One characteristic of popular American fiction is the implicit separation of love and money. Possession of one does not lead to possession of the other. If the protagonists of Horatio Alger’s books become rich and win the girl, such winning is an adjunct to their sudden solvency, not a consequence of it. Alger wants his audience to believe, perhaps, that common sense and moral determination secure the love of a worthy partner; but that these qualities of common sense and moral determination are the property of those who must struggle for money is an assumption -not an issue Alger wants to explore. As a result, it is impossible to imagine what happens to Ragged Dick, Frank Fowler, or any of the hundreds of Horatio Alger heroes after their first success.
The separation of love and money characterizes serious American fiction too. The guilt that seems to lurk behind the source of Lambert Strether’s wealth (the firm in Woollett “made something”) underscores both his and, I suspect, his creator’s distaste for tainting the finer emotions with anything so crass as commercialism. If the independence and energy that constitute Strether’s as well as his earlier prototype’s, Christopher Newman’s, most appealing facets come from contact with the struggles of business, the novel prefers to treat this matter as background. The inamoratas of Strether and Newman are fascinating more for their richness of background and their exquisiteness of taste than for the fortune that sustains these qualities.
What I have said so far seems to me to hold especially true for American fiction before World War I. The laissez-faire democratic ideal that America has always believed it believed is the product of an age when individual effort counted, when a man could rise by his own efforts, and when—if his affairs were not succeeding—hecould at least escape by signing up for a whaling voyage or lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest. When the system failed, it was the fault of rapscallions and crooks; the vision itself remained an ideal and the standard from which criticisms and judgments could be made.
Of course, not many, if any, ideals die totally and suddenly even after mortal blows, and during periods of transition the most complex and seminal works are often written. In this respect the 1920s bridge the gap between the older, simpler, more naive and idealistic America and the bewildering, disparate, rootless, cynical America of the present. The Great Gatsby, neatly published in the mid-1920s, is a key work, looking Janus-like in both directions.
The opening words of the novel express this double vision.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticising any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” (p. 1)
The narrator, Nick Carraway, senses that he is too quick to condemn; his father has a perspective from which to make judgments. Nick has to remind himself of his father’s more balanced, human appraisal. The younger Carraway has one foot in the past and one in the present; his allegiance to his father’s older, more careful manner is maintained at the cost of constant surveillance.
When, in a following paragraph, Nick declares that after returning from the East he “wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (p. 2), he connects the war with his cynical, guilty disapproval of the New York the book is about to portray, but he goes on to make an exception for Gatsby, allying Gatsby to an older, more humane America—an ironic identification, since Gatsby “represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn” (p. 2). Thus, not only the narrator but also Gatsby is double, making the novel doubly double.
Such doubleness is important, because by it Fitzgerald creates a character whose naivete can be simultaneously touching and absurd, and who can possess the most romantic and crass attitudes at the same time. By the end of the novel, Gatsby and what he stands for reach proportions of mythic profundity.
Expressing such resonances was a talent Fitzgerald had to develop. Some indication of his abilities is present in This Side of Paradise, and some of the rhythms of The Great Gatsby appear in embryonic form in the earlier book, but it is not until “Winter Dreams” in 1923 that Fitzgerald explicitly connects the themes of love and money. In this story, Dexter Green, a figure straight from the work ethic of Horatio Alger, loses Judy Jones, a child of wealth.
Yet the relationship between love and money in “Winter Dreams” is not as simple as in Alger. For one thing, Judy Jones, the heroine of the story, is a romantically attractive woman. In Horatio Alger’s fiction, rich females are cold and cruel and loveless, but Judy Jones is exciting and desirable, capable of exciting love in others, but, once society has corrupted her, not herself capable of loving. Exciting others and promising love, however, matter more than the realizable dreams of wealth necessary to obtain Judy Jones; they give the story all its powerful emotion. The intangibility of the emotion, its transience and fragility, its evanescent illusory quality, and the fact that it is unrealizable account for its enchantment. What sustains the charm is the atmosphere that surrounds Judy Jones, an atmosphere engendered by wealth. This wealth destroys even as it creates; thus, the doubleness of Gatsby is prefigured here.
