on March 28, 2015
The Great Gatsby is the swingy title that, almost a century after its composition, is still adverted to by those who wish to introduce to others what the roaring twenties were like. This is because it captures the ways and spirit of that age, at least concerning the young American elite of that day. The story takes place around 1922 (p. 60.) The speech takes us right into the society of that time, when women spoke like this: “But if I hadn’t met Chester, he’d of got me sure” (p. 36.) A 1940’s Hollywood dialect is prefigured: “We’re getting sickandtired of it” (p. 161.)
Jay Gatsby is the icon inside the iconic tale, the man of ‘heightened sensitivity’ and ‘romantic readiness’ (p. 8.) He knows, even before 1937, How to Win Friends and Influence People. He “understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself” (p. 49.) He is the man of means. Both he and his means are seemingly from nowhere. Being so much a man of the world, it’s as if he’s from everywhere. His type is almost, if not completely and always, an anti-hero; even his name is false (p. 94.)
The atmosphere swirling about the inner-circle whose nucleus is the great Gatsby himself, may be summed up in two words borrowed from page 143: ‘cheerful snobbery.’ This is a world in which the snob can afford to go “drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed” (p. 144.) Before long, though, in this tale (is it not true to life?) the snob’s world in the ‘enchanted metropolitan twilight’ turns into a ‘haunting loneliness’ (p. 57.) We are getting close to what this book is about when we see this revolution in the context of becoming aware of “wasting the most poignant moments of night and life” (p. 57.) The book is not about snobbery, though it is full of that. It’s not about bootlegging, though this is the fuel that runs the snobbery through its ‘drug-stores’ and ‘gonnections’ (pp. 104, 115, 127, 163.) It’s not about the great moral that eventually unfolds: the tragic pitfalls of loose morals and easy-living. It’s not even about aggrandizement coming to calamity. And the book may be the book of an age. But truly, this book is about age. It’s about the sentimental twenties teetering on the edge of the sensible thirties. Thirty is so threatening from this precipice as to prophesy “the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair” (p. 129.) The more matter-of-fact sort might not identify with this fear. Thirty might not be to him such a number to cringe from. But to those most alive to the romance of being young, the sight of thirty is like a recognition that romance is ready to vaporize into empty reality. It’s as if that exuberant decade, like Tom's wife and mistress, once ‘secure and inviolate,’ is now ‘slipping precipitately from…control’ (p. 119.) This is a book written in the twenties about the twenties and about being twenty-something. The twenties are desperately but deftly snatched at by Fitzgerald in order to save from there, if only so much as ‘a fragment of the spot’ (p. 145.) This is about the anxiety of losing that great thing that all who live must lose: youth.
Plainly put, this book is about trying to maintain “that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (p. 10.) But only rapturous language is able to do justice, finally, to what that fairest age is like that no one wants to see slip away. “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” (pp. 106, 7.) This is almost purple. Some might even call it so. But a passage like this does begin to articulate what the unspeakable attributes of youth feel like. Fitzgerald captures something of youth’s instinct and intensity.
In a broad sense, the composition evokes the idealistic, irrational vision of youth. This can only be pulled off by the style hitting the mark in its most particular aspects. There must be very little unintentional self-sabotage, either by disharmony, ill definition, cliches, or failed attempts at flights of fancy. The ‘unquiet darkness’ (p. 25) is carefully put in to harmonize with the croaking of frogs farther up the page. A careless writer would have slipped into disharmony by stating the commonly mistaken assumption that darkness must imply quietude. The grandiose illusion that begins to invade the inebriating brain is excellently defined (p. 48.) And cliches no doubt were first to recommend themselves before Fitzgerald settled, after much reflection, for the unexpected. ‘Deplorably sober’ (p. 53) is unexpected, and fits the naughty humor of Fitzgerald’s characters. The taxi ‘feeling its way’ (p. 138) along the dark road is the unexpected that inspires the right mood. That someone ‘inhospitably died’ (p. 97) is the unexpected way of expressing the disruptive character of death. And the ridiculous affirmation that time, and therefore youth, can be wound up all over again is the unexpected creed that is nevertheless tailor-made for the book’s message and attitude. “’Can’t repeat the past?’…’Why of course you can!’” (p. 106.)
I have never read a review of this novel. I suspect that pessimistic comments, at least by paid reviewers from the recent past, are few. Discrimination is hardly popular anymore. I will dare to say that F. Scott Fitzgerald sometimes fails to hit his eloquent target. “He had lost the old warm world” (p. 153) falls kind of flat. “Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine” (p. 142) is a poor piece of poetry. Three whole sections, as well, short ones thankfully, do not seem to fit in with anything at all (pp. 39, 53, 110.) The third commandment is often broken, either by outright cursing or by the use of the word ‘God’ for exclamatory purposes. Since the adulteries and other illicit relations are merely intimated in the context of an ultimate reaping of rewards, there is no bone to pick with that. The cursing, too, should have been only hinted at. It sits on the page as the foul speech, not only of fictional characters, but of the author who is no doubt okay with an open display of blasphemy for all to see and perhaps even copy.
This novel is not so marvelous or prodigious as to warrant Fitzgerald his high situation among the literary greats. But it is a star of more than average magnitude. It takes us back to what was and might have been, albeit with some bad language. The tone of an age, and of age, is on the page.