The gangster, his love, the aristocrat and their friends: Notes, questions and rambling ruminations upon revisiting Fitzgerald’s American masterpiece, ‘The Great Gatsby’

September 4, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 4, 2013

I started reading — or re-reading, rather — The Great Gatsby on the evening of Labor Day. By the time I put the book aside, I’d read to the final page, and it was early on Tuesday, Sept. 3.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel is, of course, an American classic. I believe I read it originally in high school, or perhaps junior high school. It has, of course, been adapted for film five times, including both a 2000 TV movie and this year’s Baz Luhrmann big-screen adaptation. I have, to the best of my recollection, seen none of these features, although the Luhrmann film brought me back to The Great Gatsby: A relative bought a paperback edition of the book tied to the movie release, which paperback was passed on to me. (There’s a chance I may have been shown the 1974 Gatsby film, starring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Sam Waterston, in school.)

One of the hallmarks of revisiting works of art is the extra insight one gains upon subsequent perusals. Perhaps I should feel more mature when I spot things that I’d never before seen; instead, however, this phenomenon makes me acutely aware of my past immaturity. “How could I have missed this or that aspect?” I ask myself. This time around, I was surprised by how obvious a gangster Meyer Wolfsheim seems. (In addition, I identified quite strongly with the narrator’s fixation upon Wolfsheim’s grotesque nose hair, which diverts attention from the rest of his personage. I’ve had to fight that kind of distraction myself.) 

I’m also shocked not just by how imperfectly I’ve appreciated a book or movie but by how little of its plot I have remembered. Spoiler alert: I did recall the fatal car accident near the conclusion to The Great Gatsby; I did not remember the identity of the victim, or how the victim was tied to the other characters, or that the car crash led (with an assist from Tom Buchanan) to Gatsby’s murder. Oh, and memory had also elided pretty much everything about the desultory New York City excursion that preceded the crash. These are pretty important things to have forgotten! 

So some things about The Great Gatsby were definitely much clearer to me upon this re-reading. Other things, however, remained opaque to me. I’m still not sure what to make of the narrator, Nick Carraway, and especially of his romantic relations — both with the athletic Jordan Baker and with an unnamed young woman back home in the Midwest.

For a while I lost sight of Jordan Baker, and the in mid-summer I found her again. At first I was flattered to go places with her, because she was a golf champion, and everyone knew her name. Then it was something more. I wasn’t actually in love, but I felt a sort of tender curiosity. The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something — most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning — and one day I found what it was. When we were on a house-party together up in Warwick, she left a borrowed car out in the rain with the top down, and then lied about it — and suddenly I remembered the story about her that had eluded me that night at Daisy’s. At her first big golf tournament there was a row that nearly reached the newspapers — a suggestion that she had moved her ball from a bad lie in the semi-final round. The thing approached the proportions of a scandal — then died away. A caddy retracted his statement, and the only other witness admitted that he might have been mistaken. The incident and the name had remained together in my mind.

Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage and, given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.

It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply — I was casually sorry, and then I forgot.

In this passage, Carraway seems implicitly to be calling himself the opposite of shrewd and clever. Perhaps this is true; by his own admission, after all, Carraway struggles as a bond salesman.

Immediately after this passage, Carraway recounts a conversation in which he accuses Baker of being a careless driver. She at first insists that she is careful and then changes tacks:

“Well, other people are,” she said lightly.

“What’s that got to do with it?”

“They’ll keep out of my way,” she insisted. “It takes two to make an accident.”

“Suppose you met somebody just as careless as yourself.”

“I hope I never will,” she answered. “I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.”

Her gray, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her. But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires, and I knew that first I had to get myself definitely out of that tangle back home. I’d been writing letters once a week and signing them: “Love, Nick,” and all I could think of was how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip. Nevertheless there was a vague understanding that had to be tactfully broken off before I was free.

Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

By novel’s end, most of what has been done in the East has been undone; the Buchanans’ marital dalliances have ended, Gatsby and the Wilsons are all dead, and Carraway has formally broken things off with Baker and returned to his clan’s ancestral Midwest city.

