Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby
by George Garrett

I have never yet known, or, indeed known of, a contemporary American writer who did not admire The Great Gatsby. This evidence, admittedly and purely anecdotal, is, also in my experience, unique. I know of no other twentieth-century masterpiece in our language or, for that matter, in our Western tradition about which this can be said. Let it be said again as simply as possible: I have never known an American writer, of my generation or of the older and younger generations, who has not placed Gatsby among the rare unarguable masterpieces of our times. In some cases this admiration is frankly surprising, because Gatsby seems to be, in form and content, so different from what has otherwise engaged the passions and commitment of one writer and the other. It really has not seemed to matter very much which side of the (aesthetic) tracks the writer came from or what side of the street the writer is working. In an era of increasingly specialized special interests, it does not seem to be a matter defined or limited by race, creed, color, gender, or country of national origin. And strangely, in an age when we have become so politicized that even the toothpaste one uses becomes, like it or not, a political statement, writers of all political stripes and persuasions seem to admire Gatsby, even as, inevitably, they describe the characters and the story in somewhat different terms.

Finally, it doesn’t even seem to matter very much if the writer in question holds any positive feelings about the life and (other) works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Many did not admire him in his lifetime—although it is clear that he was much envied from time to time. Many do not have feelings one way or the other, nothing beyond a polite shrug, even now. But Gatsby itself stands by itself -a permanent monument of our literature, a national treasure. AndI share the consensual wisdom, although not without a willingness to question it, if only to ask where it comes from. In part perversely, because I have always been automatically contemptuous of trends and fashions, especially intellectual trends, which seem to be a contradiction in terms (like the concept of military justice), I have always preferred Tender Is the Night. It was always my favorite among the Fitzgerald novels, since I read them, back to back, for the first time, to the best of my recollection, in the summer of 1948 in Princeton. Gatsby was assigned reading in a summer school course, the first time Fitzgerald was ever read at Princeton as part of an official course. It was, in fact, the first time at Princeton that any American writers beyond the life and times of Henry James were allowed to be part of the authorized academic curriculum. The course was new and different, a departure. It was an altogether stunning, unforgettable experience to “discover” William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) and Ernest Hemingway {The Sun Also Rises) in that summer. But it was very heaven to be in Princeton reading The Great Gatsby, as a class assignment, and then finding, in the stacks of the brand new Firestone Library, the stories and This Side of Paradise and Tender Is the Night and the others. And over at the U-Store you could buy, and I did, The Last Tycoon and The Crack-Up, edited by Edmund Wilson.

All of us that summer planned to be the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. We have all come a distance, a far piece, since then, swept by waves of unimaginable change, until, surfacing nearly a half century later, it seems that almost everything has changed beyond memory or repair. One of the things that has not changed, however, that still shines with authentic inner light, is Gatsby. That it has this same glowing effect on writers young enough to be my sons and daughters, new enough not to care a serious hoot about Old Nassau, I find an absolutely fascinating phenomenon.

To a certain extent, it may be a matter of historical content and the long, attractive shadows of nostalgia, but that cannot explain the depth of the novel’s lasting appeal. Much of the context and content is lost now in the present. Clearly, only a modest handful of American writers and critics alive now, of any age (and forget the foreigners, even the English, who haven’t a real clue), possess by birth, education, and experience the assumed knowledge andthe imagination to understand the very subtle social implications and ambiguities that lie at the center, the very heart, of the story of Gatsby. Even at the time, the delicacy of Fitzgerald’s sensitive recording of a specific and special world, as envisioned and judged by a particular and special intelligence, Nick Carraway, must have escaped many of his contemporaries. Significantly, the letters about Gatsby he savored from prominent writers he admired—for example, the letters from Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, and T. S. Eliot—stress and praise aspects of form as much as content. Each differently, they see Gatsby as advancing the art of the novel not so much from what it talks about as in the interesting ways and means of its making. As for us, it is very hard now to unlearn all that has happened since 1925; difficult, if not impossible, to imagine ourselves safely on the other side of the Great Depression and World War II and all the wars since then.

