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And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby
by Julian X  /  non-fiction  /  28 Sep 2008

There are those who cannot seem to understand Gatsby. I find this especially true of women. In informal conversation, they will confess that they regard it as a male book; further provoked, they will categorize the book as one about a social hierarchy not only condemnable but undesirable, and upon that second quality hangs the fate of poor Gatsby, whose attempt to fit in with a detestable crowd therefore seems to lose all sympathy.

It does not, then, help matters that Fitzgerald wrote in a more formal style than is popular today, after Hemingway fractured our sentences into concise journalistic one-two punches. Fitzgerald lacks the approachable honesty, even Falstaffian honesty in being flatly dishonest, of a Mark Twain. And, as the Roaring Twenties and the Lost Generation recede from vital memory into academic footnotes, even for academics, Edith Wharton and even English Victorian writers seem better critics of a social cast system into which a Gatsby or a Countess Olenska cannot penetrate.

But Gatsby, I wish to assert, is not so much about any of that. He does not desire the aristocratic life because it is aristocratic, but rather because it gets him close to Daisy, makes Daisy possible as she had not been when they knew each other in youth before the war. For Gatsby, all roads lead to Daisy. His every smile, every coy social move, is about insinuating himself into her social circle. That her social circle happens to be aristocratic provides his tale of sought love with its necessary narrative obstacles, and lets Fitzgerald write of a social class and its difficulties with which he was intimately familiar, but this social setting, for all its convenience, is not subject but backdrop. Perhaps Fitzgerald knew it too well, painted it too fine, for it does leave a lasting impression in the memory of the book that tends to obscure the fact that, however finely painted the staging, the tale is one of love and social clinging is a means, not an end.

I can sympathize with those who feel that Gatsby should give up on her and move on. After all, fuck Daisy. She's a bitch, a shrew who ran down her husband's lover, tearing off her breast (a brutal image Fitzgerald refused to cut, so to write, despite his editor's demands), and lets Gatsby take the rap. She's trouble, however well-dressed, and Gatsby seems at times a pussy, a desperate adolescent who can't forget the girl he thought he loved and would marry.

But Gatsby is an idealist, and this is his saving grace. It is this, the purity of his quest, which causes Carroway to stand by Gatsby in the end. Carroway, like the others, is far more reasonable. Their ideals exist solely as words, but, for Gatsby, the dream of Daisy is everything.

Let us not, therefore, be too quick to condemn Gats, since in doing so we condemn love, or at least the impractical pursuit thereof. If we tar Gatsby, let us make certain to tar Romeo, another great impractical lover, with the same brush. If anything, Romeo is far more fickle than Gats, far more damaging to others, and far more immature, yet loved as an idealist in his loving by many of those who would confine Gatsby to the pit where some Dantean literary fate doubtlessly awaits. Romeo may be seen flying around on the wind with Dante's fickle lovers, but Gatsby deserves no such contrepasso.

And let us not be so quick in condemning Gatsby's choice of lovers either. We may remember Zelda, whom Fitzgerald could not marry until he had published and secured enough assurance of further wealth to earn her hand -- and to share her bed. If we tar Gatsby for his choice, let us also tar Fitzgerald for choosing a wife who he loved but who was above his station. Many feminists, ironically, detest or condemn Gatsby yet embrace Zelda as a fine writer repressed, and even plagiarized, by F. Scott. For the record, Zelda was Fitzgerald's tragedy, a woman who fancied herself a writer but whose work was shit, a wife who resented her husband's literary success and who demanded, as had been necessary to wed her, that he write largely inconsequential short stories for magazines, which paid well, rather than the novels which Fitzgerald preferred and for which he is remembered, but which paid considerably poorer for the concentrated, sustained effort they required. Zelda's constant hospitalizations, later in Fitzgerald's life, and they money and the time they demanded of him were decisive pressures in his squandering his talent on Hollywood and short stories while trying to finish his last, and never completed novel, The Last Tycoon. His use of her writing, the authentication of which I find convincing, was confined to short stories for magazines, was driven by the financial concerns Zelda represented if not (literally) embodied, and not only was likely done with her consent but may have resulted from Zelda submitting them herself under his more lucrative name. Yet, for all of this, people frequently find Gatsby's use of money as a way of obtaining love to be unreasonably ill-advised, or even manipulative, despite that the demand for such behavior is implicitly Daisy's and that the same people are eager to embrace Zelda, artistically insensitive daughter of a wealthy family who demanded money for a serious romantic audience, as a sort of patron literary saint. If anything, Gatsby's suffering under Daisy was considerably less protracted and may represent proleptic wish-fulfillment on Fitzgerald's part, but it certainly is not unrealistic or unsympathetic, however much we do not identify.

