Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America
by Marius Bewley
Critics of Scott Fitzgerald lend to agree that The Great Gatsby is somehow a commentary on that elusive phrase, the American dream. The assumption seems to be that Fitzgerald approved. On the contrary, it can be shown that The Great Gatsby offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords. Read in this way, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece ceases to be a pastoral documentary of the Jazz Age and takes its distinguished place among those great national novels whose profound corrective insights into the nature of American experience arc not separable from the artistic form of the novel itself. That is to say, Fitzgerald—at least in this one book—is in a line with the greatest masters of American prose. The Great Gatsby embodies a criticism of American experience—not of manners, but of a basic historic attitude to life—more radical than anything in James’s own assessment of the deficiencies of his country. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream.
Essentially, this phrase represents the romantic enlargement of the possibilities of life on a level at which the material and the spiritual have become inextricably confused. As such, it led inevitably toward the problem that has always confronted American artists dealing with American experience—the problem of determining the hidden boundary in the American vision of life at which the reality ends and the illusion begins. Historically, the American dream is anti-Calvinistic, and believes in the goodness of nature and man. It is accordingly a product of the frontier and the West rather than of the Puritan Tradition. The simultaneous operation of two such attitudes in American life created a tension out of which much of our greatest art has sprung. Youth of the spirit—perhaps of the body as well—is a requirement of its existence; limit and deprivation are its blackest devils. But it shows an astonishing incapacity to believe in them:
I join you… in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating, and their friends here reechoing; and applying especially to religion and politics; “that it is not probable that anything better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers.” … But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened to listen to these impostures, and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde… To preserve the freedom of the human mind … every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom… But that the enthusiasm which characterizes youth should lift its parricide hands against freedom and science would be such a monstrous phenomenon as I could not place among the possible tilings in this age and country.
That is the hard kernel, the seed from which the American dream would grow into unpruned luxuriance. Jefferson’s voice is not remote from many European voices of his time, but it stands in unique relation to the country to whom he spoke. That attitude was bred into the bone of America, and in various, often distorted, ways, it has lasted. Perhaps that is where the trouble begins, for if these virtues of the American imagination have the elements of greatness in them, they call immediately for discriminating and practical correctives. The reality in such an attitude lies in its faith in life; the illusion lies in the undiscriminating multiplication of its material possibilities.
The Great Gatsby is an exploration of the American dream as it exists in a corrupt period, and it is an attempt to determine that concealed boundary that divides the reality from the illusions. The illusions seem more real than the reality itself. Embodied in the subordinate characters in the novel, they threaten to invade the whole of the picture. On the other hand, the reality is embodied in Gatsby; and as opposed to the hard, tangible illusions, the reality is a thing of the spirit, a promise rather than the possession of a vision, a faith in the half-glimpsed, but hardly understood, possibilities of life. In Gatsby’s America, the reality is undefined to itself. It is inarticulate and frustrated. Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s friend and Fitzgerald’s narrator, says of Gatsby:
Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was incommunicable forever.
This is not pretentious phrase-making performing a vague gesture towards some artificial significance. It is both an evocative and an exact description of that unholy cruel paradox by which the conditions of American history have condemned the grandeur of the aspiration and vision to expend itself in a waste of shame and silence. But the reality is not entirely lost. It ends by redeeming the human spirit, even though it live in a wilderness of illusions, from the cheapness and vulgarity that encompass it. In this novel, the illusions are known and condemned at last simply by the rank complacency with which they are content to be themselves. On the other hand, the reality is in the energy of the spirit’s resistance, which may not recognize itself as resistance at all, but which can neither stoop to the illusions nor abide with them when they are at last recognized. Perhaps it is really nothing more than ultimate immunity from the final contamination, but it encompasses the difference between life and death. Gatsby never succeeds in seeing through the sham of his world or his acquaintances very clearly. It is of the essence of his romantic American vision that it should lack the seasoned powers of discrimination. But it invests those illusions with its own faith, and thus it discovers its projected goodness in the frauds of its crippled world. The Great Gatsby becomes the acting out of the tragedy of the American vision. It is a vision totally untouched by the scales of values that order life in a society governed by traditional manners; and Fitzgerald knows that although it would be easy to condemn and “place” the illusions by invoking these outside values, to do so would be to kill the reality that lies beyond them, but which can sometimes only be reached through them.
For example, Fitzgerald perfectly understood the inadequacy of Gatsby’s romantic view of wealth. But that is not the point. He presents it in Gatsby as a romantic baptism of desire for a reality that stubbornly remains out of his sight. It is as if a savage islander, suddenly touched with Grace, transcended in his prayers and aspirations the grotesque little fetish in which he imagined he discovered the object of his longing. The scene in which Gatsby shows his piles of beautiful imported shirts to Daisy and Nick has been mentioned as a failure of Gatsby’s, and so of Fitzgerald’s, critical control of values. Actually, the shirts are sacramentals, and it is clear that Gatsby shows them, neither in vanity nor in pride, but with a reverential humility in the presence of some inner vision he cannot consciously grasp, but toward which he desperately struggles in the only way he knows.
