We all know this story, in part because it captures a period that will always have a special place in the American imagination. Prosperous and boozy, the Jazz Age seemed like one great party, held to celebrate the end of a terrible world war; the liberating promise of newly ubiquitous technologies, including electricity, the telephone, and the automobile; and a certain image of success as carefree, inexhaustibly gratifying, and available to all who try. And yet perhaps this fantasy is rooted in disillusionment, and a denial of inescapable social realities, including the impossibility of genuine social mobility. What do we mean when we talk about the American Dream? Is it realistic? Wes & Erin give an analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
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Thanks to Tyler Hislop for the audio editing on this episode.
Wes: So, Erin, I feel really sorry for anyone who’s tried to adapt this book into a film.
Erin: I do too. Well, I feel sorry for Baz Luhrmann anyway, but yeah.
Wes: Well, why do you..? why do you…?
Wes: I didn’t realize that you’re going to say I do too.
Erin: No, because I agree. I think it’s unfilmable, but…
Wes: Well, I was going to say you think it would be the perfect book to turn into a film because it’s so spectacular in a way, there’s lots of spectacle in it. There’s a big mansion and a rich guy and all these big parties. But in the end, Jay Gatsby is not the protagonist, exactly. I think we would treat Nick, the narrator as the protagonist, but Gatsby, in a way, is the center of the book. He’s the central subject of the book, and unfortunately, he’s a really boring guy, and I think that’s part of the problem.
Erin: Yeah, I agree. Also, the dreamlike quality of all of the characters really contributes to its sort of essential unfilmability. I mean, it’s very difficult to pin down anyone in particular. I mean, even Daisy, who’s maybe the most described… or I don’t know, maybe Tom is described even more than Daisy. But Daisy, it seems, you know, is constantly given these loving descriptions or, you know, at least partly loving descriptions by Nick. And yet it’s very difficult to say what she actually looks like. In fact, the only thing that is described as her voice, that’s a rather difficult thing to imagine. I guess you could say having a voice filled with money. It’s a great idea, but you can’t quite picture it or -whatever the auditory version of picturing is- hear it.
Wes: That’s true. I think if I had to pick a character who was the most fleshed out, I think that probably would be Tom. He’s so well characterized. This sort of sportiness and brutishness, of his physique and of his behavior. He’s sort of like a high class Stanley Kowalski, I think. [laughter] It’s really well done. But as you probably know, critics have often complained that… and actually I think F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor initially complained that Gatsby himself is not fleshed out, and I think that’s a conscious decision on Fitzgerald’s part. He’s meant to be kind of a boring, blank Midwestern character who is draping himself in the trappings of luxury and being high class but can’t really fit into that role ultimately.
Erin: Myrtle too, maybe, is a bit fleshed out. But she and Tom are both the fleshiest of all the characters, and she puts that flesh to good use.
Wes: Yeah, so I think he’s a boring character. But what’s arresting about him is his hopefulness and his desire and his love for Daisy and the persistence of that, which is something we learn about early on. So this is actually the first page, which is an interesting way to begin the novel. It’s a very winning way, I think. Nick gives this account of his father’s advice and the fact that because of his father, he kind of learned to be someone who’s very tolerant and reserve all his judgments about people. But that’s just made him kind of a pushover to be their amateur therapist right there, willing to spill their guts to him, especially when they’re drunk. He’s gotten to a point in life where he’s no longer as tolerant, actually, as the point here, except in the case of Gatsby, despite the fact that Gatsby represents everything he hates. So, “Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. 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 ten thousand miles away.” Despite the boringness of Gatsby, on some sort of abstract level, there’s something quite alluring about him or alluring about, again, not him as a personality, exactly, but him as his desire or personality, as it’s recast by Fitzgerald here as “an unbroken series of successful gestures.” Maybe we should say a bit more about what that means exactly.
Erin: Well, that reminds me of Daisy’s characterization of Gatsby as looking like an advertisement of a man, which I think is really perfect and summarizes him in the way that you know Daisy’s voice sounding full of money maybe symbolizes her in a great way. I mean, there’s something… I suppose every man about him or maybe even anodyne about the idea of looking like an advertisement of a man. He must be, I suppose, a good looking guy, but only in a sort of inoffensive way. And that inoffensiveness is surprising considering the lavishness of his car or the fact that he wears pink suits. There’s something in one’s ability to project onto Gatsby. I mean everyone and throughout the book projects all of these strange theories about where he comes from and who he is, because nobody seems to know because he is so blank, in a way, and those successful gestures…
Wes: So Gatsby is a fake, right? He’s a man acting a part, although maybe he’s no longer making that distinction. And he’s… I feel reluctant to mention Donald Trump [laughter] in any podcast like this, but I think if Donald Trump is someone who had created this persona, this over-the-top persona, and then forgot that he was just a persona and became them. Gatsby’s persona, in a way, is not over-the-top, in the sense that he’s a strong personality, right? He’s got a few upper class affectations, like the use of “old sport”, saying “old sport” to everyone, and the way he dresses. It’s a very surface-level attempt at fitting into upper-class society and pretending that he’s come from that society, that he has those roots, even though he’s new money. Which is why, of course, he lives in West Egg and not East Egg. That’s the geographical division in the novel between the old money people and the people who are newly come to money and therefore don’t have the same status. There’s a certain point in the novel, around page 43 in my edition, where Gatsby is giving an account of himself and Nick is thinking to himself: you know, I know Jordan Baker thinks he’s lying about all this stuff, about him going to Oxford. He tells a story about living like a young Raja and all the capitals of Europe. And so the way Nick puts it on Page 43. So you talked about Montenegro, for instance, and he says: “The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart. My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.” So that’s the way I think of Gatsby’s character, skimming through a bunch of magazines. He’s assembled it from basically his surface impressions of what upper class life is like. It’s as if a poor person looked at the magazine that’s designed for rich people and said “Okay, that’s what it’s like. I’m going to get enough money to recreate that and recreate that. And then this is the result”
