Great Gatsby: Chapters 1 - 4
The Fragile "Enchantment":
The problem, of course, is that false identities do depend essentially on externals, and the result is personal vacuum. Combined with Gatsby's optimistic "faith" that every desire can be turned into reality with the right stage-props, with the right gestures or "productions," there remains the nagging fear, the inevitable panic resulting from the fact that the "enchantment" itself can last only so long as the external appearance remains intact. Given any change in external circumstances; given any sudden eruption of crisis, or intrusion of real emotion, and the entire edifice must collapse; the "enchantment" fades away like cheap neon light, and the result is . . . nothing at all.
There is no room, in an Enchanted Palace, for the sordid demands and necessary commitments of reality, and it is for this reason that Gatsby's protection of Daisy at the end of the novel represents something far more profound than chivalry; in protecting his Ideal, he is literally fighting for his own survival. For Jay Gatsby has so "enchanted" his own vision that without the enchantment he quite simply does not exist. Defined by externals, there is nothing beneath the surface; without his "faith" in material acquisition-the stage-props-as a means of securing his enchanted ideal, his glowing "promise," there is nothing but the Valley of Ashes, with the yellow eyes of Doctor Eckleburg peering over a desolated landscape from which all the fairy-girls and golden hosts have long since fled.
That Gatsby does have the Ideal, however, at once defines his non-reality and somehow redeems it as well, for it is by means of the Ideal that Gatsby transcends his own materialism-unlike the merely gross flesh of a Tom Buchanan. And it is for this reason that Nick, despite the fact that he finds Gatsby absurd and even offensive, nevertheless remembers the "purity" of Gatsby himself; the peculiar innocence and child-like hope, the sense of wonder that Gatsby radiates even in his complete inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between the real and unreal.
Gatsby And Daisy:
A creature of "whiteness" indeed, Daisy is the "fairy girl" of Gatsby's dreams in more ways than one - and her essential lack of emotion provides an important link in the chain of perverted "Ideals," pathetically futile gestures, and sordid circumstances that finally destroy Gatsby and his dreams. Gatsby's relationship with Daisy in this matter, it must be emphasized, resembles Fitzgerald's own relationship with his "fairy girl" of real life: Zelda, who was to be both his wife and his despair, and whose love he had to "earn" with "success." As we have already noted in our introduction to The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald knew all too well the power exerted by wealth or the appearance of "success" even on the hearts of sweet young girls and the "romance" of love; the ironic relationship between money, now matter how achieved, and the Ideal of Beauty is a basic theme of his work and a basic comment on American culture as Fitzgerald saw it.
Once Nick understands the Gatsby-Daisy relationship, he (and the reader) also understands that Gatsby's entire "production" is aimed at the winning of an ideal, and there is a marked increase in urgency when Nick discovers the entire area of West Egg ablaze one evening with "unreal" light. It is Gatsby's mansion, where the lights have been turned on in every room. This is a very effective image, an example of the narrative economy of Fitzgerald at his best. For the blaze of "unreal" light communicates both the intensity of Gatsby's emotion, and the illusion which is the basis for the emotion itself. Some sort of climax is obviously in the offing - and if this climax turns into a absurdity, into an anti-climax of pathetic tragedy (as indeed it will), the cause is to be found in the nature of Gatsby's dream - a dream which (as we have so often remarked) contains the inevitability of its own destruction.
The resources of Gatsby himself are so completely without a standard of either moral code or social perception, that his attempt to express himself becomes little more than a vulgarity. For in sincerely wanting to "thank" Nick, he offers to cut him in on a lucrative stock deal.
Under the circumstances, however, Nick has no choice but to refuse Gatsby's offer - for the offer itself would turn an act of friendship into a "business deal," and so become an act of degradation. That Nick perceives this, and Gatsby does not, defines the gulf separating a world in which all of human emotion - love or friendship, or gratitude - is little more than "business" and material acquisition, from a world (Nick's world of the Midwest) where there are still areas of human life which are simply not to be bought or sold.