In one respect, then, contemporary interest in and excitement about the subjects and content of Gatsby derive from its odd prescience. Ash heap and eyeglasses, sordid orgy and casual accident, murder and suicide, lust and unrequited love—these are literary signs we have come to live among as if they had always been there, inherent in any conventional literary picture of modern American life. There is, in fact, a direct line of influence and authority running from Gatsby to a great many of our most prominent contemporary literary artists, both popular and serious. The signs and portents of Joan Didion, for example, or of Renata Adler, are rooted in Fitzgerald’s acres of ashes in Gatsby, as are the economic minimalism of Raymond Carver, the half-stoned nihilism that pervades the stories of Ann Beattie, the lyrical ambiance of the novels and stories of Richard Yates. Gore Vidal, not deeply sympathetic to Fitzgerald, is nevertheless clearly admiring of the “small but perfect operation” of Gatsby. Of all these, and so many others, by the way, only the quirky Vidal has the depth and subtlety, rooted in old American experience, to understand some of what was eccentric and original about Gatsby. At any rate, American writers of all stripes and stamps, from Marxists to reactionaries, seem to be at home with the apparent content of Gatsby, to believe in its world, to take it for granted.

It is worth remembering that the down side of the Jazz Age,namely, the Depression, was several years beyond the horizon in 1925 and that the main line of action in the story of Gatsby, the summer of 1922, was firmly set in the booming post-World War I years. Worth keeping in mind that prophets of doom seemed more outrageous and eccentric then than they would a decade later. It is part of Tom Buchanan’s foolishness that he sees doom and trouble ahead. Worth recalling that popular fiction in which crimes could be allowed to go without punishment (if only by fate and bad luck) was very rare. After all, in American films and television, as late as the 1960s there was a serious problem of getting Code approval for a story in which vice was not punished in some way. It was startling in 1925 to let the Buchanans off the hook with a brief judgmental aside by the narrator: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (p. 216). That they have done what they have done and can walk away from it safely and cheerfully enough, with nobody but the reader and the narrator any the wiser, was as daring as it was remarkable.

There are other things, qualities of which our own ignorance and lack of imagination now deprive us. There is so much drinking in Gatsby, and, of course, Fitzgerald was such a heavy drinker at times (and we know all about that now), that it is tricky to keep in mind the fact that both the story and the telling of it are deep in the heart of Prohibition. Which was, as a constitutional amendment, very much the law of the land. And which was not yet, either by Fitzgerald or others, seen as coming to an easy end either soon or painlessly. Time has turned the underworld and internecine wars, the blood and savagery that accompanied Prohibition, into something close to comedy, perhaps musical comedy. But Fitzgerald knew very well the shock value he gained by having so much drinking in his novel. (As did Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, although that story was conveniently set in Europe.) It is significant that Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan meet again, tentative and a little shy at first, in the proper atmosphere of an intimate and wonderfully awkward little tea party at Carraway’s cottage. And, in accuracy and fairness, we have to recognize that, daring as hewas, Fitzgerald carefully demonstrates throughout the book the bad results that inevitably follow from excessive drinking. Jay Gatsby is self-disciplined and abstemious; this is a rhetorical plus. The fact that Daisy does not drink is viewed ambiguously, more a matter of “an absolutely perfect reputation” (p. 93) than, perhaps, a sign of virtue.

Just so, adulterous affairs and, indeed, even premarital sex were still to be viewed as essentially criminal vices in polite society; and, to an extent, the views of polite society were confirmed by the law. Tom’s affair with Myrtle (and the fact that she would dare to call him at home!), together with the absence of any apparently serious consequences, to himself at least, coming from it were conceived as shocking elements in the novel. Tom’s promiscuity is rhetorically presented, and so intended to be taken, as wickedness rather than a “problem” or a bad habit. Gatsby’s lifetime obsession with the image and reality of Daisy may be more than a little crazy and more than a little vulgar in its material manifestations—the extraordinary house, the parties, the fancy yellow car, and the piles of gorgeous shirts over which Daisy wept; but his dedication to her (including even the folly of asking “too much” (pp. 133, 159) of Daisy, asking her to confess that she had never loved anyone else but him) and his love for her were morally solid and appropriate for their time. Knowing better, even knowing why he was doing it, Gatsby had been Daisy’s lover. “He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand” (p. 178). After which—“He felt married to her, that was all” (p. 179)—he always wanted to do the right thing. Buchanan, from a good family and background, has criminal vices. Gatsby, although a technical criminal of sorts and a man who mingles with strange and exotic types—the mysterious Jew Wolfsheim, show business types, flotsam and jetsam of society -possesses the best American middle-class standards of the time.

