Few critics dispute the superbness of Scott Fitzgerald’s achievement in The Great Gatsby. In precision of workmanship, elegance of prose style, and control of dramatic point of view, it represents to my mind Fitzgerald’s genius at its sustained best. No other novel of the period, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, can be said to have succeeded so perfectly in transforming the mind and manners of its time into something artistically worthy of the intense moral and social conditions which produced them. The features of the book which stand out most strongly in one’s mind—the swirling, sideshow anonymity of Gatsby’s Long Island parties, the huge, ominous eyes of the oculist’s sign brooding perpetually over the hot, desolate “valley of ashes,” the shrill, oppressive atmosphere of Myrtle Wilson’s flat, the brutal, cowardly truculence of Tom Buchanan, the poignant dream and pathetic bad taste of Gatsby himself—concentrate a multiple image of an America that had lost itsstandards and its sense of the moral fitness of things, and had given itself over to a self-deceiving myth that would some day come apart like wet cardboard.
The book is so very good that one is tempted occasionally to go along with the assumption that some influence, other than his own moral growth, operated to aid his imagination in organizing and disciplining his thought and feeling as maturely as it did. Nevertheless, the use of a dramatic narrator to unify a series of swift and intensive scenes was a technique ideally adapted to a talent of Fitzgerald’s kind, for, aside from the advantages of compositional compactness, such a method allowed his imagination to project in the form and subject of the novel a conception which enabled him to externalize and to exploit simultaneously from within and without both sides of a nature that was split between sentiment and self-criticism. Gatsby and Nick Carraway unquestionably are coextensive with his own feelings about each side of this nature, and are developed within a context of insights which control their precise moral and creative meanings through a bifocal view that manipulates at once the attitudes of intimacy and detachment with a distinctness that is never blurred.
Fitzgerald’s bifurcated relation to his experience, so eloquently underscored in Gatsby, has been commented upon frequently by his critics, but Malcolm Cowley has provided the perfect figure to concretize the opposition in Fitzgerald’s temperament between the wish to belong and the fear of being unaccepted, between the impulse to participate and the tendency to observe, a man who desired to do and yet to become. “He cultivated a sort of double vision,” wrote Mr. Cowley—
It was as if all his novels described a big dance to which he had taken… the prettiest girl… and as if at the same time he stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music.(“Third Act and Epilogue,” New Yorker, XXI (June 30, 1945), 54)
This sense of “double vision” informs both the general organization of Gatsby and the arrangement of its smallest thematic details, and, at one point very early in the narrative, Fitzgerald seems to have imbedded in a casual reflection ofNick Carraway’s an image which not only emphasizes this double view and represents what may be Fitzgerald’s own evaluation of one of the major defects of his earlier novels, but offers a possible esthetic justification for the novel’s form as well. It is when Nick, having settled at West Egg and looking forward to the long, quiet days of summer, decides to revive a somewhat neglected habit of reading, doing so with the feeling that “I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the ’well-rounded man.’ This isn’t just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.” (Italics mine.) Invariably, Nick’s experience will demonstrate both an aspect of his nature and the bifocal continuity of the book itself, as when he pauses wistfully amidst the busy loneliness of the New York evening to watch a thick congestion of crowded taxicabs moving toward the theatre district, and notes how “Forms leaned together in the taxis as they waited, and voices sang, and there was laughter from unheard jokes, and lighted cigarettes made unintelligible circles inside. Imagining that I, too, was hurrying toward gayety and sharing their intimate excitement, I wished them well.” The fine control of language in this passage, with its precise use of detail that mingles several qualities of sensation in a swift interplay of mood, feeling, and idea, the tonal proportions of the colloquial rhythms of the first sentence that evoke and lengthen, through its strong liquid properties, the extent of Nick’s longing for the warmth and attachment the experience suggests, the sudden withdrawal and running-away of the emotion expressed in the half-nostalgic, half-ironic “I wished them well,” indicates the degree to which Fitzgerald’s imagination had matured along with the sense of poetic artistry which could compress and modulate variations of action, character, and atmosphere in words that could feel through to the essential quality of a situation and reproduce its most accurate overtones. This flexible and lyrically differentiated kind of prose is duplicated on every page of the novel, and represents a very real development over the confused mixture of tonal and stylistic peccancies that cluttered his earlier writing, where his uncertainty and insufficiency of understanding tended to force him into the use of illegitimate rhetorical and incantatory devices of language in an attempt to communicate intensities of feeling inaccessible to his imagination.
In Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald conceived a figure who was to function as a center of moral and compositional activity which fused both the dramatic action and the values it implied. His character, though literally credible, can be regarded as a kind of choric voice, a man who embodies the moral conscience of his race, “a guide, a pathfinder, an original settler,” who “wanted the world to be… at a sort of moral attention forever,” but never forgets that “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.” The very form and larger idea of the novel allows for this possibility, and throughout the narrative, such a relation to the action is suggested both by the nature of his detached moral involvement and by the pitch and timbre of a diction that compels one to have an instinctive faith in his point of view.
Furthermore, it is the position of Fitzgerald to bring out some of the most subtle and ironic proportions of his subject matter by juxtaposing Nick’s feelings and the context from which they issue. In the scene, for example, where Daisy and Gatsby meet after five years, Fitzgerald has used the image of a defunct mantelpiece clock to symbolize the discontinuity of time their reunion implies. Gatsby, nervous and miserably uncomfortable, and leaning against the mantel, had almost knocked the clock to the floor—
“I’m sorry about the clock,” [Gatsby] said.
My own face had now assumed a deep tropical burn. I couldn’t muster up a single commonplace out of the thousand in my head.
