I know from teaching literature to teenagers for a generation that this latest bunch are not naturally romantic, and so the earnest attitude that typifies modernist American literature can be a tough sell. The raw poignant cynicism of the current pop cultural rights of passage, like Breaking Bad or Orange is the New Black, is much more to their taste these days than, say, The Great Gatsby. Because the The Great Gatsby is so strongly ‘branded,’ and perhaps more because the novel is short, the majority of honors juniors, where it typically lands in the curriculum, will get through it without too much bother, even while finding it a touch on the precious side. After a number of years I found myself agreeing with them more than I ever thought I would. After all, there’s nothing funny in the novel, nothing palpably ironic. And I understand why they’d get annoyed by my teacherly imposition to solve Gatsby as a puzzle in order to figure out ‘what’s up’ with Nick. They find him to be an inscrutable, or worse, shallow narrator, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald asks a bit much for us to infer there is something profound in Nick’s decision to separate Gatsby from the consequences of his behavior, inspiring him to go home somewhere in the Midwest and reconnect with a pastoral illusion of America.
The day I’d introduce the novel, I’d run through F. Scott’s biographical highlights—that he died of a heart attack at 44, that he was a rather strange alcoholic (Hemingway said so), that in 1917, at the age of 21, he joined the army, and apparently was quite disappointed the war ended with his battalion in New York awaiting transport to Europe, leaving him to experience his “counter-raids” merely in his restless imagination. The detail I’d stress as the most impressive, because I sometimes fancy myself a romantic, is that a couple of years later, after an abortive advertising career, he moved back to St. Paul, Minnesota, to write a novel good enough to convince a woman—Zelda, of course—he was worthy. And it worked! They married a week after This Side of Paradise was published. When I’d say, Don’t you find that amazing? a few of them would nod.
But is The Great Gatsby really the greatest of American novels?—I have progressively lost my faith. The novel’s fundamental context, the fatalistic circumstance of WWI that separates a person from the intoxicating illusion of innocence, never comes off the page. Such a heady theme, which we have to extract from the narrator’s diffuse lyricism, how Nick Carraway pushes, pulls, and twists Gatsby into metaphor in a courageous impulse to affirm young love in the face of the impossibility of crossing the divide from self to other, present to past, as in the novel’s ultimate image:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic 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. (p. 154)
This image, confounding as it does space and time, is a pure artifact of the narrator’s mind, as is a good chunk of the imagery in The Great Gatsby—which explains why it is so difficult to translate the novel to film. Consider the wacky cross-cutting that would be required to accurately reproduce Nick’s first view of Gatsby melodramatically reaching toward that “single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock”—Nick sitting “on an abandoned grass roller in the yard,” looking toward the neighbor’s mansion—cut to Gatsby, “a figure…standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars”—cut back to Nick—cut to the green light—cut back to Nick—cut back to the mansion (Gatsby had vanished, leaving Nick alone in the “unquiet darkness”). This detached voyeurism often becomes so distant we can forget Nick is the one triangulating himself with Gatsby, and The-Whole-Damn-Bunch-Put-Together: of course, Nick’s shallow cousin, Daisy, her cruel husband, Tom, and their ethically suspect golfer friend Jordan, who at the end of an abortive summer fling is understandably thrown over by Nick. Nick’s shifting perceptions of this rogues’ gallery allows for a favorite English teacher game of asking what a perception says about the perceiver, and is this at the end of the day a picaresque or a bildungsroman? Well, it really is decidedly one rather than the other, I’d say. Can you guess which word I am holding behind my back?
When we allow ourselves to judge the novel from beyond the perspective of the narrator, all of the characters come across poorly, even Gatsby. Doesn’t Nick ask rather a lot of us to accept how only Gatsby, with his tendency toward moral convenience, was at times “exempt” from his “unaffected scorn.” The only analytical way I can see through to understanding Nick’s willingness to believe in Gatsby’s “romantic readiness” is that they are the only two veterans of The Great War in the story (p. 20). The problem is we are asked to appreciate the bond of male love through an implied history, much of which is provided on Nick and Gatsby’s get-to-know-you drive into Manhattan. Gatsby first defines himself to Nick as a soldier, expressing a thought that only someone with like experience could understand: “When it came to the war…It was a great relief and I tried very hard to die.” Then Gatsby shows him a couple of objects—a war medal from Montenegro and a photograph of him, post war, in Oxford’s Trinity Quad “with a half dozen young men in blazers.” And “[t]hen it was all true” and “[e]ven Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder,” Nick thinks, connecting to the desire to leap back over the chasm and recover his own version of pre-war innocence (p. 69). From this gracious detached distance, Nick can observe Mr. Wolfshiem’s human molar cufflinks and avoid moral comment, and at the end of the chapter, he can pull Jordan close, so he can obscure her “wan scornful mouth” and pretend she is his “disembodied face” floating “along the dark cornices and blinding signs”—an ethereal image to communicate the notion that at least subconsciously, Nick knows a woman of this sort doesn’t really exist for Tom Buchanan, or Gatsby either.