In an essay called “Myths for Materialists” Mr. Jacques Barzun once wrote that figures, whether of fact or fiction, insofar as they express destinies, aspirations, attitudes typical of man or particular groups, are invested with a mythical character. In this sense Gatsby is a “mythic” character, and no other word will define him. Not only is he an embodiment (as Fitzgerald makes clear at the outset) of that conflict between illusion and reality at the heart of American life; he is an heroic personification of the American romantic hero, the true heir of the American dream. “There was something gorgeous about him,” Nick Carraway says, and although “gorgeous” was a favorite word with the ’twenties, Gatsby wears it with an archetypal American elegance.
One need not look far in earlier American literature to find his forebears. Here is the description of a young bee hunter from Col. David Crockett’s Exploits and Adventures in Texas, published in 1836:
I thought myself alone in the street, where the hush of morning was suddenly broken by a clear, joyful, and musical voice, which sang…
I turned toward the spot whence the sounds proceeded, and discovered a tall figure leaning against the sign post. His eyes were fixed on the streaks of light in the east, his mind was absorbed, and he was clearly unconscious of anyone being near him. He continued his song in so full and clear a tone, that the street re-echoed…
I now drew nigh enough to see him distinctly. He was a young man, not more than twenty-two. His figure was light and graceful at the same time that it indicated strength and activity. He was dressed in a hunting shirt, which was made with uncommon neatness, and ornamented tastily with fringe. He held a highly finished rifle in his right hand, and a hunting pouch, covered with Indian ornaments, was slung across his shoulders. His clean shirt collar was open, secured only by a black riband around his neck. His boots were polished, without a soil upon them; and on his head was a neat fur cap, tossed on in a manner which said, “I don’t give a d—n,” just as plainly as any cap could speak it. I thought it must be some popinjay on a lark, until I took a look at his countenance. It was handsome, bright, and manly. There was no mistake in that face. From the eyes down to the breast he was sunburnt as dark as mahogany while the upper part of his high forehead was as white and polished as marble. Thick clusters of black hair curled from under his cap. I passed on unperceived, and he continued his song…
This young dandy of the frontier, dreaming in the dawn and singing to the morning, is a progenitor of Gatsby. It is because of such a traditional American ancestry that Gatsby’s romanticism transcends the limiting glamor of the Jazz Age.
But such a romanticism is not enough to “mythicize” Gatsby. Gatsby, for all his shimmer of representative surfaces, is never allowed to become soiled by the touch of realism. In creating him, Fitzgerald observed as high a decorum of character as a Renaissance playwright: for Gatsby’s parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people, Gatsby really “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.” Fitzgerald created Gatsby with a sense of his own election; but the beauty it was in his nature to serve had already been betrayed by history. Even in the midst of the blighted earthly paradise of West Egg, Long Island, Gatsby bore about him the marks of his birth. He is a kind of exiled Duke in disguise. We know him by his bearing, the decorous pattern of his speech. Even his dress invariably touches the imagination: “Gatsby, in a white flannel suit, silver shirt, and gold-colored tie…” There is something dogmatically Olympic about the combination. After Gatsby’s death when his pathetic old father journeys east for the funeral, one feels that he is only the kindly shepherd who once found a baby on the cold hillside.
But so far I have been talking in general terms. This beautiful control of conventions can be studied more closely in the description of Gatsby’s party at which (if we except that distant glimpse of him at the end of Chapter I, of which I shall speak later) we encounter him for the first time. We are told later that Gatsby was gifted with a “hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.” Fitzgerald does not actually let us meet Gatsby face to face until he has concretely created this fantastic world of Gatsby’s vision, for it is the element in which we must meet Gatsby if we are to understand his impersonal significance:
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
The nostalgic poetic quality, which tends to leave one longing for sterner stuff, is, in fact, deceptive. It is Gatsby’s ordeal that he must separate the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams from the reality of the dream itself: that he must find some vantage point from which he can bring the responsibilities and the possibilities of life into a single focus. But the “ineffable gaudiness” of the world to which Gatsby is committed is a fatal deterrent. Even within the compass of this Paragraph we see how the focus has become blurred: how the possibilities of life are conceived of in material terms. But in that heroic list of the vaster luxury items—motor-boats, aquaplanes, private beaches, Rolls-Royces, diving towers—Gatsby’s vision maintains its gigantic unreal stature. It imposes a rhythm on his guests which they accept in terms of their own tawdry illusions, having no conception of the compulsion that drives him to offer them the hospitality of his fabulous wealth. They come for their weekends as George Dane in Henry James’s The Great Good Place went into his dream retreat. But the result is not the same: “on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.” That is the most important sentence in the paragraph, and despite the fairy-story overtone, it possesses an ironic nuance that rises toward the tragic. And how fine that touch of the extra gardener is—as if Gatsby’s guests had made a breach in nature. It completely qualifies the over-fragility of the moths and champagne and blue gardens in the opening sentences.