Only a few can still believe, still fewer remember, that there was a time not so long ago when celebrity of any kind, even the kind of celebrity Fitzgerald himself had acquired by the time he came to write Gatsby, had a chilling effect upon one’s social position. The “best people” never appeared in the press except, perhaps, on theoccasion of a wedding or funeral. The “best people” did not, beyond the wild-oats days of youth, mingle with celebrities and show business types, famous opera stars sometimes excepted. It is not quite true that American society despised the lively arts, but it is certainly true that most artists of all kinds, even those from good family, were somewhat suspect and a little bit declasse. The Homeric list of Gatsby’s guests from East Egg and West Egg is monumental in its witty snobbery. And as for Jews (the sinister and shady, two-dimensional Wolfsheim) or ethnics (the pathetic Henry C. Gatz, Gatsby’s father, “a solemn old man, very helpless and dismayed, bundled up in a long cheap ulster against the warm September day” [p. 200]), these are not people one might have met except on some most unusual occasion or in the pages of a novel. To understand the prevalent attitude toward the very idea or image of the Jew at that time, one can take quite seriously the stance of Eliot in his early poems. Or one can turn to Edith Wharton’s letter of congratulations in which she asserts, “it’s enough to make this reader happy to have met your perfect Jew, & the limp Wilson, & assisted at that seedy orgy in the Buchanan flat, with the dazed puppy looking on.” The truth is, as both Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton knew (both in Europe at the time), the nineteenth century had not yet ended, socially at least, in America. For a moment of almost surreal social topsy-turvy, consider Nick’s celebrated drive with Jay Gatsby into New York, over the Queensboro Bridge:

A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends looked out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of southeastern Europe, and I was glad that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their sombre holiday. As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry. (pp. 82-3)

No comment is necessary. Except, perhaps, to point out that the language, and the reactions of the narrator and the anticipated reader, were not only neutral but decently appropriate for the time. Which was almost the last time they would be so in seriousAmerican literature. Popular narrative was (to an extent remains) slow to change and follow. Perhaps it should be noted, however, that the author’s intention in this brief sight gag was clearly to show Carraway’s modernity, his openness to and delight in the otherwise shocking (to the reader) confusions of order in America.

All of this is stated only to make the point that in many ways we are far removed, as Americans, and as writers and readers as well, from the content and context of Gatsby. The old social guidelines have vanished.

If it is hard for us to imagine and to reconstruct the world Fitzgerald wrote about and out of, it is only fair to remind ourselves that, some extraordinary prescience aside, our world was beyond his imagining as well. He could not, for example, possibly have conceived of a time when this novel’s art might be submitted to the scrutiny and judgment of literary critics and historians, preservers of the totems of the American tribe, who might themselves be ethnic or Jewish or black. That is to say, even as he felt the end of something and sensed many changes, Fitzgerald could not imagine the end of society as he knew it, except by an apocalypse.

In stressing what might be called the societal inaccessibility of The Great Gatsby to the contemporary reader, there is another social note worth mentioning. It happens to be something Nick Carraway mentions to us, a point he wants to make. Although there are fine-tuned differences and distinctions among all of the principals, there is one common bond. They are one and all outsiders. As Carraway points out in the final chapter: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life” (p. 212). That remark, like many others made by Carraway, is layered in irony, more than a little ambiguous. But it does carefully call to mind, in case anyone had missed the fact, that nobody at all from the real society of the East even appears in this story. Some of the dregs of that society do, indeed, show up at Gatsby’s parties; but in truth the whole story is a playing out, on foreign territory as it were, as alien and exotic as the France and Spain of The Sun Also Rises, of a story of love and death among expatriates.

I think it can be convincingly argued that we are by now far removed, imaginatively and in fact, from at least the rhetorical social world of Gatsby. And a case can be made, persuasively I believe, that precisely because Fitzgerald was so sensitively attuned to that world, and because that world was created and dramatized through the words and consciousness of a single character, Nick Carraway, we are no more likely to find out what Fitzgerald “really felt” about that world, from the text, than we are ever likely to know the views of our language’s preeminent anonymous artist. That is, we know much about Elizabethan attitudes and prejudices, and we know much of this from the plays of Shakespeare. But we know precious little about what Shakespeare felt or thought, if anything, except as an Elizabethan. In some ways the world of Gatsby, although deceptively tricked out with things we know of and can believe in, is as foreign to us as Elizabethan and Jacobean England. And yet there stands this particular novel, by acclamation taken as nearly perfect in all detail, by example taken by writers, and thus readers, as admirable and enormously influential. If it is not really a matter of content or context, then it is, I believe, a matter of form that makes it so. Finally it is, then, a matter of style, an imperishable style, that has made Gatsby a permanent experience.