Erin: I’ve heard that said about Trump, too. Trump is like a poor man’s idea of what a rich man is. So on the one hand, I love this section where he gives this account of himself. My favorite part, of course, is when Nick asks him what part of the Midwest he’s from, and he says, San Francisco. [laughter] So, you know, on the one hand, I mean, he’s kind of dumb. So, for instance, he says, “‘My family all died and I came into a good deal of money.’ His voice was solemn as if the memory of that sudden extinction of a clan still haunted him. For a moment, I suspected that he was pulling my leg, but a glance at him convinced me otherwise.” So Nick is suspicious of him. And yet there seems to be some sort of fundamental truth behind all of these… Why is that he’s saying? Because I mean, in fact, he did leave his family behind or they did die to him in a sense. And then when he says that thing about the magazines, which is very true about how ridiculous and made up in boyish all of this is, he then produces the metal from Montenegro, he produces the picture of himself at Oxford, which, you know, at least that Oxford bit does also turn out to be true. And then Nick reflects: “Then it was all true. I saw the skins of tigers flaming in his palace on the Grand Canal; I saw him opening a chest of rubies to ease, with their crimson-lighted depths, the gnawings of his broken heart.” There is something extremely attractive about those magazine articles that, you know, [laughter] you know, a kind of boyish appeal, which, as soon as Gatsby gives Nick reason to believe it or a little bit of evidence, then Nick is completely on board. The fact that Gatsby, on the one hand, doesn’t know where San Francisco is, and on the other hand, is capable of inspiring belief in people. And having this grand sort of anodyne appeal where you can hoist this grand past on him and have it seem true, is really testament to that earthquake-detecting ability he has, maybe, to give people what they want or to understand what people have lying in their own depths, maybe.
Wes: Yeah, well, you’re reminding me of, towards the end of the novel, where Nick is reminiscing. This is just after he said to Gatsby, in order to comfort him, “‘They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’” despite the fact that he disapproves of him from (quote-unquote) “beginning to end.” And then Gatsby’s face breaks into this radiant and understanding smile. There’s sort of… this aura about him of… I don’t know how you put it, but it’s kind of like he’s the ultimate host, in a way. You see some of this at his parties, too. He’s this gracious and accepting person. But the way this paragraph ends: “The lawn and drive had been crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption—and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them goodbye.” What’s interesting in Gatsby’s character is this stark contradiction between his idealism, his extreme idealism, and the corrupt means by which he’s going to serve that idealism, right? So his love of Daisy, his idealization of her, and the way in which he’s gonna become a bootlegger, if that’s what’s required, or engage in criminal activity, if that’s what’s going to get him to his dream. There’s the question of class. What makes him so hollow, in a way? The suggestion I’ve kind of given is that it has something to do with this uncultured or less cultured person, even though he actually went to Oxford, by the standards of Tom and Daisy, someone who doesn’t belong to their class and they can see that somehow instinctually, or at least Tom can instinctually know that, they can see through the facade. And then the question is, how much is he just hollowed out by his idealism, by the type of desire that inhabits him? He’s entirely directed outside of himself, in a way. It’s like Gatsby largely forgets himself and who he is because he’s so focused on his object of desire. So we’re meant to wonder whether his flatness has something to do with him faking a higher status or whether it’s more about the nature of his idealizing desire.
Erin: That’s good. I think this is still in the same wheelhouse. But what about Gatsby represents what Nick scorns?
Wes: That’s a really good question.
Erin: Because, in fact, I think that Daisy and Tom give Nick much more reason to be scornful, a part I find particularly compelling, which is actually a great contrast, now that I think of it, to this untruthful story that Gatsby gives of himself. It’s page 17 in my paperback, which I think have different page numbers from yours. Mine is the Simon and Schuster paperback. This is the first scene when Nick goes to Tom and Daisy’s house for the dinner party, and Tom has taken the phone call from Myrtle, and Daisy and Nick get away for a second and Daisy’s confiding in him, saying, “‘You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,’ she went on in a convinced way. ‘Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I KNOW. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.’ Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. ‘Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!’ The instant her voice broke off, ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributory emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.” Here she’s saying something that maybe is fundamentally true, unlike the fundamental falsehoods of Gatsby’s account. And yet when he looks at her face to sort of confirm the words that she’s saying because he thinks that they have a hint of insincerity in them, he doesn’t find any evidence of sincerity on her face. Whereas Gatsby is telling lies, he looks at Gatsby’s face, and it really is true to him, in a way. Certain slivers of his story are in fact true, but the vast majority is false. And yet, through this assumption of a false narrative and this whole self made identity, it has in a sense become far truer than the real stale life that Daisy is clinging to, and which she and Jordan and even Tom, to a certain extent, can treat with a kind of flippancy, even as they’re aware that everyone else is trying to struggle to get to their position.
Erin: It’s like how I feel about front porches, like, if you ever noticed, all the houses with front porches, nobody’s ever sitting on them. And I [laughter] really want a house for the front porch, because I think if I got a house with a front porch, then I would sit on the front porch. [laughter] You know, anyway, Daisy and Tom are like a house with a front porch that no one sits in.