This theme of the relation of his guests to Gatsby is still further pursued in Chapter IV. The cataloging of American proper names with poetic intention has been an ineffectual cliche in American writing for many generations. But Fitzgerald uses the convention magnificently:
Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.
The names of these guests could have been recorded nowhere else as appropriately as in the margins of a faded timetable. The embodiments of illusions, they are as ephemeral as time itself; but because their illusions represent the distortions and shards of some shattered American dream, the timetable they adorn is “in effect July 5th”—the day following the great national festival when the exhausted holiday crowds, as spent as exploded firecrackers, return to their homes. The list of names which Fitzgerald proceeds to enumerate conjures up with remarkable precision an atmosphere of vulgar American fortunes and vulgar American destinies. Those who are familiar with the social registers, business men’s directories, and movie magazines of the ’twenties might be able to analyze the exact way in which Fitzgerald achieves his effect, but it is enough to say here that he shares with Eliot a remarkable clairvoyance in seizing the cultural implications of proper names. After two pages and more, the list ends with the dreamily elegiac close: “All these people came to Gatsby’s house in the summer.”
Why did they come? There is the answer of the plotted story—the free party, the motor-boats, the private beach, the endless flow of cocktails. But in the completed pattern of the novel one knows that they came for another reason—came blindly and instinctively—illusions in pursuit of a reality from which they have become historically separated, but by which they might alone be completed or fulfilled. And why did Gatsby invite them? As contrasted with them, he alone has a sense of the reality that hovers somewhere out of sight in this nearly ruined American dream; but the reality is unintelligible until he can invest it again with the tangible forms of his world, and relate it to the logic of history. Gatsby and his guests feel a mutual need for each other, but the division in American experience has widened too far, and no party, no hospitality however lavish, can heal the breach. The illusions and the reality go their separate ways. Gatsby stands at the door of his mansion, in one of the most deeply moving and significant paragraphs of the novel, to wish his guests good-bye:
The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home. I glanced back once. A wafer of a moon was shining over Gatsby’s house, making the night fine as before, and surviving the laughter and the sound of his still glowing garden. 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.
If one turns back to Davy Crockett’s description of the elegant young bee hunter, singing while the dawn breaks in the east, and thinks of it in relation with this midnight picture of Gatsby, “his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell,” while the last guests depart through the debris of the finished party, the quality of the romanticism seems much the same, but the situation is exactly reversed; and from the latter scene there opens a perspective of profound meaning. Suddenly Gatsby is not merely a likable, romantic hero; he is a creature of myth in whom is incarnated the aspiration and the ordeal of his race.
“Mythic” characters are impersonal. There is no distinction between their public and their private lives. Because they share their meaning with everyone, they have no secrets and no hidden corners into which they can retire for a moment, unobserved. An intimacy so universal stands revealed in a ritual pattern for the inspection and instruction of the race. The “mythic” character can never withdraw from that air which is his existence—that is to say, from that area of consciousness (and hence of publicity) which every individual shares with the members, both living and dead, of his group or race. Gatsby is a “mythic” character in this sense—he has no private life, no meaning or significance that depends on the fulfillment of his merely private destiny, his happiness as an individual in a society of individuals. In a transcendent sense he touches our imaginations, but in this smaller sense—which is the world of the realistic novel—he even fails to arouse our curiosity. At this level, his love affair with Daisy is too easily “placed,” a tawdry epic “crush” of no depth or interest in itself. But Gatsby not only remains undiminished by what is essentially the meanness of the affair: his stature grows, as we watch, to the proportions of a hero. We must inquire how Fitzgerald managed this extraordinary achievement.
Daisy Buchanan exists at two well-defined levels in the novel. She is what she is—but she exists also at the level of Gatsby’s vision of her. The intelligence of no other important novelist has been as consistently undervalued as Fitzgerald’s, and it is hardly surprising that no critic has ever given Fitzgerald credit for his superb understanding of Daisy’s vicious emptiness. Even Fitzgerald’s admirers regard Daisy as rather a good, if somewhat silly, little thing; but Fitzgerald knew that at its most depraved levels the American dream merges with the American debutante’s dream—a thing of deathly hollowness. Fitzgerald faces up squarely to the problem of telling us what Daisy has to offer in a human relationship. At one of Gatsby’s fabulous parties—the one to which Daisy brings her husband, Tom Buchanan—Gatsby points out to Daisy and Tom, among the celebrated guests, one particular couple:
“Perhaps you know that lady,” Gatsby indicated a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman who sat in state under a white-plum tree. Tom and Daisy stared, with that peculiarly unreal feeling that accompanies the recognition of a hitherto ghostly celebrity of the movies.
“She’s lovely,” said Daisy.
