men. By such a route, he had to admit, the idea of a distinctively “American” novel disappears when a great novelist sounds “the world-note.”
In his fiction—and it is well to note that he was christened Benjamin Franklin Norris,—Norris moved to the novel of epicscope that many others have in mind as requisite to the great American novel. He saw the settling of the American West as “the last great epic event in the history of civilization,” as Fitzgerald also implied in The Great Gatsby. In this respect, Whitman had already written the great American novel, although technically it happened to be a poem, Leaves of Grass, rather than a novel. Whitman, as well as anyone in prose or in poetry, defined this underlying ambition for the great American novel.
The preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass begins with two whopping assertions, the second scarcely more defensible than the first: “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” The elaboration of these assertions, the emphasis on “the largeness of nature or the nation” needing “gigantic and generous treatment,” are too familiar to need repeating. Fitzgerald expressed his awareness of Whitman’s impact in an essay published in 1926 and noted for its bringing Ernest Hemingway to public attention, “How to Waste Material: A Note on My Generation”: “Ever since Irving’s preoccupation with the necessity for an American background, for some square miles of cleared territory on which colorful variants might presently arise, the question of material has hampered the American writer. For one Dreiser who made a single-minded and irreproachable choice there have been a dozen like Henry James who have stupid-got with worry over the matter, and yet another dozen who, blinded by the fading tale of Walt Whitman’s comet, have botched their books by the insincere compulsion to write ’significantly’ about America.”
Fitzgerald’s judgment of Dreiser and James aside, his awareness of the force of Whitman’s message is directly related to the idea of the great American novel and what that novel should be about. His essay describes various attempts and failures to deal with “American” materials. He cites the treatment of the American farmer, of American youth, of “American politics, business, society, science, racial problems.” His point is that this search for and exploitation of American material is largely in vain: “One author goes to a midland farm for three months to obtain material for an epic of the American husbandman! Another sets off on a like errand to the Blue Ridge Mountains, a third departs with a Corona for the West Indies—one is justified in the belief that what they get hold of will weigh no more than the journalistic loot brought back by Richard Harding Davis and John Fox, Jr., twenty years ago.”
Fitzgerald had already made these points in various parodies of popular novels and, more directly, in a letter to Maxwell Perkins just after The Great Gatsby was published. The letter was about Thomas Boyd’s new novel, Samuel Drummond, which Perkins had described to Fitzgerald in terms of high praise. To Fitzgerald the novel sounded “utterly lowsy,” and he sketched out a “History of the Simple Inarticulate Farmer and his Hired Man Christy” to make his point. The basic issue he raises is the same as the one in his essay: the essential weakness of novels dealing quaintly and falsely with American materials—in this instance, the earthy struggle between the American farmer and the soil—to satisfy some kind of craving for the great American novel. In both of these statements, Fitzgerald did not cite his own example from the recent past, the fact that This Side of Paradise, if it did not speak for all of America, was still received by the public (and promoted by Fitzgerald) as speaking for American youth. The Beautiful and Damned, which followed in 1922, might justifiably have been regarded as trying to take in all parts of Fitzgerald’s longer list, beginning with “business” and ending with “literature.”
The Great Gatsby, as Fitzgerald perceived in writing it, was something different, something more consistent with and closer to Fitzgerald’s wish reported by Edmund Wilson: “I want to be one of the greatest writers who have ever lived, don’t you?” One cannot understand Fitzgerald’s work, can’t come to terms with the possibility of The Great Gatsby being the great American novel, without responding to the naivete, the presumptuousness, the grandiosity of that remark—as naive and presumptuous and grandiose as Whitman talking about the poetic natures of an American nation and its poets.