Perhaps it is appropriate that Jordan, the nihilistic lackluster seductress, relates the first version of Gatsby and Daisy falling in love, framing the romance in the terms of loss. Jordan tells him that Gatsby met Daisy as an officer, and that Daisy had to be prevented from travelling from Louisville to New York to say goodbye to a soldier—a backstory that implies the terrible experience Gatsby went on to have before returning to mundane life, moving through the landscape of war as though already dead. This miracle of post-soldier reincarnation inspires Nick to imagine the mystical moment in which young love becomes heart-achingly real—but in a frustratingly abstract and fragile vision of their first kiss:
The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk 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.
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. 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. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and then the incarnation was complete.
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 uncommunicable forever…. (p. 101)
This is the most diffuse consummation of romantic desire I know in literature. In Nick’s imagination, not only is Gatsby alone, but Nick has him further retreat into a solitude where image, then language fail. As though to redeem Gatsby from the clutch of solipsism, the morning after their last meeting, before Gatsby is shot by Wilson while floating on a mattress in the pool, Nick again imagines Gatsby and Daisy’s mythical days of pre-war love—but in this instance emphasizing the fatalistic forces of class and world-historical conflict that make a durable union between the two impossible. Nick’s description of their final afternoon, sitting together in front of a fire on a cold fall day, merely suggests the ethereal, as though he wills himself to contemplate the notion of impending separation: “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 his fingers, gently, as though she were asleep” (p. 131). For me this is the moment that defines the story, meaning the best it gets, and why the rest of the denouement feels so emotionally cool. Certainly to Nick, the ideation of Gatsby’s romantic past seems to be the only thing that punches him in the gut. Even Myrtle’s traumatized body, despite being by far the most graphic image in the novel—her “left breast was swinging loose like a flap…The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long”—does not influence Nick directly. At the end of the chapter, he judges Gatsby not for his callousness toward her death, but for his persistence in maintaining the illusion, standing in the shadows outside Tom and Daisy’s mansion, while they sit in the kitchen, conspiring over a “plate of cold fried chicken” and “two bottles of ale,” even though Daisy has just literally run over Tom’s mistress—the two of them the “nothing” Gatsby watches over. The poetic justice of Gatsby’s death, if we stretch the concept, is that only one person, and that is Nick, seems to care much about it, part of the universe’s punishment for Gatsby’s audacious attempt to push back against the linear flow of time. Consistent with this perspective, the image of Gatsby’s corpse is described in profound terms, evoking the perspective of classic Japanese landscape, in which the human is subordinate to nature—here the movement of wind and water conspiring to create an ephemeral geometric form:
There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of a compass, a thin red circle in the water.
It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete. (p. 140)
The lyricism of Gatsby’s death scene, then, asks us to contemplate the tragic happenstance that defines life—not a life, not Gatsby’s life, but existence after the unimaginable carnage of WWI. For Fitzgerald, there is no redemptive illusion, really, but rather a belief in the power of the imagination to turn fact into metaphor, the image of Gatsby dead in the pool into symbol, which expresses nothing naïve, like the hope of a return, but the bravery required to keep on moving as you carry the burden of knowing it is impossible.
Writing about The Great Gatsby in anything but hyperbolic reverence feels taboo. Just the other day, I bit my tongue when the topic of the novel came up in the English department lunchroom, embarrassed to reveal my agnosticism. I reflexively agreed when someone said what is always said in these conversations: it is such a hard text; the students don’t have the life experience to understand Fitzgerald’s vision of love. I don’t know about this because in the years I taught American Literature, my students always connected to another difficult novel I would teach later in the year, Tim O’Brien’s postmodern classic, The Things They Carried, and none of them were in Vietnam, or in any war, for that matter. I think I know why. The work comes across as more honest. In our hyper-psychological age, the students can intuitively relate to how the narrator’s current experiences are obscured by the distorting lens of traumatic memory—as my friend Sam Holt puts it, Vietnam is the only experience that has occurred every yesterday of his life—and O’Brien steadfastly refuses to use the this of war to describe the that of anything, especially love. Instead he uses his full kit of postmodern tools to make the reader aware of the narrative constructions as we read, so interpretive whimsy doesn’t get in the way of raw truth. Mainly he wants us to understand how the need for love competes for psychological elbowroom with a soldier’s survival instincts. For instance, in the early pages of the title story of The Things They Carried, O’Brien explains that to “carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive” (p. 4). Or like in the chapter Sweetheart of the Song Tar Bong, O’Brien first makes certain we understand this is a goof, saying, “when you listened to one of [Rat’s] stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute, and then multiplying by maybe” (pp. 89–90). The chapter twists into a cuckold fantasy in which a young hottie appropriates the perverse male power that got O’Brien in this mess to begin with. A soldier brings over to the war his girlfriend, a blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-legged seventeen year old “fresh out of Cleveland Heights Senior High” wearing “cut-off blue jeans and a black swimsuit top” on the volleyball court—at the end “wearing her culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace made out of human tongues…dangerous…ready for the kill” (pp. 95 & 116). The heart wants what it wants, even on the battlefield.
