Friday, August 22, 2014

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.  While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher--shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue.  Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

"They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.  "It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before."

Listen, you want to know how to incorporate symbolism into your work?  You couldn't do much better than the scene above, one of my favorites from The Great Gatsby (and one of the better scenes in the Baz Luhrmann film, I'd say).  There's the most superficial symbolism, that of Gatsby throwing his newfound wealth in Daisy's face, piling it up beyond taste or reason in the same way that he has been piling up wealth for years, all in the name of getting back into Daisy's graces.  But there's also the strange intimacy of it, the many shirts giving the reader the impression that Gatsby is actually disrobing, revealing himself--but there's no end to the shirts, because Daisy isn't actually capable of seeing Gatsby as he truly is.  The one person who is capable of it--or thinks he is--is Nick Carraway, the peeping tom they won't let get away, present during Gatsby and Daisy's liaisons for no very sensible reason.  And then why is Daisy crying?  Is it because the shirts represent an entire life that Gatsby's built up that she's had no share of, and the deep, unspeakably knowledge that she can't really share in his life now, after all of these years?

What a great, layered scene.  It seems crazy to say it, but I was surprised, re-reading it, how good The Great Gatsby is--I hadn't read it in years, and remembered it as being a little over-written, and my last experience with Fitzgerald was decidedly underwhelming.  I also remembered being a little put off by the immense man-crush that Nick has for Gatsby, and that much at least is true:

He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly.  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 seem to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.  It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Jeez, Nick.  But not only is the writing almost perfect--and the book is short enough that it doesn't overstay its welcome with floweriness, as it otherwise might--I was really surprised on this reading at how well drawn the characters are.  Gatsby does in fact "believe in you as you would like to believe in yourself," with Nick and Daisy at least, but that's part of the problem: Gatsby's endless devotion to Daisy and unflagging hope for their reunion cannot see how awful Daisy is.  He cannot see what Nick sees, that she and her husband Tom are "careless people... 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 made."  He's so smart, but so foolish, and his dedication to the impossible is both his tragic error and the very thing that Nick wants us to admire so much about him.

But Daisy's the better character, in a literary sense.  I really enjoyed her disaffected sarcasm, and her aimless wealth--something about it rang truer than anything else in the book.  She tells Nick that she always waits for the longest day of the year and then misses it--so perfectly the statement of someone so utterly bored with their own existence, but somehow also too busy with money and dinners and polo matches and whatnot.  When she says she wishes her daughter will turn out to be a "perfect little fool," what is she getting at?  Is it sarcasm, reflecting on her foolishness for marrying Tom?  Or a sincere, perhaps half-sincere, admission that she has foolishly stumbled into a situation she tells herself is what she wants?  She doesn't seem to mean half the things she says--though perhaps when she's with Gatsby she means three-fourths.

If anything strikes me as off, it's the giant glasses of T. J. Eckleburg that are watching in the Valley of Ashes when Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, mows down Tom's mistress, Myrtle.  (I haven't really bothered to outline the plot--hope you'll forgive me.)  Apparently they were written in when Fitzgerald saw what is now the book's iconic cover, and loved the image.  But the symbolism--the eyes of God--is too heavy-handed when compared to everyone else.  Besides, we already know Gatsby's being watched; it's Nick that really has the eyes of God in this novel.

Is it the "Great American Novel?"  If so, it has a particularly jaundiced view, I'd wager, of America, and of the "American dream"--which I'm sure will be thrown around about a kajillion times when I teach this book later this year.  If for no other reason, it's about a bunch of people who are wildly wealthy, and are deeply, deeply miserable.  Gatsby's quest for wealth is perhaps something nobler, imbued with the hope Nick pushes on us, and tinted with his love for Daisy, but it destroys him in the end.


Brittany said...

If you're in a Gatsy mood I would HIGHLY recommend this podcast about a full-length stage version of The Great Gatsby that doesn't cut a single word from the novel. I use this as part of my pre-Gatsby activities with my students, and I think that the way they discuss the perfection of Fitzgerald's sentences is really on point. The concept is also interesting. Randy and I are committed to seeing this if we ever have the opportunity.

R.M. Fiedler said...

I think part of what makes this the Great American Novel is the way it tackles the American dream. Yes, it has a jaundiced view of the American dream, but it also celebrates it, in a way. Nick's presentation of Gatsby is sometimes cynical (and certainly the reader is left with a cynical view of the American Dream), but I like your point about Gatsby not seeing what Nick sees--this inability to see the American Dream for what it is is a prerequisite for believing in the American Dream.

I think this is why Fitzgerald starts the novel with Nick's discussion of his father's advice and the curious statement, "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope." We may want to judge, but if we do, we're missing the point.

But, I think what makes the novel brilliant is that it also captures the naivete of the American Dream. Did Gatsby ever really stand a chance? No.

(Obviously, I love this book. Also love This Side of Paradise, although, I'd concede it's not as clean or beautiful as Gatsby.