That sense of measuring himself against great writers persisted throughout Fitzgerald’s life. The curriculum he set up for Sheilah Graham in 1939 was both a recapitulation of his own reading and a considered judgment of what books would best serveSheilah Graham’s beginning and his own continuing education. The novels form a diverse and respectable list, weighted toward the modern, as one might expect, and as much European as British and American. Among the various novels or parts of novels are most of those necessary to serious study of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century novel: The Red and the Black, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Eugenie Grandet, Madame Bovary, Sister Carrie, Man’s Fate, a half-dozen or so novels by Henry James, a similar number by Hardy, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, Faulkner’s Sanctuary, and others. He prized his meeting with Joyce in 1928 and pasted the letter he received from him in his copy of Ulysses. The drunken serenading with which he and Ring Lardner paid their respects to Joseph Conrad is also a part of Fitzgerald lore. But there is a seriousness in this reading and literary hero worshiping that underscores Fitzgerald’s conception of himself as a serious novelist. The long struggle to bring another novel into being after completing The Great Gatsby is not entirely to be blamed on the conditions of Fitzgerald’s personal life. In part, the struggle was forced on Fitzgerald because of his ambitions to go beyond The Great Gatsby, to achieve that writer’s goal he set forth in a letter to Scottie, “so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.” Fitzgerald’s letters to Scottie are further testimony to his seriousness as a writer. The reading he sets forth for her reaches back to Moll Flanders and forward to Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. “I wish now,” he wrote to her June 12, 1940, “I’d never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: ’I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.’”
But what Fitzgerald did not emphasize, either in an offhand remark or in his written comments, was his being an American writer, a fashioner of American materials, a writer of the great American novel. To put it in a simple form, he solved the problem of what he should use for material by setting the problem aside. More precisely, he recognized that a preoccupation with what a novel should be about was probably a strike against the novel at the outset. Thus, he became free to deal as best he could with thatlimited substance he had, free and inadvertently American to “spin my thread from my own bowels,” as Emerson said, or in Whitman’s words, “launch forth, filament, filament, filament, out of itself, ever unreeling them.” Or, in Fitzgerald’s matter-of-fact words, “My God! It was my material, and it was all I had to deal with.”
What I am suggesting here is that if there is such a thing as the great American novel, it will not be because of the American-ness of what it is about. Such a novel may be, as Moby-Dick is, about whaling and whales and those who pursue them, much of which is American because the author is American, or as Huckleberry Finn is American by the same line of reasoning, or as The Great Gatsby is. Thus, Fitzgerald’s novel is animated by and makes its impact through a writer’s intensely devoted attempt to understand a portion of human experience, the personal dimensions of that experience that reach into the hearts of human beings and the contexts that always complicate and alter such personal responses. From one perspective, these contexts are indubitably American, as much so as they seem to convey the pulse beat of the urban American 1920s. But from another, they are no more American than Ithaca is Greek or Bleak House British. What is kept before the reader -and not setting aside the particulars by which that is made manifest—are the longings for love, wealth, power, status, for dreaming and realizing dreams and facing the realities of which dreams are compounded and by which they are compromised.
There is another side to this observation. The story of The Great Gatsby, both to its advantage and its disadvantage in weighing the novel’s merit, is intertwined for many readers with the story of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. If one result is to question the likelihood of such a person as Fitzgerald being able to write a great novel, another is to endow the novel with something of the authenticity of the real story of the Fitzgeralds’ gaudy but tragic lives. I further suggest that this preoccupation with “self,” the fictional one focused on Gatsby, the real one lying behind the fascination that the Fitzgerald story continues to have for the American public, may be what is more American about the novel than any other aspect. Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography may be the original American novel, even though, like Leaves of Grass, it is not a novel.That aside, what followed the Autobiography was a succession of great American books—poems, essays, romances, novels—that were chiefly explorations of the self. Emerson’s Essays and Thoreau’s Walden can be added to the novels already mentioned, and to those, Hopalong Cassidy, on whose fly leaf Gatsby had set down his own Franklinesque resolves.
The Great Gatsby, then, is in the right American line, in regard to conceptions, implied and stated, about what should constitute the great American novel. More directly, of course, Gatsby, despite its brevity, illuminates the American past and present, answers the challenge of getting within its pages something of the scope and variety and dynamics of American life, the light and dark of American experience, the underside and upperside of American society. Moreover, it does so within the larger framework of human experience, invariably moving readers to the dimensions of myth that convey meaning independent of time, place, and the particulars of experience.