Wes: Well, there’s so much to say about that. That’s really great, because you have me thinking now about how I could be so, in a way, deceived by this and concentrating on Gatsby’s falseness when, in a way, he’s the most sincere person of all of them…[laughter]
Wes: …even though Nick says he’s the only honest person he’s ever known. But…
Erin: Oh, yeah, I love that. You know, like we’re supposed to trust that statement. [laughter]
Wes: I mean, Daisy and Tom are unfaithful to each other, Nick’s doing his own little round of shallow womanizing, even though he comes across in his own narrative as the good guy. So… and the other part of that is, what is it about status? Why can’t money buy you status? Why is it a big deal? And I think even if he hadn’t been bootlegging, right, even if he had been someone who came into new money because he was a film star or something, there would have been the same sort of class condescension towards someone like that. So what is it that Daisy and Tom actually have? Because obviously there’s no real depth to that. But they understand the kind of language and it’s like a culture that they have, that outsiders can’t really understand. So if Gatsby could be trained in that language so that he spoke it fluently and without an accent, so to speak, then everything would be fine. But unless you’ve grown up in that culture, then you don’t really know that you can’t belong to it. And I’ve experienced this, because I didn’t grow up in such… I would say high class circumstances, and I ended up at a school where there are a lot of prep school people, and you feel that in your bones, you feel the sort of class distinction. There’s a sort of character to people who have grown up in a higher class, I think, even in America where that sort of thing is downplayed.
Erin: I don’t know how much we’re supposed to take as a universal lesson from Nick’s particular prejudices towards Midwestern people or something. But I think it is fundamentally a culture of insincerity, and that’s why Gatsby really can’t get along in it. I mean, the one time that he really brushes up against people of Tom’s milieu is when the… I think that’s the Sloan’s, the couple, riding their horses passed Gatsby’s and they invite him… first he invites them to dine, they decline, and then they make the same gesture to him, assuming that he is also going to decline and he takes them seriously, takes them up on it, and they can’t get over his gaucheness to not understand that they were not issuing him a sincere invitation. And that, I think, is the great illustration of Gatsby’s kind of idiocy about picking up on the social cues because he is, in a strange way, such a fundamentally sincere person. So there’s this culture of insincerity that’s happening in East Egg. Because in West Egg, I mean, you have these enormous houses, just as enormous as the East Egg, and maybe even just as gaudy. You know, we get descriptions of the two houses, but they don’t really seem fundamentally different. in many ways. It’s not as though one of them is obviously a McMansion or something, and the other isn’t. Both halves of them still have the relative newness of being American constructions. It’s not as if one of them lives in Oxford, and then the other, you know, lives in Long Island. They both live on Long Island. The descriptions of the two houses, though I think there’s something telling about the heritage, I suppose you could say, the two houses are relatively similar, one might say. So perhaps, the only thing that really distinguishes them is the fact that the West Eggers are not, I don’t know, apologetic about that. They’re more flashy, they are more honest about the fact that they have money. One of the things that characterizes American old money is the unwillingness to spend any of it, which may be it’s how they still have old money in the first place. Even though it’s gauche, even though it’s ritzy and kind of all the wrong ways, it is honest, in a way, that the East Eggers can’t possibly be.
Wes: Since you’re bringing up the difference between the houses, this is an opportunity, first of all, to read a really incredible passage in the beginning of the novel. And I’m sure you know what this passage is.
Erin: The jumping lawn. I love it.
Erin: “And so it happened that on a warm windy evening I drove over to East Egg to see two old friends whom I scarcely knew at all. Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.” And then, skipping a bit down, “We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosycolored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea. 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.”
Wes: That’s really one of the most amazing things that’s ever been written, one of the great passages of the novel. Part of what interests me about that is when I think of Gatsby’s house, I think of it as a party venue on the one hand, and it’s almost like a suit of clothing that’s too big for him, right?
Wes: You have the Owl Eyes character, looking at the library and marveling that the books are real, not fake, and you have, at various points… you get the sense when… I think Gatsby and Daisy and Nick are kind of wandering around looking at the place, and it’s just you get the sense of its kind of vastness, and the way in which Gatsby doesn’t really intimately know it very well. And so there’s a sense of staticness to it. And what this passage gives us is something really dynamic. So this is not a place. It’s not just the place. It’s a place where the lawn, right, runs and jumps. And this passage is about the dynamism of the house, of course, and juxtaposed some characterizations of Tom that we skipped and his physical power and arrogance and dominance and his cruel body, the one that’s capable of enormous leverage, his paternal contempt and saying “I have a nice place here.” A passage like this gives you, you know, what I call a language or a culture, and I think, what you called right, the culture of insincerity, to really understand it. It’s passages like this that help convey that, what it means to live in this world to live with this status. It’s not just about insincerity, but it’s about a certain kind of appropriateness or aptness of appearances, one that Gatsby can’t simply replicate. And it’s also something about the nature of their desire, right? So Daisy is often bored. Basically, they’re over gratified, they get bored easily, they have nothing to do. The fact that they can have anything they want at any time has created… it’s a certain level of self assuredness on the one hand, but a certain level of apathy on the other. So there’s something about status and class and even the mannerisms of class that are meant to convey either an absence of desire or the fact that there’s not too much desire, right? There’s not too much aspiration, you’re not needy, so you don’t really mean to come to dinner, you’re not trying to feed someone, and you don’t need to go, you don’t need to be fed. Whereas, of course, Gatsby is all about… any new-money person is all about being self-made and aspiration. And that’s what doesn’t fit. There’s a huge difference between just having something that’s there, that’s part of your heritage, that’s been there, and striving to attain it. And the striving is the thing that comes into conflict with class. So the dynamism in this scene is not about striving. It’s a dynamism that’s inherent to status, I think.
Erin: Yeah, well, it’s very Roman.
