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AMST 246: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
- Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Part II
Professor Wai Chee Dimock concludes her discussion of The Great Gatsby by evaluating the cross-mapping of the auditory and visual fields in the novel’s main pairs of characters. Beginning with an analysis of the Jazz Age, she argues that linkages between what is heard and what is seen have important implications for the overarching themes of The Great Gatsby, including notions of accountability, responsibility, illusion, and disillusion. She focuses on the linked characters of Daisy and Jordan Baker, Gatsby and Nick Carraway, to show how their convergences and divergences tell the entire store of Gatsby’s decline and fall.
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Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner
AMST 246 - Lecture 5 - Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Part II
Chapter 1. The Jazz Age and The Great Gatsby [00:00:00]
Professor Wai Chee Dimock: Last time, we talked about the odd presence of race in The Great Gatsby. Even though there’s no African-American character in The Great Gatsby, there’s an undercurrent of allusions to race, especially in that seemingly gratuitous scene when Nick and Gatsby are going to town in Gatsby’s car, and they see this other car with two black men and one black woman in a car driven by a white chauffeur. So that’s a very odd, gratuitous reference.
And I just want to pick up on that and push that a little further. Because there actually is a more important connection to African-American music, very important to the novel. And I would say that jazz started out as and is still very much African-American music. Fitzgerald has written an essay – this is after The Great Gatsby – a 1931 essay called, “Echoes of the Jazz Age.” And he says, “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire.”
A lot of those terms are religious – “miracles,” “son of God” – language of Christianity in The Great Gatsby. And miracles, and other religious allusions, are obviously being remapped onto a secular context. But certainly Gatsby is someone who would believe in miracles, the miracle of turning time back and completely erasing a few years of Daisy’s life. That’s the miracle that he wants to achieve.
So “miracles,” what Fitzgerald associates with the Jazz Age, is a very important term for The Great Gatsby. “Excess” we know about, and “age of art” as well. And there’s actually an allusion to jazz in the novel. When Nick goes to Gatsby’s party, the music that was playing is actually the “Jazz History of the World.” So lots of cross-references, basically a kind of a web, a musical web that’s being woven into The Great Gatsby, with jazz being the genetic ground of that web.
And jazz was in fact crucial to the 1920s, not just to Fitzgerald but to the entire decade, so I just want to bring up some other important figures. The piece called “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” – that’s an especially resonant piece. It started out with Fats Waller singing it in “Ain’t Misbehaving.” And then it was picked up, played on the trumpet and also sung by Louis Armstrong.
There’s an allusion to Louis Armstrong in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But for some reason, that is not showing up here, so I must have erased that when I was getting ready for class. So I’ll just read this to you. This is the opening of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. “Then somehow I came out of it, ascending hastily from this underground of sound to hear Louis Armstrong innocently asking, ‘What did I do to be so black and blue?’”
This is something that started out in music and then crossed over into literature: it was basically the underlying conceit for Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I’ll put this back on the PowerPoint when I post it to the website. Oh, it’s right here. My computer is playing tricks on me.
So this is the passage, and we can think about music as furnishing a chromatic spectrum to a linguistic medium. We don’t think of language as having colors, and language does very much have colors in The Great Gatsby. It’s very, very striking. Blue garden, yellow music, the blue honey of the Mediterranean – numerous instances of color being used in abstract ways as the basic operation of the linguistic medium.
Given the cross-mapping of music onto language and the addition of color as well, of course sight and sound are being combined in this cross-mapping. I want to bring all of this back to the word that we heard last time from Maxwell Perkins, his complaint that The Great Gatsby is vague, with not enough physical details, not enough info about Gatsby.
Chapter 2. Cross-Mapping Visual and Auditory Fields [00:06:03]
Last time we talked about this in terms of what I called counter-realism. Today, I would like to talk about this as the sensations of vagueness. I would like to highlight it in terms of a cross-mapping of sight and sound, because this is not something that we do all the time. It’s not common usage. It can create impressions of vagueness, even after we get used to it. It’s a deliberate strategy that Fitzgerald is using.
The three headings that I’d like to use for this cross-mapping is, first of all, auditory field with colors. We’ve already seen a little bit of that when Fitzgerald is seemingly talking about sound, but colors are operative in those descriptions. And then the obverse of that, the visual field with sound or with noise, lots of noise. The same, exactly symmetrical to that, but happening on the visual end.
