Great Gatsby: Chapters 1 - 4
Very important to The Great Gatsby is the voice of the narrator, Nick Carroway, a young man of good Mid-western family who had "gone east" to New York for a career in stocks-and-bonds after serving in World War I. Nick actually narrates the entire novel, which is written in "first person": that is, the person of Nick himself. The fact that The Great Gatsby is "told" through the mind and personality of Nick Carroway is basic to the structure - and meaning - of the book.
The Meaning Of Nick:
Nick is far more than an "objective" or non-involved spectator; he is deeply involved in the action. For this reason, the reader must understand Nick while Nick comments upon Jay Gatsby and the other characters of the novel. In a very basic sense, The Great Gatsby is a novel with a "dual hero" - the story is "about" Nick no less than it is about Jay Gatsby, and both men ultimately emerge as moral symbols: Gatsby as the embodiment of spiritual desolation or waste, and Nick as a hope for moral and spiritual growth.
Ever since he had returned to the Mid-west from the "East" and his experience with Gatsby, Nick has been attempting to define this experience for himself; the flash-back method of narrative employed by Fitzgerald is really a means to clarify Nick's own "education." For Nick Carroway is searching for a world in which some sort of moral code is possible, a world in which "conduct" and moral values involve something more than the mere gratification of impulse. Nick, indeed, remarks that when he returned to the Mid-west he wanted "the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever."
What Nick desires is a foundation for moral action, for he had found in the East - and in the person and fate of Jay Gatsby - only a "foul dust" of illusion, of "gorgeous" dreams rather than substance, of "gesture" rather than emotions, and promises rather than life. As for Gatsby himself: despite the fact that Nick despises his vulgar ambitions and schemes, there remains a pathetic tragedy about the man - pathetic because all of Gatsby's energy and "extraordinary gift" had been devoted to emptiness; and tragic because the very basis of Gatsby's idealism made its own degradation inevitable.
If Tom is at home in the world of wealth - his by inheritance and right - and uses it like the splendid and mindless animal he is, Jay Gatsby attempts to make of his own wealth a kind of magic key to a dream-palace of idealized bliss. This is a basic contrast: the fact that material wealth is, for Tom, what a toy is to a brutal and spoiled child; while for Gatsby material wealth is what a holy "vision" is to a religious mystic. For Gatsby, indeed, material "success" is itself an ideal, and this is the paradox at the heart of Gatsby's "romance." Tom, who uses wealth as he would a woman or a horse, survives through his materialism; Jay Gatsby, who would make of materialism a spiritual ideal, is ultimately destroyed by his own dreams. Nick's very first visit to the Buchanan mansion is highly charged with symbolic description and symbolic action.
Surface Without Substance:
The description of this scene is important because it introduces several themes or "motifs" of the novel. Basic to The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's rendering-through Nick-of a world in which appearance is not only mistaken for reality, but actually replaces it, so that the surface of things, or of people, rules out the substance of either. Nick, for example, tells us at the very beginning of the novel, that Gatsby's life had been "an unbroken series of successful gestures" - and a "gesture" is, by definition, the appearance of emotion without the emotion itself.
Throughout the book Fitzgerald reinforces this theme of "promise" that produces nothing, of "confidence" produced by fear (that is, the exact opposite of everything the word "confidence" implies), of "friends" without friendship, of "smiles" that are pasted on faces like labels on boxes of detergent, of "good times" that are manufactured like "caterers' productions," or "romance" without love, "pleasure" without enjoyment, "winning" without victory, "thrills" without consummation, and motion without meaning. Like the muscles of a frog that twitch to mechanical stimuli, all emotions are reduced to reactions, and all reactions are pre-packaged according to sentimentalized ideals.
The Fitzgerald Woman:
The essential coldness of both Daisy and Jordan is another basic theme of The Great Gatsby and indeed, Fitzgerald's work as a whole: that is, the view of American women as lovely, graceful, shallow, "romantic" but childishly selfish, childishly destructive, and-perhaps most important-emotionally frigid despite (or because of) their "romantic" and sentimental charm-a charm that is a gesture of life rather than a quality of living.
Fitzgerald very cleverly sets up a contrast between Tom's immense tension, his violence, and the awkward and bumbling manner in which he states his position-a position which (like all other positions in the novel) is little more than a parody: in this case of both politics and science. Tom's attempts to "talk," indeed, are parodies of intellect just as the "love" between Gatsby and Daisy is a parody of love itself.
Daisy As Illusion:
Daisy's voice, like Daisy herself, is an illusion, a "trick" which - as Nick understands - is little more than a device to "exact a contributor emotion" - or rather, the effect of emotion.