Briefer than it seems to be—for there are any number of adroitly used literary devices in Gatsby that are associated with a much more leisurely, old-fashioned kind of storytelling, giving a serious impression of much more abundance than is, in truth, the case—Gatsby is also much more complex in its method of presentation than the luminous clarity of its language implies. Most of the critics have taken due note of the influence of Joseph Conrad on the novel’s strategy, particularly insofar as the story is filtered through the consciousness of an alert and sensitive first-person narrator who stands as a witness to the main thrust of the central action even as he works out a knotty story, with its particular and pressing problems, of his own. Carraway’s story of that summer is important to himself. He loses in the game of love, turns thirty, loses, too, in his choice of work and place to be, and by the end (which is in fact the beginning of the telling of this story) hasturned his back on all that and gone home for good. Yet the main thing that happens to Carraway, from the reader’s point of view, is his fascination and involvement with his neighbor—Gatsby. The character of Carraway, as he presents himself, is complex and not entirely relevant to the subject of style. But it needs to be noted that he is an ambiguous character, one about whom the reader is intended to have mixed feelings; that these mixed, sometimes distinctly contradictory feelings give him more weight and solidity as a character than most witness-narrators; that these mixed feelings add more suspense and mystery to the elements of the story he relates and the ways he chooses to relate them.

However, to deal, in partial abstraction, with the matter of form and style, it is necessary to simplify, perhaps to oversimplify, what is naturally complex. All first-person narratives are presumed, by inference at the very least, to be either directly told to us, that is, spoken, or written; in the latter case, shaped into the form of a manuscript. “Heart of Darkness” is a story presumed to be told aloud to a small group of witnesses (including the original narrator) on a becalmed boat waiting for the tide to turn. “The Turn of the Screw,” on the other hand, presents a speaking narrator who kindly allows us to read a written manuscript (written by somebody else) over his shoulder. Both of these effects, although equally strong in original authenticity, as is the case of any good first-person story, at least at its beginning, are also oddly and deliberately distanced from the events that make up the story. That is to say, by definition, from the beginning and for as long as the narrator is both engaging and apparently trustworthy, the principal action (event) of any given first-person story is the telling of the story itself. That is all that is really presumed to be happening -a story is being told. Sometimes it is written; sometimes it is spoken; sometimes, for the sake of celebrating the spoken vernacular, it is, as in “Huckleberry Finn,” assumed to be dictated, as it were, by a narrator and corrected by the author. Third-person stories, by their very different stances, pretend to emphasize events directly rather than the ways and means of telling a tale. It becomes very important, then, for writer and reader of a first-person story to negotiate early on and to determine two related conditions: (1) is the storyconsidered to be mainly written or spoken? and (2) where is the narrator now, and how much time has passed since the events here recounted have transpired?

Gatsby is barely underway before we learn (in the fourth paragraph) that this is intended as a written rather than a spoken version of the tale, and, indeed, that it is a book, presumably the same book that we are here and now reading: “Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book” (p. 2). This assumption raises another question, one whose resolution is held in abeyance (suspense) for quite some time. As far as the narrator is concerned, as stated clearly in the opening paragraphs, the events of the story are all over and done with. Things have happened. The teller has experienced them, reacted to them, and in some ways been changed by them. It is all after the fact. But there are various elements of the telling of the story that are clearly in the present tense. Some are merely aphoristic, reactions that have become generalizations and link the time of telling directly with the time of happening: “Again a sort of apology arose to my lips. Almost any exhibition of complete self-sufficiency draws a stunned tribute from me” (p. 11). Or (for instance): “There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and as we drove away Tom was feeling the hot whips of panic” (p. 149). There are many of these present judgments of past actions. And there are other occasions, at regular intervals throughout, when the narrator interrupts past action to assert an act of present memory: “Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at every one, and yet to avoid all eyes” (p. 19). Or: “I think [now, evidently and distinctly from then] he’d tanked up a good deal at luncheon, and his determination to have my company bordered on violence” (p. 28). And: “But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires, and I knew that first I had to get myself definitely out of that tangle back home” (p. 72).