Perhaps Carraway has even cleared up (or married?) “that tangle back home.” He’s referring there to a relationship that comes up once, early in the book:

I wasn’t even vaguely engaged. The fact that gossip had published the banns was one of the reasons I had come East. You can’t stop going with an old friend on account of rumors, and on the other hand I had no intention of being rumored into marriage.

All well and good. But I’ve tried repeatedly to make sense of these questions raised by the subsequent passage: Who is “that certain girl” whom Carraway pictures playing tennis — is it the old friend back home or is it Baker herself? And is Carraway attracted to or repulsed by that “faint mustache of perspiration” that forms on her upper lip?

I’m not sure. However, what’s more confusing is the breakup between Carraway and Baker. Why does it occur? I didn’t quite track Carraway’s sudden disgust for Baker just because she was associated with the Buchanans.

And I had trouble comprehending this exchange in the final scene between Baker and Carraway.

“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.”

“I’m thirty,” I said. “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.”

She didn’t answer. Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.

Really, it was Baker herself who had said (or implied) that she was safe until she met another bad driver. But that’s not what’s so puzzling to me. How, I wonder, did Carraway fail to be honest and straightforward? How might he have lied to himself and called it honor? I’ve been unable to figure it out.

Carraway strikes me as the most straightforward character in the book. Aside from the unnamed owl-eyed drunkard from Gatsby’s library, Carraway is the only social acquaintance of the decedent to attend the funeral; he is the only one who even tries to persuade people to attend the event. (“I could only remember, without resentment, that Daisy hadn’t sent a message or a flower,” Gatsby thinks during the burial.)

One thought that occurred to me was that Baker was shocked that hadn’t informed authorities that Daisy Buchanan was at the wheel when Myrtle Wilson was run over. But Daisy and Baker were longtime friends; surely she didn’t want Carraway to ruin Daisy’s life.

Or perhaps Baker really just she wanted a straightforward type who wouldn’t be ruffled by the dramatic goings-on that accompanied the Buchanans’ mutual infidelity and vehicular homicide. If that’s the case, then Carraway was simply too scrupulous — too encumbered by conventional morality — for Baker’s taste. I’m not sure that’s what her final exchange with Carraway was meant to signal, but I suppose it’s a plausible explanation, at worst.

I was also intrigued by Gatsby himself. An opportunist, as any racketeer must be, he is also — when it comes to Daisy Buchanan, that is — a dreamy idealist. The two parts of his character seem difficult to reconcile.

But Gatsby certainly makes for an interesting contrast with the narrator. The title figure is a man of bold gestures, whereas Carraway prefers to be on the sidelines. It’s very characteristic of Carraway that when Gatsby and Daisy have their reunion, he runs into the rain (or technically, to a massive tree that shelters him from the rain) in order to give them privacy; for lack of anything else to do, he stares at Gatsby’s oversized mansion for half an hour. Another very telling moment comes late in the book when, after the fatal car collision, Carraway creeps to the window in order to spy on the Buchanans.

Having written all this, I’ll confess: I’m having trouble arriving at a coherent and convenient synopsis of this book. What does The Great Gatsby mean? What message is it sending about “Westerners” (as Carraway calls the five main characters) and about the “deficiency [they have] in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life”? What does Fitzgerald mean to convey about the bonds of marriage, frayed though they might be by dangerous liaisons?

I wish I could tie it all up in one neat bow, but this much-studied great American novel eludes summarization by me. I will say that I definitely found The Great Gatsby compelling. I wanted to know what would come of Tom Buchanan’s hard mouth, supercilious manner and cruel body; I hoped to learn more about Daisy the detached matron, Jordan the haughty athlete, Nick the would-be up-and-comer and Jay the elegant mobster.

And although the reader, like Carraway himself, is a bystander to most of the action, the plot is just as compelling as the characters. Gatsby and Carraway are both on the cusp of realizing long-held dreams (an especially long-held one in Gatsby’s case). Buchanan, like Gatsby, is a man at his peak — a key difference being that Buchanan’s fortune is assured, and he longs for nothing, whereas Gatsby is something of an eternal hustler whose emotional life has reached a major turning point.

So I guess that’s my conclusion: That The Great Gatsby is a great read. (Let it not be said that this blog avoids controversy!) Perhaps in 15 or 20 years I’ll re-read this book and have something more perceptive to write about it.

Here’s hoping.

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