I write "wish to" because we can identify, even in a world in which we champion "being yourself" and "don't go changing yourself for anyone" as words of wisdom. While in college, a girl I loved but who had a boyfriend told me that, when I sold some books and made a lot of money, I should call her and that she would drop her boyfriend, or even her husband, and her children, if she had any, no matter how many years had passed. A friend of mine whose main joy pays in goods and not cash recently paid his girlfriend's car payments, part of a larger pattern of such behavior, even though she lives with him in an apartment for which she contributes no rent. Around the world, polls show that a man's finances are still a prime consideration in her choice of a lover, boyfriend, or mate, and any amount of recategorizing this as a need to feel secure, however true (and however denotative of psychological insecurity or weakness, however understandable), rather than or in addition to simple materialism, does not change this simple fact: the link between a man's finances and his ability to attain the girl he loves is still vital today.

But I have written that this is not a man's book, and indeed I think this true beyond the fact that a man's negotiations of these gendered dynamics should appeal to women at least as much as Little Women, Virginia Woolf, romance movies, feminist issues, and Arthur Golden's surprise hit novel Memoirs of a Geisha (1998) appeal to men. Indeed, there are grander and deeper issues at stake, and more immediate pleasures to be found, in Fitzgerald's tale of Gatsby's love.

For one, Fitzgerald's Gatsby is often, for all its supposed formality, not only readable, and more so than his other books (a quality upon which Gatsby's fame, perhaps justifiably, probably rests), but tremendously lyrical. Remember the chapter ending in which, as Gatsby is hanging out with Nick and using him to get at Daisy, Nick narrates Gatsby's success with Daisy, knowing at least in part what it much mean to him, and then, lacking a girl who means all the world to him, pulls his date of convenience, only there to allow Gatsby the rhetorical and emotional convenience of the double date, close to him and makes pretend -- or at least makes do. Remember, as previously mentioned, that haunting little store at which cares are repaired and at which a family lives, including the mistress of Daisy's husband, and the way Daisy, we are told by Gatsby, sees that wife and mistress in the road while driving Gatsby home, and, we are left to imagine, emotionally but consciously seizes the moment only to have it haunt her after the fact in a way she will never communicate with anyone. Remember not only the ending but the funeral preparations; the convenient excuse of the man who arrives at Gatsby's house and the forsaking of Gatsby's corpse by all those who were all too eager too indulge themselves upon his wealth and hospitality in exchange for pretending, while yet he lived and in his presence, that he was one of them; and the arrival of Gatsby's mundane and equally forsaken parents with their pedestrian last name and their memory of an altogether different young boy who they raised.

What these moments have in common is deep psychological resonance, not to mention literary irony, whether of a man, in the shadow of lovers of classical stature, taking a lover of convenience, a quality that lover, we suspect, shares though she might half believe otherwise; of Daisy, haunted by a momentary action, isolated in her memory of it and consequently turning back to her husband, though her choice prior was left in some doubt, as the man who, depending upon our reading of him, arguably slyly paints himself as a sacrificial hero in his recollection to Nick, which we may see as a recollection by an unreliable narrator, is murdered through the more simple psychological dynamics of the widowed husband, left wrongly believing he has avenged his wife, though the truth is not known by him or by us; or of Nick, early detester of Gatsby's phoniness, then manipulated means of getting at Daisy, then intimate, suddenly transformed into Gatsby's last defender, willing to adopt the remarkably contrarian position of witness to a man martyred by those whose wealthy allows them to use and leave destroyed, to casually abandon the wreckage they have in some way wrought for others to clean up, sort out, and try to make some sense of. Upon these pivoting points hangs the novel and its characters, and they are great and profound literary moments indeed, moments of far greater and subtler stuff than the clever and poetic verbiage of East Egg and West Egg, with all those words' resonance, or the green light at the end of the dock, seen across the bay, or the billboard first painted for the book's cover and then written in by an apparently quite taken Fitzgerald. It is these moments and their resonances, psychological and literary, that form a web of implication upon scene after scene, leading us to see Gatsby as a literary masterpiece, one in which each line, however written, however apparently irrelevant, can be read as interesting if only for its psychological resonances, not the least of which is our investigation of Nick Carroway, his cares hardly away, and what he -- not necessarily us -- finds relevant in the telling.

