by Joshua H. Liberatore
A Dream Not So Much Deferred as Rescinded
Parties and social gatherings are useful devices for illustrating the character and mores of a given social and cultural milieu, which is essential for any novelist who wants to convey thematic depth within a convincing setting. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway’s keen observations of (if passive participation in) the many social gatherings that color the novel’s landscape provide clever insights into the novel’s larger purpose: to chart the fate of honest, passionate dreams in a setting populated by vacuous, careless people. An initiate into what he feels will become a glamorous and gratifying East Coast prosperity, Nick is at first amazed, then ironically bemused, and finally horrified by what he finds at the core of this world. It is the parties – ranging from private, listless dinner gatherings in exclusive East Egg, to chaotic, melodramatic apartment soirées in New York, to the outrageous, debaucherous revelries at Gatsby’s comical mansion – that steer Nick, and the reader, through this continuum between awe and disenchantment.
The novel opens as Nick accepts an invitation to his cousin Daisy Buchanan’s palatial East Egg home, where he recalls his long-held distaste for her husband Tom, a former Yale classmate and confirmed bigot, and meets the lithe and “hard-bodied” Jordan Baker, a golf champion with a dubious reputation for dishonesty and foul play. Although initially impressed by the grandeur and complacent comfort he witnesses under the Buchanan aegis, he quickly sniffs the rot and corruption beneath the smooth, polished veneer of wealth and privilege. Daisy speaks hollow nonsense, moves from self-congratulation to bitter jokes at her husband’s expense (although in this context, Nick learns, it is sociable and accepted to laugh at his host, if Jordan’s example can serve as a guide; she is a regular guest), and generally exudes an air of inauthentic, shallow self-absorption, which is in turn only humanized by the broad knowledge of Tom’s infidelity and her pathetic hope that her daughter, Pammy, will grow up to be a “beautiful little fool,” the only plausible goal, her tone suggests, for a woman of her set. To the reader, Nick confesses his private distaste at the scene, not knowing sometimes whether to laugh along or “phone immediately for the police.” There is a shabby, depressive squalor to the evening, and although Nick’s preliminary wariness and nervousness betray an innocence that he later sheds, the reader is prepared for any calamity, which Nick’s subtle perceptions seem to intimate from the novel’s first pages.
When Tom drags Nick along to an apartment gathering in New York, where he funds a working-class mistress and hosts a more motley cast of associates, we are exposed to another fascinating (yet ultimately disconcerting) facet of 1920s social life (but by no means exclusive to the period): the anonymity of the big city (as opposed to the cloying stuffiness of suburban intimacy), the expanded sexual possibilities of casual encounters, and the addictive sense of freedom and spontaneity available at an adult playground of sorts. And yet, Myrtle Wilson’s gay social life breaks down in bloodshed, drunken oblivion, and destructive chaos. Nick witnesses Tom’s capacity for physical violence (we are already privy to his verbal savagery), a disappointing lack of concern for propriety and decorum, and (perhaps) his own confused seduction by the photographer Mr. McKee, in whose room Nick appears to end the night, his memory failing him thereafter, his powers of description rendered mute by drink and disorientation. Nick tries – his hopes for general success depend on it – to a be a good sport, but once again, we sense his inner discomfort, something deeply offended in his private self, his Midwestern innocence again wounded.
By the time Nick becomes a regular guest at Gatsby’s over-the-top festivities, he seems jaded and alienated, even as he pursues the faint traces of his original dream, now in the form of a love affair with Jordan Baker. His fascination with her cool, dispassionate, even plainly disdainful stance toward the world seems pure contradiction with his stated values. Nick prides himself on his honesty and uprightness; Jordan proves to be a liar and a cynic who is moved to laughter only at the sight of others’ discomfort, even pain. She is the consummate athlete: all body, no emotional warmth. And in his almost too vulnerable tenderness, Nick seems overcome by attraction to his opposite (just as the lowly James Gatz became Jay Gatsby in pursuit of his negation: through wealth and status he achieves Daisy Buchanan and, he thinks, a kind of respectability). In other words, as Nick moves from passive observation to active participation in the lively, spirited leisure which Gatsby’s parties embody – both through his association with Jordan Baker and his belated affection for Gatsby himself – he also moves closer to the impetus of his own disillusionment and a wounded retreat back to the “warm heart” of his native Middle West.