When Dexter Green is aware of how empty and bereft his life is because the dream of the old Judy Jones has gone, he has the impulse to “get very drunk.” There are shades here of Amory Blaine, who similarly responds when Rosalind is not to be his. But not, seemingly, shades of Gatsby; although a bootlegger, Gatsby is abstemious and careful—a man aware of his own doubleness. Both dreamer and vulgarian at the same time, he is, like DexterGreen, a money maker and a romantic; unlike Dexter Green, he seems to balance between the two. He appears able to keep the halves in control.
Almost predictably, the object of Gatsby’s romantic quest, Daisy Buchanan, comes to us in a double way. She is, of course, presented not by Gatsby or Fitzgerald but by Nick Carraway, and she comes to us through his filter of contradictory impressions and emotions. After Nick’s description of Tom, with the latter’s conceit and meanness, the reader is prepared to respond instantly to the charm of Daisy. Daisy comes to us laughing “an absurd, charming little laugh” (p. 10) that makes Nick laugh also. The pleasing impression of Daisy is largely vocal:
… there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour. (p. 11)
But then Nick’s doubleness reasserts itself. Just as we are seduced by her simpering mockery of her husband, captivated by her posturing, her “thrilling scorn” (p. 21), and the romantic glow with which Fitzgerald has surrounded her, Nick pulls us back.
The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged. (pp. 21-2)
This identification with Tom comes as a surprise. So does its limited extension to Nick himself. (A few pages earlier, Nick has referred to the fact that he and Tom “were in the same senior society” [p. 9] at Yale.) The three-way identification of Tom, Nick, and Daisy momentarily demystifies Daisy and consequently makes the reader trust more in Nick’s judgments. Nick can both glamorize Daisy so that the reader shares Gatsby’s attraction to her and undercut Daisy so that the reader can see her from without. Such a set of contradictions strengthens the spell Daisy can cast and givesus a view of Daisy that contrasts to the one Gatsby will later present.
The double view of Daisy persists throughout the novel, although it is later replaced by the more compelling topic of Gatsby’s feeling for her; it certainly continues through Chapter 5, when Gatsby meets Daisy again after five years. At this point, our contradictory feelings are transferred to their relationship. Fitzgerald deliberately recalls our reactions by a reference to the first scene with Daisy when Nick refers to a joke about the butler’s nose. His description of Daisy’s voice when Gatsby enters Nick’s house, also recalls that previous episode:
For half a minute there wasn’t a sound. Then from the living-room I heard a sort of choking murmur and part of a laugh, followed by Daisy’s voice on a clear artificial note:
“I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.” (p. 104)
Just when it seems as though the hollow, mannered, deliberate falseness is going to continue, Fitzgerald effects another peripeteia. When Nick returns after having left Daisy and Gatsby alone for awhile, Daisy is crying, and “every vestige of embarrassment” (p. 107) has disappeared. Daisy’s throat, at this point, “full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy” (p. 108). Love seems possible, especially for Gatsby. He dominates the rest of the chapter, as “a new well-being radiated from him” (p. 108).
It is no accident that this scene falls squarely in the middle of the novel. It might also be the emotional center of it, and it is noteworthy that in a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald mentioned this scene as his favorite.
Yet, moving as it may be, the initial encounter of Gatsby and Daisy cannot really be the emotional center of The Great Gatsby. For one thing, however much we may be charmed by Daisy, Nick’s previous depiction of her undercuts our ability to give unquestioning credence to her feelings on this occasion. And, more comically, the means by which Gatsby expresses his feelings for Daisy—even though those feelings are sincere—is by showing off his possessions. Urging Daisy and Nick to explore his house, he tells them: “‘It took me just three years to earn the money that bought it’” (p. 109). The very language in which Nick describes Gatsby’s love for Daisy is commercial: “I think he revalued everything in his houseaccording to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.” (p. 111). Daisy responds to Gatsby’s display: she cries over his beautiful shirts.