Robert Ornstein’s “Scott Fitzgerald’s Fable of East and West” is one of dozens of essays that explore the novel’s symbolism, allusions, ironies, ambiguities, and mythical dimensions. Ornstein argues that Fitzgerald has created “a myth with the imaginative sweep of America’s historical adventure across an untamed continent… One can even say that in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald adumbrated the coming tragedy of a nation grown decadent without achieving maturity.” His essay, however, refuses to narrow the theme of the novel to that of the betrayal of the American dream; rather, its theme “is the unending quest after the romantic dream, which is forever betrayed in fact and yet redeemed in men’s minds.” Ornstein sees this theme brought out not only in terms of American experience but also in an embodiment of the romantic response to life. “Gatsby is great,” he writes, “because his dream, however naive, gaudy, and unattainable, is one of the grand illusions of the race, which keep men from becoming too old or too wise or too cynical of their human limitations.” Fitzgerald dramatized that perception in a brilliant way in “Absolution,” originally intended as an introduction to the Gatsby story. There the crazed priest tells the young boy: “‘Go and see an amusement park… It’s a thing like a fair, only much more glittering… But don’t get up close, because if you do you’ll only feel the heat and the sweat and the life.’” One of the prominent themes in The Great Gatsby is that familiar one, “All that glitters is not gold,” and its corollary, “but it glitters, all the same.” For much of the world and for America itself, America has been the great amusement park, holding its World’s Fairs and World Series and awarding “World Championships” as events in which most of the world never participates. What better setting for a meditation on the romantic vision and romantic disillusionment?
This dimension of The Great Gatsby has held a central place in the criticism of the novel since the first revival of interest in Fitzgerald shortly after his death. Prior to that time, Fitzgerald seems justified in replying to John Peale Bishop’s letter about the novel: “It is about the only criticism that the book has had which has been intelligible, save a letter from Mrs. Wharton,” or to Edmund Wilson: Not one of the reviews “had the slightest idea what the book was about.” When it was praised by such writers as T. S. Eliot, Edith Wharton, and Gertrude Stein, it was in such general terms as Eliot’s “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” Even to such a sympathetic critic as Fitzgerald’s contemporary Paul Rosenfeld, the novel was “beautifully done, breezy throughout… extraordinarily American, like ice cream soda with arsenic flavoring, or jazzmusic in a fever-dream.” Only Thomas Caldecott Chubb, writing in the Forum in 1925, perceived the book to be “a fable in the form of a realistic novel.” “At once a tragedy and an extraordinarily convincing love tale and an extravaganza.”
Notwithstanding the restrained and ambivalent responses to the novel when it first appeared, most of the later criticism has been searching and favorable. John W. Bicknell begins with a hint dropped by Lionel Trilling that Fitzgerald’s novel is a prose version of Eliot’s The Waste Land, a poem Fitzgerald knew almost by heart. Like Conrad, Fitzgerald sees “the modern corruption in contrast to a lost rather than to an emergent ideal.” Bicknell’s overall critical intent is to determine whether Gatsby is tragic or merely pessimistic. He ends by accepting Alfred Kazin’s view that “in a land of promise ’failure’ will always be a classic theme.” Marius Bewley’s essay, “Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America,” finds more topraise in Gatsby, perhaps because he does not assume that tragedy is the definitive measure of a novel’s greatness. He writes: “Fitzgerald—at least in this one book—is in line with the greatest masters of American prose. The Great Gatsby embodies a criticism of American experience—not of manners, but of a basic historic attitude to life—more radical than anything in James’s own assessment of the deficiencies of his country. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream.” Bewley’s essay acknowledges that “Gatsby, the ’mythic’ embodiment of the American dream, is shown to us in all his immature romanticism. His insecure grasp of social and human values, his lack of critical intelligence and self-knowledge, his blindness to the pitfalls that surround him in American society, his compulsive optimism, are realized in the text with rare assurance and understanding. And yet the very grounding of these deficiencies is Gatsby’s goodness and faith in life, his compelling desire to realize all the possibilities of existence.” Edwin Fussell’s “Fitzgerald’s Brave New World” also mentions the universality as well as the uniqueness of the American experience. “After exploring his materials to their limits, Fitzgerald knew, at his greatest moments, that he had discovered a universal pattern of desire and belief and behavior and that in it was compounded the imaginative history of modern, especially American, civilization.”
