AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

Lecture 4

 - Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby


Professor Wai Chee Dimock begins her discussion of The Great Gatsby by highlighting Fitzgerald’s experimental counter-realism, a quality that his editor Maxwell Perkins referred to as “vagueness.” She argues that his counter-realism comes from his animation of inanimate objects, giving human dimensions of motion and emotion to things as varied as lawns, ashes, juicers, telephones, and automobiles.  She concludes with a short meditation on race in The Great Gatsby and encourages a closer reading of the novel’s instances of racial differentiation.

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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner

AMST 246 - Lecture 4 - Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Chapter 1. Maxwell Perkins and the “Vagueness” of Gatsby [00:00:00]

Professor Wai Chee Dimock:  We’ll get started on The Great Gatsby. I’m sure that you guys have your own views on the novel. So what I’ll be talking about today is in some sense a more focused or sharp-edged take on Gatsby, which you’re certainly free to dispute in section.

But I want to begin with Maxwell Perkins. And his name actually came up last time – when Fitzgerald read the In Our Time stories, the Paris edition, the person he wrote to was Maxwell Perkins, to say that he’s the real thing, you have to get him.  So Maxwell Perkins is obviously very important. I would say that he really is the muse of the 1920s.  The muse doesn’t have to be a woman, doesn’t have to be a romantic relation. He’s just a very good reader, careful reader, critical reader, as we’ll see.

And this is a book about Maxwell Perkins and his three “sons,” Fitzgerald on the left, Hemingway in the middle, and Thomas Wolfe on the right. And these people wrote to him constantly. He really was the mentor and muse to all three of them. And so Hemingway and Fitzgerald have that in common as well. It’s great to have an editor that you’re both responding to.

Anyway, Maxwell Perkins was the one who read the initial drafts of The Great Gatsby, and this is what he said November 20, 1924.

“Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader’s eyes can never quite focus upon him. His outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery, i.e., more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken. Couldn’t he be physically described as distinctly as the others, and couldn’t you add one or two characteristics like the use of that phrase ‘old sport,’ not verbal, but physical ones, perhaps?”

Very upfront about what he likes, and in this case, what he doesn’t like. And he’s also giving us the terminology, words like “vague,” to think about The Great Gatsby. And this is what Fitzgerald says back in turn December 20, 1924.

“Strange to say my notion of Gatsby as vacant was OK. This is a complicated idea, but I’m sure you’ll understand. I know Gatsby better than I know my own child. My first instinct after your letter was to let him go and have Tom Buchanan dominate the book. But Gatsby sticks in my heart. I had him for a while, then lost him, and now I know I have him again.”

You can’t have a better description of an author’s relation to his creation. And I think that this is actually probably quite common, the feeling that you know this character better than you know your family members. But in this case, Fitzgerald is also being quite deliberate and stubborn in not giving in to Maxwell Perkins’ suggestion that he should make Gatsby less vague.

Chapter 2. The Experimentalism of The Great Gatsby [00:03:51]

And one other quote from Fitzgerald to Perkins. This is much later, in 1940.

“I wish I was in print. It would be odd a year or so from now when Scottie”–his daughter–“assures her friends I was an author and finds that no book is procurable. Will the $0.25 press keep Gatsby in the public eye, or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? But to die so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now, there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bear my stamp. In a small way, I was an original.”

It’s heartbreaking that Fitzgerald in fact never knew that The Great Gatsby would become the kind of book that it now is. He would have been totally flabbergasted. His idea was that this was something that would just completely disappear.

So I think that we can see several things from this exchange. First is that Fitzgerald really didn’t know how this book was going to end up.  It’s a matter of hindsight that we are able to say now that this is the American classic. He didn’t know that it wasn’t a classic back then. It was experimental. So we shouldn’t lose sight of that fact. It was an experiment, and he really didn’t know if it was going to come out well or not. In fact, his hunch, even in 1940, was that it was going to be a failure, that it was going to go nowhere: that it wasn’t going to be picked up by anyone, that all this effort, so much given to the novel, all that was going to come to nothing.  I think that this in itself suggests to us the experimental nature, that he was trying something new and because we’re so used to it now, in some sense, it stops being new to us. So it’s very important to go back to that original sense of things being in flux and not being sure if this was the way things were going to go.