The as yet vague feeling that the world of the Buchanans represents some sort of moral rottenness, is reinforced by Nick's realization that Jordan (to whom he is physically attracted) is the Jordan Baker, a well-known amateur golfer. To Jordan, "victory" is a matter of mere appearance - a role to be played - and we come to understand that for her, as for Daisy, gesture has replaced internal no less than external truth, and illusion has itself become reality.
The result, of course, is that for Jordan Baker neither the illusion nor the reality is capable of providing true pride, or true satisfaction; hating the very idea of not "winning," she is nevertheless willing to obtain "victory" by means which make it impossible for the victory to have any meaning. And so Jordan too suffers from a kind of personal, almost spiritual hunger; a creature of illusion, she at once fears reality and yearns for it, and attempts to manipulate illusion in a pathetic and childish effort to secure the satisfaction of reality without its bothersome details.
The Appearance Of Gatsby:
Very important in defining the basic themes of The Great Gatsby is the fact that Nick's first view of Gatsby himself is a peculiar one: the latter seems almost to be engaged in some sort of mystic rite, and Nick actually continues on home without speaking to him. For as Nick watches, Gatsby turns toward the Buchanan mansion across the bay-where a single green light gleams on the Buchanan dock. Slowly he stretches out his hands to the green light, in a gesture like that of a worshipper before a shrine. And then he vanishes, leaving Nick alone in the "unquiet darkness." And indeed Gatsby is a worshipper before a shrine: for we discover (as the novel progresses), that his shrine-and-Goddess is Daisy Buchanan; Gatsby is a worshipper of, and a pilgrim to, a vaguely realized image of some "beauty" which in truth is a mere vacuum.
Vital to the majestic structure of the Great Gatsby is the introductory descriptive passage in chapter II, which contains one of the most memorable images in the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald: a landscape of desolation over which presides - like a squat and obscene parody of God - the billboard face of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.
Critics have made much of this scene, and with good reason. Travelling through the "valley of ashes," Nick is, in a basic sense, travelling through an inferno of the Damned - an inferno which exists side-by-side with the white and unreal dream of Gatsby's Fairy Princess-Daisy herself. And while Jay Gatsby (as the reader later discovers) is incapable of recognizing the "ashes" of what Daisy represents - and indeed, takes the emptiness for substance, and the ashes for some jewel of ultimate value - Nick Carroway sees all too clearly the spiritual desolation of the Buchanan world, and the tragedy so inevitable when Gatsby attempts to find in this world "the stuff that dreams are made of."
Even the colors of this landscape are echoes of Daisy: the "yellow" of Doctor Eckleburg's spectacles,. the "yellow" brick of the houses on the street where Tom's mistress - Mrs. Wilson - makes her home. The color yellow, of course, is one of decay - but it is also one of riches as well: the color of sunlight and gold. And just as the gray dust of Doctor Eckleburg's landscape relates to the white "purity" of Daisy, so too does the yellow of Mrs. Wilson's street relate to the sordid and empty reality of Gatsby's dream.
In the Wasteland, it is people like Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson, "consumers" in the most appalling sense of the word, who survive: feeding upon the dreams, the sentiments, or the fears of other human beings, they move like profane machines of flesh, using and breaking, and discarding all that gets in their path.
That George Wilson is to be the instrument of Jay Gatsby's destruction is one of the chief elements of structural symmetry in Fitzgerald's novel. For Wilson has this in common with Gatsby: neither is defined solely in terms of appetite or impulse. And in the world of the Buchanans and Mrs. Wilson, appetite and impulse-the gratification of ego or flesh-become the sole values of existence. Any remnant of idealism, no matter how diluted by a misguided worship of material surface, and any remnant of human love, personal commitment, or moral pride, is-in the Wasteland-a source of weakness rather than strength.
Wilson And Gatsby:
If Wilson is, as Tom says, "dumb" because of his love for and faith in his wife, so too is Jay Gatsby "dumb" in his idealization of Daisy. But while both men are wrong in their ideals, and are ultimately destroyed by the Ideal itself, it is precisely their mistakes which cause them to emerge as individuals finer, and more human, than those who survive them: In a basic sense, then, Jay Gatsby and Gorge Wilson are "balanced" against Daisy, Tom Buchanan, and Myrtle Wilson: on one side the echo-distorted, perhaps, and cheapened, but still vaguely (and helplessly) fine-of the old ideals of devotion and giving; on the other side, a process of mere taking, of "genteel" or vulgar consumption.
It is indeed the cry of "I want" that defines both Myrtle and Tom-the "I want" of an insatiable infant, picking up and breaking and throwing a way according to the impulses without emotion, and desire without meaning.