“The man bending over her is her director.”
Superficially, the scene is highly civilized. One fancies one has seen it in Manet. But in the context we know that it has no reality whatever— the star and her director can get no nearer reality than by rehearsing a scene. Our attention is then taken up by other scenes at the party, but by suddenly returning to this couple after an interval of two pages to make his point, Fitzgerald achieves a curious impression of static or arrested action. We have the feeling that if we walked behind the white-plum tree we should only see the back of a canvas screen:
Almost the last thing I remember was standing with Daisy and watching the moving-picture director and his Star. They were still under the white-plum tree and their faces were touching except for a pale, thin ray of moonlight between. It occurred to me that he had been very slowly bending toward her all evening to attain this proximity, and even while I watched I saw him stoop one ultimate degree and kiss at her cheek.
“I like her,” said Daisy, “I think she’s lovely.”
But the rest offended her—and inarguably, because it wasn’t a gesture but an emotion.
Daisy likes the moving-picture actress because she has no substance. She is a gesture that is committed to nothing more real than her own image on the silver screen. She has become a gesture divorced forever from the tiresomeness of human reality. In effect, this passage is Daisy’s confession of faith. She virtually announces here what her criteria of human emotions and conduct are. Fitzgerald’s illustration of the emptiness of Daisy’s character—an emptiness that we see curdling into the viciousness of a monstrous moral indifference as the story unfolds—is drawn with a fineness and depth of critical understanding, and communicated with a force of imagery so rare in modern American writing, that it is almost astonishing that he is often credited with giving in to those very qualities which The Great Gatsby so effectively excoriates.
But what is the basis for the mutual attraction between Daisy and Gatsby? In Daisy’s case the answer is simple. We remember that Nick Carraway has described Gatsby’s personality as an “unbroken series of successful gestures.” Superficially, Daisy finds in Gatsby, or thinks she finds, that safety from human reality which the empty gesture implies. What she fails to realize is that Gatsby’s gorgeous gesturings are the reflex of an aspiration toward the possibilities of life, and this is something entirely different from those vacant images of romance and sophistication that fade so easily into the nothingness from which they came. But in a sense, Daisy is safe enough from the reality she dreads. The true question is not what Gatsby sees in Daisy, but the direction he takes from her, what he sees beyond her; and that has, despite the immaturity intrinsic in Gatsby’s vision, an element of grandeur in it. For Gatsby, Daisy does not exist in herself. She is the green light that signals him into the heart of his ultimate vision. Why she should have this evocative power over Gatsby is a question Fitzgerald faces beautifully and successfully as he recreates that milieu of uncritical snobbishness and frustrated idealism—monstrous fusion—which is the world in which Gatsby is compelled to live.
Fitzgerald, then, has a sure control when he defines the quality of this love affair. He shows it in itself as vulgar and specious. It has no possible interest in its own right, and if it did have the pattern of the novel would be ruined. Our imaginations would be fettered in those details and interests which would detain us on the narrative level where the affair works itself out as human history, and Gatsby would lose his “mythic” quality. But the economy with which Gatsby is presented, the formal and boldly drawn structural lines of his imagination lead us at once to a level where it is obvious that Daisy’s significance in the story lies in her failure to represent the objective correlative of Gatsby’s vision. And at the same time, Daisy’s wonderfully representative quality as a creature of the Jazz Age relates her personal failure to the larger failure of Gatsby’s society to satisfy his need. In fact, Fitzgerald never allows Daisy’s failure to become a human or personal one. He maintains it with sureness on a symbolic level where it is identified with and reflects the failure of Gatsby’s decadent American world. There is a famous passage in which Gatsby sees Daisy as an embodiment of the glamor of wealth. Nick Carraway is speaking first to Gatsby:
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of—” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. … High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl …
Gatsby tries to build up the inadequacy of each value by the support of the other; but united they fall as wretchedly short of what he is seeking as each does singly. Gatsby’s gold and Gatsby’s girl belong to the fairy story in which the Princess spins whole rooms of money from skeins of wool. In the fairy story, the value never lies in the gold but in something beyond. And so it is in this story. For Gatsby, Daisy is only the promise of fulfillment that lies beyond the green light that burns all night on her dock.
This green light that is visible at night across the bay from the windows and lawn of Gatsby’s house is the central symbol in the book. Significantly, our first glimpse of Gatsby at the end of Chapter I is related to it. Nick Carraway, whose modest bungalow in West Egg stands next to Gatsby’s mansion, returning from an evening at the Buchanans’, while lingering on the lawn for a final moment under the stars, becomes aware that he is not alone:
… fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbor’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars. Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.
I decided to call to him… But I didn’t … for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, as far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.