The other interesting point about this letter is that Fitzgerald said that, “In a small way, I was an original.”  This is not actually modesty. I think that he’s very proud of the fact that in a small– well, no, it is modesty too – but I think that he’s also taking pride in the fact that his greatness resides in his smallness, that it’s really in the small details of The Great Gatsby that he would most like to be read. So we are very much operating on the micro register today, respecting Fitzgerald’s sense of what kind of an author he was.

Chapter 3. Counter-Realism in The Great Gatsby [00:06:56]

And what I’d like to do today–this is basically the outline for today’s lecture–is to take the terminology from Maxwell Perkins–“vagueness”–and add a slightly more formal term and also stretching it a little bit. So the term that I’d like to propose for us to consider today, as a synonym for “vagueness,” is “counter-realism.” We know that there’s a lot that is realistic in The Great Gatsby, but there’s also a strain of counter-realism. And maybe that’s why it gives the impression of being vague. And I’d like to tease out some of the attributes or manifestations of the counter-realist mode of writing.

First of all – and I’ll explain all this – but there’s some desire to capture motion. This is actually something that was done in 19th-century photography, daguerreotype, trying to capture motion. This was started very much by using machines and the early camera to capture motion. And I think that Fitzgerald was trying to do something like that in The Great Gatsby.

Another component of this counter-realism is the uncertain boundaries between the animate and the inanimate, and related to that, human attributes, properties of human personalities or properties of the human body being channeled or routed through properties of the machine. And then, going back to our discussion of comedy and tragedy, there’s a variety of high-tech comedy and a variety of high-tech tragedy in this novel, but they’re also interconnected.

Let’s first look at what Fitzgerald is trying to do in capturing motion. But I thought that I would just give you a completely static image of the mansion. This is the Guggenheim Mansion. Merve mentioned that she went to a wedding there.

Merve: My senior prom.

Professor Wai Chee Dimock: Your senior prom.  And all of us can go and visit.  Since this is the Guggenheim Mansion, it’s over-the-top. But this is the nature of those mansions at Sand’s Point or East Egg, where Tom and Daisy live.  And so this is a very static–very impressive but static image of a mansion.

Chapter 4. The Animation of the Inanimate [00:09:39]

Let’s see how Fitzgerald describes that Buchanan mansion.

“The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front lawn for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens–finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”

It’s completely not a static description at all. There’s a little bit of static description of what the house looks like, but I think what jumps out at us is the translation of a static physical object into motion. This is not even trying to capture something that is actually moving but trying to attribute motion to something that is otherwise stationary and static.

And this is quite early, so we don’t quite know yet why Fitzgerald would choose to write in this way. But definitely, this is a very, very deliberate way of writing, so make sure to keep that in mind.   There’s quite often a kind of conversion. Conversion takes place all the time in Fitzgerald. We’ve already seen that he converts qualities of sound into visual images. And he also converts stationary objects into moving objects.  It gives a sense that, even right here, we can say that it’s almost as if the lawn has agency. It’s not just sitting there. It’s not just a lawn that is mowed by someone.  It starts somewhere, it goes someplace, it jumps over things, it generates its own momentum.  The least we can say is that inanimate objects in Fitzgerald have life and motion and agency.

And that has tremendous implications both for those inanimate objects and possibly also for animate objects, like human beings. When you have inanimate objects taking on the properties of animate human beings, what happens to human beings, who are supposedly in possession of those properties?   This is not a dramatic moment, but it says a lot about the strategy that Fitzgerald uses.  Let’s go on now and look more at the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate, because I think that this is really a major strategy performed throughout The Great Gatsby.  This is an image of Corona, which is the original for the Valley of Ashes that Fitzgerald describes somewhere. Just this no-man’s land, even in this very desolate visual image. But still we can visualize such a place, desolate as it is.

Let’s look at the way Fitzgerald describes this place.

“About halfway between West Egg and New York, the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally, a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.”

I honestly don’t know what Fitzgerald is talking about, whether he’s really talking about actual ash-grey men. Who are those men? They don’t look like people who work at gas stations. We just don’t know what they are. So by the time we get to the end of the passage, the ontological status of the passage is reallly in doubt. We don’t know if this is just hallucination, if this is an optical illusion, or something even worse than that, a hallucination on the part of Nick.