And then the third–really, this is the central structure that I’d like to talk about today–is this visual-auditory coupling as thematic coupling. First of all, we see two characters in the same visual or the same auditory tableau, two people seemingly accidentally being paired together. We just see them in the same frame. This is the visual impact of that image.
And it turns out that that visual logic, that visual mode of association, actually has thematic implications. So the visual-auditory coupling turning into a thematic coupling, it’s a very complicated structure, but I do think that this is something that Fitzgerald works very hard to create. And this is one of the miraculous, I would say, architectural features of the novel.
Chapter 3. Auditory Field with Color [00:08:15]
First, let’s just think about the auditory field with colors. And this is actually just still at Gatsby’s party and Nick talking about what he hears there, but something else as well:
“The lights grow brighter as the Earth lurches away from the Sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher.”
What he’s hearing is the music – this is the occasion when the “Jazz History of the World” is being played. But it seems that it’s impossible to talk about qualities of sound without thinking of visual images. And not even visual images of the people who were there, although certainly there are plenty of descriptions of those people. But right now, it’s a very, very cosmic vision of the world. “The Earth lurches away from the Sun.” It’s on that kind of cosmic scale, astronomical scale, that the yellow cocktail music is pitching into.
The cosmic reference is coming out of nowhere, and that’s surprising. I’m not sure what to say about it other than that it seems very deliberate on Fitzgerald’s part. So once again, lots and lots of really interesting details and packed moments that invite us, compel us, to give interpretation to. So this is one end of the spectrum, auditory field with colors.
Chapter 4. Visual Field with Noise [00:10:03]
Let’s go to the other end of the spectrum, visual, optical field with noise. And this is, once again, very early, when Nick goes to the Buchanan household for the first time. Daisy is his cousin. He hasn’t seen her for a while. The first image that he has of Daisy is actually not of Daisy alone, but she’s on this couch with another young woman.
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
It’s an amazing image. And it says a lot the about Buchanan household. It says a lot about Daisy. It’s really a visual allegory for the entire novel. The entire novel of The Great Gatsby can be seen as Daisy ballooning up and taking flight, going back to that earlier romance with Gatsby. But it’s just a very short trip, and she’s going to be brought down to earth by Tom. So it’s really interesting that there should be this intensification of what might seem a very neutral or very casual visual image into something that carries tremendous thematic weight. This is basically the whole story of The Great Gatsby, being encapsulated in this one visual image.
And what allows this visual image to have such tremendous thematic weight is actually an intrusion of sound into that image. If there had not been sound, it would not have been so pregnant with meaning. And the sound has to do with the whip and snap of the curtains – these are remarkable words to use. Curtains: they don’t make sounds like a whip, or they don’t make snapping sounds. So clearly, this is the superimposition of something else much more brutal, – violent auditory images being superimposed upon the otherwise very benign and very harmless sound made by the curtain.
So already, the whip and the snap are paving the auditory ground for the appearance of Tom Buchanan. When he finally appears, towards the end of the passage, it’s almost not surprising. Even though he doesn’t show up until the last sentence of the passage, the snap and whip of the curtains already carry his signature. Tom Buchanan is a very physical presence. We know him by his physical attributes, his body filling up every inch of his clothes, his riding boots, and so on, a very visual figure. But nonetheless, Fitzgerald is careful to give an auditory dimension to Tom.
And then the final auditory act that he does is to bring down, shut the rear window. This is not the rear door, but it’s the rear window, almost as though somebody is trying to get into his house by the back door or the back window. And Tom Buchanan is shutting that right then and there, before any action has taken place. So this is a forecast of the rest of the novel. It’s a capsule summary of everything that we need to know about The Great Gatsby.
Just to see how carefully crafted this is: because this is already finished, because this comes to us ready-made, we don’t notice how much craftsmanship actually goes into that passage. So I just wanted to show you a visual image that is almost similar to this, by Manet. This is a picture called Baudelaire’s Mistress, Reclining. We also see the curtains in there. But we just know that those curtains are not going to make a noise like a whip, or they’re not going to be making whipping or snapping sounds. So this is in contrast to Fitzgerald. This is a visual field without noise. It is purely visual. It doesn’t carry the auditory signature and auditory menace that is encoded in Fitzgerald’s very careful coupling of sight and sound in his description.
So we also know that Daisy doesn’t appear by herself, so it’s important that she appears with Jordan Baker, that the first glimpse that we have is of the two of them on that enormous couch, and both occupants of a visual field that carries noise. So that is the first common link between Jordan Baker and Daisy.