It is hardly too much to say that the whole being of Gatsby exists only in relation to what the green light symbolizes. This first sight we have of Gatsby is a ritualistic tableau that literally contains the meaning of the completed book, although the full meaning of what is implicit in the symbol reveals itself slowly, and is only finally rounded out on the last page. We have a fuller definition of what the green light means in its particular, as opposed to its universal, signification in Chapter V. Gatsby is speaking to Daisy as they stand at one of the windows of his mansion:
“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
Some might object to this symbolism on the grounds that it is easily vulgarized—as A. J. Cronin has proved. But if studied carefully in its full context it represents a convincing achievement. The tone or pitch of the symbol is exactly adequate to the problem it dramatizes. Its immediate function is that it signals Gatsby into his future, away from the cheapness of his affair with Daisy which he has vainly tried (and desperately continues trying) to create in the image of his vision. The green light is successful because, apart from its visual effectiveness as it gleams across the bay, it embodies the profound naivete of Gatsby’s sense of the future, while simultaneously suggesting the historicity of his hope. This note of historicity is not fully apparent at this point, of course. The symbol occurs several times, and most notably at the end:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Thus the American dream, whose superstitious valuation of the future began in the past, gives the green light through which alone the American returns to his traditional roots, paradoxically retreating into the pattern of history while endeavoring to exploit the possibilities of the future. There is a suggestive echo of the past in Gatsby’s sense of Daisy. He had known her, and fallen in love with her, five years before the novel opens. During that long interval while they had disappeared from each other’s sight, Daisy has become a legend in Gatsby’s memory, a part of his private past through which (as a “mythic” character) he assimilates into the pattern of that historic past through which he would move into the historic future. But the legendary Daisy, meeting her after five years, has dimmed a little in luster:
“And she doesn’t understand,” he said. “She used to be able to understand. We’d sit for hours—”
He broke off and began to walk up and down a desolate path of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
By such passages Fitzgerald dramatizes Gatsby’s symbolic role. The American dream, stretched between a golden past and a golden future, is always betrayed by a desolate present—a moment of fruit rinds and discarded favors and crushed flowers. Imprisoned in his present, Gatsby belongs even more to the past than to the future. His aspirations have been rehearsed, and his tragedy suffered, by all the generations of Americans who have gone before. His sense of the future, of the possibilities of life, he has learned from the dead.
If we return to the passage in which, linked arm in arm, Gatsby and Daisy stand at the window looking toward the green light across the bay, it may be possible to follow a little more sympathetically that quality of disillusion which begins to creep into Gatsby’s response to life. It does not happen because of the impoverished elements of his practical romance: it happens because Gatsby is incapable of compromising with his inner vision. The imagery of this particular passage, as I suggested, is gauged to meet the requirements of Gatsby’s young romantic dream. But two pages later Fitzgerald takes up the theme of Gatsby’s struggle against disenchantment once again, and this time in an imagery that suggests how much he had learned from The Waste Land:
When Klipspringer had played “The Love Nest” he turned around on the bench and searched unhappily for Gatsby in the gloom.
“I’m all out of practice, you see. I told you I couldn’t play. I’m all out of prac—”
“Don’t talk so much, old sport,” commanded Gatsby. “Play!”
“In the morning,
In the evening,
Ain’t we got fun—”
Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air.
“One thing’s sure and nothing’s surer
The rich get richer and the poor get—children.
In the meantime,
In between time—”
As I went over to say good-by I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man tan store up in his ghostly heart.
In view of such writing it is absurd to argue that Fitzgerald’s art was a victim of his own attraction to the Jazz Age. The snatches of song that Klipspringer sings evoke the period with an immediacy that is necessary if we are to understand the peculiar poignancy of Gatsby’s ordeal. But the songs are more than evocative. They provide the ironic musical prothalamion for Gatsby’s romance, and as Gatsby listens to them an intimation of the practical truth presses in on him. The recognition is heightened poetically by that sense of the elements, the faint flow of thunder along the Sound, which forms the background of those artificial little tunes. And it is not odd that this evocation of the outdoor scene, while Klipspringer pounds at the piano inside, sustains in the imagination the image of that green light, symbol of Gatsby’s faith, which is burning across the bay. This scene draws on the “violet hour” passage from “The Fire Sermon” in which “the human engine waits/Like a taxi throbbing waiting…” It is the hour of a profound human change, and in the faint stirrings of Gatsby’s recognition there is for a moment, perhaps, a possibility of his escape. But the essence of the American dream whose tragedy Gatsby is enacting is that it lives in a past and a future that never existed, and is helpless in the present that does.
Gatsby’s opposite number in the story is Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, and Gatsby’s stature—his touch of doomed but imperishable spiritual beauty, if I may call it so—is defined by his contrast with Tom. In many ways they are analogous in their characteristics—just sufficiently so to point up the differences. For example, their youth is an essential quality of them both. But Tom Buchanan was “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.” Even his body—“a body capable of enormous leverage”—was “a cruel body.” In the description of Tom we are left physically face to face with a scion of those ruthless generations who raised up the great American fortunes, and who now live in uneasy arrogant leisure on their brutal acquisitions. But Gatsby’s youth leaves an impression of interminability. Its climax is always in the future, and it gives rather than demands. Its energy is not in its body, but in its spirit, and meeting Gatsby for the first time, one seizes, as Nick Carraway did, this impression in his smile:
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 seemed 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 so 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. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.