Erin: You know, I think of… with Tom and Jordan too, being a professional golfer, you know, I think of the Kennedys, or you know, the Houghton-Hepburns, like I know that Jackie O, or Jackie Bouvier, when she first joined the Kennedy clan, was rather put off by the fact that the siblings all played football with each other and, you know, literally tackled each other to the ground. And she wasn’t used to that kind of thing. Or Katharine Hepburn running into the sound in the morning in Old Saybrook and in the middle of winter, you know, because she thought that the best medicine was the worst tasting or something. And so there’s this Yankee sensibility of this energy or something. It’s like the flip side of self denial, or it’s like a mechanism of self denial, in a way, the idea of, like training the body, giving you sort of something to do with your spare time, which is very particular to this certain kind of old money self sufficiency. It’s a very peculiar culture where you have these two opposite forces like, you know, a supreme laziness and a tremendous amount of time on your hands on one hand, and this kind of, like you say, the dynamism and energy on the other. But going to the section with Owl Eyes, as you mentioned in the library, cause I did want to talk about this, it’s really a great scene. When Jordan and Nick go into the library and that character Owl Eyes is looking at his books, he says (this is on page 45) “‘Absolutely real—have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and—Here! Lemme show you.’ Taking our skepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the ‘Stoddard Lectures.’ ‘See!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too—didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?’” So Belasco, by the way, for those of you don’t know, is David Belasco. He’s a theatrical impresario. He is the namesake of the Belasco Theater in Broadway, and he produced a lot of plays, he launched the careers of many actors, Barbara Stanwyck among them -he gave her her name was matter of fact. He was known for his elaborate sets, but he was the first to use what we can now consider to be modern stage lighting and colored lights. So he’s a producer and a theatrical guy famous for, you know, basically scene setting, which is exactly the connection that we’re supposed to make here. But I love the fact that Gatsby knew when to stop, too. He didn’t cut the pages, so he has all these amazing books, but he didn’t cut them, which is something else that when I first read this book when I was 13 or 14, I found out that used to be that when the books were bound, the pages were folded and part of the enjoyable process of reading through a book the first time, was to take letter opener or something and to cut the pages open as you read. And so, if you ever go to, you know, a really old bookshop or something, occasionally, a couple times in Oxford, I was able to find uncut books. He has all the right books, and they’re all real. But he hasn’t read any of them, but he’s gone through the trouble of actually getting a library of some taste. And interestingly, too, it seems that the Stoddard lectures that he mentions, and this is just kind of weird trivia. So I looked it up, and these were by this guy named John Lawson Stoddard, and they were essentially travelogue lectures. Then they were very popular in the States. And Stoddard seems like an okay guy as far as it goes. But his son, Lothrop Stoddard, believed in eugenics. He was a member of the KKK, and he wrote a book called The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy…
Erin: …which seems to be the book that Tom references. But he gets the name of the author wrong. He calls him Goddard instead of Stoddard, which seems to be a theme with Tom that he keeps getting things wrong: “The sun is getting hotter. Oh, no, Actually, it’s getting colder,” right? [laughter] He can’t remember.
Erin: So there’s a strange sort of connection there, too.
Wes: That reminds me that we should go back and mention that scene with Tom because we read the beginnings of that where Nick is going to visit them and then ultimately ends up having dinner with them. And there’s the famous scene where… What’s happening in that scene is that Nick is observing the kind of coolness of the women, so Daisy, “Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively, and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses, and their impersonal eyes and the absence of all desire.” And at some point, he says, “You make me feel uncivilized, Daisy. Can’t we talk about crops or something?” And so that’s Tom’s cue. He’s expressing his own status anxiety, even though I think he’s one of their people. But that’s Tom’s cue to say, “‘Civilization’s going to pieces,’ broke out Tom violently. ‘I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?’” And this idea that the white race will be utterly submerged and it’s all scientific stuff, it’s been proved. Even though they’re talking explicitly about race here, I think this gets us at some of the status stuff going on the book and the status anxiety.
Erin: Mm. I wanted to find that part where he says… Yeah, Nick later says something like, what Worried me wasn’t about Tom… was something about his stale ideas, I want to say it was..
Wes: Yeah. So this is on page 15 in my edition, so: “Something was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas, as if his sturdy physical egoism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.”
Erin: Mm. Yeah. So, you know, maybe he feels the encroaching Gatsby types as a real threat to his own status. But yeah, there was some joke, too, which was really good, that Nick made about how it seemed likely that he would be concerned about that. But what seemed unlikely is the fact that he would have actually read a book. So, [laughter] something like that, which was pretty funny.
Wes: Actually, he says, “As for Tom, the fact that he had some woman in New York was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book.”
Erin: That’s great. Which is funny, too, because it also implies, maybe another parallel between him and Gatsby, which is that, you know, they tend not to read, or at least not take what they read too seriously. Actually, that’s not true, because actually, Gatsby does take what he reads really seriously.
Wes: So I was just running with a connection that you had made there. But did I kind of divert us? Did you have something else about, um… that association in the… to the book in the library?
Erin: I can’t find it. I wanted to find the part about the brewer and how…
Wes: Yeah. Page 57.
Erin: “There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple, for half an hour. A brewer had built it early in the ‘period’ craze, a decade before, and there was a story that he’d agreed to pay five years’ taxes on all the neighboring cottages if the owners would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heart out of his plan to Found a Family—he went into an immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” [laughter]
Erin: So there’s this pedigree of the house as having been built by this brewer. And then, I guess, there’s this English connection, too, so it’s part of the period craze. So again, I think there’s a little bit of a connection to Belasco here and creating a set out of whole cloth, maybe. But he wants to complete the picture. I mean, he wants to fill in the details, this brewer. So he wants all the neighboring houses to have thatched roofs like in an English countryside village, so that he could be the Lord of the manor, and everyone else are the serfs on the feudal land. That connection to England, I think, is really important, throughout the book. Gatsby tries to his best shot as sort of proving himself as being not just a scene dresser, or like Belasco, and actually, part of Tom and Daisy society, as the fact that he went to Oxford, the thing that Daisy cries over with joy more than anything else about Gatsby or his perfect English shirts.
Erin: I think there’s something there. The connection with the Mayflower, obviously, with this American royalty and this idea that if you can trace yourself back to England somehow, you could have a connection with England, then that sort of legitimizes you in the (quote-unquote) “American aristocracy”. That connection is really what makes East Egg the fact that it’s further east than West Egg, I think is really important, too. You know, it’s closer to England [laughter] physically.