So we can now see the fact that inanimate objects have agency and are capable of moving, that they tend to render the visual field very wobbly, very shaky. It’s quite often out of focus. Quite often, it’s like a camera that is moving, this blurry image.  We don’t exactly know what we’re looking at. But even though we can’t exactly say, we can name the thing that we’re looking at. There is something grotesque about this scene, and the grotesqueness comes not so much from the landscape itself: in the original landscape, it’s just sad, but it’s not especially grotesque. The grotesqueness comes entirely from Fitzgerald’s rhetoric, from his rhetorical intensification of that landscape. Ashes growing like wheat and into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, ashes taking the form of houses, and so on, and maybe ashes turning into those ash-grey men, maybe they’re just optical illusions, that they’re not really biological human beings. We don’t know.

It seems as if there’s a grotesque fecundity to inanimate objects. Ashes are capable of reproduction. They are capable of reproducing themselves in a way that we tend to think that only animate things are capable of doing. Reproduction is not a property, is not a prerogative of inanimate objects. But here, it seems as if it actually is within the province of inanimate objects to be grotesquely reproductive.

So already what we’re beginning to see is the writing-over of a lot of the things that we had imagined to be on the human side of the equation. All those things that we have, that are in our possession, that we are the sole owners of – all those things are being written over to inanimate objects that might or might not be benign to us. Because we don’t really know what the relation is between these inanimate objects and us.

But I think there’s yet another twist to this passage, and it has to do with a very unobtrusive but I would say nontrivial phrase, which is “the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile.” Do you guys remember anything, hearing that phrase before? “The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front lawn for a quarter of a mile.”   This is the kind of verbal echo, a very small but telling detail that suggests that those two passages are connected. We can really see what kind of a craftsman he is, a genius “in a small way.”   That’s why he’s so great – it’s this seemingly factual phrasing that serves as the bond between those two passages.

The suggestion would seem to be that there’s kind of an underside to the Buchanan garden, grand mansion, going on and on, that the Valley of Ashes is the underside.  And in fact, the two of them actually have a lot in common. And the life, the strange and obscure but very fertile and menacing life of the inanimate object would seem to be the common ground between those two. So we don’t have to read very far into Great Gatsby to know that there’s something very wrong with that marriage between Tom and Daisy.  And the landscape itself suggest that the desolation is never really absent from that household.

Chapter 5. The Human and the Machine [00:19:31]

I know that we are all thinking about Gatsby because really Maxwell Perkins objected mostly to this portrait of Gatsby, that he’s very vague. So here is this 1974 version embodied by Robert Redford of Gatsby.  And I have to say, when I see this, it’s not–I wouldn’t say it’s not not my image of Gatsby, but it’s also not my image of Gatsby either, because I really haven’t really visualized Gatsby all that much. So I have a funny relation to this.  It’s OK, but I guess I really could do without it.

But anyway, it is an interesting foil to what Fitzgerald is trying to do.  Certainly we should see the movie, but the book is trying to do something very different. Fitzgerald is not trying to create a Robert Redford-like image of Gatsby.

And that is why Maxwell Perkins thinks that Gatsby is vague:

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes 10,000 miles away.”

There is almost no physical description. This is very early–it’s true, we haven’t seen Gatsby–but there really is never a full-fledged physical description of Gatsby. And instead, we get these very oblique, very abstract descriptions of Gatsby telling us about his personality, but not even supplying us with adjectives to name that.

So we can just look at the simple level of syntax. Its heading is circuitous. It’s in the conditional tense. “If” – it begins with the word “if” – “If personality is an unbroken series.” So right there, it’s not even a declarative sentence. It’s a conditional sentence, “if” and “then” construction. Nick is not even fully committing himself to that description. He’s holding back to some degree. And not only that, not only is there this very obtrusive conditionality to the syntax, but then out of nowhere, there’s this description that Gatsby is related to this machine, seismograph machine that “register earthquakes 10,000 miles away.”  It really isn’t very graphic at all. It’s not a visual analogy. Gatsby does not look in the least like that kind of machine. We don’t know what he looks like, but we know for sure he doesn’t look like one of those machines. So it is not an analogy that’s helping us to visualize Gatsby. Quite the contrary. That’s why I think that the movie is really its own entity – it’s not really related to the book, it’s a totally different medium.  It  is the linguistic medium that Fitzgerald is working with and is trying to do something different.

And I have to say, it is an open question:  some of us actually are more stimulated by the visual medium than by the linguistic medium. So I’m not saying here that the movie is absolutely inferior to the novel.  But I do think that we have to be sure to give the linguistic medium its due, in the sense that it really is trying to do something different.