This passage is masterly in the way in which it presents Gatsby to us less as an individual than as a projection, or mirror, of our ideal selves. To do that is the function of all “mythic” characters. Gatsby’s youth is not simply a matter of three decades that will quickly multiply themselves into four or five. It is a quality of faith and hope that may be betrayed by history, may be killed by society, but that no exposure to the cynical turns of time can reduce to the compromises of age.
Again, Gatsby and Tom are alike in the possession of a certain sentimentality, but Tom Buchanan’s is based on depraved self-pity. He is never more typical than when coaxing himself to tears over a half-finished box of dog biscuits that recalls a drunken and illicit day from his past, associated in memory with his dead mistress. His self-pity is functional. It is sufficient to condone his most criminal acts in his own eyes as long as the crimes are not imputable. But Gatsby’s sentimentality exists in the difficulty of expressing, in the phrases and symbols provided by his decadent society, the reality that lies at the heart of his aspiration. “So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star”—Gatsby’s sentimentality (if it is sentimentality, and I rather doubt it) is as innocent as that. It has nothing of self-pity or indulgence in it—it is all aspiration and goodness; and it must be remembered that Fitzgerald himself is outside Gatsby’s vocabulary, using it with great mastery to convey the poignancy of the situation.
Tom Buchanan and Gatsby represent antagonistic but historically related aspects of America. They are related as the body and the soul when a mortal barrier has risen up between them. Tom Buchanan is virtually Gatsby’s murderer in the end, but the crime that he commits by proxy is only a symbol of his deeper spiritual crime against Gatsby’s inner vision. Gatsby’s guilt, insofar as it exists, is radical failure—a failure of the critical faculty that seems to be an inherent part of the American dream—to understand that Daisy is as fully immersed in the destructive element of the American world as Tom himself. After Daisy, while driving Gatsby’s white automobile, has killed Mrs. Wilson and, implicitly at least, left Gatsby to shoulder the blame, Nick Carraway gives us a crucial insight into the spiritual affinity of the Buchanan couple, drawing together in their callous selfishness in a moment of guilt and crisis:
Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.
They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.
They instinctively seek out each other because each recognizes the other’s strength in the corrupt spiritual element they inhabit.
There is little point in tracing out in detail the implications of the action any further, although it could be done with an exactness approaching allegory. That it is not allegory is owing to the fact that the pattern emerges from the fullness of Fitzgerald’s living experience of his own society and time. In the end the most that can be said is that The Great Gatsby is a dramatic affirmation in fictional terms of the American spirit in the midst of an American world that denies the soul. Gatsby exists in, and for, that affirmation alone.
When, at the end, not even Gatsby can hide his recognition of the speciousness of his dream any longer, the discovery is made in universalizing terms that dissolve Daisy into the larger world she has stood for in Gatsby’s imagination:
He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque tiling a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…
“A new world, material without being real.” Paradoxically, it was Gatsby’s dream that conferred reality upon the world. The reality was in his faith in the goodness of creation, and in the possibilities of life. That these possibilities were intrinsically related to such romantic components limited and distorted his dream, and finally left it helpless in the face of the Buchanans, but it did not corrupt it. When the dream melted, it knocked the prop of reality from under the universe, and face to face with the physical substance at last, Gatsby realized that the illusion was there—there where Tom and Daisy, and generations of small-minded, ruthless Americans had found it—in the dreamless, vision-less complacency of mere matter, substance without form. After this recognition, Gatsby’s death is only a symbolic formality, for the world into which his mere body had been born rejected the gift he had been created to embody—the traditional dream from which alone it could awaken into life.
As the novel closes, the experience of Gatsby and his broken dream explicitly becomes the focus of that historic dream for which he stands. Nick Carraway is speaking:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
It is fitting that this, like so many of the others in Gatsby, should be a moonlight scene, for the history and the romance are one. Gatsby fades into the past forever to take his place with the Dutch sailors who had chosen their moment in time so much more happily than he.
We recognize that the great achievement of this novel is that it manages, while poetically evoking a sense of the goodness of that early dream, to offer the most damaging criticism of it in American literature. The astonishing thing is that the criticism—if indictment wouldn’t be the better word—manages to be part of the tribute. Gatsby, the “mythic” embodiment of the American dream, is shown to us in all his immature romanticism. His insecure grasp of social and human values, his lack of critical intelligence and self-knowledge, his blindness to the pitfalls that surround him in American society, his compulsive optimism, are realized in the text with rare assurance and understanding. And yet the very grounding of these deficiencies is Gatsby’s goodness and faith in life, his compelling desire to realize all the possibilities of existence, his belief that we can have an Earthly Paradise populated by Buchanans. A great part of Fitzgerald’s achievement is that he suggests effectively that these terrifying deficiencies are not so much the private deficiencies of Gatsby, but are deficiencies inherent in contemporary manifestations of the American vision itself—a vision no doubt admirable, but stupidly defenseless before the equally American world of Tom and Daisy. Gatsby’s deficiencies of intelligence and judgment bring him to his tragic death —a death that is spiritual as well as physical. But the more important question that faces us through our sense of the immediate tragedy is where they have brought America.