Wes: Yeah, let’s say something about that because there is, um… interesting passages that are evocative of the colonization of the United States and the way in which Gatsby’s dream, which, of course, you know, Gatsby’s dream, which is to attain Daisy, is connected to the American dream, which is connected in turn to… something having to do with the discovery and colonization of America. So one of these happens at the very end of the novel. Here’s the final passage: “Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Erin: That’s just like the best thing ever.[laughter]
Wes: Yeah. Yeah. So what are we meant to make of this connection to the discovery of the New World and the American dream?
Erin: He makes the connection here himself. Fitzgerald kind of does the work for us, like telling us that everyone in the East who’s part of this story they’re all really Westerners, and “the fresh green breast of the New World” and a paragraph later, “the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” I think we’re supposed to see those two things as being of a piece. And therefore Gatsby is an original American, or an authentic American or America itself, you know, always chasing after that fresh green thing. This relates to the idea of America is the New Eden as the John Winthrop’s Shining City on a Hill and all that good stuff about how this is a place where you could go to start fresh, forget your past, make yourself over again. And that hope and naiveté, I think, is kind of what characterizes Americans. And it’s what makes us so obnoxious, maybe, to Europeans, especially, who have seen it all before and have the evidence of it in the scars of it built into the landscape. So that freshness and that sense that even though we’ve now achieved manifest destiny and gone all the way to the Middle West of San Francisco, and hit the end of the road, there’s still so many vast parts of the country that are wild, and Yellowstone, and Yosemite, and all those great natural beauties, wonders of the American landscape, and the fact that it just kind of goes on and on and on with this fresh promise. And there’s always a place to move to where you can start over in a place where maybe people’s feet haven’t trot on yet. It speaks to, I think, the kind of naiveté that really characterizes Gatsby. This idea that well, why, of course, you can repeat the past, and there’s something childish and stupid about it that could only come from a young country, I think.
Wes: Yeah, so we are all, in a sense, [laughter] Gatsbys, in our own way as Americans. But…
Wes: …I think one of the interesting things here is that there’s a way in which Gatsby thinks he’s looking into the future. That’s what his incredible capacity for hope… That line near the very beginning of the novel… Let me just grab that because I think we’re to take that as characterizing not just Gatsby but kind of the American spirit: the “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” That’s a particularly American thing, and seemingly that’s very forward looking right. And that goes along with the kinds of changes that have been taking place right, the advent of the automobile and the phone, which are basically ubiquitous at this point and electricity. I think more than half of households have electricity at this point in the 1920s, but really, it seems to be forward-looking. But it is at bottom of a kind of nostalgia, kind of looking into the past, in the way that I think maybe there’s some parallel to Gatsby. Gatsby, of course, is trying to recapture a past that cannot be recaptured, although him and Nick argue about whether this is possible, right, whether he can turn back time five years and have Daisy and get her to admit that she never loved Tom and just simply to abolish the last five years and start over, or if that’s all essentially gone. So something here about looking into the future, these sorts of aspirations having something to do with being stuck in the past, so he did not know that it was already behind him. “Somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” I think we’re meant to believe that what we’re trying to attain is something that’s been lost. It’s lost all of us. It has something to do with the idealism of childhood, perhaps, or, you know, staying in a kind of Eden, and it’s something we can’t have back. But because of the nature of the discovery and conquest of the new world, that American spirit is especially imbued with this idea that Eden could be re-attained.
Erin: I think there’s something, too, about the fact that his past is behind him. It’s out there. It’s out west, The American movement “east to west” is just as much of a draw as it is from west to east, I think. So Gatsby’s family. coming across the ocean, they already moved to the west. They already tried to capture this American spirit of manifest destiny and the New Eden and everything else. And Gatsby is now, you know, and they all are, moving west to east in order to sort of steal from the old stores of Europe by going to the east. So you know, he left his past behind in the west, and the idea that this was already tried out in the west is very true. Any movement from west to east is going to be kind of re-treading the ground that one’s family took to get out west in the first place.
Wes: There’s that interesting comment in… it’s page 64 in my edition, where Nick is looking at the portrait of Dan Cody, Gatsby’s sort of mentor, although the story turns out to be a bit of a red herring in a way, right? You initially think this is the guy who made Gatsby rich or something. It turns out…
Wes: …not to be the case, but Cody is described as “a grey, florid man with a hard empty face—the pioneer debauchee who during one phase of American life brought back to the eastern seaboard the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon. It was indirectly due to Cody that Gatsby drank so little.” So, am I making the right connection here to what you’re…
Erin: Yeah, absolutely. So, Cody… I think we’re supposed to make the connection with any of these rugged guys like, you know, the Vanderbilts, for instance, who did actually buy their way successfully into American old money. Or, you know, Henry Gats, Jay Gatsby’s real father at the end, says how he lived, he could have been a James J. Hill. You know, the guy who took the railroad from Minnesota out to… I think it was San Francisco, who went over the Rocky Mountains and everything. And and so this pioneer life of striving and making one’s way across the country has a rugged American industrialist. That heritage would have actually instilled Gatsby with a certain currency among the Eastern elites that he tries to ingratiate himself with because it worked for who, besides the Vanderbilt, to my thinking, of the other big family…?
Wes: The Rockefellers?
Erin: The Rockefellers. Yeah. Having their houses in Newport and everything else, they were able to transfer that vitality into some cachet in the East and became, you know, the old money. So this idea that Dan Cody could be… and Gatsby wants to probably advance this idea a little bit by having his picture of this idea that he was brought up by Dan Cody and not Meyer Wolfshine is, I think, an important distinction to make when it turns out that he’s actually in with the underground in the black market and bootlegging and everything else. That, I think, is what stinks at the core of Gatsby’s earned fortune.