At the risk of being crudely obvious, I call attention to two elements above and beyond the functional value that these recurring time shifts—between the time of the events described and the time of the composition of their description—have, by keeping thereader conscious of the two separate but simultaneous time schemes. The first of these is to focus our attention on aftermath, to emphasize reaction more than action. The second characteristic is to set in some sense of tension, if not conflict, often within the same sentence, the qualities of the spoken versus the written American language.

Gatsby is a marvelous experiment, a triumph of the written American vernacular, the range, suppleness, and eloquence of it. But for the written vernacular language of the times to be fully explored, it was necessary to set it in direct contrast to the spoken language, not only in the contrast between credible dialogue in the dramatic scenes, but, occasionally and within limits, in the narration itself; thus “out of that tangle back home” and “I think he’d tanked up a good deal at luncheon…” In other words, the written narration, this book by Nick Carraway, has to touch, however briefly, on the level of spoken narration in order to define itself clearly. Moreover, this capability is necessary if full use is to be made of the spoken vernacular in dramatic and satirical scenes. The overall effect, the created language of this book, Nick Carraway’s language, offers up a full range between lyrical evocation and depths of feeling at one end and casual, if hard-knuckled, matters of fact. It allows for the poetry of intense perception to live simultaneously and at ease with a hard-edged, implaccable vulgarity. Each draws strength from the conflict with the other.

This same tension of time and language is at the center of Carraway’s point of view and is expressed early on in Chapter 2 as Carraway, drunk, imagines himself as a stranger capable of including even Carraway as an object in his speculative vision: “Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of 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). I was within and without… Gatsby becomes an intricate demonstration of that kind of complex double vision, of the process of it. We are not far into the story (Chapter 3) before we discover that the “book” Nick Carraway mentioned at the outset, the book that, completed, will turn out to be The Great Gatsby, is not yet finished, is in the process of beingwritten. “Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me” (p. 68). This additional sense of time (narrator pauses to reread what he has written so far) almost, not quite, allows for another kind of time level—the time of revision. At least it asserts that what is being reported has been carefully thought about and can be corrected if need be. And at the least, it makes the time of the composition of the story closely parallel to the reader’s left-to-right, chronological adventure.

A bit later, in a number of ways, we are encouraged to participate actively in the narrative process as, for example in Chapter six, where Carraway explains and defends a narrative choice:

He told me all this very much later, but I’ve put it down here with the idea of exploding those first wild rumors about his antecedents, which weren’t even faintly true. Moreover he told it to me at a time of confusion, when I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him. So I take advantage of this short halt, while Gatsby, so to speak, caught his breath, to clear this set of misconceptions away. (pp. 121-2)

Here the focus is so clearly on the process of making and of the free, if pragmatic, choices involved that the reader is strongly reminded of the story as artifact, although, ironically, it is Carraway’s selective virtuosity that at once supersedes and disguises Fitzgerald’s.

Meanwhile, narrative virtuosity becomes increasingly various and complex as we move deeper into the story. In Chapter 4 we are given a first-person narration, in her own words, by Jordan Baker, “sitting up very straight on a straight chair in the tea-garden at the Plaza Hotel” (p. 89), concerning Daisy and Gatsby in 1917. This is told in a credible and appropriate vernacular for Jordan Baker—as recalled, of course, by Carraway. More romantic and lyrical by far is Gatsby’s own story, which is told (out of sequence) in indirect discourse. Carraway finds a third-person high style appropriate to the inner mystery and turmoil of the young (and mostly nonverbal) Gatsby. By this time, Carraway so dominates the material of the story (even his speculation and tentativeness can be taken as the authority of integrity) that he iscapable of creating a language that can dramatize in rhythmic images the inward and spiritual condition of Gatsby as a young man:

But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. 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)

In Chapter 7, another form of indirect discourse, this time a third-person account of the death of Myrtle Wilson, matter of fact and vaguely journalistic (as if, as is later implied, its source were indeed the newspapers), is employed. “The young Greek, Michaelis, who ran the coffee joint beside the ashheaps was the principal witness at the inquest. He had slept through the heat until after five, when he strolled over to the garage, and found George Wilson sick in his office—really sick, pale as his own pale  hair and shaking all over” (pp. 163-4). Carraway returns to this place—“Now I want to go back a little and tell what happened at the garage after we left there the night before” (p. 187)—out of chronological sequence, in Chapter 8, with an almost purely dramatic third-person omniscient scene, which, in any literal sense, has to be wholly imagined by Carraway, but which offers brief moments of sensory perception and thought by both Michaelis and George Wilson. Stylistically, this unit is quite distinct, as is Carraway’s imagined version of Gatsby’s last moments, here quite candidly blending overt speculation with an implausible certainty to form a single poetic vision:

