My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Like Moby-Dick, this is another Great American Novel I had not read since my teens, so I thought it was due for an adult (I do not say “mature”) revisitation. I approached it somewhat cautiously, thinking that a work so universally beloved must surely be overpraised; I also didn’t want to spoil the golden weekend I spent reading it in the spring of 1999 when I was a junior in high school. But even contrarianism must lay down its arms before the artistry of this short novel, over-familiar as it may be.
Granted, I thought this would differ from my re-reading of Moby-Dick in that I was reasonably sure I “got” The Great Gatsby the first time I read it; though its characters are in their 30s, their wealth allows them to enact their adolescent longings, which makes the novel available to teenagers in a way that many classics are not. Moreover, the symbolism is completely unsubtle, so much so that the meanings of major images (for instance, the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, featured on a billboard advertisement overlooking an Eliotic waste land, which together represent the degradation of God in a mercenary culture) are explained overtly in the text; but this transparency somehow works, because it proceeds from an authorial assurance or a confidence rather than a desire to impress, like the symbolism in Tolstoy. (Great works often dispense with subtlety, which is probably the province less of genius than of talent or intelligence.)
The novel’s structure, too, covering one summer in narrator Nick Carraway’s artfully arranged reminiscences, is perfect, with no scene extraneous to the plot as every meeting and encounter leads to the tragic climax. As with the seemingly too-explicit symbolism, the seemingly too-neat structure never feels like a fault; for one thing, the narrative voice provides enough sensory detail and fascinating rumination to enflesh the armature, but also the point of the novel is that the logic of Gatsby’s quest must lead, in 1920s America, to his doom. An idealist in a materialist culture, and especially an idealist who manipulates materialism in the service of his ideal, must come to a bad end. Other genres, most notably the tragic drama, are more at ease with this sense of fatedness than the realist novel, which tends to express a humanistic faith in the possibility of individual self-creation or at least social reform; but then Gatsby, almost a novella, is not really a realist novel anyway—it is too archetypal, too symbolic, too concentrated. A sleek, gorgeous modernist artifact, it uses myth and metaphor to transform prose fiction into the older forms: romance, lyric, and ultimately tragedy.
But two things did stand out to me on this re-reading that I did not grasp as a teenager. The first: this is a novel unrelentingly, insistently about cars and driving, as certain contemporary novels are unrelentingly and insistently about the Internet. The car is the one major symbol that my teachers did not dwell on, but it is the symbol—of speed, mobility, freedom, technology, modernity, American futurism—most closely attached to the novel’s period and setting, its metal inorganicisim blossoming organically in the waste land from Fitzgerald’s experience.
My second adult observation is that Nick Carraway need not be trusted for the book to make sense. While his moral perspective on the events of his summer of Gatsby is clear and eloquently expressed, his concluding judgment in favor of the Midwest against the East is self-serving and no less an artifice (“my middle-west,” he even says) than what he decries. We know perfectly well not to trust Nick any more than any other character when he tells us at the end of chapter III, “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known,” immediately after recounting the white lies with which he leads on his girlfriend back home while courting Jordan Baker—who in turn judges him at the end of the novel, correctly to my mind, a dishonest person.
As for Nick’s verdict on Gatsby—that he is better than Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and the rest because he was not in the rich people’s game for money or sex or booze or any other material pleasure but rather for an unreachable ideal—it is right as far as it goes. But the novel makes clear the emptiness of Gatsby’s ideal in its portrayal of his mostly non-existent relationship with Daisy, a woman he never really knew in depth, who never gave herself fully to him, and to whom he seems only to have made love once and that on unpromising grounds (“He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously…[he] took her because he had no real right to touch her hand”). All this courtly romance, despite Nick’s eventual praise of it, is ground in the dirt with the female body itself at the death of Myrtle Wilson, “her left breast…swinging loose like a flap,” a not-untypical male modernist strategy (think again of Eliot) for degrading romanticism, as the male modernists thought—or for unconsciously expressing their anxiety at the reality of female existence, as we might amend.
But Fitzgerald does not leave us in so cynical a place. His novel’s prose is lush and romantic, and not simply in a parodic way, as such prose was in Flaubert, Joyce, or Mann. I suspect that we are to trust Nick’s perceptions and his sensations rather than his moralisms. I even suspect that Gatsby looks forward to another morally disturbing but enduringly popular American classic, Lolita: these novels tell us that the love they describe is disordered and wrong while their own loving descriptions of such love are the correct way to express the soul’s unfulfillable longing for beauty. Platonic fictions, they follow on from Fitzgerald’s favorite poem, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which says that the work of art is morally compromised in what it represents and cut off from life in its act of representing it, but that for all that it has a life of its own, endless in the beholder’s imaginative act of attention. Only in such an object and its contemplation may the pitiless, remorseless, ugly, unforgiving truth be transfigured by beauty. Contrary to Nick’s early assurance that “Gatsby turned out all right at the end,” the truth of Gatsby’s idealism is the crime and death that uphold it; it is Nick’s idealism, in transmuting such a hideous truth into the beauty of this narrative, that deserves our commendation. He does not himself recognize this as he retreats at the novel’s end to Midwestern moralism, but this only adds the final modernist savor to Fitzgerald’s art: irony.