Even when the sentiments are genuine, they are formulated in monetary terms. Gatsby’s love for Daisy is an intense and worked-out variety of that which lovers of all ages have felt; its expression is distinctively that of postwar America, of a society that consumes.
At this point in The Great Gatsby the relationship between love and money has been suggested but not enlarged, as it will be later. For one thing, we do not know about Gatsby’s impoverished beginnings, and our ignorance is essential to Fitzgerald’s plan. It is not simply the case, as Edith Wharton suggested in a letter to Fitzgerald, that Fitzgerald wishes to tell his story in a new fashion just to be “modern”; nor can I wholly accept Fitzgerald’s explanation that the reason for withholding Gatsby’s past is to augment the sense of mystery surrounding him, although doing so does have such an effect. Rather, withholding exactly who Gatsby is or where he comes from is a method of underscoring the rootlessness of postwar American society, its restless alienation, and its consequent reliance on money as a code for expressing emotions and identity.
Fitzgerald seems at every point to emphasize the unconnected-ness of Gatsby. Gatsby has shifting identities according to which party guest one listens to, but most of the identities, even the one that turns out to be “true,” have something of the unreal or fantastic about them. When they do not, they seem fantastic by being juxtaposed with others that do.
“Who is he?” I demanded. “Do you know?”
“He’s just a man named Gatsby.”
“Where is he from, I mean? And what does he do?”
“Now you’re started on the subject,” she answered with a wan smile. “Well, he told me once he was an Oxford man.”
A dim background started to take shape behind him, but at her next remark it faded away.
“However, I don’t believe it.” (p. 59)
This rootlessness begins when the war ends. Before he identifies himself, the war is the subject of Gatsby’s conversation with Nick,and it is the most grounded identity, until the novel’s denouement, that Gatsby has.
How do the members of such a rootless, mobile, indifferent society acquire a sense of who they are? Most of them don’t. The novel presents large numbers of them as comic, disembodied names of guests at dinner parties: the Chromes, the Backhyssons, and the Dennickers. Some, of course, have some measure of fame, but even Jordan Baker’s reputation does not do much for her other than get her entree to more parties. A very few, such as Gatsby, stand out by their wealth; his hospitality secures him a hold on many peoples’ memories, but Fitzgerald is quick to point up the emptiness of this: Klipspringer cares more about his lost tennis shoes than Gatsby’s death.
In this connection, Fitzgerald’s insistence on Gatsby as a man who “sprang from his own Platonic conception of himself” is important. Conceiving one’s self would seem to be a final expression of rootlessness. And it has other consequences for love, money, and aspirations as well. When one’s sense of self is self-created, when one is present at one’s own creation, so to speak, one is in a paradoxical position. One knows everything about oneself that can be known, and yet the significance of such knowledge is unclear, for no outside contexts exist to create meaning. The result is that a self-created man turns to the past, for he can know that. It is an inescapable context. For Gatsby and for the novel, the past is crucial.
His sense of the past as something that he not only knows but also thinks he can control sets Gatsby apart from Nick and gives him mythical, larger-than-life dimensions. When he tells Nick that “of course the past can be repeated” (p. 133) or that Tom’s love for Daisy was “‘just personal’” (p. 182), he may be compensating for his inability to recapture Daisy; but he must believe these things because the postwar world in which he, Gatsby, lives is meaningless and almost wholly loveless.
A glance at the relationships in The Great Gatsby proves this latter point. Daisy and Tom’s marriage has gone dead; they must cover their dissatisfactions with the distractions of the idle rich, Myrtle and Tom are using one another; Myrtle hates George, who is toodull to understand her; the McKees exist in frivolous and empty triviality. Even Nick seems unsure about his feelings for the tennis girl back in the Midwest. His attraction to Jordan Baker is clearly an extension of this earlier relationship (both girls are associated with sports), but occurring as it does in the East, it partakes of the East’s corruption. It too calls forth the need for money. In a draft manuscript of The Great Gatsby, Nick makes the link between money and desire explicit: “I thought that I loved her and I wanted money with a sudden physical pang.” Later Nick compares his loveless affair with Jordan to refuse the sea might sweep away, a feeling that Jordan senses and throws back at Nick with cruel irony when she accuses him of being dishonest—leading her on with no intention of marrying her—after lying to him that she is engaged to another man.
