In my previous post, I discussed my lecture of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). (I have the slides on Google Docs.) I wrote about the way that Fitzgerald, from the outset, constructs the novel as a facade, the ways that the novel does not accept all of its readers, and I concluded with the ways that the novel pushes back against xenophobic ideas such as Tom Buchanan’s belief in the superiority of the Nordic race. Today, I want to talk about the rest of the lecture.
After looking at Tom’s flawed logic, I move on to explore how he still maintains a facade himself, not just in regard to his ancestry. Early in the novel, Nick talks Tom’s “various physical accomplishments,” specifically his exploits on the football field at Yale. Nick continues by pointing out that Tom is like “one of those men who reach such acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax.” Nick sees Tom drifting, endlessly, just like Gatsby, beating his oars against the current into the past. Nick finishes by claiming that Tom rows on “forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” In this manner, he is like Gatsby, and he puts on the facade of masculinity and athletic prowess to cover up the fact that he physically peaked at twenty one.
Just like Tom, Gatsby seeks to repeat the past; however, Nick has an affection and respect for Gatsby that he does not have for Tom. For Nick, what preyed on Gatsby, the lingering, unrecoverable past, is what he despised. This does not mean that he approved of Gatsby’s actions; it just means that Gatsby, and his attempts to reclaim something he can’t reclaim cause Nick to feel for him in a way that he cannot feel for Tom. Part of this, I would argue, arises from Tom’s and Gatsby’s respective positions at the start of their lives.
Fitzgerald, himself, commented on the lines that blur fact from fiction. They exist as an illusions, a nostalgic, imaginary shadow that we cannot ever grasp. In 1924, he wrote, “That’s the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” Gatsby partakes of that “magical glory.” He appears to have everything anyone could ever want, yet he still suffers. He does not have love, companionship, in essence true human relationships. He has facades of relationships.
The illusion of reality comes up at other places in the novel as well, specifically in Tom and Myrtle’s apartment and in Gatsby’s library. The apartment is sparsely furnished, and the furnishing tell a lot about Myrtle’s position and her aspirations. One of the key furnishings are the “tapestried furniture” that has images “of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles.” The Garden of Versailles, of course, serve as a symbol of opulence and wealth, one that pushes those not born into that society to the side, excluding them.
After Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose for mentioning Daisy, Catherine McKee runs around trying to stop Myrtle’s bleeding nose. Myrtle, sitting on the couch, grabs a copy of Town Tattle and holds it above the “tapestry scenes of Versailles” to keep them from getting blood on this. The fact that she grabs Town Tattle is important because it was a popular gossip magazine that showcased the lives and activities of the wealthy. As such, it was a facade just like the tapestries. Each item works to create an image of wealth and sophistication for Myrtle; however, they fail, just as they do with Gatsby. Tom does not treat her as he does Daisy; instead, he merely treats her as a fling. (This does not mean that he treats Daisy in a positive manner.)
Along with Myrtle’s facade, Gatsby’s entire house exists as a front, nothing more. In the library, the Owl Eyed man tells Nick and Jordan,
“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our skepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“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 do you expect?”
The man expects the books in the library to be decorative, nothing more. Thus, he expects them to be unreal. He discovers, though, that the have real, tangible pages. Yet, the man still does not believe that Gatsby is in any way authentic. He tells Nick and Jordan, “This fella’s a regular Belasco.” Here, the Owl Eyed man references David Belasco, an American theater producer who had detailed descriptions of the sets in his scripts. Like Belasco, Gatsby has constructed a set (his mansion) to the point where it looks authentic but in reality it is not. This facade extends even to Gatsby’s mannerisms and use of terms such as “Old sport.” Nick even says that Gatsby’s “elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.”
Throughout the novel, Gatsby and the other characters express loneliness and alienation, a theme that recurs extensively in modernist literature. Gertrude Stein famously labeled Fitzgerald and others the Génération perdue, telling Hemingway, “That is what you are. That’s what you all are. . . all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” The Great Gatsby explores these ideas of loss and alienation. Nick speaks specifically about this when he talks about his service during WW I: “I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless.” This restlessness caused him to move East.
At other points, Nick expresses the aimlessness of himself and other characters in the story. During the party at Tom and Myrtle’s apartment, he talks about people coming and going, almost aimlessly: “People disappeared, reappeared, made plans to go somewhere, and then lost each other, searched for each other, found each other a few feet away.” Looking upon Gatsby’s empty mansion, Nick thinks, “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell.” The image of Gatsby stands in “complete isolation” in the doorway, removed from everyone else, alone and isolated.
While I spoke about the American Dream over the course of the lecture, I finished by showing how Gatsby pulls on Benjamin Franklin’s up from your bootstraps self help mantra in his Autobiography. Along with this, I end with Nick’s final reflections as he thinks back to the Dutch settlers who came to the region. For them, the land stood before them, and they dreamed enchanted dreams of what they could accomplish. Those dreams, though, ceased to exist as time progressed. Some, like the Carraways, succeed, constructing mythologies about their ancestry. Others, like the Gatzes did not. Having to work his way up socially, Jay Gatz changed his identity to fit in with the Buchanon’s, but he did not fit in. They excluded him, seeing him as an interloper, not as someone who was following the same path that their families followed.
This is not, of course, all that I could say or did say in the lecture. I hope, though, that it is helpful to you as you look at Fitzgerald’s novel. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.
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I thought this was quite interesting! Gatsby has always been one of my favorite novels to think about!
Thanks. I really despise the characters and overall story of Gatsby, but it is a fascinating text. Fitzgerald does so many stylistic and thought provoking things in the novel.