“It’s an old clock,” I told them idiotically.
I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor.
“We haven’t met for many years,” said Daisy, her voice as matter-of-fact as it could ever be.
“Five years next November.”
The automatic quality of Gatsby’s answer set us all back at least another minute.
The tonal and compositional elements of this passage develop with faultless imaginative detail a tension between inner feeling and outer statement which generates the most evocative kind of emotional and atmospheric irony: the awkward banality of the conversational surface which runscounter to the seriousness of the subject combines with Nick’s “It’s an old clock” to carry the irony forward in the phrase “smashed in pieces,” and, moving with appropriate figurativeness through the diminishing segments of the remembered time-sequence expressed in “many years” and “five years” to the audacious telescoping of Nick’s “set us all back at least another minute,” it functions to obliterate artistically the immensity of the moral and psychological distance which separates Gatsby’s dream and Daisy’s presence, and connects itself dramatically with the image of the defunct clock to complete and reinforce the unsensed irony. This running concentration both of intellect and emotion in Nick’s central intelligence thus allowed Fitzgerald to control and intensify the internal and external proportions of his subject in modes which held its values in distinct but inter-animated states of sympathy and evaluation, a method which resulted in a dramatic effectiveness he had never before achieved.
Inasmuch as Nick Carraway’s point of view represents the significant moral force of Gatsby, one is led inevitably to recognize the nature of Jay Gatsby’s “incorruptible dream” through the continuous series of moral and emotional insights which reflect Nick’s understanding of the importance of the values involved. In spite of the pathetically naive assumptions which lie behind Gatsby’s vision of life, Nick chooses ultimately to commit himself to the beliefs it fosters, because, seen against the callous, destructive charm of Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s world, it becomes, to his mind, not the gaudy, unsplendid show-piece which attracts the vagrant and the vulgar, but a creative dream of intense magic and passion of purpose that flows from an innate fineness of heart and feeling. It is the worth and dignity of which the human will and imagination is capable traduced by a specious conviction, inarguably American in character, that the noblest intensities of existence are available if the objects with which they are ostensibly synonymous can be possessed. Such a conviction impels Gatsby to believe that his pink suits and period rooms will somehow secure his dream’s right to reality, and to disregard tragically the qualitative points of difference between the self-consciousstandards of a superimposed wealth and those ingrained in the certitudes of an aristocratic moneyed class. He assumes, with all the immaturity of his race, that living across the courtesy bay from Daisy entitles him to share the complicated dimensions of her world, but the distance which separates them is of a greater and less tangible kind than any narrow extension of water or the green dock-light toward which he yearns: there are all the years of Daisy’s assurance and certainty and self-indulgent pride, a way of life that has made her ignorant of unsatisfied longings and of wishes that could not be had, a whole cynical hierarchy of things taken for granted, like her expensive home in Louisville that always hinted of “bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms,” and seemed “as casual a thing to her as [Gatsby’s] tent out at camp was to him.” But enchanted by the amenity and charm of Daisy and her world, by the romantic possibilities for subtlety and graciousness of purpose its mystery and mobility promise, he commits the force of his idealizing imagination to the intense, allusive variousness of its life. His personal tragedy is his failure to understand the complex quality of the mind and motives which go into her fine-seeming world of wealth, for he is captivated by the delightful, exquisitely ordered surface without discerning the behind-the-doors ruthlessness, the years of infinite duplicity and subterfuge that a shrewd, self-preoccupied class has practiced to preserve the power and well-being such a surface implies. Only after the accident, when his vision starts to come to pieces like one of those toy clocks won at carnivals, and he has “lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream,” does he probably sense how very different the very rich are. “They were careless people,” Nick concludes of 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…” and the most eloquent irony of the novel is generated by the subtle interplay between, on the one hand, the elegance and charm of Daisy’s world as opposed to the cunningness of its inner corruption and, on the other, the gaudy elaborateness of Gatsby’s efforts to emulate its surface as contrasted with the uncontaminated fineness of his heart.
In the frantic tenacity of Gatsby’s belief that the conditions of both youth and love could be repeated if a way of life commensurate with their particular circumstances could be evolved, the whole complex tissue of Fitzgerald’s feeling about time, money, and emotional innocence are developed along with the mixture of sympathy and insight his own divided temperament adopted toward these features of experience. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald felt very strongly about the sadness and magic of the past and the remembrance of the youth and hope and feeling that had gone into its rush of individual moments, as he felt an intense fascination for the life of inherited wealth; but, unlike him, Fitzgerald, though committed imaginatively to both the charm and necessity of such sentiments, understood their value critically and creatively in relation to their total effect on human life and conduct. And in the themes of youth and wealth, two of the most brooding, compulsive images of the American mind, the one with all its overtones of romance, virtue, and emotional intactness, the other with its corresponding associations of happiness and a kind of millennial fulfillment—with the possible irony of corruption—Fitzgerald took hold of the essential qualities by which the American experience could be interpreted and expressed, and the last pages of the novel make explicit the significance of Gatsby as an avatar of a national consciousness that has committed the manifold vast-ness of its resources to the acquisition of “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” His story takes on the proportions of a mythic or archetypal idea: his dream becomes the tawdry, painted dream of a continent that has forfeited its will to the infinite, deceptive optimisms of film and advertising gauds which have the finality of excommunicatory edicts, while his parties, set in a world that is “material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about,” crystallize into the whirling incoherence that stands for the obtrusive, unfeeling largeness of the American social experience itself.
Published in The University of Kansas City Review magazine vol. 20, no. 1 (Autumn 1955). Text scanned from Readings on "The Great Gatsby", ed. by Katie DeKoster (San Diego: Greenhaven, 1998).