In brief, the world of The Great Gatsby can seem as sordid, loveless, commercial, and dead as the ash heaps presided over by the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. Indeed, this atmosphere is so essential to The Great Gatsby that one of the alternative titles Fitzgerald considered for the novel was Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires.
Against this backdrop, the Gatsby-Daisy relationship seems to shine. It is at least a shared connection in which both partners respond with equal intensity. For Gatsby it has endured: He has loved Daisy for five years. And if their love is founded upon feelings from the past, these give it, notwithstanding Gatsby’s insistence on being able to repeat the past, an inviolability. It exists in the world of money and corruption but is not of it.
Some implications of the inviolability Gatsby does not see. His very protesting, however, shows his sense of the impossibility of returning and makes at once more poignant and more desperate his effort to win Daisy—a poignancy further increased by the futility of his money in achieving this end.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was… (p. 133).
The last orderly period of Gatsby’s life, then, was the period before he was sent to fight in the war, when he was still in the process of self-creation. The period when he loved Daisy and when Daisy loved him preceded his period of fabulous wealth. In this respect, he fits the Alger stereotype.
The period when his love becomes most intense, however, is precisely that in which he does not see Daisy. The love born in this period is therefore largely a function of his imagination. The kernel of his experience remains untouched because it is safely embedded in a previous time; the growth of the love is wild and luxuriant. It spurs him on, resulting in the glamorous world of parties and in the “huge incoherent failure” (p. 217) of his house.
The romantic and fantastic nature of Gatsby’s love seems extraordinary and absurd, looked at in worldy, practical terms. Why does he wait so long to arrange a meeting and then use Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway to bring it about? A man with Gatsby’s resources would surely have a hundred easier ways to do what he does in the course of this story. The answer is that the love becomes more important than the object of it. Gatsby has already started down this path in Louisville when he asks himself, “‘What would be the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?’” (p. 180).
If Gatsby himself is presented as curiously “unreal,” the connection between Daisy and Gatsby—the unobtainable and the insubstantial—is destined to founder in a world as insistently material as the one Fitzgerald details for us. In such a world, Gatsby cannot make love to Daisy. Even earlier, during the war, when Gatsby and Daisy did make love (“took” her [p. 178]), physical contact was a limitation of his love: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God” (p. 134). And the moments of greatest intimacy between them are those when they neither speak nor make love: “They had never been closer in their month of love, nor communicated more profoundly one with another, than when she brushed silent lips against his coat’s shoulder or when he touched the end of her fingers, gently, as though she were asleep” (p. 180). No wonder, then, that after the five-year hiatus, when Gatsby’s love has had the chance tofeed upon itself and nourish itself, the possibility of physical intimacy has not grown, but the love has grown beyond the merely “personal.”
For these reasons Chapter 7, where Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Nick and Jordan engage a suite at the Plaza hotel, is of greatest importance. If Daisy’s love for Gatsby is to endure, it must exist in non-Platonic, physical terms. It must exist in the world of money. The scene in New York demonstrates the impossibility of this transformation and further connects Gatsby’s love to his sense of fabulous, mythical riches.
If Gatsby dominates the first meeting with Daisy—the chapter ends at his house, on his territory—Tom dominates the denouement at the hotel. The change of venue allies Chapter 7 to Chapter 2, the scene of Tom’s violent party with Myrtle Wilson, a connection Fitzgerald underscores by the telephone conversation about Tom Buchanan’s selling his car and by the stopping for gasoline at George Wilson’s station.
Daisy sees purposelessness as characterizing her whole life: “‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?’ cried Daisy, ’and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’” (p. 141). The idleness of this remark doesn’t threaten Gatsby’s grandiose feelings, but Daisy inhabits the physical world of Tom, and she wants to act, not just dream, so it is she who proposes that the party move to New York—to Tom’s territory. Such a move takes the day away from Gatsby. Daisy’s voice ominously molds the “senselessness [of the heat] into forms” (p. 142)—i.e., abstract feelings into concrete deeds.