So we don’t know what Gatsby is like, other than that he is someone who seems to be able to work with great distances, registering an earthquake 10,000 miles away. That is really not a skill or talent that is necessary in The Great Gatsby. There are no earthquakes in The Great Gatsby. But there is something that does call for a long-distance tenacity and persistence, which is across time, being able to be faithful to one idea.  It’s not 10,000 miles away, but over a significant number of years, and remaining stubbornly attached to that one idea of a woman.

So right there, there’s also a substitution or a transposition of a temporal attribute onto a spatial attribute as well. But in any case, by not completely pinning Gatsby down, I think that Fitzgerald is really inviting us to project our own meaning or project our own reading of Gatsby into this very loosely assembled portrait: pointed, but oddly enough, pointed but not focused. It’s a paradox.  I think that that’s really the effect that Fitzgerald is trying to cultivate. 

We spent quite a bit of time talking about comedy and tragedy last couple of classes. And I want to bring those back now and talk a bit, once again, about them as a mixture, that they are not two very discrete genres in the three authors that we are reading. They tend to be very much crossover genres in The Great Gatsby.

And here, because machines are so important in this novel, comedy is quite often channeled through high-tech gadgets. And here is one very local, just-right-there instance of comedy.

“Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York. Every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of 200 oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed 200 times by a butler’s thumb.”

I think that Fitzgerald is having fun with this. This is comedy both as it comes to us but also comedy in the act of composition. This is obviously an author who’s having a good time writing about this, this reduction of the butler to just his thumb, and the thumb reduced once more to a completely utilitarian function of pressing this button 200 times in half an hour, and having this effect on the oranges.

All this is hilarious. I guess it’s terrible if we think about it from the butler’s point of view, that this is what he has to do.  And maybe it’s repetitive, monotonous, terrible labor, if we’re the ones stuck doing that.  But, as Fitzgerald is telling the story, it’s really not supposed to be tragic. It is comic, although I would say that tragedy, or at least the phenomenon of unbearable, repetitive labor, is not so far away either. That is the nature of “comedy” here.

Chapter 6. The Telephone [00:27:40]

We’ll move on. That little machine, even though it’s memorable, it’s not a star player in The Great Gatsby. The telephone is a star player. And this is an image of what the telephone looked like – a very glamorous-looking machine, very beautiful.  So you can see why people would want to write works of literature about such a beautiful machine. And you guys know I’m going to talk about that phone ringing when the Buchanans are having dinner, so we’ll get there.

But for now, I just want to have a little detour by way of the great poet who mostly is known for his writing about nature and is not known for his writing about technology, Robert Frost. But Robert Frost actually has a poem called “The Telephone.” And I think it’s a very useful counterpoint, actually, to Fitzgerald.  You’ll decide whether or not he’s really talking about a telephone. The title of the poem is “The Telephone.” And, often in Frost, there is this dramatic dialogue, a dialogue between two speakers:

“Having found the flower and driven the bee away,/ I leaned my head./  And holding by the stalk, / I listened and I thought I caught the word –/ What was it? Did you call me by my name?/  Or did you say – / Someone said, ‘Come’–I heard it as I bowed./  “I may have thought as much, but not aloud.”/  “Well, so I came.”

It’s a lovely poem, and it’s a love poem about two people who are in love. We don’t know the gender, actually, but I think it’s a man and a woman.  It’s someone really wanting to see someone and just finding an excuse to come and see that person and claiming that he’s hearing a voice telling him to come. And that is the “telephone,” in big quotation marks.  Frost calls it by that name, but he’s really not talking about the machine. He’s talking about some kind of audible bond, or a bond of audibility, that just brings one person to the presence of another person. And that is the “telephone line.”  It is an emotional cord that really binds one person.  And that is the most powerful telephone line of all.

It’s a lovely poem, and it’s very much humanizing the telephone, turning it into an emotional, romantic context charged with human emotions. And it’s really the fact that it’s the carrier of human emotions that makes the telephone such an important human vehicle. It has been completely assimilated into the everyday world of human intimacy.

Let’s see what Fitzgerald does with the telephone.

“The telephone rang inside, startlingly, and as Daisy shook her head decisively at Tom, the subject of the stables, in fact all subjects, vanished into air. Among the broken fragments of the last five minutes at table, I remember the candles being lit again, pointlessly, and I was conscious of wanting to look squarely at everyone, and yet to avoid all eyes. I couldn’t guess what Daisy and Tom were thinking, but I doubt if even Miss Baker, who seemed to have mastered a certain hardy skepticism, was able to put this fifth guest’s shrill metallic urgency out of mind.”