The point to remember is that Gatsby does not mean to be sordid or insulting; he is using the only means at his disposal-the only "magic" he has at his command: material acquisition. It is, indeed, the same "magic" with which he hopes to achieve his Ideal of Beauty: Daisy Buchanan.
"Grand Passion" And Low Comedy:
Nick tries to comfort him, and finally becomes impatient: "You're acting like a little boy," he says to Jay Gatsby, the Prince of the Golden Palace, and this single remark defines much of Gatsby's peculiar charm - and pathos. For Gatsby, despite (or because of) his wealth, and his dreams, is indeed a "little boy" - a worshipper of toys which he takes to be signs of Divinity. For boy-men like Jay Gatsby, the trivial must be always elevated to the Cosmically Significant, and it is precisely this quality of "boyish" idealization demonstrated by Gatsby, that other American writers (Ernest Hemingway, for example) came to see as the unique "charm" - and maddening weakness - of so many of their countrymen.
The Palace Of Enchantment:
And how does Gatsby react to the fact that he has at last captured his Butterfly Queen with a "net of gold"? He simply moves like a man sleep-walking through a dream that has suddenly become flesh. His very possessions, accumulated with such effort, suddenly become almost "unreal" in Daisy's presence; and indeed they are important only as they succeed or fail to succeed in giving her delight.
It is important to note, however, that the very realization of Gatsby's dream has in some way "spoiled" the dream itself; at this moment which he had idealized for so long, when his emotion is at "an inconceivable pitch of intensity," Gatsby somehow is beginning to feel a loss-a loss of something he cannot name or identify. "He was running down like an overwound clock," Nick observes - and the image, with all its absurd deflation, is indeed a description of Gatsby's ultimate fate.
Gatsby's Magic Shirts:
Gatsby's silk shirts as many critics have noted, are actually far more important than any mere garment ever spun by machine or man. For these shirts, to Jay Gatsby (like his car or his mansion), are important not in themselves, but for what they represent - and what they represent is the shrine of "success" and Ideal value made possible by success itself. Gatsby does not merely "wear" these shirts; he worships them, or uses them as sacred objects in a ritual whose meaning is, paradoxically enough, spiritual rather than materialistic.
To Tom Buchanan, for example, a shirt, even a silk shirt, would be-quite simply-a shirt. For Jay Gatsby the material object transcends itself; it becomes a mystic sign and spiritual endowment. This is what Daisy sense in this memorable scene-for as Gatsby continues to pile the rainbow of silk cloth higher and higher, Daisy literally collapses in a kind of ecstatic moaning; bending her head into the shirts, she begins to cry "stormily," declaring their beauty with sobs of mingled delight and sadness: like a music lover rhapsodizing over a violin solo by Bach.
The meaning of Gatsby's shirts, in other words, despite the peculiar absurdity of the entire scene, is that of a man who brings to his Dream a preoccupation with materialism which in some way has been transformed into enchantment; hence the relevance of the dedication on the flyleaf of The Great Gatsby, the bit of verse from the work of Thomas Park D'Invilliers:
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!"
After what might be called the "ecstasy of the shirts," however, Gatsby's mood of exultation somehow darkens and returns to a lower pitch. For having shown Daisy his palace, having reached her at last-knowing that she will be his-there must inevitably be a loss of enchantment itself. Daisy's fascination for Gatsby, after all, had rested in large part upon her very unavailability; made available once again, turned from an Ultimate Cause to simply another possession, Daisy must suffer a considerable loss in status. Gatsby senses this, a "loss" to which Nick refers when, describing Gatsby's appearance, he remarks that "his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one."
"Enchanted objects," after all, by definition disappear when touched; and this is precisely the measure of Gatsby's success - and his loss.
Gatsby's Identity - And The American Dream:
At this point Nick's analysis of the Gatsby character provides a basic insight not only into the character of the namesake of the novel, but into "The American Dream" of enchanted "success." For the dream of the 17-year-old James Gatz-the vision of "a vast, vulgar, meretricious beauty" that in some way was Divine as well as merely materialistic, is precisely the dream of Jay Gatsby as a man.
The pathos, of course, is that the fevered dreams and hope for some iridescent and glowing "glory" that one might expect from a 17-year-old drifter possessed of a keen imagination, is precisely the dream of the adult man as well. The result is a kind of nursery turned into a cathedral; a world in which the fairy-stories of adolescence (themselves based on pulp fiction) become the sole motivation of manhood, and are given an almost spiritual sanctification because they are the only Holy Cause which James Gatz - and the world which shaped him - can offer to human aspiration.
Frbm his adolescence, in short, Gatz - Gatsby had been pursuing the Holy Glow of some vaguely imagined "success," an "identity" gleaming like a mirage just over the horizon of tomorrow. The result is both complete romanticism and complete lack of any real identity at all; obsessed (as Nick remarks) with "a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing" and viewing his own identity through fashion-magazine spectacles, Jay Gatsby-the Prince of Enchantment-indeed "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself."
It is, however, a "Platonic Idealism" whose only means of self-realization is material acquisition at any cost; it is an identity founded on facade, and a "self" which depends for its very existence upon illusion. This is the core of the Gatsby paradox, and the paradox of The American Dream itself: a unique kind of materialism that in a basic sense never "grows up," that is elevated into a perpetual, adolescent, romantic, and spiritual value. And because Gatsby's materialism-like American materialism-is all of these things, the result must be destructive; when material goals are reduced (or elevated) to spiritual cotton-candy, they dissolve at the touch.
The smile itself, of course, is still another symbol of the vacuum beneath the surface of Gatsby's appearance. Representing not a state of emotion but a state of ambition, the "smile" is an instrument to be deliberately manipulated; it is a social weapon rather than a personal tribute, and as such is no more meaningful than are the bright, "perky" and vacuous "smiles" which so often infest college campuses on sorority-pledge day.
Cody, however, was taken in by the Gatsby smile-for he was himself a creature of emptiness, an opportunist whose wealth was based on certain "lucky" transactions in the mine-fields of Montana.
But Gatsby was, in some basic way, made of finer stuff than his "mentor"; a romanticist even as a youth, he had remained apart from the worst dissipation, and indeed had at this time acquired a dislike for liquor which was to last all his life.
The Buchanans At Gatsby's Party:
The guests at the party contribute to the effect we have already discussed: a kind of kaleidoscope of insubstantial "fun" and meaningless charm, together with a hint - and perhaps more than a hint-of nightmare or vacuum beneath all the colored lights and "perfect" moon.
Fitzgerald, all through this scene, introduces images which serve to reinforce the lack of substance in the Gatsby-Daisy relationship, and so delicately does he combine fragile "beauty" with absurd pomp, that the result is an indirect definition-or redefinition-of character.
Imagery Of Gesture:
For Daisy Buchanan, indeed, emotion itself is a matter of "gesture", and anything too real is likely to prove "offensive" in more ways than one.
The Basis Of The Gatsby-Daisy "Love":
Daisy, in short, is "in love" less with Jay Gatsby the man, than with Jay Gatsby the "Knight Errant"; one might say that she loves the gesture which Gatsby has made, the "romance" of unrequited love and noble devotion. This attitude, of course, is itself a paradox, for in loving the gesture of Gatsby, Daisy must-inevitably-find the romance of the gesture dissolving if she ever gives herself to him in the flesh. That flesh is precisely what she does not want, is a basic irony of the book.
Gatsby himself, furthermore has no less difficulty in "loving Daisy as a woman. So completely has she been for him an ideal, a Holy Cause, that to accept her for a woman with a real life and a real past-a past complete with a husband and a child-is no longer possible. In a basic sense, Gatsby has not only idealized reality, but has replaced reality with the Ideal.