Chapter 5. Thematic Implications of Visual-Auditory Coupling for Daisy and Jordan [00:16:15]
Let’s go on to explore that visual-auditory coupling–what does that mean in thematic terms? How does that translate into features of the plot that maybe will also bring the two of them together? We’ll do this first, and then we’ll do the same thing with Gatsby and Nick as well. But let’s just move on to Jordan Baker.
And last time, we talked about the importance of the car, of Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce. And the car really is a key player in The Great Gatsby in all kinds of contexts. It turns out that, for Jordan Baker, one very important aspect of her relation to Nick actually revolves around the car.
“It was on that same house party that we had a curious conversation about driving a car. It started because she passed so close to some workmen that our fender flicked a button on one man’s coat. ‘You’re a rotten driver,’ I protested. ‘Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn’t to drive at all.’ ‘I am careful.’ ‘No, you’re not.’ ‘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.’”
So this says a lot about the relation between Nick and Jordan Baker and why it might come to nothing. So there are actually lots of little, local allegories of the entire plot all the way throughout The Great Gatsby. And the fact that she’s a bad driver who’s counting on other people being careful to prevent accidents from happening, that is not a good basis to get into a marriage with. And Nick seems to know that, so this is really one of the many signs that this is not going to come to anything.
But what is also interesting, I think, about this particular image of Jordan Baker coming by way of her relation to the automobile is a notion of accountability that is perhaps not just limited to Jordan Baker herself. It is really an explanation of why things go wrong and one’s responsibility, one’s input, one’s contribution to the fact that something is going wrong.
And for Jordan Baker, accountability is almost always written over to the other side. If there’s an accident, it’s because the other person isn’t a good driver. That’s why there’s an accident – not taking into account the fact that she’s herself a bad driver. She’s right that it takes two to make an accident, but the explanation that she’s looking for is that it is another person’s fault. And we’ll see that there’re other characters in the novel who share this understanding of accountability, this attribution of fault to the other side.
Let’s see how Daisy relates to the car. And it turns out that she also has a nontrivial relation to the car. This is while they’re leaving that terrible scene in New York, when basically Gatsby is just falling apart. But Tom allows him to drive Daisy back. So Gatsby and Daisy are in the car, and this is Gatsby telling Nick what happened:
“When we left New York, she was very nervous, and she thought it would steady her to drive. And this woman rushed out at us just as we were passing a car coming the other way. It all happened in a minute, but it seemed to me that she wanted to speak to us, thought we were somebody she knew. Well, first Daisy turned away from the woman toward the other car, and then she lost her nerve and turned back.”
This the death of Myrtle at the hand of Daisy. It is not intentional, though I think that this says a lot about Daisy. Fitzgerald is not portraying a bad person, really. She is a bad driver because she’s lost her nerve. We really have to be pretty careful in our assignment of blame. I think that Jordan Baker has an almost too clear assignment of blame in putting it squarely on the other person’s side. Fitzgerald is actually quite careful about saying what kind of a woman Daisy is. She’s just not a very brave person, not a very feisty person. She doesn’t have sturdiness of nerve, and she loses her nerve at a critical moment, both at this very critical moment but also in a kind of abstract way when Gatsby needed her to stand by him. She’s not there for him.
So this is the kind of person she is, and it comes out most dramatically in her handling of the car. But it also comes out in the way that she handles other affairs of life as well. In all those ways, we see the same logic that we saw last time – that is, very important human attributes are rooted, are channeled through our relation to objects. Daisy’s relation to the car says a lot about how she would behave in other strictly human contexts of interaction.
Jordan Baker and Daisy were joined together at the very beginning by virtue of that visual tableau. And it turns out that it actually is a very deep connection. They’re both bad drivers, although for bad reasons. So we have to be careful as well. They’re both bad drivers, but in the case of Jordan Baker, she’s just much more cavalier about the whole thing, whereas Daisy is just incompetent and not very skilled and lacking nerve.
Chapter 6. Thematic Coupling of Nick and Gatsby [00:23:15]
Let’s turn back now to another coupling. And you guys will notice that I’m not talking about Gatsby and Daisy, the most obvious couple in The Great Gatsby. But I want to talk about that couple in a roundabout fashion actually, by way of Nick and Gatsby. And I just want to go back to one very small point that we talked about much earlier, which is about the legacy of World War I.
We know that Nick and Gatsby have this in common. They both fought in World War I, and they both named the units that they were in. Nick was in the Ninth Machine Gun Battalion, and Gatsby was in the Seventh Infantry. Very precise in naming the number of that unit. So already, we know that there’s a prior connection between the two of them.