With respect to its serious import, its examination of both American life and lives in much of the modern Western world, Gatsby bears comparison with those other books that might stand as the great American novel. It does not sprawl like Moby-Dick, nor hover and ruminate like The Scarlet Letter, nor heap up its substance like any work of Dreiser. It does not hint and suggest and qualify like Henry James, nor does it have the robust, yet lyric, quality of Huckleberry Finn. Yet, consider some vital qualities all these novels share. Chiefly these are Gatsby’s moral preoccupations, as inseparable from the novel as from Moby-Dick or The Scarlet Letter, and its dramatization of innocence coming into experience, as memorably fixed in Nick Carraway and Gatsby as in Huck and Jim or Ishmael on the Pequod. Moreover, with the final page of the novel establishing “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes” (p. 217), Fitzgerald gives the novel an amplitude thatbears comparison with James’s powers in The Ambassadors or The American. The persuasiveness of Fitzgerald’s prose (or Keats’s poetry) aside, that moment of gazing on the “fresh, green breast of the new world” must have been and may be, even “for the last time in history,” “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (pp. 217-18).
The events following the twenties, notably a worldwide economic depression and the outbreak of another world war, may unknowingly have attuned modern readers to the serious dimensions of Gatsby. For it has been since World War II, and particularly in America, that the realities of living in a world of limited resources have begun to register. Throughout much of its history, America was a place of endless expanding and advancing. Without exaggerating greatly, one can place Gatsby with those classic statements that recall us to the fact that, as Fitzgerald came to recognize, one cannot both spend and have. Projected beyond the personal, one cannot espouse infinite progress but must accept some kind of eternal return, “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (p. 218).
All readers have been affected by Fitzgerald’s style, for Fitzgerald was marvelously sensitive to the sounds and cadences of language. “For awhile after you quit Keats,” he wrote, “all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.” His attraction to Conrad was due to Conrad’s attention to the power of the written word, to “an unremitting never-discouraged care for the shape and ring of sentences” that aspired to “the magic suggestiveness of music—which is the art of arts.” Fitzgerald’s sentences have movement, grace, clarity, directness when necessary, force when desired, and cadences appropriate to the mood or emotion or scene. Matched with the visual images, simile and metaphor, sentences like this emerge in profusion: “We drove over to Fifth Avenue, so warm and soft, almost pastoral, on the summer Sunday afternoon that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner” (p. 33). “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their shareof human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (p. 43). “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (p. 119). Fitzgerald’s style is remarkably apt and precise, even when he is dealing with nearly ineffable matters: “He was a Son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (p. 118). Part of that aptness is the quality of Fitzgerald’s wit, apparent in that Homeric catalog of guests that begins: “From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet…” and ends “All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer” (pp. 73-6). Or the bite of such a description as: “the dim enlargement of Mrs. Wilson’s mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall” (p. 36).
These quotations, chosen to exemplify Fitzgerald’s style, serve also to illustrate the inseparability of style and content. Major and minor characters in Gatsby are brilliantly created by both what Fitzgerald chooses to reveal about them and how he reveals it. Most of the preceding passages are important in creating a character and shaping a reader’s perception of that character. In the first instance, that pastoral touch, seemingly a stylistic flourish, is exactly right for perceiving Tom Buchanan and Myrtle in contrast to the ash heaps surrounding Wilson’s garage and the tacky apartment where Tom has been keeping her. Similarly, Nick Carraway’s reflection calls a reader’s attention to his being both inside and outside the main action, a vital aspect of his characterization. And speaking of Gatsby as a son of God who goes about his Father’s business reverberates powerfully in one’s accumulating impressions of that central character. The minor characters in the novel are created with that terse exactness that is apparent in Fitzgerald’s handling of words in the novel: Meyer Wolfsheim and his human molar cufflinks; Mr. McKee, who has “‘done some nice things out on Long Island’” (p. 38); George Wilson, veiled inashen dust; and Owl-Eyes, finding real books in Gatsby’s library, but with the pages uncut.
“I think it is an honest book,” Fitzgerald wrote in the introduction to the Modern Library Edition in 1934, “that is to say, that one used none of one’s virtuosity to get an effect, and, to boast again, one soft-pedalled the emotional side to avoid the tears leaking from the socket of the left eye, or the large false face peering around the corner of a character’s head.” It is this restraint, even more than the virtuosity of effects, that distinguishes Fitzgerald’s style in The Great Gatsby. In almost all of his other fiction, the quality of the prose gives otherwise ordinary materials a polish that not only exacted high prices from popular magazines but may have hinted at more profundity than the content delivered. In Gatsby, straining for effect is seldom apparent. The whole novel is compactly put together, as much by repetition of images and symbols as by exposition and narrative.