O’Brien also plays off the reader’s expectation of traditional narrative arc when he accounts for the sudden deaths of Ted Lavender, Kiowa, and Curt Lemon. O’Brien first mentions them almost as incidental detail, so as to undercut the possibility of these moments being climactic. Note the progression of the sudden death of Curt Lemon in the chapter How To Tell a True War Story. O’Brien first tells us, “a friend of his gets killed.” In the second mention, we find out the “dead guy’s name was Curt Lemon.” Then we are presented with an ironically pastoral description of the moment of consequence: “Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.” And then in the chapter’s denouement, O’Brien undercuts this too, telling us how he was ordered up into the tree to retrieve the “white bone of an arm…pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines…Dave Jenson singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts.” And so it goes, Vonnegut would say, the pastoral now not softening the image, but accentuating the horror of its unreality.
In the middle of the progression of accounts of Curt Lemon’s death, O’Brien embeds the most direct and extended violent description in the novel, showing us Rat Kiley manage his grief by killing a water buffalo, and we know this is what’s happening, because he tells us it is, and so, as in the instances above, the grotesqueness of the experience exists on the literal level:
He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back, He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week he would write a long personal letter to the guy’s sister, who would not write back, but for now it was a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away chunks of meat below the ribs. All around us there was the smell of smoke and filth and deep greenery, and the evening was humid and very hot. Rat went to automatic. He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly and butt. Then he reloaded, squatted down, and shot it in the left front knee. Again the animal fell hard and tried to get up, but this time it couldn’t quite make it. It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose. He bent forward and whispered something, as if talking to a pet, then he shot it in the throat. All the while the baby buffalo was silent, or almost silent, just a light bubbling sound where the nose had been. It lay still. Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny and black and dumb. [boldface mine, but his, if you know what I mean] (pp. 78–9)
We could impose a metaphorical takeaway on the water buffalo—something, say, about the will to live and acceptance of death—perhaps we could read into the dislocation of empathy caused by repeated exposure to extreme violence—something about those whispered words… However, O’Brien tells another story to show how otherness is necessary for people to contemplate human cruelty, and perhaps because of this, the point of a war story can be missed—
Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. She’ll explain as a rule she hates war stories; she can’t understand why people want to wallow in all the blood and gore. But this one she liked. The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. (p. 84)
It is not that the older woman O’Brien parodies here misses the metaphor, because the reality of war is not being told in the terms of the buffalo’s killing. We focus on the animal, because, really who wants the reality of war to make any sense? And in case we miss this point, O’Brien ends by referring back to the letter Rat Kiley sent to Curt Lemon’s sister, telling us
a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you’re afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen. (p. 85)
In this final paragraph, O’Brien gives a nod to the essential incongruity of experience in war, and in life. We are never one thing, and nothing stays fixed.
In the final chapter, O’Brien turns our gaze from the grotesqueness of war to the poignant loss of his childhood love, Linda. This too is death, but not violent death, rather an untimely loss due to a brain tumor at the age of nine, and a true counterpoint to the absurdity of combat. I think the point of this juxtaposition is that these realities, although sharing the obvious in common, will remain forever separate. They are not the same. And I intellectually made it through this novel about war and memory without too much emotional dissonance, until the story of the day in the spring of fourth grade when Nick Veenhof dropped his pencil by Linda’s desk and then cruelly lifted off her red cap by its white tassel, exposing the “Band-Aid at the back of her head, a row of black stitches, a piece of gauze taped above her left ear.” After reading this, I recalled the autumn day on the playground when, in an uncustomary bullying impulse, I myself attempted to knock the newsboy cap of the little brother of a boy in my grade who was going through treatment for leukemia. Fortunately big brother was close enough to push away my arm. I recall stepping back and making myself small, accepting the humiliation of being publicly put at bay.
The story of Linda, then, serves as counterpoint to the tragedy of war, which is distorted beyond human proportions, allowing us to contemplate how innocence is lost in a moment, and then again and again. There is something profound that even after the horrors of Vietnam, Linda is the person he misses, that even as we live on in the mundane moments of our lives, there can be purpose in longing for that which is lost.
The cover of The Great Gatsby is one of the best I know—that baby blue tear falling from a woman’s alluring eyes through the midnight blue of the American night, her ruby red lips illuminated from below by the dazzling lights of Coney Island. But the images are both illusory. Figments. We know the reality of the amusement park can never match the vision in our mind’s eye, and that sad seductive woman—surely not Daisy—does not exist anywhere other than in Nick’s hopeful imagination. It is a stunning cover, even when we consider that no one in the novel ever goes to Coney Island.
I get the green light, but I prefer my own version of Linda to comfort me against the isolation Nick leaves us with.
Photo at the top of the page: English: Cover illustration by Francis Cugat (1893–1981). Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons