Sometime in his last two years of life F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote down, on the inside back cover of André Malraux's Mans Hope, the sources in his own experience for chapters of The Great Gatsby. Under Roman numerals I through IX he marked down names and places; and though he added no heading or identifying title, their meaning cannot be mistaken. Why Fitzgerald should have put down this list, however, at so late a date, unidentified, and particularly in so obscure a place, is much less clear. Perhaps, reading the novel which had grown so obviously out of Malraux's experience in the Spanish Civil War, he was moved suddenly to record how deeply the roots of The Great Gatsby were laid in his own experience. For the opening chapter's scene in Tom Buchanan's East Egg mansion, Fitzgerald recalled the “glamor of Rumsies and Hitchcocks”; Tommy Hitchcock was a wealthy polo player whom the Fitzgeralds met on Long Island. Gatsby's first party in Chapter III was drawn, he wrote, from “Goddards, Dwans, Swopes.” Herbert Bayard Swope was a well-known journalist, Allen Dwan a movie director, who lived at Great Neck in the early twenties. Jordan Baker's story of Daisy's wedding, in Chapter IV, came from Fitzgerald's “memory of Ginevra [King]'s wedding”; and the details of Gatsby's career, as their mystery unfolded in Chapter VI, were taken from a story told to Fitzgerald by a man named Bob Kerr. The desolate setting of Wilson's garage, andMyrtle Wilson's secret apartment, in Chapter II, were places recalled: “Ash heaps, memory of 125th, Great Neck.” Fitzgerald remembered 125th Street from his four unhappy months in New York during the spring of 1919; and he lived to see the ash heaps bulldozed for the Flushing Meadows site of the New York World's Fair. Carraway's drive with Gatsby to New York, and their lunch with Meyer Wolfsheim in Chapter IV, came from broader recollections of Fitzgerald's “Vegetable Days in New York.” The second party in Chapter VI, and the climactic events of Chapter VII, in New York and returning, Fitzgerald listed without comment, for he had already accounted for their setting and their mood.
Yet Fitzgerald took pains also to show that much of the novel had not been drawn from parallel moments in his own life. The meeting between Gatsby and Daisy in Chapter V, the murder of Gatsby by Wilson in Chapter VIII, and Gatsby's funeral in Chapter IX, he listed explicitly as his own “invention”; and thus he laid claim to the structure, the conclusion, and the ultimate meanings of The Great Gatsby as original creations of his own mind and art. The Great Gatsby has undergone exceptionally intensive and quite informative criticism in recent years, yet of the many valid ways the novel has been interpreted, none provides so solid a foundation for its meanings as Fitzgerald's own. For all his extraordinary success in creating The Great Gatsby as a unified emotional and artistic gesture, Fitzgerald conceived the novel, not as a solid artifact, but as an act; and its fullest meanings may be most completely uncovered by approaching the novel as a process—a process whereby Fitzgerald transformed old values and experience in the crucible of his developing art and ideas.
To list the parallels between The Great Gatsby and Fitzgerald's earlier fiction would be to catalogue extensively the themes and issues of two novels, more than three dozen short stories, and a play. It was Fitzgerald's new intellectual and artistic maturity, stimulated by his sense of connection and participation in the modern movement of the arts, that made possible his capacity to understand and recast old themes in The Great Gatsby s unforgettable form. For Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby was not a novel of new ideas, but of new insightsinto old ideas. The act of re-creation is more important than the substance thus reshaped, the process more necessary to understand than the material it reworked. Yet it is not possible simply to say, here then is Fitzgerald's stock of themes and problems. As Mencken warned, Fitzgerald was supplied with so much versatility as to be a danger to himself; and though his supply of issues may have been small, he was capable of many different emphases and resolutions, depending on his form, his audience, or his moods. There is no clear formula of progression in Fitzgerald's fiction before The Great Gatsby, as we have seen, and thus it is difficult to ascertain in what form the problems rested when The Great Gatsby was begun. The one certainty about the material Fitzgerald brought to The Great Gatsby was that Fitzgerald had his problems with it, problems to which he had not yet found any lasting satisfactory solution.
But if there was a single, most pervasive theme that connected The Great Gatsby to Fitzgerald's earlier fiction, it was the problem of sudden and unmerited wealth. Fitzgerald struggled with the issue first in This Side of Paradise, through the character of Dick Humbird. Amory Blaine had looked on Humbird as “a perfect type of aristocrat.” But in fact Humbird turned out to be the son of a grocery clerk, who had struck it rich by speculation in land. So Humbird suffered a violent and ugly death, almost as a punishment for Amory's self-deception. It was as if Fitzgerald regarded the Humbirds' financial success, and their rise to social status and power, as a crime; yet Amory Blaine, whose need to expunge Humbird's appeal went so far as to see a vision of him burning in hell, was himself an admirer of successful criminals. “It seemed to him that life and history were rife with the strong criminal, keen, but often self-deluding; in politics and business one found him and among the old statesmen and kings and generals.”
Wealth and class, formal categories and real distinctions—these were the issues which Fitzgerald in his early fiction sought to clarify. In stories like “The Four Fists” the answers seemed to lie in morality; in stories like “Two for a Cent,” in fate. Sometimes he seemed to find solutions in realism, and sometimes in fantasy. But no resolution was more than temporary, for even the terms of the issue were not yet clear. If Humbird had looked and acted like an aristocrat, but had to be punished because he was not, what then was an aristocrat?Mencken's aristocrats formed a class of birth, fortune, and intellect, along the lines of eighteenth-century Virginia. Nietzsche limited his aristocracy to artists and philosophers alone. Fitzgerald pondered their ideas and even borrowed the language of their concepts, but he resisted their meanings. When he used the term “aristocrat” he meant the man of wealth alone—the “plutocrat.” In The Beautiful and Damned Fitzgerald also claimed Anthony Patch as an aristocrat; and Anthony was punished, not by death, but by degradation and insanity. But Fitzgerald's animus against aristocrats was in truth directed against plutocrats in masquerade.
Rich young men with unearned wealth could bring out in Fitzgerald this confused instinct for punishment; poor young men who desired wealth were something else. In one of the stories he wrote right after This Side of Paradise, “Dalrymple Goes Wrong,” Fitzgerald endowed Bryan Dalrymple with the criminal strength and will Amory Blaine had admired. Dalrymple won his success in the material world by a secret life of crime. But whatever the implications of this character, Fitzgerald could not maintain them. Thereafter his ambitious poor boys who became criminals in their quest for wealth—the most important is Curtis Carlyle in “The Offshore Pirate”— were in fact upper-class genteel heroes, acting out a romantic role to win the hearts of their upper-class girls.
The hero in criminal disguise—“The Unspeakable Egg,” written in 1924 just before The Great Gatsby, provides a cruder example—was Fitzgerald's most significant variation on the genteel romantic formula. In the course of this study the conventional genteel romantic hero, whom Fitzgerald inherited from one aspect of nineteenth-century American fiction, has been a prominent figure. He was a young man who demonstrated the power of his independent will to prove a moral point, and thereby win fortune and the girl. His task was to perform unconventionally, though without breaking any of the moral or social conventions; his best means were cleverness and imagination, the capacity to do accepted tasks in humorous and entertaining ways. Fitzgerald's truly original contribution to this genre of American fiction was to prolong its life by shifting the focus from the young man to the young woman. He created the genteel romantic heroine, and thus, partly by accident and partly by design, was made the chronicler of the age of the flapper. In all the conventional genteel romantic stories he wrote for the popular magazines before The Great Gatsby—the two criminal disguise stories are the only exceptions—the power of independent will rests in the hands not of the male, but of the female. No matter how daring and arduous the task performed by the hero, control over his destiny remains with the girl. As a result the young men in Fitzgerald's conventional genteel stories are vague, rather shadowy figures, even if they always win the girl's love; what interest and excitement there is in the stories is always generated by the flapper heroine.
But for all her independent willfulness the flapper heroine does not break the genteel conventions any more than the romantic hero does. As Gloria Gilbert in The Beautiful and Damned insisted, she was free to do anything she pleased, but sexual promiscuity did not please her. Gloria, it is true, drank far too much, but she was punished for it by her loss of beauty. Nancy Lamar in “The Jelly-Bean,” who drank and gambled, was the wildest of Fitzgerald's flappers, and she too was punished, by marriage to a man she did not love. The punishment of both girls was lightened, to be sure, by the fact that both their husbands were multi-millionaires. Despite occasional innuendo and a bit of innocent necking in parked cars, Fitzgerald's willful heroines kept themselves remarkably pure.
Thus in his conventional fiction Fitzgerald gave new life to an outmoded formula by shifting the focus of attention within it. It was in his novels that he confronted the implications of the formula's true obsolescence; for he argued in This Side of Paradise that the economic and social foundations for genteel romantic heroism were shattered in the First World War. The heroes of his novels, Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise and Anthony Patch in The Beautiful and Damned, shared with the old nineteenth-century genteel romantic heroes—once again Tom Sawyer is the best example—an interesting mixture of romantic ideology and sentimental emotion in one mind. In the conventions of the genteel American tradition, as we have seen, romanticism gave power to the deed, and sentiment held the results within socially acceptable bounds. Fitzgerald's significant effort in This Side of Paradise to provide an alternative to the genteel hero, through Amory Blame's constructive individualism, reversed the process. Only sentiment held Amory's loyalty to a social system which had deserted him; but romantic ideology was to shapea new meaning for his sentimentally inspired acts. By the time of The Beautiful and Damned, however, romantic ideology had seemed to have proven itself incapable of providing any new meanings. The pathetic Anthony Patch was thus, like Amory Blaine, sentimental in his emotions, but capable only of regarding himself through a veil of romantic despair. Romantic meaning had given way to romantic meaninglessness, optimism and constructive power had been converted to pessimism and helplessness.
The genteel romantic hero, who formed the backbone of Fitzgerald's best fiction as well as his worst, of his most original work as well as his most conventional, was never to fall lower. The process of recovery and growth that began after The Beautiful and Damned retained this hero, with his mingled romantic dreams and sentimental feelings. But as the conventional resolution of romance and sentiment had been rendered impossible by the war, so too were Fitzgerald's postwar alternatives—romantic meaning or romantic meaningless ness—outmoded by his maturing insight. The possibility of a resolution within society no longer mattered, for he had discovered a different realm whereby social failure or social success could be judged. Henceforth the genteel romantic hero would be a flawed superman, a man who, merely by his belief that the impossible was still possible, that sentiment and romance could still be resolved, placed himself beyond the safety, and beyond the comprehension, of conventional society. Society would judge him, to be sure, but so long as Fitzgerald through his art could provide another mode of judgment, the genteel hero's fate might be raised to the stature of a national tragedy.
This structure emerges only imperfectly from “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” for Fitzgerald was torn between punishing Braddock Washington and exalting him. Yet the novella marks the single most important turning point, before The Great Gatsby, in Fitzgerald's mind and art. While turning “The Romantic Egotist” into This Side of Paradise the author had discovered that the genteel romantic hero was a victim of the First World War, and ever since he had been faced with a dilemma. He could please his slick magazine readers by writing as if the wealthy and clever old hero was still as lively as ever; or he could try in his novels to create new values in place of the moribund old, or coherently to portray the decadence of youthwithout values. No alternative had satisfied him, for the values of the genteel romantic hero were his own values, and the problem was to combine genteel romantic values with his own true perceptions of society. Of all Fitzgerald's early fiction “The Offshore Pirate” was the most cogent statement of his dilemma. There he had fused the conventional genteel romantic hero to his own conception of the unconventional, self-created individual, in the person of the ambitious, class-conscious, criminal band-leader, Curtis Carlyle, only to destroy his creation by a sentimental ending. By “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” Fitzgerald had discovered new means in his maturing intelligence and artistry to re-create the fusion, and to make it stick. With “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” the major dilemma affecting Fitzgerald's themes and values had been solved, and the first block in the foundation of The Great Gatsby was laid.
Yet as the themes Fitzgerald recast in The Great Gatsby had already been his concerns in his earliest fiction, so too the means whereby he achieved his maturity—at least in the basic tones and gestures he brought, almost unconsciously, to the art of fiction—had been in his hands from the very first. One of the major thrusts in the modern movement of the arts was the desire to regain a sense of connection with the past and the eternities; and Fitzgerald, whose religious and literary backgrounds particularly endowed him with a sense of time and the supernatural, whose intellectual energy was devoted to relating values and tradition in conflict, was as well prepared as any to participate creatively.
The past and the eternities, a sense of universal patterns in human behavior, appear from the start in Fitzgerald's fiction. Sources of influence are not difficult to trace, even though it is impossible precisely to determine the nature of their use. Fitzgerald's Roman Catholic background, in its non-liturgical forms at least, provided him with a philosophy of history and a feeling for the supernatural. Shane Leslie's primers on the First World War taught him two different, but not contradictory, historical perspectives on his own experience; on the one hand the war marked a definite and conclusive break with Victorian civilization, on the other it was simplya phase, though a major one, of world-historical movements centuries old and with centuries yet to run. From Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson's Catholic novels Fitzgerald probably derived his sense for the presence of supernatural forces in natural events, which expressed itself most obviously in “The Devil” episode of This Side of Paradise. Benson was a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism, as was Fitzgerald's friend and mentor, Father Sigourney Webster Fay, a convert in America from the Episcopal Church to Catholicism. In both conversions a common factor may have been a feeling that the Roman Catholic faith gave greater scope to the aesthetic and mystical sides of their natures; at the end of the nineteenth century, after decades of hostility, many genteel American Protestants were attracted to the beauty and serenity of Roman Catholic ritual and art. Leslie and Father Fay had both been intimates of Henry Adams; Leslie had learned his philosophy of history from Adams, and Father Fay had collaborated with Adams on an article about the German threat to religion. For Fitzgerald, then, the gap between specifically American and specifically Catholic views was never difficult to close.