It is before the five characters move to New York that (Gatsby makes his famous remark to Nick: “‘Her voice is full of money’” (p. 144). This insight, which Fitzgerald added when the novel was in galley proof, shows Gatsby’s understanding of the link between love and money. Daisy’s voice has been described as the seductive, thrilling aspect of her. What Gatsby, with surprising consciousness, states is that Daisy’s charm is allied to the attraction of wealth; money and love hold similar attractions.
It is true that from Wolfsheim to Nick Carraway, people are in the East to earn their livings, to pursue “the shining secrets thatonly Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew” (p. 5). But Gatsby, with his boundless capacity for love, a capacity unique in the sterile world he inhabits, sees that the pursuit of money is a substitute for love. He knows himself well enough to see that his own attraction toward wealth is tied to his love for Daisy. The fact that Gatsby’s money, like his love, should be self-made gives his description of her voice authority and depth.
That Daisy’s voice should be full of money is a remark only Gatsby could make. It is a statement of someone alive to the possibilities of love and money and sensitive to them—perhaps too much so. Tom could never have provided the description of Daisy. His attraction to Daisy has nothing to do with her wealth. (Her family is well off, but apparently not very rich—certainly not compared to the Buchanan fortune.) And it is impossible to imagine Tom making Gatsby’s remark because Tom is accustomed to having money. Moneyqua money holds no interest for him because it does not have to be chased after: His is old money simply there to be used. Tom may buy anything he wishes—from polo ponies to cufflinks—but he understands that polo ponies or cufflinks are all he is buying. His money was divested of dreams before he was even born.
Gatsby’s, on the other hand, is new money, money in the process of being acquired. This newness gives the money some purpose and vitality; what Gatsby buys he buys for a purpose: to win Daisy. But there is a danger for Gatsby in this redeeming purposefulness. When he buys his fantastic house, he thinks he is buying a dream, not simply purchasing property. This direction makes Gatsby a more sympathetic man than Tom, but it is a sympathy he projects at the price of naivete; he is completely innocent of the limits of what money can do, a man who, we feel, would believe every word of an advertisement] Daisy even makes this identification: “‘You resemble the advertisement of the man’” (p. 142).
In this respect Gatsby embodies the acquisitive, consuming spirit of the rest of the characters in the novel. The characters of The Great Gatsby are pursuing a world of misunderstood elegance, mirrored in a thousand romantic and comic details and apotheosized, perhaps, in Nick’s description of New York as made of “whiteheaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money” (p. 82).
“Non-olfactory” is a curious word. It is Fitzgerald’s way of using the common locution that “money smells.” He is also reminding us, of course, that Gatsby’s money does not “smell” right—however explicitly or tacitly condoned by the denizens of Gatsby’s world, illegal and shifty means (bootlegging, stolen securities) have been used to make that wealth. Gatsby does not see that the corruption at the base of his fortune in effect compromises his vision of life with Daisy. You cannot win the ideal with the corrupt, and you cannot buy integrity or taste with dollars. When late in the story Daisy attends one of Gatsby’s parties, she is repelled rather than attracted.
So stated, this has a moralistic ring, but no reader of The Great Gatsby could ever mistake it for a didactic work. The reader is at many points encouraged to marvel at the glitter, especially as it is the means by which Gatsby chases after Daisy. If such morality as the book conveys comes through most explicitly in the attitudes of its narrator, there are nevertheless many moments when Nick is simply overwhelmed by the astonishing freshness and strength of Gatsby’s feeling. Indeed, after the remark about Daisy’s voice, Nick finds himself participating in Gatsby’s thinking. He finds this moment similar to an earlier one in Chapter 5 when he “was going to ask to see the rubies” (p. 113). He continues Gatsby’s dream for us, recognizing the strength of Gatsby’s identification of Daisy’s voice and money.