The opulence associated with both Gatsby and the Buchanans is established in Chapter 1 by a physical description of the Buchanans’ house and lawn: “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run” (p. 8). At the end of the first chapter, the cadences change as we see Gatsby on his lawn at night: “The wind had blown off, leaving a loud, bright night, with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life. The silhouette of a moving cat wavered across the moonlight, and turning my head to watch it, I saw that I was not alone—fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars” (p. 25). A paragraph later, Chapter 1 ends with the “single green light” (p. 26) at the end of the dock that became one of the final images in the novel. Between those two images are other descriptions of landscape and house, from the “blue gardens” after “the earth lurches away from the sun” (pp. 47—9) to the “sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began” (p. 99) in Chapter 5. At the end, these images accumulate: the opening of the windows at dawn, the photograph of the house that Gatsby’s father shows to Nick, “cracked in the corners and dirty with many hands” (p. 207), and Carraway’s last look at “that huge incoherent failure of a house. On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone” (p. 217).
James Joyce said of Ulysses that he had put in enough enigmas and puzzles to keep professors busy for centuries. The Great Gatsby lacks that density, but it has engaged the attention of many professors to date. Color symbolism, patterns of images, sources and analogues, ambiguities, mythical dimensions continue to be worked over. Passages of dialogue are as carefully wrought as descriptive passages. Some have become passwords of Gatsby cultists: “‘Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!’” (p. 133) and “‘Her voice is full of money’” (p. 144) and “‘In any case … it was just personal’” (p. 182). Others are equally part of the texture of the novel, shaping character, amplifying meanings, knitting parts together: “‘Is it a boy or a girl?’” Myrtle asks of the “gray old man who bore an absurd resemblance to John D. Rockefeller.” ’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’” (pp. 32-3). Fitzgerald also knew when to have his characters stop talking. In the draft of the novel, much of Gatsby’s story is told in dialogue as he talks to Nick. It permits him to talk too much, to say, for example, before Fitzgerald excised it: “‘Jay Gatsby!’ he cried suddenly in a ringing voice. ’There goes the great Jay Gatsby. That’s what people are going to say—wait and see.’”
As with details of his style, the structure of The Great Gatsby has been subject to minute examination, Fitzgerald’s debt to Conrad was early pointed out: “for the use of style or language to reflect theme; for the use of the modified first person narration; for the use of deliberate ’confusion’ by the re-ordering of the chronology of events.” Fitzgerald’s use of “a series of scenes dramatizing the important events of the story and connected by brief passages of interpretation and summary” is like Henry James’s “scenic method.” In these respects and others, The Great Gatsby responds, as agreat American novel surely should, to the call for “newness” sounded repeatedly throughout America’s literary history.
I have written at length elsewhere, as have others, about the structure of The Great Gatsby and will not go into detail here. The facsimile of the manuscript enables any reader to study Fitzgerald’s revisions, small and large. He was a careful reviser, nowhere in his work more than in The Great Gatsby.
In general, his revisions were devoted to solving the technical problems of presenting the story—the narrative structure—and in sharpening, trimming, amplifying descriptions, narrative, dialogue. The choice of Nick Carraway as narrator was probably not made until some jelling of the essential story took place in Fitzgerald’s mind. The short stories “Absolution” and “Winter Dreams” are written in the conventional third person. The longer form in itself may have raised questions about the mode of telling; the examples of James and Conrad were at hand to suggest the use of a first-person narrator. Although that choice was in one sense a technical one, it was also a means of presenting his material “through the personal history of a young American provincial whose moral intelligence is the proper source of our understanding and whose career, in the passage from innocence to revaluation, dramatizes the possibility and mode of a moral sanction in contemporary America.” Such a view still seems fairly to describe Fitzgerald’s intent, although a spate of criticism has pointed out the unreliability of Carraway as a narrator. The choice of narrator was related to other technical problems, chiefly that of how and when (and in what order and way in the novel) the narrator uncovers for the reader the complete story of Gatsby’s past. Like other modern novels, Gatsby does not follow a straightforward chronology; Fitzgerald worked hard to preserve the advantages of a disjointed structure against the confusion such a method may create. One of the effects was to keep Gatsby from fully materializing, helping Fitzgerald solve the difficult problem of making a deliberately shadowy figure the central character of the novel.