Yet after This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald's preoccupations in his fiction reflect little Roman Catholic influence. Though a sense of time and a sense of universal patterns continue to pervade his work, their conscious intellectual source, where they had one, was the poetry of English Romanticism. Keats and the Romantics taught Fitzgerald that truth was beauty and beauty was eternal, a faith that gave as coherent a meaning to life as any more formal theology; but he also learned from the poets that life must be lived for the moment only, for nothing mortal, and especially neither youth nor beauty, could be made to last. In This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald had tried to cope with the complications of these conflicting doctrines, retaining the Romantic sense of immediacy and rejecting the truth of beauty; in The Beautiful and Damned he tried unsuccessfully to encompass all Romantic contradictions and to rise above them with a negative faith of his own, the belief that life was meaningless. But in his magazine stories he could pick and choose with equanimity, for the power of sentiment could rise above any inconsistency. In “The Offshore Pirate,” remarkable for knitting together his most original insights and his sentimental evasions into one whole, Fitzgerald let Ardita Farnham proclaim the Romantic belief in personal courage: “A sort of insistence on the value of life and the worth of transient things… My courage is faith—faith in the eternal resilience of me.” But her faith was not his own. “To me the interesting thing about Ardita,” he interpolated, “is the courage that will tarnish with her beauty and youth.” Fitzgerald sensed the dramatic pathos in his heroine's belief in the eternal strength of mortal qualities, but in “The Offshore Pirate” he preferred to gloss it over. She marries a wealthy genteel romantic hero who would lie to her “just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life” and illusion would never be disturbed.
Elsewhere Fitzgerald's sense of time and the eternities came from even less precise and conscious sources. From his experiences in Montgomery, Alabama, the home of his wife, he developed a feeling for the Southern view of time and the past, a feeling expressed in “The Jelly-Bean” and “Two for a Cent” and especially in “The Ice Palace,” where Sally Carrol Happer loves to visit cemeteries and tries to keep “that old time” alive within her. What took Sally temporarily away from her drowsy South was her conflicting desire “to live where things happen on a big scale”—a desire, not merely to make money, but, in the modern idiom, to be a part of the action. Thus, in the attitudes derived from his own experience, there was a conflict between ambition and tradition equally as significant as the conflict in his Romantic influence between the eternity and the transiency of beauty. Though the Romantic contradiction, for the time being, had to be avoided, the contradiction in his social inheritance between permanence and change could easily be resolved in the convention of the genteel romantic hero, a convention that gave assurance of permanence in change in a form as rituallv precise as any primitive culture's rite of passage to maturity. And so the genteel romantic hero became an element of escape from Fitzgerald's problems with time and the eternities as well as from his problems of theme and value.
But where the genteel romantic hero did not avail—particularly in The Beautiful and Damned and in the stories written under the influence of a realism which explicitly denied the genteel conventions-Fitzgerald's concern with time and with universal patterns created more problems than solutions. Time was a villain, a despoiler, an enemy to be met and conquered; universal patterns stole originalityfrom human life and even cheated individuals of their significance. This was the impasse which confronted Fitzgerald in the winter of 1921-22—an impasse which, coupled with his dilemmas over character and social theme, led him temporarily to give up fiction in favor of stage comedy; but which also provided him with the opportunity to read and to think his way free. For he had already, early in that winter, hit upon the germ of his solution. Though The Beautiful and Damned represents the nadir of Fitzgerald's capacity to comprehend and control his material, he had already, before his slight effort to revise the novel, begun to write “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” He had never before felt such artistic despair and intellectual confusion; and yet at that moment his dangerous versatility, combined with the exceptional resilience of his talent, came up with a combination of elements almost perfectly right.
By writing the novella “utterly for my own amusement” Fitzgerald excused himself from the responsibility of either criticizing conventional forms or adhering to them, and gave license to his fancy to play freely on ideas of wealth. The fusion of his fantasy, completely unfettered for the first time from genteel formulas, with a not unfamiliar craving for luxury, gave birth to the diamond mountain and the man of wealth raised to the status of a god. Braddock Washington, the Prometheus Enriched who destroyed himself and his fortune instead of destroying human hopes and values, retained greater dignity than Fitzgerald had meant for him to have; thereafter it remained only for Fitzgerald to create a character adequate to his conception of greatness and of tragic plight.
The conception, then, was originally Fitzgerald's; the process whereby it attained The Great Gatsby's perfection of form, as we have seen, began with his reading and reflection on the fiction of Joseph Conrad and James Joyce. From his reading of Conrad's “Youth” and Nostromo Fitzgerald grasped what he had not learned from the Romantic poets, that, as his favorite Keats had written, “the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty & Truth.” The loss of youth and beauty, even the loss of life, could be overcome by an art which was intense enough to preserve the quality of romance and power, even though their substance must disappear; time, though it still conquered, might neverthelesslose its terror. Thus it was that Conrad gave to Fitzgerald his first insight into what Keats had stated as his doctrine of negative capability: “That is,” Keats wrote, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, 'for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.” In his reading of Ulysses Fitzgerald had been led to discern the same principles in a more familiar setting and a more accessible form. Fitzgerald's short story “Winter Dreams,” written right after he read Ulysses, demonstrated how Joyce had helped him shift his focus to a lower-class character whose yearning for beauty, though expressed still in conventional terms, was surrounded by a new sense of mystery. Finally, in the short story “Absolution,” the romantic imagination of Rudolph Miller discovers that it is capable of conceiving a beauty, and sustaining its mystery, separate from an idea of God. Fitzgerald's imaginative hero thus possessed the means, not to defy God, but to entertain Him. Neither God's wrath nor didactic social morality could account, thereafter, for the downfall of such a grand, creative figure.
In April 1924, Fitzgerald sailed with his family to Europe, where he planned immediately to begin his third novel. Just before his departure he wrote a long, confessional letter to Maxwell Perkins, as if to dredge up and leave all his feelings of guilt and regret behind him. One need not agree with the precise nature of his own self-condemnation—he had a tendency to dramatize and exaggerate there as elsewhere—to recognize its therapeutic value. “I feel I have an enormous power in me now,” he concluded, “… in my new novel I'm thrown directly on purely creative work—not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world… This book will be a consciously artistic achievement and must depend on that as the first books did not.”
The full nature of Fitzgerald's conscious artistry, however, is noteasily uncovered. No indications exist but the text itself, and a few suggestive hints in letters Fitzgerald wrote during the composition of The Great Gatsby. “Absolution,” he told Perkins, “was to have been the prologue to the novel but it interfered with the neatness of the plan”; so there was a plan, and its form required that the hero's origins remain mysterious to the end. As soon as they settled on the French Riviera he read biographies of Byron and Shelley; near the end of his work he promised Perkins that changes in the proof would make it “one of the most expensive affairs since Madame Bovary.” At times he wanted to call the novel Trimalchio or Trimalchio in West Egg, so Gatsby must have been consciously modeled, at least in part, on the vulgar parvenu of Petronius's Roman satire, The Satyricon; and The Satyricon is regarded as a mock-heroic version of The Odyssey, with Encolpius, the narrator, a comic Ulysses. Even personal remarks seem to have a bearing on the issues of the novel; twice, once frivolously and the other time seriously, he expressed the wish “to start over,” to begin life anew.
But there is evidence also that Fitzgerald was not conscious of the form taking shape under his hand. When he received Perkins' reaction to the first draft—an extraordinary letter of praise, tempered by the criticism that “Gatsby is somewhat vague”—Fitzgerald's “first instinct,” as he reported to Perkins, “was to let [Gatsby] go and have Tom Buchanan dominate the book.” Parenthetically he added, “(I suppose he's the best character I've ever done—I think he and the brother in Salt and Hurstwood in Sister Carrie are the three best characters in American fiction in the last twenty years, perhaps and perhaps not),” a curious insight into the uncertainty of purpose and the uncertainty of taste that still lay below the surface of Fitzgerald's exceptional confidence of direction and judgment during the writing of Gatsby. “But Gatsby sticks in my heart,” he said. “I had him for a while, then lost him, and now I know I have him again.” His energies during the revision went into sharpening and deepening the portrait of Gatsby, and when it was done he told Perkins, “I know Gatsby better than I know my own child.”