And I would argue that they also have an ongoing connection as well, because they are both very sensitive to, responsive to, and captivated by a certain quality of sound that resides in Daisy’s voice. It’s very, very odd that Nick, who has no romantic attachment to Daisy, should be captivated in almost exactly the same way that Gatsby is captivated. It doesn’t actually take a romantic attachment for it to be completely within the powers of a certain quality of voice. Here is Nick talking about Daisy’s voice:
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth. But there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget, a singing compulsion, a whispered, ‘Listen.’”
When we look at the visual description of Daisy, it’s not very striking. Fitzgerald is using very generic words to talk about Daisy. Her face is “sad and lovely with bright things in it.” Almost no actual description of the physical features on Daisy’s face. It is a very vague image of Daisy. We know that supposedly she’s beautiful, but we don’t actually know the exact features that render her beautiful.
It is her voice that gives a very exact rendition of Daisy. This is a voice that nobody can forget, that nobody who cares about her can forget. And in this case, it is really the intimation of mortality. And I think that voice– well, now we can capture– obviously, sound recording makes that less of an intimation of mortality. But if it’s just a voice that you hear for that one moment and you never hear it again, you do have the sense that it’s just that one time, and it will never again be heard again. If you go to a concert that’s not being recorded, then you just know that this is it. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. And so that partly accounts for the compulsion that comes from Daisy’s voice, it both is an intimation of her mortality, and it’s an intimation of mortality on the part of the person who’s listening to her.
Let’s look at one another description of Daisy’s voice coming from Nick. This is something that we actually read before, but I just thought that I would read it again:
“For a moment, the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face. Her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened. Then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.”
This is in the context of Nick’s visit to the Buchanan household, and Nick is just about to find out about Tom’s affair with Myrtle. So in some sense, the fading light is also a prelude, or perhaps even an allegory, of the rapidly fading light, even in the course of that evening, as the phone rings, all the light goes out of everyone’s face. And so it’s the quality of sound that registers the dramatic development in that episode.
As I said, Nick really doesn’t have a deep relation to Daisy, but he has a very deep relation to Daisy’s voice. And Gatsby, who has a very deep relation to Daisy, also has a very deep relation to Daisy’s voice as well. And this is the moment when he’s meeting Daisy after all these years in Nick’s house. We’ll read that passage a little later. Nick conjectures that he’s been keeping her in his heart for so long that this is actually not the big moment for him. This is actually the moment of the letdown. Here is this woman he’s been waiting for all these years, doing everything, building up his whole life towards this moment, and it’s a letdown. And so Nick is noticing that in Gatsby, and then something else happens:
“As I watched him, he adjusted himself visibly. His hand took hold of hers, and as she said something low in his ear, he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. I think that voice held him most, with its fluctuating, feverish warmth, because it couldn’t be over-dreamed. That voice was a deathless song.”
Everything else about Daisy actually could be, and is, over-dreamed, and Gatsby almost knows that, that he’s projected much too much onto Daisy, that there’s no way she can live up to all the projections of all those years that he’s been involving her in. No human being– it’s not just that Daisy can’t live up to that kind of massive projection on the part of Gatsby. No human being can. But one thing about Daisy can stand up to that magnification, emotional magnification and amplification on the part of Gatsby, and that is her voice. Every time, any time, he hears her voice, he’s captivated by her over and over again, as if everything is really starting at that moment. So the voice for Daisy captures the possibility of fresh beginning. It seems to have come to an end. It seems to have arrived at the moment where Gatsby is finally disillusioned with Daisy. And then he hears that voice again, and it’s almost as if there’s a fresh start.
This is what Fitzgerald alludes to, about the new world and the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” at the very end of The Great Gatsby: some people actually have the capability for endless new beginnings. You think that they’ve come to the end of the road or that they come to the end of the dream, and all of a sudden, they’re starting up all over again. That is what’s impressive about Gatsby – he is sad and pathetic, but also impressive—in that he can always start again. That passion for Gatsby can always start afresh because of the quality of Daisy’s sound. But Gatsby is not so captivated or so blindly in love that he doesn’t know what is in that voice, what constitutes that voice, or what gives the voice its magical power. This is a surprisingly cleared-eye evaluation of Daisy’s voice from Gatsby:
“ ‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly. That was it. I never understood before. It was full of money. That was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it. High in a white palace, the king’s daughter, the golden girl.”
