Is Jay Gatsby ultimately worth the “whole damn bunch put together”? by Dr Jennifer Minter
The complete rejection of Jay Gatsby by the East Egg socialites prompts Nick Carraway’s poignant conclusion that Gatsby alone was heroic and admirable owing to his infinite capacity to hope. As one who has learnt to be careful when meting out judgement, Nick believes, nonetheless, that Gatsby’s idealism sets him apart – such idealism is also shared by the narrator who likewise searches for a meaning beyond the superficial and the ordinary. At the same time, F. Scott Fitzgerald depicts the root of Gatsby’s dream and the origin of his search as a divided space. It is a dream split at the very origin — a dream that promised so much primarily because of its elusive nature.
Historically, the Great American Dream symbolised freedom and opportunity to the founding fathers of America. The eager “Dutch sailors”, shaking off a rigid European caste system, envisioned the “fresh green breast of the new world” as a place of limitless dreams, whereby every woman and man shared equality and could become rich through hard work.
However, it’s also a Dream that shields, protects and gnaws at its corrupt underbelly. The rich society is separated into two factions: old money and new money (synonymous with East Egg and West Egg). The clear distinction of classes that exist in the novel — the “fashionable” East Egg, the corrupt “West Egg” and the desolate “Valley of Ashes” — highlights the problematic nature of these ideals.
So who is Jay Gatsby/James Gatz?
Ultimately, Gatsby’s dream is to erase his poor upbringing and find acceptance among the upper class of East Egg, whose fabulous wealth dazzles Daisy Buchanan. However, this act of erasure reflects a divided origin – a division that is also a hallmark of the American Dream itself. The Gatz/Gatsby origin is marked by the tension between hope and hopelessness; poverty and riches; entitlement and worthlessness; hope and despair; inclusion and exclusion.
With the help of Dan Cody’s “appropriate education”, James Gatz “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself”. The Jay Gatsby persona/conception, then, becomes marked by the social and material attributes of an aristocratic lifestyle for which he yearns, but which he cannot single-handedly obtain. Despite the glamorous parties, Nick is struck by the sense of emptiness and loneliness of the host standing apart, in the moonlight.
In Gatsby’s case, this tension at the origin gives rise to innuendo and conjecture. Gatsby claims that he was in the First Division – 16th Infantry – until 1918; that he just bought a hydroplane (“want to go with me, old sport”). His rare smile is disarming – perhaps that of an Oxford man, or that of a man who killed someone (“I think he killed a man”). He was in the oil business, he earned his money in three years and has the souvenirs to show for it. He was the son of wealthy parents in the Middle West, but drifts around “trying to forget the sad things that have happened to him”. He has been involved in bootlegging, deceitful share dealings, and secret “business gonnegtions” with the “wrong man”.
Gatsby’s wealth, his mansion, his outrageously extravagant and dazzling parties and his expensive wardrobe, (the “white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-coloured tie”) are but a means to an end. They are just theatrical props in the unfolding drama: the anti-climax of which is to capture his former-now-married lover, Daisy. Upon visiting the mansion, Gatsby “revalued” everything according to the measure of “response it drew from her well-loved eyes”. However, just as spontaneously, the parties come to an end because the “whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes”.
The author pessimistically portrays the dream as tarnished from the outset; that it is unachievable through honest means is evident from the comparison between Jay Gatsby and George Wilson, a hard working but poor man, who struggles to maintain his business in the desperate, but poetic, “valley of the ashes” – a dilapidated wasteland that connects both Eggs to the city. It is a place that symbolises the moral and social decay at the core of the Dream. Gatsby, who has attained his affluence, like the majority of the nouveau riche, through dishonest means, suggests that the Dream has been impossibly compromised from the outset. In other words, the dream’s ideal is destroyed by those “with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe” in pursuit of “new money”.