Wes: Yeah, so it’s one thing to think about the relationship with the American dream to the original discovery of the New World, also very violent on the frontier started in the East and moved gradually towards the West and the legacy of those pioneer efforts arguably with us. It’s part of the American character, to some extent. I don’t know if the American dream is supposed to be infused with a certain amount of rapacity or some sort of sociopathic element. Whatever the spirit of the pioneer is, perhaps our aspirations are infused with that, to some degree.
Erin: Mm. Well, it’s very Protestant. You know, the idea of the hard work inherent in taming that continent, which I think is what allows those early American industrialists to buy into that old money because that’s very Protestant.
Wes: But also the big ideals, the disjunction between the ideal and the means to the ideal, the big dream, you know, in Gatsby’s case, it’s Daisy, and then the willingness to do what it takes, even something criminal, to get her. And in the case of the United States, it’s some kind of grand ideal having to do with a democratic ideals, or a perfect union, or manifest destiny, all these various things, which have as the means to them, was unsavory in many ways, as the means to nation-building inevitably are. I mean, every nation is built on something like this. It’s just that in Europe it’s so much farther away in time.
Erin: Right. And I think, too, it’s not just that you make the money the right kind of way or don’t make the money and inherit it even better. But the idea that you don’t make it with the wrong sort of people or that you’re the right kind of person making it. And the, you know, the obvious immigrant, I mean, you know, Jewish background of Meyer Wolfsheim, and everything that he represents, you know, were never going to be accepted by the east coast elite.
Wes: Even though it’s quite essentially American.
Wes: Part of the paradox of having aspirations towards upward mobility is that high status, you know, as I mentioned before, just is defined by not having such aspirations. [laughter]
Wes: So to aspire to it is inherently self contradictory. And that contradiction enters right into the immigrant fantasy as well, of creating a new life for oneself, unless there is something paradigmatically American about having those aspirations, being an immigrant, being from elsewhere. And arguably, that’s the case.
Erin: And part of that is now, by natural selection, it’s built into our character, the fact that we got all the people from Europe who wanted to make over their lives. That means that that’s going to be the kind of person that we create. But what’s interesting, I think, about the novel in what’s, maybe, sinister about its lessons, it’s almost as though the lesson of the novel is not that it’s impossible to recreate the past. It’s not with money, but just with that status can you successfully recreate the past. So, for instance, Gatsby can’t do it because he has new money and he’s only using money. But Tom can do it. There’s a kind of a throwaway line, which really stuck out to me during this reading, that Tom says about his stables and his garage…
Erin: He says, “I know a lot of people who have made garages out of stables, but I think I’m the only one who has made a stable out of a garage.” So Tom has successfully gone back in time. He even manages to successfully win Daisy back on the strength of the past and their past relationship, coming in with the Sloans to Gatsby’s property on horseback. There’s something about being the landed gentry of America or something that seems to allow Tom that mobility in terms of time, that is not afforded to Gatsby, despite all of his money.
Erin: I don’t know what the novel is saying about that, and I find it to be pretty sinister because it is saying that recreating the past is possible if you have the right kind of past or something. [laughter]
Wes: Interesting. So I wanted to get at, just speaking of the relationship between Gatsby’s dream and the American dream and all this stuff, I think this is another one of the great passages from the novel. It’s a characterization of Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy. There are times in the novel, when it feels like he’s going to first person omniscient, right, nominally. He’s characterizing something that someone else has told him, but it’s so detailed, and it’s so in their heads that it’s as if he’s just a third person omniscient narrator, at this point. This is on page 70 in my edition, where Gatsby wants nothing less than that Daisy should say to Tom, “I never loved you.” And then we get that little exchange where Jay says, “I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past”. And that’s when Gatsby says, “Of course you can”. And then he says, “I’m gonna fix everything just the way it was before”, a line that, to me, is reminiscent of the fact that Wolfshine, and perhaps Gatsby as well, have fixed the world series [laughter] in the past. So is that kind of criminal element the idea of fixing things?
Erin: Mm. I want to talk about that, too. But yeah.
Wes: So then we get this wonderful passage. This is the end of Chapter 6, page 71 in my edition, “He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was… One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder. His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete. Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
Erin: Yeah, that’s one of several times when Nick is trying to think of something, and he can’t quite say it or think it. Just curious.
Wes: Yeah. Well, here he’s just given this account through [laughter] Gatsby’s perspective, things that he can’t possibly know, or even recreate from any plausible account of what Gatsby has said to him, right? His unutterable visions and the idea of the sidewalk mounting into the stars and all that stuff.
Erin: I love that, though he’s climbing into these different perspectives. He does that with Jordan once, I think, and then he also does that with Daisy as a young girl.
Wes: I think, really, just wanted to point to the level of idealism in Gatsby’s relation to Daisy. And even the word sentimentality is used here. So through all he said, at the very last paragraph, Nick is suggesting that all that purple prose that’s just come before, is not his, but it’s still beautiful and poetic because it’s Fitzgerald. But it is quite out there and then blames that on Gatsby is if Gatsby would write something like that. [laughter] The blocks of the sidewalks forming a ladder to a secret place above the trees, all that stuff and blames that sentimentality on Gatsby. But whatever we make of that, I think it just gives us further insight into the nature of this sort of dream.
Wes: I don’t know how to express it further right now.
Erin: No, I think you just did. I think that was great.
Wes: One of the things I wanted to get back to was, you had mentioned early on, Daisy’s voice and it being money and her voice as another star character of the novel, right? We get lots and lots of recurrent passages before it’s ever paid off with that climactic conclusion. That’s kind of an epiphany on Nick’s part, I think, right?
Erin: The money part?
Erin: That’s how Gatsby characterizes it. And then Nick says, “Oh!”
Wes: That’s Gatsby.
Erin: You’re right. That is perfect.