Usually people who are madly in love are not so great at analyzing the nature of the object that they love. But in a surprising move, Gatsby is very analytical here and completely right, that that really is the power of Daisy, that in some sense, she is the golden girl, in a very literal sense, that it is the gold that makes for that goldenness of Daisy. That’s what creates her, what gives her her initial magic over Gatsby when he was just a poor, young boy.
And that’s what makes for the continual magic of Daisy. Yes, this is an age of miracle, as Fitzgerald says about jazz, but it is an age of miracle underwritten by the miracle-creating power of gold. This is really what the novel is about: this magic in this world, but coming from an inanimate, nonhuman source. Even human beings can quite often be the creation of that miracle-working substance, gold.
Chapter 7. Extinguishing Sound for Nick and Gatsby [00:34:05]
So far, we’ve seen the two of them being completely captivated by Daisy’s voice. But Nick and Gatsby also have something else in common as well, in that even though sound is what keeps them going for a good part of the novel, actually, at some point, sound is also extinguished for them. Let’s look at the mode by which sound is being extinguished for each of them. And not surprisingly, those come at the end of the novel, because when sound is extinguished, that’s also a signal that the novel is coming to an end.
Here is Nick actually watching Tom and Daisy after the accident when Tom and Daisy are back in the house. And Nick is outside, and so he’s watching the two of them. And all he can see is this visual tableau of Tom and Daisy, but he can’t hear what they are saying. And I think we can really actually get a more dramatic moment when you can only see but not hear.
“Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness, his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while, she looked up at him and nodded in agreement. They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale. And yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.”
So this actually is the “happy ending,” in heavy quotation marks, for Daisy and Tom, the reconstitution of that marriage that had come under so much stress from both sides, Myrtle and Gatsby. And this is another way in which Myrtle and Gatsby are linked together. They’re both people coming from a different social station trying to destroy that marriage. They are not successful. The marriage survives. And this is the “comedy,” this is the happy ending for Tom and Daisy. And the nature of that comedy – obviously, I’m being very ironic here – the nature of the comedy is that it’s just the two of them.
The marriage is between the two of them. Even her cousin can only watch, but cannot actually hear what is being said between the two of them. This is a happy moment for Tom and Daisy that, for Nick, has to be experienced as silence from the two of them. He’s so used to hearing her voice. In this one instant, he’s not hearing her voice at all, and that’s because she’s talking to Tom. She’s not talking to Nick.
Let’s look at a comparable, symmetrical moment of sound being extinguished by Gatsby, and this is a truly unforgettable moment. And once again, all the objects that we’ve seen, all the objects that are imported in the first part of The Great Gatsby actually come back and play a very important part. So the extinguishing of sound for Gatsby towards the end of The Great Gatsby actually comes by way of the telephone, nothing coming through to him from the telephone. He was waiting, obviously, for a call from Daisy.
“No telephone message arrived, but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until 4 o’clock, until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true, he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight is upon the scarcely created grass.”
We see the very carefully planned transition from the silence of the telephone once again to a strictly visual tableau. This is exactly symmetrical to the scene witnessed by Nick, the suspension, non-appearance of sound, and then the domination of the visual field. And now, finally, this is a visual field completely without sound. It hasn’t been the case before – it has been a visual field with sound before.
Now, however, we get the visual field without sound, and all of a sudden, it’s become grotesque. We don’t tend to think of the rose as a very grotesque thing, but when you’re that up close to the rose, when you’re seeing it in such minute features, the rose becomes a very grotesque thing, unbearable to look at, really. And that’s really what the world is for Gatsby at that point.
So right now, we’ve talked about the two of them, Nick and Gatsby, as if they were almost exactly alike. There’s this very strong symmetry between the two of them. But this is not our only impression of those two characters, either, as we read The Great Gatsby. The two of them are not so exactly alike that they are interchangeable.
Chapter 8. Thematic Divergence between Nick and Gatsby [00:40:16]
So I want now to start another train of thought that points to a difference between Nick and Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby have a very important common ground up to a certain point, and then they diverge after that point. Let’s trace the divergence between them.
It turns out that sound is extinguished for Nick in two dramatic scenes. Not hearing Daisy talking to Tom, that’s one moment. But there’s another one, not as dramatic, but equally consequential for him. And actually it also comes by way of a phone conversation – so at least there’s that symmetry between him and Gatsby as well. But here’s Nick talking to Jordan Baker, the day after the accident.
“ ‘Suppose I don’t go to Southampton and come into town this afternoon?’ ‘No, I don’t think this afternoon.’ ‘Very well.’ ‘It’s impossible this afternoon. Various–‘We talked like that for a while, and then abruptly we weren’t talking any longer. I don’t know which of us hung up with a sharp click, but I know I didn’t care.”