It is not easy to summarize even the most important changes Fitzgerald made to achieve the structure he wanted. Suffice to say that changes and shifts of materials kept Gatsby offstage for alonger period of time than in the first version. Between his first appearance as a figure on his lawn and Nick’s conversation with him in Chapter 4, the reader is exposed to Daisy, Tom, Jordan Baker, and the Wilsons, is transported through the valley of ashes and into Myrtle’s Manhattan apartment, and gets a fuller glimpse of Gatsby during the first party at his house. The chief results, aside from heightening one’s interest in the mysterious Gatsby, are the various juxtapositions of beauty and squalor, peace and violence, vitality and decay—in short, the intensifying of the central contrasts between the ideal and the real.
All this is accomplished in three chapters, with the material that originally comprised these chapters being rearranged in various ways. Chapter 4 extends our acquaintance with Gatsby, and Chapter 5 becomes the center of the novel. This chapter was very closely reworked, chiefly in order to give it a static quality, to approximate in the telling Gatsby’s attempt to make time stand still. From that chapter on, the novel picks up speed. The real world intrudes in the guise of a reporter through whom details of Gatsby’s actual past are exposed. A second party, sharper delineation of Tom Buchanan, and the second trip into Manhattan prepare the reader for the final sweep of the plot to the running down of Myrtle Wilson, “her left breast… swinging loose like a flap” (p. 165). “I want Myrtle Wilson’s breast ripped off,” he wrote Maxwell Perkins. “It’s exactly the thing, I think, and I don’t want to chop up good scenes by too much tinkering.”
The remaining chapters were chiefly reworked to wind down events with economy but also with measured impact. Some of Gatsby’s explanations were shifted to the present tense to give them greater immediacy. The last chapter shifted attention to Nick, but still kept him linked tightly to Gatsby by means of the funeral, his talk with Gatsby’s father, and those benedictory words pronounced by Owl-Eyes, “‘The poor son of a bitch’” (p. 211). Nick’s last encounter with Tom underscores Fitzgerald’s achievement of making Carraway a vital character in his own right, a technical device that helps hold the structure together, a means of amplifying the moral and social dimensions of the novel and the way in which the story gets told. The last image of the book, the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” was originally written as theconclusion of the first chapter. Now placed at the end of the novel, it enlarges even as it brings the novel to an end.
This discussion of style and structure argues for the novel’s high degree of finish, surely a merit in a novel, although not necessarily what many would associate with the great American novel. The exchange between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe illustrates my point. Wolfe, a great “putter-inner” of a novelist, challenges Fitzgerald’s criticism of his work by citing Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Dostoevsky as “great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in … as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.” Wolfe’s arguments are unanswerable for those who insist that a great American novel must “boil and pour.” By that measure, The Great Gatsby must fall short, for all that it has a size beyond its actual page length.
Still, one can, only half facetiously, propose that Gatsby is an efficient novel, and thereby identifiably and pleasingly American. For the time one puts into it, a great deal comes out. Even its nuances of style are not likely to be lost on American readers, for they have the laconic power of sarcasm, the brevity of the one-liner, and the directness of American speech. Its moral dimensions still touch the sense of decency and fair play, without engaging the reader in time-consuming ethical and metaphysical speculations. The novel’s topicality is that of the twenties, but is not confined to that decade. The author’s rhetorical flourishes are nicely spaced; the story has some action and plenty of pathos shading off into tragedy. It raises basic questions citizens of a democracy have to wrestle with: How does one recognize greatness without an established social order? How does the acquisition of power, wealth, and status accord with the professions of democratic equality? How does an idealist and an individual—both prized qualities of the American—keep himself from succumbing to the materialism of the masses or from kicking himself loose from the universe? If all this can be accomplished in a book under 200 pages and still selling for under $10 (it was priced at $2 in 1925), what could be greater and more American than that?
The foregoing claims may be the strongest that can be made for the stature of The Great Gatsby as the great American novel. A less convincing form of reasoning, but one worth addressing briefly, is to see Gatsby in the line of American novels of manners, novels like those of Howells and James and Edith Wharton. It is Wharton, in the essay previously mentioned, who points out that “Traditional society, with its old-established distinctions of class, its passwords, exclusions, delicate shades of language and behavior, is one of man’s oldest works of art.” She expresses dismay that American novelists have been turned away from this material, from the novel of manners, just as James expressed to Howells his dismay that American society didn’t furnish the richness and diversity that would support such novels. Nevertheless, Frank Norris saw in Howells that breadth of vision and intimate knowledge of Americans East and West that went part way toward establishing an “American school of fiction.” If he did not quite claim that Howells was writing the great American novel, he did call attention to Howells’s efforts to establish the novel of manners as an estimable kind of American fiction.