Wes: Let’s find that passage. So it’s…
Erin: Nick and Gatsby are talking and Nick says “‘She’s got an indiscreet voice’. ‘It’s full of— —‘ I hesitated. ‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly. That was it. I’d 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….”
Wes: So that’s the kind of climatic pay-off, the realization of what her voice means but we’re introduced to her voice early on. So page 8, with Daisy seeing, Nick says, “I’m p-paralyzed with happiness,” her over the top…
Wes: …insincere expressions. What’s interesting is the way in which, and this is again part of the high status culture of insincerity, but the manipulative effect of these extreme expressions of affection, even though they’re obviously affected and insincere. This is our introduction to Daisy’s voice. “I looked back at my cousin who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling 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,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”
Erin: It’s very difficult to imagine. So are the bright eyes and the bright, passionate mouth. You know, it gives her this dream-like nebulous quality, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe she’s supposed to be as unattainable to our minds as this amount of wealth is. Part of that not being able to pin her down is part and parcel of Gatsby’s not being able to pin her down or be able to pin down the status and the wealth that he so desires. The status, anyway.
Wes: Well, we only get that in one scene. So I always imagined her as blonde. But at one point he describes her hair as dark, shining hair.
Erin: Yeah, but she says that her daughter has the same hair as her and the daughter has blonde hair.
Erin: But it’s that kind of nebulousness, that is…
Wes: That’s interesting.
Erin: Obviously not a mistake. Um… [laughter]
Wes: Right. Well, it’s interesting, so hopefully this will be the last voice passage that I read, even though there are several others.[laughter] There’s a point whereto Nick had arranged their get together at his house, and they renewed their love for each other. And now they’re wandering around Gatsby’s mansion, and you get several scenes. So you’ve idealized this thing for so long, and now you have it. And then there’s that inevitable moment of, not disillusionment, but hints of the sense that this thing that I have now can never really live up to what it was as an idealization. So they’re wandering around the house, and he’s sort of looking at everything, revaluing things through Daisy’s eyes and the way she’s reacting to the house. And then, at a certain point: “After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock.” And then Daisy cries because of all the beautiful shirts, she’s never seen so many, [laughter] and then: “Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that…” So then they’re out on the grounds, and they look and see her place and the light across the bay. So he has to mourn now the fact that he’s no longer gonna have the same relationship to that light. So the narrator: “Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” And then finally, when Nick is saying goodbye: “As I went over to say goodbye I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby’s face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled 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 will store up in his ghostly heart. As I watched him he adjusted himself a little, 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.” Daisy is just a person. [laughter] He’s not, as inevitably, Gatsby has gotten what he’s wanted temporarily. Hopefully, he was prepared for that moment when what he was gonna be confronted with was just a person. But I love these descriptions of the inevitable tension between idealizing someone for so long and then coming into contact with the reality, and then what Daisy has to renew… And you see this early on with Nick as well, you almost think Nick’s in love with her, right, in the beginning, the way he talks about her voice and the effect that her voice has on him. And here it’s the allure, it’s the charm, that can re-ignite Gatsby’s passion, even though predictably, it’s going to waver in the face of contact with reality. And then that voice ends up being money, right. And, in a way, you wonder if Daisy is the personification of money. Or it’s unclear if she is the personification of money or of status, or of something else in that realm. Whatever it is, what all the talk about her voice does is it gives you a sense of the insubstantiality of the object of this aspiration, this dream that Gatsby has.
Erin: And that mellifluous musical quality to her voice. I love… I paid more attention, this time, to the music that runs through the whole book. That insubstantiality of money seems to be connected to music too. This is apropos of nothing, but this is maybe my favorite part in the whole book. It struck me this time how funny the book is.
Erin: There’s that part where Nick is at the party for the first time and at the end of the party, when everything sort of breaks up and everyone starts getting hysterical because they’re so drunk, there’s this one girl who’s crying these big gobs of mascara down her face. They’re making this trail with, like, black tears. Someone suggests that they should play the notes on her face. That’s my absolute favorite moment. But anyway…
Wes: That’s great.
Erin: [laughter] The tears that Gatsby’s extreme wealth produces are musical tears.
Erin: To switch gears here to something which is not ineffable at all, but very fleshy, we should probably go to Myrtle and the Valley of Ashes, which is very much a real place. It’s just Flushing Meadows. If anyone’s ever… [laughter]
Wes: Oh, is that where it is?
Erin: Oh yeah.
Wes: I thought it was a mythical realm. [both laugh] Is it between Queens and New York City. Is that…? Sorry, Long Island and…
Erin: Queens. Yeah. You go past it when you go to… if you could drive to JFK from Points North. So you could see it and it does look, uh… Now they’ve made it into a park, and they’ve tried to make it nice and everything, but it really was… it is still a little creepy-looking.
Wes: No more heaps of ashes. [laughter]
Erin: No, but that… that was a real thing.
Wes: That’s amazing. Yeah, because it’s hard to imagine the landscape.
Erin: It was a dumping ground. It was actually called Corona Park at one point, which is timely. But anyway, it really wasn’t a dumping ground, and it really was made of ash heaps. And in fact, there was a topless train. So, you know, a train with no top… [laughter] A “topless train”, like people went topless on this train! No, a train with no covering on top, and it was called the Talcum Express because you would get covered in this ash if you rode on it. Just completely disgusting! There’s a certain John Bunyan kind of quality, like this is a place in Pilgrim’s Progress that you have to go through, which also kind of makes it even more curiously like a parable. And, of course, the eyes of God, the eyes of Dr Eckleburg hovering over the ash heaps. It’s a little terrifying. But Myrtle, Tom’s kept woman, Tom’s mistress, is the only one in the Valley of Ashes who isn’t covered in ashes, which is interesting. She has this vitality about her, which… It’s difficult to say what about her Tom is interested in, except for the fact that she is probably the exact opposite of Daisy.