What begins as youthful voyeurism toward a world he wonders about but only experiences at the margins, now delivers only profound hollowness, shame, and genteel destructiveness: a world he cannot permit himself to penetrate without the sacrificing the very qualities he deems sacred to his core person.
The Sham of Wealth and Privilege
In his great novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald employs Nick Carraway, the narrator and philosophical mouthpiece of the book, as a subtle commentator on the crude contradictions of wealth and privilege exposed in its pages. Nick is an affable, well-adjusted young bond salesman – we learn from the opening pages – who comes to the East from his “warm” Middle West to learn about the world, whose lively thrills and anxieties find their base in the fashionable suburbs of New York City. By the end of the novel, Nick is disillusioned (but not broken) and chastened (but not ruined) by what he has seen and experienced of that world, by the “careless” “rotten crowd” – exemplified by Tom, Daisy, and Jordan Baker, his East Egg milieu – who “break things” and leave it other people to pick up the pieces.
Although Nick conforms outwardly to the routines and fashions of this social and economic elite (he tolerates their parties, he indulges in their largesse, he accompanies them, however reluctantly, on all their escapades), hints at his discomfort throughout the novel and his eventual alliance with Jay Gatsby – the mysterious “nobody” who earns Nick’s admiration, if not his envy – show that he inwardly questions their behavior and the values of their society. Nick thus serves as a sort of double agent in the novel. His infiltration of Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s crowd provides insight into a society to which he appears to aspire, but at the same time provides a critical commentary on the destructive potential and tendencies of upper class frivolity.
Nick works hard to make his readers believe he is a straightforward and honest narrator. The opening sentences of the novel recall some crucial advice his father had given him: to remember always to withhold judgment of others out of compassion for the possibility that “not everyone has the advantages” that Nick enjoys. We are told, just as quickly, that Nick has made an exception to this rule in favor of Gatsby – whose romantic ambition to “repeat the past” captures Nick’s fascination and wins his loyalty, even though he reminds us throughout the narrative that he “scorns” Gatsby, remains deeply suspicious of his business dealings and dubious of his affected personality and speech, and refuses to join in on Gatsby’s shady bond business, which Nick perceives correctly to be shady and illegal. Nick does, however, side with Gatsby when Tom and Daisy show their true viciousness and low opinion of Gatsby in the end. Tom views Gatsby as expendable, and after finding out all about Gatsby’s illegal business activities and exposing Gatsby’s designs on recapturing Daisy’s love, feels no compunction in directing the crazed and armed George Wilson to kill Gatsby, even though Tom knows it was Daisy who ran down Myrtle in the “death car.”
Nick proclaims his alliance with Gatsby only once in direct terms, when he tells Gatsby that he’s “worth the whole damn bunch of them” once Nick’s disapproval of Tom and Daisy’s retreat behind their wealth and social status is complete and it is clear that Gatsby will have to be sacrificed in order to cover that retreat. Nick is horrified, a feeling of disgust which extends itself also to exclude Jordan Baker, his sometime girlfriend, whom he suddenly rejects after the debacle of Daisy and Gatsby’s affair is laid bare, she too becoming a symbol of the careless amorality and fundamental dishonesty, which the whole East Egg world begins to represent for Nick. Perhaps Jordan reminds Nick of his own complicity in Gatsby’s demise: she has after all employed him at Gatsby’s request to facilitate the reunion with Daisy. She has brought him to Gatsby in the first place, and exposed him to the façade of prosperity and well-being that Gatsby’s house and outrageous parties come to represent. Gatsby, in turn, becomes emblematic for failed ambition and misplaced zeal, and Nick’s disaffection from all that his New York experience once promised to deliver begins with his recognition that the cruel world of fast drivers (the reigning metaphor for his relationship with Jordan was a “collision” between equally careless drivers) and debaucherous parties will always destroy both ambition and honesty in anyone who is excluded from or deemed distasteful to the East Egg elite (an exclusion which he seems to share with Gatsby by the novel’s end). Nick’s decision to reject that world in favor of his native Middle West is a definitive statement of his heretofore inward questioning of a world to which he has conformed only in motion, never in spirit.