There is no doubt, then, that The Great Gatsby is a work of conscious artistry, in its language, in its structure, and in its themes; but it is also fair to say that the process whereby The Great Gatsby attained its ultimate form was a process in which Fitzgerald's minddid not play a wholly conscious part. As Thomas Mann said of criticism on The Magic Mountain, “One always needs to be reminded; one is by no means always in possession of one's whole self. Our consciousness is feeble; only in moments of unusual clarity and vision do we really know about ourselves. As for me, I am glad to be instructed by critics about myself, to learn from them about my past works and go back to them in my mind. My regular formula of thanks for such refreshment of my consciousness is: 'I am most grateful to you for having so kindly recalled me to myself.'” An interpretation of The Great Gatsby poses, as it were, a similar responsibility and opportunity.
The greatness of Jay Gatsby, in The Great Gatsby, is created in Nick Carraway's vision, out of himself. Nick is the narrator of the novel and also its seer, the man of two parts, the participant and the observer. “I was within and without,” Nick says, at once the man behind the yellow window of the city flat, yet placing himself down below with the casual watcher, looking up and wondering—“simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” It is this special trait, this doubleness, that enables Nick to encompass all the novel's life within his values and his understanding, to create the frame in which the reader may see even more. For even as he observes the natures and the motives of the novel's characters his own heart harbors their same emotions and desires. And thus he is able to appreciate, as he tells us at the start, before he is called upon to judge. The end is in the beginning of The Great Gatsby, and Nick came home from that summer on Long Island wanting “the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (2); but we learn first that his capacity for “infinite hope” has not been lost. “I am still a little afraid of missing something” (1). Gatsby's “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness,” had exempted him from Nick's moral revulsion, and as the end is in the beginning, so Nick keeps himself open to find a new beginning in the end. A phenomenon as great and grandiose as Gatsby may yet come again to strain his capacity for wonder.
The frame that Nick creates is a circle, a circle that begins as itends, in the West. “I see now,” Nick says near the end, “that this has been a story of the West after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners” (177). And as Nick contains within himself the natures and motives of the others, so the emotions and desires that send him on his journey East, that shape his vision of the East, are Western—and stand for them all. After the First World War Nick had come home restless. “Instead of being the warm center of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided,” Nick said, “to go East and learn the bond business” (3). Settled on Long Island, “with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies,” Nick felt “that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (4). Nick's sense of the movement of life was thus tied to the natural flux of the seasons. Nature was to provide him as well with the images that built his vision of the new scene. And Nick sees the city, the new “warm center of the world,” in images of wonder and felicity borrowed from the Western country and frontier. With Tom Buchanan and Myrtle Wilson, Fifth Avenue on a summer Sunday afternoon was “so warm and soft, almost pastoral,… that I wouldn't have been surprised to see a great flock of white sheep turn the corner” (28). Later, driving with Gatsby across the Queensboro Bridge, Nick feels that he is seeing the city again for the first time, “in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty of the world.… 'Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge,' I thought, 'anything at all…' Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder” (69). Anything at all—“I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd,” Nick says, “and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness” (57). For Nick, as for Tom and Myrtle, Gatsby and Daisy, summer in the center of the world is a season for fulfilling dreams of love. The circle of Nick's frame is a voyage from the old center of the world to the new, and a returning homeward; and within that circle is the circle of nature, the life-giving and life-ending cycle of the seasons. Nick's narrative voice and his vision make The Great Gatsbya novel of patterns, within the characters and without, separate and finally together.
Nick's introduction to the new center of the world is a slow and at first reluctant one. For nature as he encounters it on Long Island in the beginning is neither the pastoral nor the wild nature of his familiar West. Nature in those communities of “natural curiosities,” East and West Egg, is an entertainer—a creator of trick images, making “great bursts of leaves” grow “on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies” (4) ; a provider of stage masks, like the “thin beard of raw ivy” that added a touch of nature to diminish the falsity of Gatsby's “spanking new” imitation French villa (5) ; an acrobat, as was the lawn at Tom Buchanan's house—“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” (6-7). Nick's sense of nature's playfulness around the houses of the rich—almost nature's mockery-quickens his feelings for both the magic possibilities of wealth and the certainties of his own moral standard. It was as if nature's giddiness at the Buchanans' house—the breeze blowing through the living room, rippling and fluttering the white dresses of Daisy and Jordan Baker “as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house” (8)—makes Nick all the more careful to preserve his own sense of right. He is aware then only of the sharp difference between the Buchanans' way of living and the manners of the West. His moralistic response to the revelation of Tom's adultery, with its melodramatic appeal for the police and its sentimental picture of Daisy rushing out of the house, child in arms, conveys the conventional judgment of the West—a standard that remains intact, no-matter how greatly Nick's vision may grow. His feeling of disgust on leaving the Buchanans' shapes the tone for his first unexpected encounter with Gatsby back home. The wind, the same wind that had blown Daisy's and Jordan's dresses, “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.” Nature is playing a solemn, mocking, frog-voiced song to accompany Gatsby's long vigil; and Nick's feeling that Gatsby had “come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens” bears the same double sense as at the Buchanans', mingled awe and disgust at the power and the pride of wealth (21). Then he sees that Gatsby's gesture encompassed nothing more tangible than “a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock” (22).
The alternative to nature's mockery, among the homes of the novel's protagonists on Long Island, is nature's absence. The valley of ashes next to the garage where Myrtle Wilson, Tom's mistress, lives with her husband, is a desolate area, a “waste land” (24). Rather it mocks nature; Nick pictures it as “a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens”; and it mocks the endeavors of men as well, for as Nick envisions it the ashes take the forms of houses and even, “with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” (23). George Wilson is like one of those ash-grey figures, spiritless and anaemic, so covered with dust that he seems to fade into the cement color of his garage walls. Only Myrtle Wilson possessed the immense natural vitality temporarily to escape, repeating to herself, the first day Tom took her, the liturgy of the waste land's death in life, “you can't live forever; you can't live forever” (36). Where nature is absent, the power that reigns is the inscrutable power resident in the brooding, persistently staring eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in the faded advertisement that overlooks the scene.
Nick had been forced to accompany Tom and Myrtle in their rendezvous, and he washed down his reluctance with the whiskey Tom produced. It was the second time, he said, he had been drunk in his life, and his drinking was the source of his new and broader perspective, the feeling that he was “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life” (36). Yet his perspective was not so broad that it lost its geographical basis. “When they do get married,” Myrtle's sister says, speaking of Myrtle and Tom, “they're going West to live for a while until it blows over.” And Nick replies, “It'd be more discreet to go to Europe” (34).
Nick gets drunk for a third time when he attends one of Gatsby's parties. Through the summer nights he had listened to the “music from my neighbor's house,” (39) watched the immense effort of caterers, fruiterers, servants, gardeners that went on behind the scenes to produce Gatsby's festive setting; the magic power of wealth so pervades Gatsby's parties that even “the premature moon” was “produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer's basket” (43). To his first party Nick had been invited, but most of the guests, he said, were not. People went there “and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with amusement parks. Sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all, came for the party with a simplicity of heart that was its own ticket of admission” (41). They paid him tribute by romantic speculation; his mystery was so grand it inspired “whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world” (44). Myrtle Wilson's sister Catherine, who had once been an uninvited guest, had already speculated he was a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm. Others heard that he had killed a man; or that he had been a German spy. In their rumors the source of his wealth lay not only in criminal behavior, but in treason, or hostility to the United States. It was the nature of their simple hearts to take their pleasure more easily without knowledge, holding action and judgment in easier balance, than can Nick with his greater perception. Yet one of the uninvited guests is capable of insight into Gatsby's nature even before Nick. He was the stout middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, who excitedly informed Nick and Jordan Baker that the books in Gatsby's library were real. ” 'See!' he cried triumphantly. 'It's a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too—didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What did you expect?' ” Owl Eyes's wonder is directed not at the possible origins—his tone implies his judgment of the parvenu—but at the achievement; not at the mystery, but at the spectacle itself. Owl Eyes's vision is on a different plane from Nick's, then, not so deep, yet undivided. His admiration puts on Gatsby's showmanship, whatever its motives or consequences, the seal of professional success. Then he snatched the book from Nick's hands “and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse” (46)—recognizing its precariousness too.
At Gatsby's party as at Myrtle's apartment, Nick's drinking deepens his vision of reality. “I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger-bowls of champagne, and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound” (47). It is then that he encounters Gatsby, and is prepared to see beyond the others into Gatsby's visionary world. “He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd” (48). As Owl Eyes sees none of the mystery and only the showmanship, Nick can see beyond the fact of mystery to the value it contains—the possibility and the reality of personal self-creation. And between them, sensing neither the one nor the other, the guests at Gatsby's party fell even more deeply under the influence of his music. Fitzgerald presents Gatsby's party in a style dominated by aural imagery, the language of sound and of song— the musical motif and the novel's larger, universal themes come together in the playing of “Vladimir Tostoff's Jazz History of the World”(50).
Leaving the party Nick encounters Owl Eyes again, recognizing him first by his “unusual quality of wonder” (54). Owl Eyes had just gotten out of an automobile which had lost a wheel and gone into a ditch, and his attitude toward the accident was a direct parallel to his appreciation of Gatsby's showmanship—“the fact was infinitely astonishing to him,” but he had no interest in the causes behind it. ” 'Don't ask me,' said Owl Eyes, washing his hands of the whole matter. 'I know very little about driving—next to nothing. It happened, and that's all I know'” (54). Owl Eyes's wonder at the fact is strangely complemented by the driver's insistence that nothing unusual had happened at all. Owl Eyes's accident was the first of several accidents in The Great Gatsby, each of which sends out ripples, as from a stone dropped in a pond, across the novel's imagesand themes—the imagery of cycle and circle, through the wheel of the tire and the steering wheel; the language of movement, of social mobility, and of restlessness; and of economic and social dreams.
To Nick at first the automobile had been linked with natural beauty and romance—“Already it was deep summer on roadhouse roofs and in front of wayside garages, where new red gas-pumps sat out in pools of light” (21)—and with possibilities of sexual licentiousness; even George Wilson's garage, that most dismal of settings, had made Nick suspect, in Tom Buchanan's presence, “that this shadow of a garage must be a blind, and that sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead” (25). The automobile can remain a symbol of beauty and romance for New York's Eastern Europeans and aspiring Negroes (69), but after Owl Eyes's accident Nick sees it for himself in a different light. Later on he learns that Tom Buchanan's first adultery was revealed when he “ran into a wagon on the Ventura road one night, and ripped a front wheel off his car,” breaking the arm of the hotel chambermaid who was with him (78). And even more immediately came Nick's argument with Jordan Baker about driving.
It started because she passed so close to some workmen that our fender flicked a button on one man's coat.
“You're a rotten driver,” I protested. “Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn't to drive at all.”
“I am careful.”
“No, you're not.”
“Well, other people are,” she said lightly.
“What's that got to do with it?”
“They'll keep out of my way,” she insisted. “It takes two to make an accident.”
“Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.”
“I hope I never will,” she answered. “I hate careless people. That's why I like you.” (59)
After that conversation Nick thought he loved Jordan; but at the end of the novel Jordan uses it for self-justification in breaking off with Nick. ” 'Oh, and do you remember'—she added—'a conversation we had once about driving a car? … You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrongguess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride” (179). Jordan's recollection was not the true parallel, however, for her argument with Nick; the careless driver who met someone as careless as herself was Daisy, and that someone was Myrtle Wilson.
Nick's next vision of Gatsby comes on the momentous day when he meets Meyer Wolfsheim and hears Jordan Baker's story of Gatsby and Daisy. Gatsby calls for Nick in his fabulous car, a car that with its melodic three-noted horn, its “labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns,” its interior like “a sort of green leather conservatory,” appears almost as a satiric symbol of the novel's musical, universal, and natural themes (64). On the drive Gatsby tries to dispel some of the mystery that surrounds him. ” I'll tell you God's truth.' His right hand suddenly ordered divine retribution to stand by” (65). God's truth is only half-truth, a mixture of reality, the Montenegran medal and the Oxford photo, with the gross sentimentality of, “After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe—Paris, Venice, Rome—collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that happened to me long ago” (66). At lunch Gatsby's associate Wolfsheim, with his sad memories of “the night they shot Rosy Rosenthal” in the Old Métropole, and his tremulous apologies for belonging to an older generation, waxes even more sentimental—so sentimental that even Gatsby can notice it (70,73).
Nick is staggered when Gatsby tells him that Wolfsheim was the gambler “who fixed the World's Series back in 1919.” Nick remembers the incident, “but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain. It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people—with the single-minded-ness of a burglar blowing a safe.” Asking, then, how it happened, Nick is told by Gatsby: “He just saw the opportunity” (74). Gatsby's bland business-lunch answer brings together, in incongruous conjunction, enormous, criminal power and the most simple and normal of motives: and it fills in the patterns of Gatsby's character just at the moment when Jordan Baker is to lift the first veil from his mystery. Wolfsheim's state of mind is the analogy for Gatsby's, atleast for that part of Gatsby's inner life which corresponds with Owl Eyes's perception of the outer, the mere upstart who nevertheless was putting on a perfect show. Gatsby's burst of mingled earnestness and sentiment appears side by side with Wolfsheim's similar effusion; and in Gatsby's momentary absence Wolfsheim confides to Nick how seriously he applies conventional moral standards to his prospective associates. Though a Jew, Wolfsheim thus is portrayed as a man with attitudes and values common to the conventional American business class. Only Nick is not able to rest contented, as Owl Eyes was, with the mere fact of a happening; he must get behind it to its source. He is incredulous because so grand and heinous a crime should have as its source so banal and so conventional a motive; but what is more important is his discovery that so enormous a deed—a deed he suggests, however ironically, that tampers with the very foundation of social beliefs—should have as its source the power and the will of a single individual. So the simplicity of Wolfsheim's heart, and the terrifying enormity of its reach, prepares Nick for Jordan's story of Gatsby and Daisy.
Her story removes only one of the veils from Gatsby's mystery, the veil that covered his immediate purpose and goal. Gatsby's background stands otherwise no more revealed than from the information that he was an Oxford man, or even the possibility that he had been a German spy. The striking image of Jordan Baker's opening paragraph, that when her new plaid skirt blew a little in the wind “the red, white and blue banners in front of all the houses stretched out stiff and said tut-tut-tut-tut, in a disapproving way,” brilliantly conveys the mingled patriotism and prudery of that wartime American society—a society into which, ironically, Jay Gatsby's officer uniform was a sufficient ticket of admission. For Nick this new knowledge deepens his vision of reality even more. The magic possibilities of wealth had appeared to him in the setting of a mocking nature; the elemental and profound qualities of Gatsby's personality had been sensed only in a vague and drunken way. Now the glimpse of truth that reduces Gatsby to the level of other men paradoxically enhances his special stature all the more. “Then it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night,” Nick says. “He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor” (79). Nick's “merely” conveys a double meaning. Itsuggests that Gatsby's significance as a symbol grows as his object appears more limited and also, in the conventionality and sentimentality of his motives, more universal. Yet it implies too that so grand a power and so intense a dream have reshaped the commonplace into something elemental and profound, have so enhanced his desire that its object has in fact been turned into a goal greater and less accessible even than the stars. After Jordan's story Nick sees the world as if bathed in a new light from the revelation of Gatsby's desire. There in the city, the new, warm center of the world, the powers of nature and the promise of sensuality seem to fuse. “The sun had gone down behind the tall apartments of the movie stars in the West Fifties, and the clear voices of little girls, already gathered like crickets on the grass, rose through the hot twilight:
“I'm the Sheik of Araby
Your love belongs to me.
At night when you're asleep
Into your tent I'll creep—”(79)
Nick learns that he is to arrange the meeting between Gatsby and Daisy.
The meeting is brought to fruition through an extraordinarily rich and complex patterning of Fitzgerald's themes. It marks the completion of a cycle within the novel's larger cycle, a moment of regeneration, of beginning again, portended by a natural symbol of fertility, the pouring rain. The moment of Gatsby's and Daisy's reunion is symbolized in a comic scene that marks the death of time. Gatsby's “head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock… 'We've met before,' muttered Gatsby… Luckily the clock took this moment to tilt dangerously at the pressure of his head… 'I'm sorry about the clock,' he said… 'It's an old clock,' I told them idiotically. I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor” (87-8). Gatsby himself had made the symbolic gesture of a “nervous circuit of the house” (89), and when Nick leaves Gatsby and Daisy alone he goes out into the “small muddy swamps and prehistoric marshes” of his inundated lawn, a scene which suggests the chaos to which men symbolically return, in primitive rites, at the moment of regeneration of time (89). Here Fitzgerald added one of his most imaginative touches, associating Nick, the visionary who sees a new reality beyond the commonplace reality, with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. “There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby's enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour” (89). It was Kant's habit to stare at a church steeple through his window while he mulled over his philosophical concerns. A neighbor's trees grew so tall, however, they hid the steeple from Kant's view. But at Kant's request their tops were cut, and he was able to resume his contemplation. Nature resists man's efforts to find transcendent reality behind its earthly face.
The imagery of nature and the imagery of sound play together through the scene, shaped specifically by references to flowers and to Daisy's voice. Floral imagery entered the novel in Daisy's and Myrtle's names; earlier flowers had linked nature with Gatsby's magic powers and with his mystery: “'He's a bootlegger,' said the young ladies, moving somewhere between his cocktails and his flowers. 'One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil. Reach me a rose, honey, and pour me a last drop into that there crystal glass' ” (61). Nick had heard the “excitement” in Daisy's voice when he met her earlier at the Buchanans' (9-10), and Jordan recognized too that “there's something in that voice of hers …” (79). Nature enters into Nick's house, where Gatsby and Daisy met, through the greenhouse of flowers that Gatsby had sent over, and through Daisy's voice, whose “exhilarating ripple … was a wild tonic in the rain” (86). From outside the house Nick thought the rain had sounded “like the murmur of their voices, rising and swelling a little now and then with gusts of emotion” (89-90). Gatsby's house too was “vivid with new flowers,” but though Daisy had admired the gardens outside, her awe gave way inside before the even more vivid display of Gatsby's shirts, a display so overwhelming that it could strain and muffle her remarkable voice (92-4). Although Daisy's voice could mingle with and enhance the natural beauty of the scene, it faded to silence before Gatsby's power to create an even greater beauty, even to reshape the beauty of nature itself; he was “an ecstatic patron of recurrent light,” a creator of life, a power comparable to the sun (90).
The success of the scene depends as well on its mundane aspects—Nick's worries about his hospitality; the half-sinister, half-ludicrous glimpses into Gatsby's business affairs; Nick's reflections on the social history of Gatsby's mansion, brought to a succinct completion by a demonstration of the relation between the inner workings and the outer appearance of such an establishment: “A maid began opening the upper windows of his house, appeared momentarily in each, and, leaning from a large central bay, spat meditatively into the garden” (89). The end of the scene brings to one memorable focus all the patterned themes: the theme of the cycle, of the end and the beginning of time, of death and of rebirth; the significance of Gatsby's dreams and of his magic powers, of his parties and his music; the imagery of nature and the imagery of sound. Klipspringer is playing a popular tune on the piano. Gatsby and Daisy are seated together on a couch. “As I watched him,” Nick says, “he adjusted himself a little, visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn't be over-dreamed—that voice was a deathless song” (97).
The veil that lifts next from Gatsby's mystery reveals, not only the object, but the source—and the language hints that the object and the source must be linked inevitably together. “Jay Gatsby” is revealed as the invention of James Gatz, as “Blatchford Sarnemington” was the creation of Rudolph Miller in “Absolution.” Like Rudolph, Gatz was a lower-class young man whose imagination was so powerful that it leapt beyond his social and economic circumstances. Beyond, in origins, was “his Platonic conception of himself,” a self-creative power that made him more powerful in his way than God, equal to a god, responsible to God—“he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty” (99). He was the impresario whose imagination could put on a show entertaining to God Himself. But beyond, in practical expectations, were the only goals of the genteel American hero at the end of the nineteenth century, wealth, the girl, and social standing. For the aspiring lower-class genteel hero, like Dexter Green in “Winter Dreams” or John Jackson in “John Jackson's Arcady,” wealth and social standing were easy to obtain, yet the girl was unattainable. James Gatz's dreams were unmistakably erotic, were for the girl. “The 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 wash-stand 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” (99-100). James Gatz met his destiny, transformed himself into Gatsby, when Dan Cody's yacht appeared in Little Girl Bay.
This revelation, interjected by Nick at the start of Chapter VI, begins in a sense the second movement of the novel, a movement that comes eventually to focus on the economic and social aspects of Gatsby's dream as the first movement had emphasized the mysterious, the romantic, and the universal. Now Gatsby's dream and his creation are seen momentarily through the eyes of the wealth and standing—and of the girl—to which he aspires. “By God, I may be old-fashioned in my ideas,” says Tom to Nick, discovering that Gatsby knows Daisy, “but women run around too much these days to suit me. They meet all kinds of crazy fish” (104). And Daisy herself was appalled and offended by Gatsby's parties, by the “raw vigor” of his guests and also by the romantic possibilities in the setting and the songs, the possibility of “some authentically radiant young girl who with one fresh glance at Gatsby, one moment of magical encounter, would blot out those five years of unwavering devotion” (108,110). Yet it was she for whom the songs were meant, she who when she sang them made them live as they were meant to. “Daisy began to sing with the music in a husky, rhythmic whisper, bringing out a meaning in each word that it had never had before and would never have again. When the melody rose, her voice broke up sweetly, following it, in a way contralto voices have, and each change tipped out a little of her warm human magic upon the air” (109). After Daisy leaves the party Gatsby makes clear to Nick how well he understood this; but he also reveals that his songs were a means to an end infinitely more grand. “He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: 'I never loved you.' After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they coulddecide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.” ” 'You can't repeat the past,' ” Nick says. ” 'Can't repeat the past?' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!' ” (111).
Gatsby, the man with the smile of eternal reassurance, the ecstatic patron of recurrent light, wants not merely to represent the patterns of renewal and recurrence, not merely to demonstrate them by his reunion with Daisy, but literally to re-enact them. Until he could destroy the present and return to the beginning, his world was still in chaos, a chaos symbolized by the “desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers” (111) he walked up and down. “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…” That love had been born at the end of a season, “one autumn night… when the leaves were falling … a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year… Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder. His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (112). It had occurred at the death of the year and was an act that gave him a glimpse of his own mortality. So Gatsby's quest was a double quest, a quest to recover the object of his vision and a quest to recover the vision in its godlike, imperishable form. It was yet one more version of the cycle; but in Gatsby's imagination the past had died five years before and the new life had not yet been born. To Gatsby, then, all the intervening years, the war, the career, the house and the parties, all belongedto the “wasteland” as much as the ash heaps and the Wilsons. Despising his role as a creator of romantic revelry, he wanted to attain for himself what he had provided so well for others. Gatsby would no longer play the vulgar, newly rich entertainer, like the parvenu in Petronius's Satyricon. “His career as Trimalchio,” Nick says, “was over” (113).
Daisy was coming over to Gatsby's house quietly in the afternoons. “The whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes” (114). As Fitzgerald had seen long before in a collegiate story. “The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw,” men became creative, like Philoctetes in the myth, because of a wound. Heal the wound and the Pierian Springs of the Muses dry up. Gatsby's reunion with Daisy had healed his wound and put to an end his creative imagination. To Gatsby of course the wound would not be healed until he could turn back the clock to a new beginning. But though he continued his quest it had lost the mysterious beauty his imagination had once imparted to it. As Daisy's love had spurred on his desires it had ironically deprived him of the power to envision them in the old way. Without the magic significance of his old vision Gatsby's desire to begin again was simply a quest for the social status that the winning of wealth and the girl had not yet given him.
Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry, “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
That was Fitzgerald's epigraph, attributed to Amory Blaine's poet friend from This Side of Paradise. Gold-hatted Gatsby—Fitzgerald had once thought of giving the novel that title, and also considered The High-Bouncing Lover—had bounced high enough to win the girl. “'She's got an indiscreet voice,'” Nick says to Gatsby. “It's full of—' I hesitated. 'Her voice is full of money,' [Gatsby] said suddenly. That was it. I'd never understood it before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbal's song of it. … High in a white palace the king's daughter, the golden girl…”(120). Gatsby's discovery comes after the destruction of his creative imagination. Nick's feeling for the song of it and the fairy-tale quality of it is retained from his ownpast vision of Gatsby's magical dreams. For Gatsby the realization can mean only that he had won the money and won the girl but had yet to win the sense of status and security with which the voice spoke. All that he seemed to possess fortified him in his resolution—but he was leading from his own weakness into Tom Buchanan's strength.
On the day of the confrontation the weather symbolized the change. It was hot, it was broiling, “almost the last, certainly the warmest,” day of the summer, a day heralding the death of a season, but holding out no promise of a new beginning (114). ” 'What'll we do with ourselves this afternoon?' cried Daisy, 'and the day after that, and the next thirty years?' 'Don't be morbid,' Jordan said, 'Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall'” (118). “In this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life,” but it was Daisy's voice, the voice full of money, that got them to their feet and on their way into New York (115, 119). It is an ominous sign that Fitzgerald gives Jordan the task of expressing the reassuring symbols of the cycle, and rising to the romantic possibilities of the city: “I love New York on summer afternoons when everyone's away. There's something very sensuous about it—overripe, as if all sorts of funny fruits were going to fall into your hands” (125). Nick's feeling for the sensuous possibilities of the city had been expressed in pastoral and floral images of life. Jordan's suggests an image of nature abundant and strange—past the point of natural growth and ready to burst. But Nick's sense of the city has been altered too; the girders of the elevated tracks, which he once described as pillars, now call to his mind the image of a spider's web (68,125).
Tom Buchanan's strength had been up to now physical strength, the power of the body that had enabled him to break Myrtle Wilson's nose with a short, deft movement of his open hand (37). But Tom's real strength, his imperishable strength, lies in the power of his social standing. “His family were enormously wealthy,” Nick had said, and coming East from Chicago “he'd brought down a string of polo ponies,” displaying his wealth “in a fashion that rather took your breath away” (6). Tom Buchanan's social standing came from his wealth; his wealth was his social standing. Fitzgerald had at last come to realize that the upper-class figures whom he had described and analyzed and criticized and punished in his fiction were notaristocrats, but men of wealth alone. Tom Buchanan was a plutocrat. There were no redeeming qualities in his personality. As Maxwell Perkins, truly an aristocrat, wrote Fitzgerald, “I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him.” In Tom Buchanan, Fitzgerald created a character equally impossible to like or to respect. But in drawing him truly he endowed Tom with social strengths that were comprehensible and not to be despised.
An upper class based solely in plutocratic wealth is an upper class, almost by its very origins and composition, without morality. Certainly its enormous financial powers place it far above common morality. Yet middle-class Americans refuse to accept the upper class as different from themselves in kind; and so, partly by necessity and partly by willed choice, the American upper class assumes responsibility for the values of the whole. Nick is tempted to laugh at Tom for his “transition from libertine to prig,” yet the two poles well define the plutocrat's freedom and his duty—he can be both, he must be the latter. ” 'Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions,' ” Tom avers, ” 'and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white' ” (130). Tom's ranting about race and science is ludicrous, but it also arises from a true responsibility, a responsibility that Gatsby, significantly, recognizes for its power. Tom's investigations into Gatsby's “drug-store” business reveal that Gatsby is a bootlegger. When Gatsby is confronted with the accusations by the man he regards as his rival for Daisy's love, the man who represents the social standing he aspires to, Gatsby's face twice takes on an “unfamiliar yet recognizable look” (121,135). This look, which makes him appear to Nick indeed as if he had killed a man, is a look of shame. The moment when Daisy sees it on Gatsby's face, he has lost her. Gatsby feels shame because his ambition respects the ends of Tom's responsibility and power more than it condones his own means. What defeats Gatsby is not his lack of magic power, but his embarrassment before social power. “Flushed with his impassioned gibberish,” Nick said of Tom, “he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization” (130). This remark renders Tom ludicrous too, but it is not without its positive thematic importance. American society does not die with Gatsby but lives on with Tom; and so long as that last barrier of civilization does not fall, the cyclical patterns of the novel suggest that there will be others like Gatsby who arise to test their hopes against it. Tom's survival as the last barrier of civilization is a paradoxical indication that the American dream lives on beyond the death of Gatsby.
