CK Stead reflects on three ages of reading The Great Gatsby.
SPOILER ALERT: First-time readers of The Great Gatsby should save this article until later.
I first read The Great Gatsby at the age of 18 and was deeply impressed. I scored marks down the margin of the final three paragraphs of chapter six, in which Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss is recounted, and put three large exclamation marks after them. When I read the novel again in my fifties, I added (self-mockingly), “These marks were mine in 1951. I thought this marvellous writing, even ‘the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star’!” Rereading in 2013, I have added, “Well, OK, but I wasn’t wrong to mark this. It’s the emotional centre point of the novel.”
So here are three readings: one simply blown away, the second reacting critically against the first, the third occupying a middle ground, admiring but with reservations. None of these is simply “right”. Each is a keen reader’s reaction, has its reasons, and could be defended critically.
I suppose what the third (present) reader particularly admires about the novel is its structure, the way it relates a complex set of events through a first-person narrator, giving us as much information as we need, but no more, at the right time.
So at first we doubt, even disapprove of, Gatsby and his overblown claims; but slowly, as the narrative takes us forward, we learn that some of what he claims for himself is true. He was a major in the Great War; he did take the opportunity the army offered to study at Oxford; and this was the delay in his return that gave Daisy’s restless affections time to wander and to attach themselves to Tom – a marriage on the eve of which she had her emotional crisis.
It is learning (in chapter four) about this last-minute panic that causes Nick Carraway, our witness and narrator, to alter his view of Gatsby, and produces one of those ringing statements by which F Scott Fitzgerald signals Nick’s feelings and influences ours.
Remembering his first sight of Gatsby, arms raised, looking out across the water towards the green light at the end of Tom and Daisy’s jetty, Nick reflects, “it had not been merely the stars to which he had aspired on that June night”. And he goes on, “He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendour.”
All the apparently pointless lavishness and waste of the Gatsby parties have been part of a grand strategy. Gatsby is a dreamer, almost certainly dishonest in business as well as in his accounts of himself; but he “believed in the green light”. He is a romantic on an American scale, the scale of 20th-century America.
But it is also in making known to us this fact about Daisy’s crisis on the brink of marriage that the constraints of first-person narrative almost break down. This has to be something Daisy’s friend Jordan told Nick, because he wasn’t there and can’t otherwise know it. But Fitzgerald cannot put so many facts, such a story, into speech reported at second-hand. So for four pages the “I” of the narrative is Jordan. This is quite a radical breach of the novel’s own narrative limits, and one a purist like Henry James would not have allowed himself. But it was necessary, and although there are signs of authorial anxiety, I think he gets away with it.
Late in the novel, Fitzgerald has to contrive a situation in which Myrtle Wilson will be run over and killed in such a way that her grieving husband will believe that Gatsby was not just the driver but also the lover Wilson knows she has but whose name he hasn’t been told. The management of this difficult stuff may strain credulity slightly, but again it works. If other things about the novel (atmosphere, narrative momentum) are retaining your goodwill, you will read on, absorbed. These are elements the novelist must constantly weigh up, and Fitzgerald gets the balance right.
The other quality this novel is notable for is its atmosphere, its sense of place, and of contrasts – the cool elegance of Tom and Daisy’s mansion, the frenzied opulence and bad taste of Gatsby’s parties, the waste land of the ash heaps overseen by Dr TJ Eckleburg’s eye advertisement, where Wilson has his gas station. These are three very American social layers – old money, new money and no money.
The Wilsons are so dingy one wonders what is the attraction Myrtle holds for Tom, who hits her and breaks her nose when she dares to assert her right even to mention Daisy by name. Only when she is lying dead, we are told, “Her mouth was wide open […]as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long” – the significant word there matching one used of Gatsby: “the colossal vitality of his illusion”. Those who lack something – money (Myrtle), a love object (Gatsby) – are capable of this “vitality” by which rich Tom, with his bulging thighs and racist ideas, and charmingly dizzy Daisy are each briefly captivated.
There is a kind of rhetoric in this novel that impressed me deeply when young – “So we drove on towards death in the cooling twilight” or that passage I marked at the end of chapter six: “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.”
Now, I am more critical, cooler, more detached, not so easily played upon. Yet if the writing teeters now and then, it does lead us on with Nick towards the steady tone of a youngish man acquiring wisdom. By the end, we probably feel, sadly, that Daisy, although a divided soul, is back where she belongs: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and people and retreated back into their money.” And we are likely to agree with what Nick shouts across the lawn to Gatsby: “They’re a rotten crowd […] You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
The writing is deliberate, almost too consciously “fine”, faintly tinged with the high-toned and sugary flavour of the New Yorker; but it is also a good story, and one of those rare novels that catch a time and a place so perfectly they become signifiers of an age.
CK Stead is author, most recently, of the novel Risk and The Yellow Buoy: Poems 2007-2012.
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