“Scott Fitzgerald’s Criticism of America,” by Marius Bewley. From The Sewanee Review, LXII (Spring 1954). Copyright (c) 1954 by The University of the South. Appeared in an expanded form in The Eccentric Design Form in the Classic American Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959; London: Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1959) by Marius Bewley. Reprinted by permission of The Sewanee Review and the author. This essay was slightly changed and enlarged in The Eccentric Design (Columbia University Press, 1959), pp. 259-87. Since the added material is not concerned with The Great Gatsby, I am using the earlier version as the text here.
Marius Bewley teaches at Fordham and is the author of The Complex Fate and The Eccentric Design, in which a revised version of the essay in this book is a chapter. The essay as it is printed here appeared in The Sewanee Review.
The Great Gatsby seems to be enjoying a moment, what with the success of the New York production of Gatz, opening in London (described by America's leading theatre critic Ben Brantley as "The most remarkable achievement in theatre not only of this year but also of this decade"), and the release later this year of Baz Luhrman's $120m film version. The book was little noticed on your side of the Atlantic on its initial publication. Collins, which had published the English editions of F Scott Fitzgerald's first two novels, rejected it outright, and the Chatto and Windus edition failed to arouse much enthusiasm, critical or commercial, when it was published in London in 1926. To be fair, the novel hadn't been a smash hit in the States the year before, selling less than his two previous novels and falling well short of the expectations of Fitzgerald and his publisher, despite some very good reviews. TS Eliot declared: "In fact, it seems to me the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James." And yet, many of the 23,000 copies printed in 1925 were gathering dust in the Scribner's warehouse when Fitzgerald died in obscurity in Hollywood 15 years later.
At that time, Gatsby seemed like the relic of an age most wanted to forget. In the succeeding years, Fitzgerald's slim tale of the jazz age became the most celebrated and beloved novel in the American canon. It's more than an American classic; it's become a defining document of the national psyche, a creation myth, the Rosetta Stone of the American dream. And yet all the attempts to adapt it to stage and screen have only served to illustrate its fragility and its flaws. Fitzgerald's prose somehow elevates a lurid and underdeveloped narrative to the level of myth.
In its barest outline, The Great Gatsby is a love story. Jay Gatsby, né Jimmy Gatz, is a poor boy from a humble midwestern family, who falls in love with Daisy Fay, the belle of Louisville, Kentucky, when he is stationed at the nearby army base as a young officer waiting to be deployed overseas in the months after the US entered the first world war. Implying that his background and circumstances are similar to her own, Gatsby wins Daisy's heart and her promise to wait for him, but, as the months of his deployment drag on, her devotion wavers and she eventually marries the obscenely wealthy Tom Buchanan of Chicago.
The novel opens in the summer of 1922; Gatsby has himself become rich, and bought a splendid house on Long Island Sound directly across the bay from the mansion which Tom and Daisy occupy. From his beach he can see a green light at the end of Tom and Daisy's dock. Gatsby gives lavish parties all summer, in the hope, it seems, of attracting the attention of Daisy, whom he has never stopped loving. Finally they are reunited through the agency of Nick Carraway, a childhood friend of Daisy's who happens to move in next door. Gatsby imagines that he can erase the past and win Daisy back; it becomes clear that the entire gaudy jazz-age facade he's created has all been in the interest of recapturing his dream of Daisy. It's gradually revealed that Gatsby's wealth comes from extralegal activities, including bootlegging – although Fitzgerald leaves the details extremely vague – a fact which Daisy's husband Tom uses against him. After a showdown in a Manhattan hotel room, Gatsby and Daisy jump in Gatsby's car and Daisy, who is behind the wheel, runs down a pedestrian, who just happens to be her husband's lover, driving back to Long Island. The aggrieved husband of the dead woman, imagining that Gatsby is the culprit, shoots him while he is lounging in his pool the next day, and Tom and Daisy retreat into the impregnable sanctuary of their vast wealth, while Nick Carraway, the narrator, returns to the midwest, repelled and disillusioned by what he's witnessed. Nick, the innocent bystander, is in fact integral to the story, not just as the witness and the moral conscience of the book.