The patterns of the novel move swiftly thereafter to a close. It is, of course, one aspect of the novel's fine-spun patterns that, to paraphrase Mencken's review, the wife, at the wheel of her lover's car, runs down and kills the lover of her husband. But the death of Myrtle Wilson affects more significantly the patterns of the novel's themes and universal implications. The “death car” was the car the interior of which had seemed to Nick a “green leather conservatory” (64), and the girl who had blossomed for Gatsby like a flower sat at the wheel. For Gatsby she had finally become just another aspect of nature's mockery. And as the magic aura departed from Gatsby's quest, similarities between Gatsby and Myrtle emerge more clearly—two careless, immoral lower-class figures destroyed by their own too great determination, destroyed by the greater power of the careless and immoral rich. Shorn of his powers Gatsby even resembles the pathetic George Wilson, who “borrowed somebody's best suit to get married in”(35) just as Gatsby courted Daisy in the borrowed dignity of his Army uniform; who also had his woman taken from him by Tom Buchanan; who seems, alone with Gatsby, to take seriously the idea of God. Myrtle knew about her husband what Tom knew about Gatsby, that both men lacked the power to sustain the objects of their wills. By the standards of sheer physical vitality Myrtle shared with Tom, both men were cowards. “You dirty little coward,” Myrtle screamed as her last words to her husband (138). Tom's final judgment on Gatsby was, “The God damned coward!” (142).
On the night of the accident the remaining veils come off Gatsby's mystery, came off “because 'Jay Gatsby' had broken up like glass against Tom's hard malice, and the long secret extravaganza was played out” (148). Nick's vision of this final revelation is changed to reflect the altered circumstances of Gatsby's quest. He perceives, not the magic possibilities of Gatsby's dream, but the social and economic facts from which they grew. When Gatsby first met Daisy the disparity between his status and hers paradoxically could only make her more attainable; for the gap was so great there was no midway point between seizing nothing and seizing all he could. “He tookwhat 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.” From this relation it was not Daisy who felt compromised, even more paradoxically, but Gatsby. Daisy after all was a plutocrat like Tom, powerful enough to rise above mere morality. But Gatsby, once he had been given a taste of the favors riches can bestow, and looking on their experience no doubt in the portentous light of middle-class morality, could not take so casual a view. “He felt married to her, that was all.” And so “he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail” (149). But Gatsby's grail, in this version of Nick's vision, seems far more specific than the wondrous possibility of self-fulfillment and self-creation Nick had seen before. “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor” (150). Gatsby's grail thus represented nothing more than the security and wealth and power of the plutocratic American upper class. Only when Gatsby comes out with his “curious remark” about Daisy's love for Tom— ” 'In any case,' he said, 'it was just personal' “—is Nick reminded that beyond the mere social and economic goals there was “some intensity in his conception of the affair that couldn't be measured” (152).
“The night,” the night during which Gatsby poured out his whole story to Nick, “had made a sharp difference in the weather and there was an autumn flavor in the air” (153). The end of Gatsby's quest coincides with the end of the season of life; the cycles had made their revolution and come back again to the point where the end meets the beginning. The man who had lived by the waste land comes to bring desolation to another for whom the world of love and dreams was dead. Gatsby “must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. 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 towards him through the amorphous trees” (162). Gatsby's body was found on an air mattress in his pool. “The touch of a clusterof leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of a transit, a thin red circle in the water.” Nature no longer mocks, but provides with its own dead leaves the proper symbol. Wilson, the murderer, had come to believe he was carrying out God's vengeance, and Gatsby had immersed himself in water as if in preparation for his meeting with the God whose vision he had almost overreached. “It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house,” Nick said, “that the gardener saw Wilson's body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete” (163). The fire of old dreams is fully extinguished, so the fire of new dreams can be lit.
The final patterns are drawn in the account of Gatsby's funeral. Only Nick, the seer, can remember Gatsby for his magical qualities. “It grew upon me,” Nick says, “that I was responsible, because no one else was interested—interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right at the end” (165); and Nick begins to have “a feeling of defiance, of scornful solidarity between Gatsby and me against them all” (166). Yet Nick is not the only one with memories. There are others who complete their own insight into Gatsby's life. Gatsby's father comes for the funeral, bringing his simple faith that the Poor Richard precepts on the way to wealth his son had once practiced were sufficient explanation for the riches he attained. “If he'd of lived,” the father says, “he'd of been a great man. A man like James J. Hill. He'd of helped build up the country” (169). For all his naïveté there is a grain of truth in the father's admiration, a recognition that for better or for worse men like James J. Hill did build the country, which carries the implication that without these men the country would not have been built. Nick settles Gatsby's father, appropriately, in the music room. Wolfsheim's reluctance to attend the funeral expresses in part his extraordinary sentimentality: “I hardly know where I am when I hear about a thing like this and am completely knocked down and out” (167). Wolfsheim is filled in fact with sentimental memories of the past—memories which show more precisely than ever the criminal sources of Gatsby's wealth—but there too Wolfsheim's reluctance expresses another grain of wisdom. ” 'Let us learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead,' he suggested. 'After that, my own rule is to let everything alone' ” (173). At the funeral, finally, Owl Eyes shows up, and Fitzgerald's language suggests moreclearly than before a possible connection between the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, Owl Eyes, and God. “The rain poured down his thick glasses, and he took them off and wiped them to see the protecting canvas unrolled from Gatsby's grave… Dimly I heard someone murmur 'blessed are the dead that the rain falls on,' and then the owl-eyed man said, 'Amen to that,' in a brave voice” (176). If Owl Eyes speaks for God, then God had been entertained, did approve of Gatsby's showmanship. And the rain suggests God's blessing, a symbol of the fertility of human imagination, of other Gatsbys to be born. Perhaps it is relevant to add that Owl Eyes was brought to Gatsby's party by a Roosevelt, a name suggesting his connection to an American family which by birth, fortune, and intellect, had the right truly to call itself an aristocracy.
At the novel's end Nick withdraws to the West. He expresses his final vision in images of order. The moment of self-knowledge and judgment is at hand, and Tom and Daisy, Jordan, all the East, fall short of Nick's reiterated sense of right. But the moment for appreciation had not yet passed. In the famous final passages of the novel Nick reassumes the role of the visionary seer. All at once the whole of American experience takes on the character of Gatsby's romantic quest and tragic failure; the history of a continent finds expression in the transcendent images of felicity man made from the beauty of its mocking nature. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning——So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (182). The hope shall always be, its fulfillment shall never be. Men die, but their dreams are imperishable, renewed again and again at the fountain of nature—or of art.
With The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald created his own vision of national tragedy and of high art, created a novel which with every passing year more clearly assumes a place among the imperishable works of American fiction. He had come a long way since the early moment in his career when he denied Keats's poetic statement that beauty was truth, and truth beauty. In This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned the beauty he rejected and the beauty thatproved false was the beauty of a woman; in The Great Gatsby he found truth in the beauty of art, and beauty in its truths. With The Great Gatsby he found self-fulfillment and self-creation as an artist— and yet, as with Gatsby, a tragic fall was to follow closely upon his success.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Laocoon by Robert Sklar (New York: Oxford Up, 1967).