Gatsby's insistence that one can indeed "repeat the past" is an important clue to his essential adolescence - an adolescence which he has never outgrown. For Gatsby no less than for Myrtle Wilson or Tom Buchanan it is "I want" that must serve as a theme for living; the difference between them is that what Gatsby "wants" is based on illusion, on ideal, while Buchanan or Myrtle recognizes no ideal at all.
Gatsby, at any rate, does not "want" Daisy as she exists; he wants his Golden Girl, his Golden Dream of five years before. That this Dream has actually lived with another man for five years, and - even more intolerable - had actually borne a child by him - has no part in his vision. One cannot, after all, imagine a "dream girl" in a state of pregnancy. Gatsby, again , has devoted all his "magic" to an image which no longer exists; he is indeed watching over "nothing" - and this defines both the purity of his romanticism, and the pathos of his innocence.
Daisy's Little Girl:
The little girl's appearance is itself a finely wrought irony. For Daisy's relationship to her child is hardly that of a mother to a daughter; the role of Pammy in Daisy's life is all too obviously that of a "darling" little toy - a toy to be "played with" and removed by the hired help when its presence is no longer convenient. "You dream, you" cries Daisy to the little girl, and for Daisy Buchanan her child is indeed a "dream" - a mere shape or decorative object in her life, the echo rather than substance of emotion.
Daisy's emotions, of course, are completely superficial; indeed, her very praise of Gatsby (that he looks like a man in an advertisement!) defines the nature of her "emotion" - or rather, her infatuation with the entire gesture of "having" a love-affair.
A Voice Full Of Money:
Daisy, of course, has been rather indiscreet; in the world of impulse, however, caution is itself vulgar, and Daisy is simply too much of a child to control her delight in her enchanting new plaything: Jay Gatsby himself.
The voice of Daisy Buchanan, says Gatsby in one of the most important sentences of the novel, is a voice "full of money." And we immediately perceive the truth of this comment-the key to all the "magic" of Daisy Buchanan.
It is all a fairy-story, a parody of some child's tale of enchantment grown more ruthless - and more dangerous-because of the absurd misdirection of power which resides in wealth itself. And if Daisy Buchanan is "the king's daughter" of some real-life myth, Gatsby is for Daisy the Enchanted Prince of some real-life epic; when crisis intrudes, and demonstrates all too clearly that the Princess is a creature of flesh, and that the Prince is neither royal nor enchanted, all the dreams must-inevitably-go smash.
Where Wilson is deeply hurt, however, almost physically ill because of his wife's betrayal, Tom Buchanan is merely angry, furious, like an overgrown infant deprived of "his" property. This is a vital difference between the two men, and is a basic reason why Tom will ultimately survive.
Wilson's "weakness" is precisely the fact that he loves his wife too deeply; for Tom Buchanan, on the other hand, "love" is itself a matter of ego and appetite, and if he is furious that Gatsby has engaged the affections of his wife, he is no less angry that Wilson is planning to deprive him of a mistress. It is men like Wilson and Gatsby-men defined by emotion or Ideals-who are ultimately destroyed; in the Wasteland of modern America, it is the flesh-ridden "realists" like Tom Buchanan who accommodate - and survive.
This is not to say, however, that Tom does not care for Daisy-or, for that matter, for Myrtle Wilson. It is, rather, that his love is on a different level; incapable of loving (or hating) an Ideal, his very emotions are in a basic sense pragmatic: that is, realistic. Unlike Gatsby, who tries to recreate the world according to a dream, and unlike George Wilson, who is ruled by his emotions, Tom is rich enough, and "simple minded" enough-to hold only those ideals which are useful to his own position in life, and to ruthlessly eliminate any emotion which becomes a threat rather than a pleasure.