He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (p. 194)

This high moment is a direct reversal of the more usual pattern of perception in the book, in which the sight of the ashen figure (Wilson) might have led him next to react with a generalized vision of “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air.” Here, at the last moment of his life, Gatsby, as conceived and imagined by Carraway reverses reality and unreality, just as Carraway himself had done earlier, imagining himself as a stranger in the street staring up at lit windows and wondering. The result of the reversal is something close to prescience, certainly something stronger than premonition.

Finally, this extension of style to the extreme, almost absurd edge of narrative credibility allows Carraway the indulgence of imagining direct, and quite vernacular, dialogue from the dead Gatsby:

But, as they drew back the sheet and looked at Gatsby with unmoved eyes, his protest continued in my brain:

“Look here, old sport, you’ve got to get somebody for me. You’ve got to try hard. I can’t go through this alone.” (p. 198)

In point of fact, stylistically Gatsby is a complicated composite of several distinct kinds of prose, set within the boundaries of a written narration, a composite style whose chief demonstrable point appears to be the inadequacy of any single style (or single means of perception, point of view) by itself to do justice to the story. Which is a story of a world not so much in transition as falling apart without realizing it. New and old clash continually, violently. It is shown to be impossible to escape the one by embracing the other. Carraway, as is his habit, finds an aphorism for precisely this paradox, seeking to explain “the colossal vitality” of Gatsby’s illusion: “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart” (p. 116).

Nick Carraway’s authority, and his insistence on telling his own story together with Gatsby’s—and it should be remembered that it is Carraway who gets the last aphoristic and poetic word, who presents the haunting image of “the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” even as we are swept backward like “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (p. 218)—is to establish a powerful, if illusory, sense of unity that tends to camouflage the variety and complexity of thenarration. French critic Andre Le Vot, in the chapters of his recent biography of Fitzgerald that deal with Gatsby, creates an elegant and impressive paradigm of the use of color symbolism and the constant use of light and dark in the story, contrived to hold the discrete parts of the story, in the subtext at least, in a conventional unified coherence. These things seem to work well for that purpose; and there are other elements and patterns that tend to serve roughly the same purpose, all adding up to an impression of unified style. Beneath the surface, however, Gatsby is boiling with conflict—chiefly the conflict of new and old, the inadequacy of the old ways and means to deal with the new world of the twentieth century. Thus, behind its seemingly bland and polite surface, Gatsby is, in many ways, a wildly experimental novel, a trying out of what would become familiar, if more varied, strategies of our serious literature and, especially, of the range of our literary language.

With all of its apparent acknowledgment of the power of the past, Gatsby is a leap toward the future, the invention of new styles, therefore the dead end of something else. Those wonderful letters the young Fitzgerald received from literary dignitaries at the time are explicit in announcing this. “You are creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did his in Pendennis and Vanity Fair,” Gertrude Stein wrote, “and this isn’t a bad compliment.” T. S. Eliot called it, accurately, “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” And Edith Wharton, wisely, felt threatened. She had a minor criticism, based on traditional practices: “My present quarrel with you is only this: that to make Gatsby really Great, you ought to have given us his early career… instead of a short resume of it. That would have situated him, & made his final tragedy a tragedy instead of a ‘fait divers’ for the morning papers.

“But you’ll tell me that’s the old way, & consequently not your way.”

In terms of form, then, more than anything else, in terms of style, Gatsby is a pioneering novel. Other masters of the first half of this century may have done more radical and extraordinary things with the novel’s shape and substance, but, by and large, these other great books were (are), at the least, inimitable. With Gatsby,Fitzgerald advanced the form of the American novel for the benefit of all American novelists who have followed after him, whether they know it or not. They seem to sense this, to bear witness to it, in their continuing admiration for Gatsby. For youthful romance, it is hard to beat This Side of Paradise. For the purity of nostalgia and the evocation of a period, an era, there is always my old favorite, Tender Is the Night. But in Gatsby, which pretends to be a little of both, youthful romance and nostalgic period piece, it is a matter of style; and that style is for all our bitter seasons.

George Garrett, poet and novelist, is Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.

Published in New Essays on The Great Gatsby, Ed. by M. J. Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1985).