The novel of manners in Howells’s hands and in Fitzgerald’s did not preclude its being a serious and socially engaged work. Gertrude Stein’s letter in response to The Great Gatsby recognized that Fitzgerald was “creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did his in Pendennis and Vanity Fair and this isn’t a bad compliment.” Howells’s and Fitzgerald’s examinations of American society show the novel of manner’s concern for moral behavior measured against social norms. In the background of both authors’ work are reminders of that moralistic and idealistic strain of Americans who populated a wilderness and created its Washingtons and Lincolns. But the society each saw around him was one in which that kind of American was hard pressed to withstand the amoral and materialistic drive for power that characterized American success. The tragic hero set forth in Gatsby is really the American failure, failing to hold to the course of power that wins success and failing, moreover, because of the strength of idealistic illusions.
Too few readers know Howells’s The Landlord at Lion’s Head, a novel that started out as one merely about a “jay” student at Harvard but that became one of Howells’s strongest social novels. Jeff Durgin, the protagonist of the story, is one more provincial who is sufficiently strong and amoral, like Gatsby, to gain power and wealth by his own shrewdness and drive and luck. Landlord lacks the tightness and finish of Gatsby, but in its central theme it may be more modern and less sentimental than Fitzgerald’s novel. For Durgin and his dream are not defeated, much as the many Gatsbys who pursue their driving materialistic dreams are not defeated in American life. Rather, Durgin’s success at the end of that novel is the American success of power and money. The girl of Durgin’s dreams turns out to be so sanctimonious as to deserve little better than the pallid artist who claims her and who, like Carraway in Gatsby, provides the novel’s supposed moral center. Durgin ends up with the daughter of a Europeanized mother and a wealthy American father, a woman all but a dolt would prefer to Durgin’s earlier choice. Like Tom Buchanan and Daisy, the Durgins seem likely to make it in the modern world, although Carraway says that they have “retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness” (p. 216) and he back to pondering his father’s wisdom that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth” (p. 2). A generation or two earlier than Fitzgerald, Howells, too, saw what the American dream was for most citizens: money, power, social position, and a modicum of culture. Only a “provincial squeamishness” (p. 216) in both writers caused them to question the substantiality and Tightness of the materialistic dream.
I am not arguing that the novel of manners somehow provides its writers with some special claim to a novel’s greatness. In fact, probably the opposite is true in regard to American writers. Mark Twain’s condemnation of Jane Austen’s work conveys the disrespect that assigns such novels to a distinct and lesser category. The point is, rather, that the novel of manners has an appropriateness to American writing fully as much as does the romance or tall tale. Howells and James both extended that form, achieving at their best something of what Dickens and Thackeray achieved forthe British novel. Balzac and Zola can also fit into this category, as can Norris and Fitzgerald.
But categorizing a novelist’s work is a folly not unlike looking for the great American novel. It matters little whether The Great Gatsby is the great American novel or not. It probably matters that writers, much less readers, keep such concepts before them. No reader needs an unrelieved diet of great novels, American or any other kind. Writers, on the other hand, probably do need the urging of tradition, the example of other writers and other novels and kinds of novels, and the idea of greater books than they have yet written. Even then, the novels they write will be as various as the lives they live and the thoughts they think. As there are many American writers and readers, so there are bound to be many American novels, some of them great.
Howells looked back on his career and wrote: “Mostly I suppose I have cut rather inferior window glass with it … perhaps hereafter when my din is done, if any one is curious to know what the noise was, it will be found to have proceeded from a small insect which was scraping about on the surface of our life and trying to get into its meaning for the sake of the other insects, larger and smaller. That is, such has been my unconscious work, consciously, I was always, as I still am, trying to fashion a piece of literature out of the life next at hand.” It may be enough to say of The Great Gatsby that F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved what he set out to do, to write “something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple + intricately patterned.”
Kenneth E. Eble is Professor of English at the University of Utah. His revised edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald was published by Twayne Publishers in 1977.
Published in New Essays on The Great Gatsby, Ed. by M. J. Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1985).