But there is also Gatsby, a figure defined by longing, by lack. Gatsby longed for Daisy. He longed, nostalgically, for the pre-war past in which he was, or seemed, simpler and the girl, perhaps even any desirable girl, was, or seemed, attainable -- just a little bit further... . For Nick, after Gatsby's death and his forsaking, Gatsby longed to be someone else, to have someone else, someone simple and clean as life had once seemed. Nick redeems Gatsby. We read Gatsby as charlatan at the risk of neglecting Nick, at the risk of forgetting that it is only Nick's Gatsby, his quite literally re-collection of Gatsby, that we ever encounter. Indeed, Fitzgerald, and Nick through him, elevates all of Gatsby's frauds, all of his phoniness, through the pathos of this son of quotidian stock who made himself seem, for however long a time, what he, and many of us, dream.

It is the dream, the dream of wanting, in which Gatsby finds ultimate resonance, a meaning cemented by the ending with its lyric lines of impossible reaching. In the ending, Gatsby, already martyred, ascends. He becomes that dreaming itself, not simply his particular dream of Daisy or its ancillary dream of aristocratic wealth and respectability. No, in the end, Gatsby becomes the transcendent spirit of longing. He is not Odysseus, on some particular quest for home, or his Penelope. There is no return to the status quo sought here, no nostalgic uni-directional quest for home, preserved like utopia, lost in time, secluded in space. No, Gatsby becomes, in the end, that spirit which seeks to establish, and imagines it possible to do so, a new home, a new utopia, however nostalgically modeled upon the past.

In the conclusion, Nick, and F. Scott, perform that greatest of artistic maneuvers, seen in Greek tragedy and Renaissance painting, in the great modern plays and autobiographies, and even in motion picture documentaries, which seek audience identification with even the most bizarre of subjects: the transformation of particular characters, in particular settings, into the identifiable, the general, the apparently universal. Poetically transformed into that optimistic and eternal reaching, Gatsby is America seeking to establish new traditions, new institutions, even a new way of thinking and being, however modeled upon the old. In the end, Gatsby is that reaching for respectability, for success, for family lineage, for national lineage. Gatsby is all of us as we long for the career we want, the respect we crave, and the lover we desire, however sequential the particularizations thereof. He is us all at our most hopeful, our most optimistic, and perhaps our most beautiful as well as our most naïve.

We dismiss Gatsby at our own peril; to condemn such a figure says more about our own feelings about our own deepest longings, or wish to ignore them, than it does about Gatsby, the novel that bears his name, or its author.

I came up with the title on 13 August 2002, wanting to write on Gatsby after talking, the prior night, with people who did not appreciate the novel.  Written on the Waikiki beach, beneath the palms, gazing out occasionally at the placid Pacific waves with mountains as a backdrop.  First published online on 16 August 2002.

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Essays on Literature by Julian Darius:
On "Renaissance" (Part 1)
On "Renaissance" (Part 2)
Implications of Dante’s Placing of Ulysses in Hell
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 1)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 2)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 3)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 4)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 5)
The English Renaissance Audience (Part 6)
Pulling the Cheese from the Mousetrap:  Donne’s “The Bait” as (Anti-)Pornographic Narrative Fantasy
The Mistaken and Apologetic Chorus:  Shakespearean Faultlines in Henry V
The Old Conventional Metamorphosis:  Transvestitism in The Taming of the Shrew and Shakespeare
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 1)
The "half-told and mangled tale" of Caleb Williams (Part 2)
"W - a - l - d - e - n," a large number of words by "T - h - o - r - e - a - u"
And When We Long, We Long as Gatsby