The Source Of Gatsby's "Gold":
The pathos is that while Tom has the "goods" on Gatsby, he has not really described him at all-for everything that Gatsby did, he did for the sake of his Golden Girl, his Dream of Purity and Enchantment: Daisy herself.
The End Of A Dream:
The paradox is one which lies at the very heart of American culture: in attempting to achieve a Golden Dream of Idealistic Beauty through the only means available to him, Gatsby represents a world in which means have become totally subordinate to ends, where "success" is the only moral reality, and where the end itself-the Dream-is by this very fact reduced to a parody of any "purpose" whatsoever.
That Gatsby's Dream is itself a pathetic illusion, is dramatized by the reaction of Daisy Buchanan-who suddenly finds that her Fabled Lover, her long lost Prince Charming, far from being "above" the sordid reality of the world, has spun his "enchantment" from the most sordid and most vulgar element of the reality itself. And so Daisy Buchanan "withdraws" from Gatsby, withdraws from the sudden smash of her romantic infatuation like a sorority girl in white lace avoiding a puddle of grease. Everything is over; everything, indeed, is "dead."
The Death Of Myrtle:
The scene is a vitally important one, for two reasons: first, it demonstrates that for all of Daisy's love of "romance" she is actually far closer to the brutal selfishness of Tom Buchanan-the selfishness and carelessness of the very rich than she is to the Idealism of Jay Gatsby.
The second point of major significance in the scene is the fact that while Daisy and Tom draw closer together-while they "conspire" to destroy Gatsby himself-Jay Gatsby remains under the fatal illusion that Daisy is still "his" girl, his Fairy Princess. And this illusion-as foolish as it is, and as pathetic as it is-once again defines the paradox of Jay Gatsby both as a man and as symbol. For it is Gatsby the bootlegger, the man who has literally sacrificed his entire life to the pursuit of an ideal, and who has made of material acquisition a shrine for the worship of that ideal, who is ultimately the one who gives rather than takes.
All of Gatsby's vulgarity, in other words, all of his "materialism" and single-minded pursuit of wealth, has been, in a very basic sense, founded upon his willingness to sacrifice himself for that in which he believes: the Ideal Beauty to be achieved through work, and effort, and purity of devotion. It is Tom Buchanan and Daisy who, completely without ideals or any spiritual dimension, simply "retreat into their money" at any eruption of crisis.
Such is the nature of Gatsby's purity, that the "something" in him which Nick perceives as spiritual rather than material, leads him to self-sacrifice rather than to self-protection; all that he has done-all the evil that he has perpetuated-has been done not for himself, but for others-for the sanctification of his Dream. And this, of course, is a paradox not only of Gatsby, but-as we have indicated-f what sociologists and critics have termed "The American Dream" - a kind of materialism devoted to spiritual values.
A Waste Of Power:
That Gatsby's spiritual value-his Ideal Cause-is the amoral sentiment and the random impulse of Daisy Buchanan, is itself the deepest horror of his situation. And this situation, again, is grounded not in "evil," but rather is wasted goodness: the goodness of devotion, in almost religious terms, to a "Goddess" made of tinfoil and rotten gumdrops. This theme of waste-a waste of devotion, a waste of human resources, a waste of ambition-is basic to The Great Gatsby as a novel. It is also a basic theme of the work of Fitzgerald and of other American writers as well. From Henry James to John Steinbeck, from Mark Twain to Sinclair Lewis, American writers have been obsessed with the image of America as a power for good somehow diverted into an instrument of the false and the trivial.
Just so does Jay Gatsby, the pathetic, the vulgar, and yet - in some way - noble "knight errant," mobilize his own resources to "protect" his ideal: Daisy Buchanan. And it is for this reason that Nick Carroway remarks, while Gatsby "watches" over the Buchanan house (where, unknown to him, Daisy and her husband are "conspiring" for his destruction), that Gatsby is watching over "nothing" - a nothingness which is indeed the essence of the dream of Jay Gatsby, and perhaps the dream of American "Success" as well.