That was it. I’d never understood it 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. … (p. 144)
Here not only Nick but also we share Gatsby’s dream. The man who has asked Daisy, “‘Can’t you talk about crops or something?’” (p. 15) breaks into reverie. We share in the pleasures, in the fantasies; Nick’s and Gatsby’s vision becomes ours. And thus the book fosters our appreciation of Gatsby’s corrupt dream. Yet such participation can never be wholehearted and can never be complete: Nick breaks off as Tom returns with a bottle of whiskey, and the scene becomes Tom’s again.
The novel’s insistence that Tom win the struggle over Daisy is tantamount to denying the realization of the kind of love that Gatsby is offering Daisy and that the novel values above all others. What does remain is the marriage of Tom and Daisy. Ironically, such love as even that relationship may contain is embedded in the past (“that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl’” [p. 159]). The future, uncertain and without love, is a kind of death -rendering the world ofThe Great Gatsby grim indeed. Nick sees the oncoming years as harrowing and lonely ones. What does life hold for a decent man like Nick? He has no love, unlike Gatsby. Nick is thirty, a number that recalls Daisy’s frightening question, “‘What’ll we do with ourselves … for the next thirty years?’” (p. 144)
One answer to Nick’s self-doubts might be his liaison with Jordan Baker. That, however, has already been presented to us as a troubled one. If Jordan is “too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age” (p. 163), she is wrapped in almost impenetrable narcissism; after the disturbing events of the day when Myrtle has been killed, Jordan is ready for a date: “‘It’s only half-past nine’” (p. 171). But Nick, having watched Gatsby’s love for Daisy effectively terminated, having seen Myrtle violently run down, and wrapped in his own loneliness, cannot accede to compulsive and indeed perverse socializing.
The novel’s sense of duality, of attraction and repellence, diminishes after the hotel scene. Instead the book proceeds with deliberate mechanicalness to work out the consequences of Daisy’s having run down Myrtle. Wilson’s dull, self-defensive grief is the embodiment of the sterility of the valley of ashes; lacking a dream, his life itself is a kind of death. Wilson may have been married in a church “‘a long time ago,’” (p. 189), but his present God is the disembodied eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, an advertisement. For him love has vanished, and he is left without a vision to sustain him. The man who kills Gatsby is already dead when he commits the murder; Nick Carraway describes him as “ashen” (p. 194), and his suicide is simply a belated acknowledgment of his condition.
Wilson and Gatsby both die by Wilson’s hand, suggesting an identification. There is one. Both have aspired to marry above their social station. Whereas Wilson borrows a suit for his wedding toconceal his low economic status, Gatsby wears his country’s uniform while courting Daisy. But there the similarity ends. Yet it is worth noting that Gatsby has tried to do what probably no other developed male character in a major work of American fiction has tried to do. He has tried to marry for love into a class higher than the one he comes from. Usually women make such an attempt, namely, Sister Carrie, Lily Bart, and a host of others.
In this respect the difference between Gatsby and the hero of another book published in the same year, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, is instructive. Clyde Griffiths, like Gatsby, tries to rise from humble beginnings in the Midwest to a larger, more glamorous life in the East. Like Gatsby, Clyde attaches himself to a woman (Sondra Finchley) from a moneyed family. And both believe that if they only have enough money, they can buy the dream they seek.
There is a crucial difference. Clyde Griffiths is sexually attracted to Sondra Finchley, but he is not in love with her. Sondra provides the wealth and glamor that Clyde’s lover Roberta, is unable to, but Clyde’s feelings for Sondra are really subordinate to his sense of pleasure in her leisured environment. Of Gatsby’s depth of feeling, of Gatsby’s imagination, of Gatsby’s genuineness of sentiment (“‘I can’t describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport’” [p. 179]), Clyde Griffiths knows nothing.
He is unaware of the fact, but Clyde is using Sondra for his own ends. Jay Gatsby is not using Daisy. He strives to move in higher circles because Daisy is there. Of course, in doing so, he violates a cultural norm. He tries to buy into a tradition instead of accepting one. Social convention and time triumph. The wearing away of freedom and the impossibility of realizing the only dreams that make life worth living are the themes of The Great Gatsby. The absence of great love is more painful because the sense of possibility money provides is so powerfully ambient in Gatsby’s world.