Since the novel was published, there have been at least five English-language film adaptations, an operatic interpretation and numerous stage adaptations. None has been terribly successful with the exception of Gatz, for the simple reason that Gatz presents the book in its entirety – every single word (over eight hours). Without Fitzgerald's poetry, without the editorial consciousness of Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway, the story can seem threadbare and melodramatic. Telling the story from Carraway's point of view was the key to the delicate balancing act Fitzgerald performed in narrating his improbable love story. Nick is an outside observer who becomes emotionally involved in the story he is telling. Drunkenly taking in the proceedings at a party in a New York City apartment, Nick observes: "Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was with him, too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
Gatsby without Nick's voice, without his presiding consciousness, is like Bob Dylan's lyrics without music. Interesting, yes, but poetry? I don't think so. This is just one reason why I avoided the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, with a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola. And why I will almost certainly be skipping Baz Luhrmann's film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, much as I would love to see Isla Fisher in the role of Myrtle Wilson, the floozy mistress of Gatsby's rival Tom Buchanan. Fitzgerald's Gatsby is a very fragile creation, made of words and dreams. Fitzgerald tells us almost nothing of his appearance, and while this may seem like a fault in the book – one of which the author himself was aware – the actor who chooses to embody this famous cipher takes on a daunting task, further complicated by the fact that Gatsby's dialogue is the most wooden and formulaic language in the book, presenting a striking contrast to the rich, aphoristic style of Nick Carraway's narration. The prose surrounding Jay Gatsby is so good it allows us to share Nick's vision of his largeness of soul and the heroism of his quest, to celebrate "the colossal vitality of his illusion".
The enduring appeal of Fitzgerald's third novel, as with many great novels, is partly dependent on a benign misinterpretation on the part of readers, a surrender to fascination with wealth and glamour, and the riotous frivolity of the jazz age. Fitzgerald was by no means an uncritical observer, as some have suggested; the most villainous of these characters are the wealthiest, and Nick Carraway is something of a middle-class prig, who, much as he tries to reserve judgment, is ultimately sickened by all the profligacy and the empty social rituals of his summer among the wealthy of Long Island. "I wanted no more riotous excursion with privileged glimpses into the human heart," he says at the end. And yet Fitzgerald had a kind of double agent's consciousness about the tinsel of the jazz age, and about the privileged world of inherited wealth; he couldn't help stopping to admire and glamorise the glittering interiors of which his midwestern heart ultimately disapproved. Gatsby's lavish weekly summer parties are over the top, ridiculous, peopled with drunks and poseurs, and yet we can't help feeling a sense of loss when he suddenly shuts them down after it's clear that Daisy – for whom the whole show was arranged in the first place – doesn't quite approve. We shouldn't approve either, and yet in memory they seem like parties to which we wish we'd been invited.
In Gatsby and his best fiction, Fitzgerald manages to strike a balance between his attraction and repulsion, between his sympathy and his judgment. As a middle-class, midwestern Irish Catholic from what Edmund Wilson called "a semi-excluded background" vis-a-vis the Ivy League and the world of eastern privilege, he seems capable of double vision, the appearance of viewing character, from inside and outside. Fitzgerald's best narrators always seem to be partaking of the festivities even as they shiver outside with their noses pressed up against the glass. In this manner, Nick Carraway doesn't entirely approve of Jay Gatsby, the party-giving parvenu with his pink suits and his giant yellow circus wagon of a car. But he deeply admires Jay Gatsby the lover and the dreamer, the man for whom the mansion and the bespoke clothes were only the means to reclaim his first love. Nick admires his fidelity to that first love and his ability to keep it pure and undefiled, even as he wades through the muck to pursue it, even if the object of that love isn't, in the flesh, worthy of such devotion.
Ultimately, Jay Gatsby's story mirrors Fitzgerald's, a poor boy who falls in love with the golden girl and performs heroic feats in order to win the hand of the princess. In Fitzgerald's case, the princess was Zelda Sayre of Montgomery, Alabama, whom he meets when he is stationed as an officer there. He is engaged to Zelda but eventually rejected when it seems clear that the aspiring writer can't support her; crawls home to St Paul, Minnesota, where he writes a novel which makes him rich and famous virtually overnight. In this story the hero gets the girl. Gatsby's love story seems almost plausible in light of Fitzgerald's. Although the vagueness of the source of his wealth is almost glaring, the Horatio Alger story, in which poor boys work their way up to wealth and power, was ingrained in the American psyche.
Fitzgerald conflates Jay Gatsby's act of self-invention with the promise of the new world, with the dream of a fresh start upon which the nation was founded: "And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder. And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of the dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it."
To some, including many British readers over the years, this may seem like a lot of weight for the love story of a bootlegger and a southern belle to bear. But it seems to speak to a collective self-image dear to many American hearts – in spite of its unhappy ending. It's possible we Americans are not entirely rational about The Great Gatsby. Gatsby becomes fabulously wealthy, but he doesn't care about money in itself. He lives in a beautiful mansion and dresses beautifully, but everything he does is for love. He invents a hero called Jay Gatsby and then inhabits this creation, just as we hope to reinvent ourselves, some day, any day now, almost certainly starting tomorrow.