The green light
The receding green light at the end of the jetty metaphorically represents Gatsby’s capacity to hope. It is full of creative and imaginative possibilities that reflect the more honourable aspects of both Gatsby and the narrator. Specifically, it also becomes connected with Gatsby’s desire to reclaim Daisy after the intervening five years during which he has kept his idyllic love alive. However, the green light also reflects a love that cannot be contained— the fact that he is more in love with the idea of Daisy. Realising the “colossal vitality” of Gatsby’s illusion, Nick knows that Daisy will “tumble short of his dreams”
The green light signifies “the green breast of the new world” and Gatsby’s “go-ahead” sign. At first, while gazing alone solitary towards the light, Gatsby is optimistic about the future. Standing beneath the light, on Daisy’s lawn, looking up to her room, the “great distance that had separated him from Daisy… seemed [now] as close as a star to the moon”, and yet, later, Gatsby somehow apprehends the disintegration of his dream, as he stands “there in the moonlight – watching over nothing”.
Part of the problem is that the dream is too “colossal”. Nick comments that the dream has “gone beyond her (Daisy), beyond everything”. One of Gatsby’s major flaws is that he insists and deceives himself into thinking that he can relive the past. During his confrontation with her husband, Tom Buchanan, in the Plaza Hotel, Gatsby pleads with Daisy to tell Tom “that [she] never loved him – and it’s all wiped out forever.” Not only does she lack the capacity to hope “unreservedly”, but Gatsby wants to relive the past completely and in its entirety. He wants Daisy to deny that she had any feelings at all for Tom or emotions that were not centred on Gatsby. He wants Daisy to tell Tom the truth, “that you never loved him—and it’s all wiped out forever”. Daisy stumbles: “I did love Tom once, but I loved you, too.” How can she deny the intervening five years, her relationship with Tom and the birth of her daughter?
Sadly after the tragedy, once again, Gatsby stands beyond the green light, looking up to Daisy’s room, aware of the evaporation of hope. The green light reflects the passing of time –the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. He waits all night, in vain for a sign.
The American wasteland: Doctor T. J. Eckleburg
Upper class socialites like Daisy and Tom exemplify the consequences of a dissolute and hedonistic lifestyle— “they are careless people” — in a sense proving as Oscar Wilde would say, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it”. (Lady Windermere’s Fan). When Tom and Daisy first attend Gatsby’s parties, they are disgusted at its “raw vigour”. Likewise, Nick criticises the “freeloaders” who frequent Gatsby’s parties as “moths” who “conducted themselves according to the rules of behaviour associated with an amusement park.” They “just came” to indulge in the wild and carnivalistic atmosphere making no attempt to greet their host.
Daisy uses Gatsby as a thrilling escape from her loveless marriage. Eventually, her lust for materialism and money demoralises her. The background of her “white girlhood”, symbolising purity and innocence, is compromised as she chooses the certainty of money, over the uncertain love she shared with Gatsby. Her angelic, mellifluous voice, so “full of money”, radiates wealth and materialism.
The selfishness of the hedonistic lifestyle is epitomised through Tom’s brutality and extramarital affair. His chauvinism reduces Myrtle, his mistress, to a mere possession and a victim of his uncontrollable, impulsive aggression.
With the inheritance of money, people like the Buchanans also inherited vanity. And in the midst of its bleakness are people like George Wilson and Michaelies, whose impoverished and simplistic lives are the antithesis of all that the Buchanans stand for. Tom and Daisy, with their “factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” tower in comparison to the modest, “unprosperous” and “bare” state of the Wilsons’ house.
Just as the dream contains the seeds of its destruction, so too does West Egg already contain the seeds of moral devastation as symbolised by Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s “blue and gigantic” eyes whose “retinas are one yard high”. The eyes stare in judgement over the “valley of the ashes” that lies half-way between West Egg and Yew York.