Again, because the dream is unrealizable, the past becomes increasingly important to the book, for it is in memories that the dream can live. The final pages of the novel are pervaded by the consciousness of the past and the sense of history (“the dark fields of the republic” [p. 218]). For most readers these pages are themost moving and suggestive in the book, and, many would add, in the whole of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. The reason is that what has been felt or implied in every line earlier in the novel is expanded there in paragraphs of increasingly greater suggestiveness until the passage achieves archetypical resonances—resonances beyond even the usual national, historical ones claimed for this section of the novel.
That these final paragraphs should echo through the whole book can be illustrated bibliographically. Nick’s meditation about American history and the sense of possibility originally appeared in the manuscript not as the conclusion to the whole novel, but as the end of Chapter 1, where Nick returns to West Egg from visiting Tom and Daisy and sees Gatsby attempting to “determine what share was his of our local heavens” (p. 26). All the images from the final pages—the moon rising higher, the “inessential houses” (p. 217), the “fresh, green breast of the new world” (p. 217), and so on are here, and the passage’s haunting, lost feeling comes through because of them. Nick’s accidental sighting of Gatsby at this point is not sufficient reason for the depth or length of the meditation, and Fitzgerald brilliantly repositioned the passage to where it now stands—but the feeling of loss was already present early in the conception. If in reading the book we find the final paragraphs a fitting conclusion, then that is so as a result of the novel’s originally having hung from them, or having been composed with them already written.
From the start, therefore, Fitzgerald sensed the possibility of writing a novel whose theme embraced the notion of dreams in a general way. In letters written around the period of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald refers to the novel’s being about those illusions that matter so much that you chase after them, because even though they are illusions, nothing matters as much as they do. What counts is nothing less than the profoundest experience of love. Yet what is Gatsby’s love for Daisy but illusion, one fed by the dream of fulfillment America offered?
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 forGatsby’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. (pp. 217-18)
The love that imbues this passage, the warmth and closeness of the tone, is expressed in the imagery of birth, from the womblike feeling of holding breath, from the breast of the new world, and from the lack of understanding or desire: All these are feelings connected with being born. And because every man, including the reader, is the “last” man in history while he is alive, these sentences achieve the immediacy of myth and archetype.
The love that Gatsby has for Daisy is one whose sexual component is hidden in the inviolate past. It sees the affairs of the world as necessary but sordid. It is the love Fitzgerald felt for America, as Alfred Kazin has noted in An American Procession. In such enclosed dreams we are children; they offer us a kind of ultimate innocence. But because such love is unconsummated and unconsummatable, it cannot express itself directly. Instead it imbues that which surrounds it with its own special quality.
This quality spills into Nick’s sense of history and into the novel’s feelings of what it means to be wealthy. Unsophisticated writers such as Horatio Alger made a false separation between love and money; more complex writers sublimated or subordinated the one to the other. The unique contribution ofThe Great Gatsby is the identification of them. The acquisition of money and love are both part of the same dream, the will to return to the quintessential unity that exists only at birth and at death.
The last sentence of the novel, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” points out that all of our great dreams are grounded in impossibility: We progress toward that which we want, but the natural movement of life is retrograde—we die. The water here, as in The Waste Land, is both life-giving amnion and a destroying force.
To say this as Fitzgerald has is to reach an insight of final proportion. For this reason, The Great Gatsby transcends the ideas of the 1920s, its ostensible subject. By yoking the harsher, cynical post-war judgments about love and human endeavor to the older dreams of the past, the novel makes a synthesis greater than any single period could have achieved. The Great Gatsby is about love and money, but its greater subject—the tragic nature of aspiration—links these two in ways that deepen in the broadest, profoundest way our sense of who we are.
Roger Lewis, who has published a novel and a volume of poetry, directs a small publishing company in Washington, D.C. He is an Associate Professor of English at George Mason University.