This is the other end of the spectrum from Robert Frosty.  Actually, the telephone here is also charged with intense emotions. This is not just a machine. So we can almost say that machines are always carriers of human emotions in one way or another. And that’s why they’re important machines. If they were just like that button that the butler presses with his thumb, it wouldn’t be a very important presence at all. But the telephone is a very important presence in The Great Gatsby.

And what’s interesting about this particular scenario, constructed around this high-tech machine of the 1920s, is the association of this high-tech machine with an intrusive force into a traditional household. Before the telephone rang, it was a pleasant occasion.  Daisy and Tom and her cousin, Nick, and good friend, Jordan Baker, are all sitting down to a very civilized dinner. And in the course of that civilized dinner, suddenly, the appearance of barbarian hordes that was mentioned by Tom – he’s reading this book about the rise of the colored empires. So there’s the first intrusion of somebody not wanted, but not quite dismissible. That is not a trivial point, because actually Daisy then picks this up and starts talking about her “white girlhood.”  So The Rise of the Colored Empires by Goddard, that Tom has been reading – this is the first intrusive, uninvited guest. It’s just a book, but it still was an uninvited guest to the dinner.

And then there’s a second uninvited guest, coming by way of the telephone.  We can almost say there’s a causal relation between them. It’s not as if the telephone is always bringing in people from a different social class – though we know later that Myrtle, who’s calling here, is of such a unacceptable social class that even though she’s OK as a mistress, it’s not OK for her to mention Daisy’s name. When she mentions Daisy’s name, Tom breaks her nose.  This is the taboo that Tom would not allow Myrtle to break. Someone like her has no right to mention his wife’s name.

That comes later. Right now, all we know is that there’s a lot of malice on the part of Myrtle. If you want to talk to someone discreetly, you don’t call during dinnertime. So it was a call that comes bearing malice to begin with and is met with–well, malice, or just the luxury of being able to ignore her, which is what Daisy and Tom are summoning at this moment. So all the social antagonisms that are bubbling, actually, beneath the surface of The Great Gatsby, all those antagonisms are being foregrounded by  this high-tech machine.   We shouldn’t forget: The Great Gatsby is not a book about race. We have to be very careful that, even though there’s a reference to Rise of the Colored Empires, it’s not primarily about race.  But race is also not trivial in The Great Gatsby.  Somebody should write a paper about this, beginning with the reference to The Rise of the Colored Empires.

There’s a persistent undercurrent of blackness, actually, in this novel, just as there is also an  undercurrent of Germanism – Gatsby is supposed to be in the pay of the German army. He’s supposed to be a cousin of the Kaiser. All of those are quite peculiar and quite insistent. As you go on to write papers, this is something to notice. They are marginal references, but they are not trivial.

Chapter 7. The Automobile [00:36:55]

Let’s look now at the real star player, the high-tech machine that’s going to be the star player all the way through The Great Gatsby, which is the car. And we should call it “automobile,” because it’s a more dignified name. So here’s the automobile – the 1920s Rolls-Royce.  And this other one is a pretty good approximation of the car that was used in The Great Gatsby. And we see Nick and Gatsby there, Sam Waterston as Nick, Robert Redford as Gatsby.   It must have looked like that car.

Now, a better view of the Rolls-Royce – sorry, I have all due respect for the Rolls-Royce, but this doesn’t seem like such a knock-out vehicle. I could work up some excitement for it, but I wouldn’t say it’s really that stunning.  It looks more stunning with human beings in it. But on the whole, it’s just a car.

But here is Fitzgerald’s description of the Rolls-Royce.

“I had seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirror a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town.”

This is not a description of that car. No.  This is pure fabrication on Fitzgerald’s part. And there’s a reference back to classical mythology, to a labyrinth. I don’t know what car would have a “labyrinth of wind-shields.” So it seems that Fitzgerald is not really talking about a car so much as an occasion to invoke classical mythology. And this is, in fact, the stuff that modern mythology is made of.  The car is the heart and soul of modern mythology.  It’s high-tech mythology – this is what enables us to create myths about ourselves and about other human beings that we are intrigued by.