That both Gatsby's ideal and Myrtle's impulse are equally futile, is a clue to the essential tragedy of Gatsby's dream - and the "American Dream" itself, which, represented by Gatsby, is a Golden Palace built either on a dung-heap or a mountain of cotton-candy.
Nick, of course, who represents the "Mid-western" aspect of Fitzgerald's vision, is all too aware of the moral vacuum in which he finds himself-a world of verbal gestures, of false "ecstasies" and shallow opinion. The fact that he is not quite sober is actually a rather clever narrative device: since the scene is viewed through his point of view (as narrator), the result is both a heightened sensitivity and blurred impressionism which contributes to the effect, and the ludicrous horror, of this small scene of The Wasteland in action.
The very conversation in Myrtle's apartment serves as ironic definition of the sentimental but essentially destructive and parasitic "romance" of Daisy Buchanan herself - and of the "Fitzgerald Woman" in general. Myrtle of course, like other citizens of the Wasteland, reacts to appearance only; for her too, surface has replaced substance, the "suit" indeed "makes the man" - and one is reminded of the lines by the poet T.S. Eliot: "We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men, head-pieces filled with straw. . . ." That George Wilson, however, is indeed a "gentleman" or, rather, the emptied shell of one, is what sets up his own tragedy and the tragedy of Jay Gatsby.
A Crescendo Of Blood:
Like all of the "good times" in the world of the moral Wasteland, Myrtle's party ends in disaffection and violence-a Walpurgisnacht of sordid and drunken unreality.
A deservedly famous section of The Great Gatsby is Chapter III, for in this brief account of the Gatsby "parties" Fitzgerald defines not only Jay Gatsby as an individual, but the perverted idealism and pathetic optimism of "the American Dream" itself. It is with this chapter too that the imagery of "enchantment" and unreality so basic to the novel is clarified: the theme of illusion and inevitable failure-inevitable because any illusion taken for reality contains the seeds of its own destruction.
The Enchanted Palace:
Crates of oranges and lemons arrive before the weekend, and crates of pulpless halves-the assorted garbage of Gatsby's "productions" - leave after each weekend is over; and there is something almost obscenely ludicrous in the very juxtaposition of crates filled with fruit and cars filled with people-both consumed and discharged like the raw-material and end-product of some gigantic, meaningless digestive tract.
Nothing, somehow, is fixed to any sort of reality; there is laughter without amusement, "enthusiasm" between strangers, a disembodied and baroque celebration of some nameless holiday that had never occurred - and never will. And the guests themselves (most of whom Gatsby had never seen) act as though they were in "an amusement park" - a Coney Island for adults. The pathos, of course, is that for these adults - as for Gatsby - the "Coney Island" represents the only "high" life they know; it is indeed (as Nick remarks) a "simplicity of heart" and vague expectation, or hope, that is always waiting for some sort of ecstatic fulfillment - and always disappointed when the caterers depart, and all the golden coaches become once again the sordid pumpkins of reality.
Touring The "Caterer's Production":
When the gentleman calls Gatsby "a regular Belasco" (referring to a famous theatrical producer) the result is a definition of the entire Gatsby world: a theatricalism calculated solely for effect, a gigantic and somehow absurd (and perhaps touching in its absurdity) gesture of "the good life." It is all an elaborate "backdrop," a piece of stage-machinery against which Jay Gatsby plays out the tragicomic masquerade of his own dreams.
The Gatsby Smile:
Nick's description of Gatsby at this point is very important. For one thing, it reinforces our awareness of Gatsby as not only a "producer" of elaborate and meaningless theatrical effects, but as being, in his own person, no less an "effect" than his pseudo-gothic mansion or unused books. Gatsby, in short, has in a basic sense "created" his own identity from personal romanticism based on socially pre-packaged labels; so completely does he carry out the ritualistic surface of the role he has created for himself, that the role ultimately replaces the self, and there is nothing left of Gatsby at all but the "act" of what he wishes to become.
The Gatsby smile, one should note, "builds" and grows more radiant, more intense, as though it were leading to a climax . . . that quite simply never occurs. And this too is a basic quality of the Gatsby dream, the Gatsby romanticism (and the romanticism of the American dream itself). Always there is process without consummation, the gradual inflation of a huge, glowing, balloon of hope, or expectation, or ecstasy, until the balloon itself is suddenly punctured for one reason or another, and flops down to earth. And then there is nothing to do but wait for another balloon-if one has any breath left, or if the supply of ballons has not been exhausted.
Amid all the "Coney Island" celebration, indeed, Gatsby is a remote and almost "pure" - or at least, self-contained figure; and once again we have the clear impression that for Jay Gatsby the baroque "good times" he makes available for others is little more than a means to an end - an end involving some sort of Ideal that transcends, in a urgent yet undefined manner, the "good times" themselves.