Omnipotently, Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s enormous yellow spectacles that pass over a non-existent nose, “brood on over the solemn dumping ground” seeing everything, censuring Tom’s decadent lifestyle that ruthlessly harms those he loves. An oculist left the sign there to advertise and to “fatten his practice” — remnants of a ‘bourgeois’ businessman trying to make an honest living. Whilst moral principles wither, (“the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air”) there is a corresponding increase in materialism, proving that “those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.” (The Preface of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.)
According to Nick Carraway, Tom Buchanan represents the height of profligacy and recklessness. He manipulates his wealth to trample upon the happiness of others and owing to his strong sense of entitlement recommends that Goddard’s The Rise of the Coloured Empires should be general reading for all those concerned about the demise of the “dominant race” by those “other races who seek to “have control of things”. Nick refers to Tom’s attitude to money as a “matter for reproach” (11). From beginning to end, Fitzgerald censures Tom’s “vast carelessness” and shows little change in his attitude to others as he wreaks havoc and ruins lives with impunity. At the beginning, Tom comes to the East “in a fashion that rather took your breath away”. Fitzgerald cites as an example of his extreme largesse, the fact that he “brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest” to the East, something that makes it hard to “realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that”. Likewise, at the end of the novel, after the deaths of both Gatsby and Myrtle, Nick chances upon Tom at a jewellery story probably buying pearl earrings for another mistress. Once again, he is completely oblivious to the carnage he and Daisy have caused through their extravagant lifestyles and heartless attitudes. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness” (170) The final handshake and encounter with Nick suggests that Tom has no moral compunctions and scruples about his betrayal of those who dare to trample upon his happiness as he does to others. He is incensed that Gatsby supposedly “ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car”. (169)
Superficial wealth and arrogance are symbolised throughout by reckless driving, which causes several accidents including the tragic climax. For example, Nick reprimands Jordan Baker’s appalling driving skills, which she rationalises, arguing that “it takes two to make an accident”.
Most notable of all however, is Myrtle Wilson’s death – one that was caused by an act of culpable driving committed by Daisy whose immediate reaction was to continue on her way and erase the consequences of her actions by disappearing. Money permits this. Haughty and disdainful, Tom Buchanan seems completely oblivious of the consequences. They epitomize the selfishness of hedonistic East Eggers “smashing up” those around them. Their reaction to the deaths of their partners (Myrtle and Gatsby) and inability to face the consequences reinforce Nick’s opinion of them as “foul dust.” Similarly, the party-goers who take advantage of Gatsby’s hospitality yet desert him in the end embody a money-driven, “septic” society.
Nick’s final judgment of the East-eggers is that they “were careless people” who exploited others then “retreated back into their money”. Sadly, individuals such as Wilson, living in the valley of ashes, can only retreat into despair.
Fitzgerald clearly depicts Tom and his entourage as the “foul dust” that floated upon, and reduced the grandeur of, another man’s impossible dreams.
The role of the narrator: “within and without”
Nick Carraway’s relationship with Gatsby also reflects the divided origin of someone who wants to participate and share in the “colossal vitality” of the dream, whilst protecting himself at the same time owing to its very destructive nature. For Nick, his need to remain in both places (“within and without”) renders the role of the narrator ambiguous. On the one hand, he romanticises the pursuit of “infinite hope” which is possible only if one defends one’s right to “reserve judgement”. He is enthralled by Gatsby whose “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” inspires the “extraordinary gift of hope”. “It is a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again”. (p 8) But Nick, is also aware that he remains an outsider watching his friends, the main protagonists, self destruct.
Contradictorily, Nick is both repulsed and enchanted by Gatsby and the “whole bunch”. He states, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted by the inexhaustible variety of life”. In many ways, Nick wants to escape, but finds himself drawn back into the underbelly. During his escapades with Tom and Myrtle Wilson, an irrational force beguiles him: “I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair”. (37) Later during Daisy’s and Gatsby’s intimate encounter Nick is again both “within and without” . “They had forgotten me” and whilst Daisy offers her hand, “Gatsby didn’t know me now at all”. They looked at him as an outsider, “remotely”; they were the ones “possessed by intense life”. (93). The fact that Nick is never completely “within” the main story and complicit in the “intense life” of the protagonists protects him from the full extent of the brutality.