So in many ways, this is Nick’s tribute to this completely mysterious and seemingly superhuman person – not superhuman in the way that he’s better than all of us, but in the sense that he’s not merely human, maybe even subhuman and superhuman combined.   There’s something about him, he’s just not like the rest of us. And so as a consequence of Gatsby not being quite like the rest of us, his car also has to be not quite like anything else on Earth. It has to be this figment of language. But what is also interesting is that there’s a gesture or an attempt to go back, to that original image of the Valley of Ashes and the grotesque fecundity of the ashes, inanimate objects capable of reproduction. Here, the car is a “green leather conservatory.” We don’t know what vegetation is in that conservatory.  Obviously, it’s not real vegetation. It is whatever is growing in Gatsby’s heart. Something has to be growing there in order for his obsession to survive all those years.

And oddly enough, whatever is growing there can be preserved and nourished only by high-tech machines.  Gatsby is very much a self-made man, and he’s also self-making a particular kind of romantic relation. But the nourishment that that kind of self-making needs is actually high-tech sustenance, high-tech maintenance and high-tech sustenance.  In all those ways, we can see that the inanimate has taken over and is really contributing and shaping the human world.

Chapter 8. Race and the Automobile [00:42:10]

I want to end with two more images of the automobile.  This is looking ahead – the first one is a for-now marginal and not especially noticeable detail that I think that we should, in fact, try to notice and try to do something with. This is when Nick is going to New York with Gatsby:

“A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more cheerful carriages for friends. As we crossed Blackwell’s Island, a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks, and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.”

This is really what I mean by race being a very unexpected undercurrent in The Great Gatsby. This really is a completely unnecessary detail. We’ll never see that limousine driven by the white chauffeur with the two black men and a young black woman sitting in that car. It’s the reversal of the iconic image of what skin color the chauffeur usually is of and the skin color of the people who are usually sitting in the limousine.  A complete reversal of the color scheme inside a limousine.

But even though that’s a striking visual detail, it is not necessary. There’s no obvious necessity for its placement in the novel.  This is one instance where something is – I would say it is under-determined in the sense that the passage right there, and in fact the rest of the novel, is not giving us an adequate explanation. Under-determined, not enough information is given to us to enable us to make sense of this particular moment in the novel. The only way we can make sense of it is through interpretation. So interpretation is actually a necessary link in order for this passage to make sense, to be an organic part of the novel.  My interpretation is that, in some sense, race is being adduced sometimes as a visual analog to people crossing class boundaries, that there’s something–this is an act of transgression or a reversal of social hierarchy. Myrtle intruding into the dinner of her “social betters” –and I’m using that phrase deliberately. It has to be in quotation marks. But the offense, part of the offense of Myrtle, is that she really should stick to her social station and stick to her place, and she’s intruding into this private space of those above her.

And in some sense, this is the same kind of transgression or intrusion or reversal of the traditional hierarchies in the three African-Americans being driven by a white chauffeur.  It is almost as if Fitzgerald can’t really talk about it in terms of Gatsby, who’s actually the person who’s most responsible for that kind of transgression. And Gatsby is related to Myrtle in that way. When we think about who gets killed at the end of the novel, this is one bond linking Gatsby to Myrtle. But there are numerous other bonds between them, and race – a kind of oblique racial transposition – actually is one of the common grounds between Gatsby and Myrtle.

Chapter 9. Death and the Automobile [00:46:46]

This is a very intriguing moment in The Great Gatsby – just to round up what we know, the plot of The Great Gatsby. I don’t think I’m giving anything away. This is the moment when Fitzgerald actually uses the word “tragedy”:

“The ‘death car,’ as the newspapers called it, didn’t stop. It came out of the gathering darkness, wavered tragically for a moment, and then disappeared around the next bend.”

We know that this is the moment when Myrtle gets killed, and of course she is – I’m sorry if you haven’t gotten to it. The book doesn’t really rest on that one detail. You can know it and still it’s a great novel to read. But this is what happens to Myrtle.

And in some sense, there’s an echoing already. There was a dead man in a hearse in that previous passage about an automobile. And in this passage, the second mention of the car, it actually is a real hearse, not in the sense that there’s a dead body in it, but in the sense that it’s the carrier of death, it’s the bringer, conveyor, of death to Myrtle.

So we can get a sense of what a careful writer Fitzgerald is right here. He’s someone who works over details over and over again so that there’re all these intricate interconnections in the novel. And in that way, even though it is every bit as complicated as Faulkner, it’s not as difficult to read on the face of it.  But it’s a novel that we should read over and over again, just to get all those echoes and interrelations.

We’ll come back on Thursday and wrap up The Great Gatsby.

[end of transcript]

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