Jordan And Nick:
Sensing the core of honesty and moral firmness in Nick (who himself represents the old traditions of "conduct" and ethical responsibility, just as Gatsby represents a new world of moral expediency and false dreams), Jordan realizes that it is only with a man like Nick that she would be able to "go her own way." Nick, indeed, would always be there to pick up the pieces of whatever mess Jordan has made.
For Jordan Baker, in short, her "love" for Nick is simply one more calculation among many. Like Daisy and Tom Buchanan, she neither desires nor needs to be "careful" of anything or anyone; if the Buchanans rely on their money as a means of achieving what might be called freedom of impulse, Jordan understands that with a man like Nick Carroway she would achieve the same privilege. And Nick, infatuated with Jordan's beauty and charm, almost succumbs, That he ultimately does not succumb, is one of the essential differences between his nature and that of Jay Gatsby; drawing on the Mid-western traditions which both bind and protect him, Nick has the basic "soundness" which enables him to "go back home." For Nick Carroway is only an observer of the world of infernal enchantment. He has not become one of its inhabitants, and for this reason (protected by the bulwark of his own moral traditions) he can finally escape from the arms of even the most charming demon of the moral Inferno itself.
Gatsby's "Non-Material Materialism":
When Gatsby calls for Nick one morning in his "gorgeous" car, one notes that the automobile has a very special meaning indeed. Like all of Gatsby's possessions, it is far more than a material object; it is a "sign" of the pathetic mystique which serves Gatsby-the representative of "The American Dream" - as he worships a kind of Ultimate Value that far transcends any material object at all. Gatsby's attitude toward material objects, again, differs sharply from the fleshly materialism of a man like Tom Buchanan; for Gatsby the material world is somehow elevated to a spiritual dimension, and the acquisition of material objects becomes almost a religious ritual. This is precisely what sets up Gatsby's ultimate doom: the fact that his "materialism" is itself a romantic "faith" in a kind of vaguely glowing perfection which the material world can never offer.
For Jay Gatsby, in short, "materialism" is itself an ideal, a romantic dream of unnamed spiritual ecstasy, a perpetual expectation which somehow turns to ashes when the "object" (whether a car, a mansion, or a woman) is actually achieved. In this respect he resembles another famous character of American fiction written during the twenties: the celebrated Babbitt of Sinclair Lewis' novel. Both Babbitt and Gatsby are caught up in a self-destructive paradox: they attempt to make spiritual affirmations of material things, and in the process find themselves with neither the spiritual dimension nor the values of materialism itself. Just as Babbitt makes of his office a "business cathedral" (and so degrades one and is disaffected with the other), so Jay Gatsby attempts to make of his cars, and his mansion, and his "silk shirts," and his dream of Daisy Buchanan, an act of worship. It is this "non-material materialism" which sets up Gatsby's ultimate destruction.
The car itself is described with an interesting series of adjectives-adjectives which communicate a sense not only of opulence, but of combined brittleness and softness, almost of decay. And Gatsby himself is emotionally infected with a perpetual restlessness, a kind of insistent disaffection or impatience. Whatever wealth has brought to Jay Gatsby, one thing is clear: it has brought him neither peace nor any real pleasure.
Illusion Into Reality: Gatsby's Self-Hypnosis:
Gatsby's "autobiography" is memorable for something far more important than its elaborate falsehood. The significance of his manufactured "identity" is not simply that it is untrue, but rather that Gatsby has been attempting-with all the means at his disposal-to convince himself that what he knows to be false is actually true. He is, in short, involved in a sort of self-hypnosis; given the "right" stage-props, the right surface and facade, it is indeed possible for Gatsby to "double-think" himself into a kind of perverted "faith" in an ideal Jay Gatsby. That this ideal never in fact existed makes no difference; armed with stage-props and rituals, Gatsby is indeed (as Nick later remarks) trying to "fulfill his Platonic conception of himself."
So completely has Gatsby surrounded himself with the appearance of his own ideal, that he almost believes in it himself. Left to his own resources, however, Gatsby cannot complete the magical metamorphosis; the "conjurer's trick" he is attempting requires something more than his own faith in the "trick" itself. What it requires is the faith of others; not until he arranges the illusion so that it becomes reality in the minds of other human beings, can Gatsby rest secure in his own fantastic re-creation of life. Once other people "believe" him, the magic can indeed turn lead into gold - but first he requires that the image he has created be reflected from other heads.
Gatsby, in short, lives in a world of mirrors, a world in which illusion can become reality only if the transformation is publicly acclaimed; reality, indeed, thus becomes external rather than internal, and "anything goes" - anything is "possible" if private desire can be manipulated into public assent.