Here too is a phone conversation that simply turns into a non-conversation, and then silence descending on the two of them. This scene is very, very close to the silence of the telephone for Gatsby. But there is a crucial difference. Nick had conjectured earlier that Gatsby didn’t care if the phone call came or not, but that’s obviously not true. How could he not care? He was devastated. It was devastating that there was no phone call from Daisy. But this is a moment when Nick truly doesn’t really care. And he doesn’t care because of who he is.
So now we’ve come to a very important parting of the ways between Nick and Gatsby. Gatsby is someone who actually cares so much that it’s almost as if there’s no reason for him to live after that moment, and so it’s fitting that he should die right then and there, the plot almost reflecting his psychology. But Nick is someone who doesn’t care and who survives in some sense because he doesn’t care.
Chapter 9. The Logic of Substitution for Nick Carraway [00:43:01]
Now’s a moment to go back to, something that Fitzgerald and Hemingway actually have in common. We talked a lot about the logic of substitution in Hemingway, and especially the picador’s horse being the substitute for the picador when a bull is charging. That’s a very noticeable logic of substitution in Hemingway. And it turns out that there’s also a logic of substitution in The Great Gatsby as well, if only because the word “substitute” is actually used by Fitzgerald, once again in a seemingly gratuitous context. But this is the family history of Nick Carraway.
“The actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in ‘51, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today.”
This entire passage, when we first read it, seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the novel. Why would we care whether or not back one generation–and not even his grandfather, but his uncle, grand-uncle–sent a substitute? He didn’t fight. So he has something in common with some of Hemingway characters. This is someone who doesn’t fight his own battle. He allows another person to suffer for him in the Civil War. And then as a consequence of surviving because of not having died in the Civil War, he’s able to found a very successful hardware business.
So all these details about Nick’s family history, appearing, very early, the opening pages of The Great Gatsby. It seems simply just to stand there and to be doing nothing. And it’s only in hindsight that we can impute a meaning. We can retrospectively impute a meaning to that initially seemingly gratuitous detail. And it really has to do with the vital difference between Gatsby and Nick.
Here is Gatsby, the moment when–just before he is captivated by Daisy’s voice again – this is the moment of illusion but also re-enchantment that Nick is noticing in Gatsby.
“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy stumbled short of his dreams, not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.”
This is really why Gatsby is what he is, is that he has this enormous storage capacity in his ghostly heart. And Daisy will be stored there forever. It almost doesn’t matter who she is, what she really turns out to be. And when he finally realized what she is, it almost doesn’t matter. It has no relation to reality at all, because it is strictly a dream about Daisy that Gatsby has stored up in his own heart and mind. So the colossal vitality of illusion, and that is what’s deathless about Daisy in Gatsby’s own mind and what enables Gatsby to be deathless to some extent as well, in spite of his physical, biological death.
With Nick, it’s the other way around. So I just wanted to read you why he doesn’t care and why it turns out that his family business is the hardware business. He is someone who can never be hurt by anything that happens to him.
“Jordan Baker 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.”
We have seen Gatsby be very analytical about Daisy, that her voice is “full of money.” And here is Nick performing a comparable analytic operation on Jordan Baker, that she’s just incurably dishonest, she can’t bear to lose. She will do anything she can to win. He’s right about Jordan Baker. That’s why this marriage is not going to take place. But more than that, it’s not even that she’s not such a great marriage companion. It is that Nick really doesn’t even care enough to be hurt by that realization. He is insulated by the emotional hardware that has been his family’s business for these two generations.
And so that’s why the family history is so important to Nick and why he really needs a substitute, because he is simply incapable of feeling the ecstasy that Gatsby is capable of feeling. Nor is he capable of feeling the devastation that Gatsby is capable of feeling. Those two go hand in hand. You get ecstasy, you get devastation. Nick is not capable of either. And that’s why he’s such good friends with Gatsby and why he’s always standing by Gatsby, because he really needs that indirect experience of what it feels to be in Gatsby’s mind and to have that ghostly heart with its miraculous storage capacity.
Anyway, this is Fitzgerald’s way of encouraging us to think about different constellations, different configurations, of characters. Nick and Gatsby are not the most obvious couple, but it turns out that actually the whole story of The Great Gatsby can be told by looking at this nontraditional couple. And I would encourage you in section to think of other nontraditional couples as well. We’ll turn to Faulkner next week.
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