From the outset, Nick is charmed by the “old sport” and in particular by his “rare” smile with a quality of “eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life” (49) In this sense, the smile reassures Nick and vindicates his attempt to “reserve judgement”; but importantly the old sport’s gaze functions as a reflection of Nick’s desire to be validated because it “concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour”; the smile not only reassures him, but understands him “just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself”. In other words, that part of self — the self in denial, the self that does not want to be understood, the self that anticipates the deflation and the hollowness of the dream — is overlooked, concealed, misunderstood, buried. So the smile narcissistically reflects you, “at your best” but just as quickly “it vanished”; the smile suggests, like the green light, like the American Dream, like Jay Gatsby/James Gatz, a split or division in its original purpose and reveals itself only to disappear.
The narrator’s selective desire to “reserve judgement” colours his relationship with Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan
Although Nick belongs to the “well-to-do” class, the prominent three-generation clan of the Carraways, he is keen to point out that owing to his position of privilege he must be wary of judging others harshly. Both he and his father have a tendency towards “snobbishness”, but Nick reminds us that one’s birth status can lead to the unjust perpetuation of inequality.
From the outset, the narrator tenders his father’s advice about the judgement of others — that the ability to reserve judgement is one of “infinite hope”.
However, in many ways, the narrator applies his advice differently to Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan.
Whilst both Tom and Gatsby are fabulously wealthy, self-indulgent and profligate in their own ways, Nick censures Tom much more harshly than Gatsby. Whilst he is prepared to “reserve” judgement for Gatsby, he does not reserve judgement towards Tom. Although Gatsby, typically represents all that Nick would scorn, he also exudes something that is “gorgeous” about him, something that redeems him from the powerfully corrupt set to which he aspires to belong.
Tom’s physical prowress and large muscular frame symbolize physical power but in a way that points to moral decadence. His careless use of wealth is a “matter for reproach” and his “supercilious” and arrogant manner conceals the height of impropriety. Not even his “effeminate swank” could hide the “enormous power of that body” which so easily “took your breath away”.
Tom’s brutal, masculine power is confronting. Tom’s is a “cruel body”, capable of “enormous leverage” . His voice is “husky” and usually irritable, and irascible. Tom is “more of a man” than others, trampling carelessly upon the sensitivities of others – particularly upon George Wilson’s marriage in demeaning and demoralizing ways. With contempt, he tells Nick that “he’s (Mr Wilson) so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive”. (20) Tom’s sense of physical and imperious dominance is also matched by a tendency towards bigotry. He champions white supremacy and cautions against the voice of other races (18) If Tom is always “aggressively leaning forward” (12), Gatsby tends to be in the shadows. He is set apart, distanced, and never quite a part of the social set – set apart by his “romantic readiness” and idealistic yearnings.
The first encounter with Gatsby reveals more about Nick and his ideals than the man himself. As Nick seeks to keep alive his own capacity for hope, his first meeting is instrumental as he looks and finds the reassurance for which he initially searches. (In many ways, Nick seeks through Gatsby, the vicarious fulfilment of his dreams and, as Gatsby becomes a mirror of his own hopes and dreams, he looks for confirmation, for reassurance and for affirmation. (49) Gatsby greets him with an “understanding” smile. “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 eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour”. The fact that it only “seemed to face” reveals the extent of the narrator’s bias and the extent of his own soul-searching. Nick gives the impression that one will find self in Gatsby depending upon the degree to which one is prepared to look.
By Dr Jennifer Minter, The Great Gatsby: English Works VCE studies (www.englishworks.com.au)