Wes: That’s really interesting, because there’s that scene in the apartment, whether Nick and Tom and Myrtle and Myrtle’s sister, Catherine, and then the other couple are all getting drunk together, and Nick says he’s only been a drunk a few times in his life. [laughter]
Erin: I don’t believe that for a second,
Wes: So… (unreliable narrator). So in my notes, I thought, Wow, isn’t it remarkable that Tom, Mr. Superior Aryan race guy, wants to hang out with all these lower class people? What is he doing? What attracts him to them?
Erin: The pretension of Gatsby using old sport and then Myrtle, you know, another really, really funny scene. Myrtle, um… having these extreme pretensions in the apartment. [laughter] The fact that the upholstery has these images of Versailles on it or, you know, girls on swings or something like that. She talks about that woman who comes by, just to look at people’s feet.
Erin: All these veranda, health-conscious people that she employs and her imperiousness to these incredibly awful people. Her sister, Catherine, which I love. The description of the eyebrows that she had plucked and then drawn in again, but not quite successfully plucked and not quite heavily drawn in enough that gave a blurred quality to her face, as Nick describes it. And Mr. and Mrs. McKee, who were really terrible. I love the smoky air and Myrtle saying, “‘My dear’, she told her sister in a high, mincing shout, ‘most of these fellas will cheat you every time.” I’m just imagining that she has this terrible… what in anyone else, I would think is an adorable accent, but in her must be awful, “All they think of his money. I had a woman up here last week to look at my feet, and when she gave me the bill, you’d have thought she had my appendicitis sound.” [laughter]
Wes: Yeah, that’s great!
Erin: She’s just a total idiot. I mean, she’s like Madame Bovary. If Madame Bovary wasn’t beautiful and young. [laughter]
Wes: The whole scene is really important because it establishes this relationship between status and love. I asked that question about Tom. At one point Tom is yawning. He seems bored here. Why is he here? And then you see Myrtle. She changes dresses at one point, right, and that’s when she gets even haughtier. So she’s affecting a higher status than she has. And she seems to be… a large part of her relationship with Tom is the idea of borrowing his importance and borrowing his status and getting a big head over it, getting inflated by it. She’ll say of her own husband, right, “I married him because they thought he was a gentleman. I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick at my shoe.” And then her sister says, “You were crazy about him.” And she says she wasn’t, which is kind of a parallel to Gatsby’s winning Daisy to say that she was never crazy about Tom. It’s something about… Tom has this contempt for all these people who are below him that goes with his racial contempt, and yet he needs it. He kind of feeds off it, and he enjoys being in proximity to it. I guess it feeds his sense of superiority. And at the same time, Myrtle enjoys borrowing his contemptuousness, and that’s what happens to her in the scene as she becomes Tom, in a way. She acts out Tom’s contemptuousness, and he no longer has to put the energy into it. He can sit back and relax and yawn while she plays his sort of game.
Erin: Yeah, they’re these two channels, I guess you could say, that are funneled into Tom and one of them is this kind of airy, like I said before, ineffable money and high status, and the other is his brutishness and his physicality. It seems like, as is usually the case with rich men and, you know, part of this culture of insincerity, and it’s also a culture of hypocrisy. So, you know, they want the money, high status woman, who is frothy, and then they have to have their animal needs satisfied by the more substantial and fleshy kept mistress.
Wes: Yeah, this is the other part of it, right? Because I’ve made the association between status and the height and class, and I think this goes down to the mannerisms, like if you analyze what it means to have upper class mannerisms, it’s all about conveying the idea that you do not have the same intensity of desire or passion that others do, right. So that’s in a way, what manners are about: you hide…
Wes: …these passions to some extent. But you could do it even in the tone of voice. So sort of upper class accent right has less affect, and it’s more snooty. It displays less emotion, less variability in emotion. I always think here of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where you get this nice juxtaposition, because it’s the same actress and the same character in the movie being two different people, and the way she accomplishes conveying a low class Judy versus a high class Madeleine. To do Judy, her face shows lots of different expressions: she wears her heart more on her sleeve, she’s more volatile, she’s more vulnerable, she’s more reactive to her environment, and the whole ethos of status is to be less reactive, more immune, more in control and less exhibitionistic about what’s going on inside you, even as you do that sorts of things, at least if you’re a woman, that Daisy does, which is to affect an incredible amount of passion, “Oh, I’m paralyzed with happiness to see you” so exaggerated and obviously false and yet, within this kind of culture, allowable. What Tom gets, what someone in Tom’s class gets, through his relationship to Myrtle is a re-connection, right, to the instinctual, more vital part of himself that he can’t connect to in Daisy. And, I think, the whole Valley of Ashes thing is related to this, right? So the way lower classes are represented often is as earthier or is closer to the earth. And the ashes are a variation on that and there the underside of prosperity, right? This is the consequence of industrialization, the very thing that’s allowed, the kind of prosperity that Gatsby and the Buchanans enjoy. That prosperity has its cost, so it turns the people of the Earth into people of ash. It exploits them. It denatures them. It uses them up. That’s some of the larger social significance, of course, of Tom’s relationship to Myrtle.
Erin: Yeah, that’s great. So Tom has allowed Myrtle some of the beneficence of his own wealth and status. So he is seen with her in New York, and that is considered acceptable. And he’s, you know, given her this apartment and everything else which he won’t give to Gatsby. Tom is disgusted by Gatsby’s pretensions, but he’s really tolerant of Myrtle’s. So in a way, Tom has smiled on Myrtle like a God and granted her a place in his life and granted her the cover of his wealth. So he allows her to go to these restaurants with him in New York City, and people see and everyone knows what’s going on and no one acknowledges it. But he can then destroy Gatsby at will, for having those same types of pretensions, because even Gatsby’s wealth is really not protection enough against Tom’s disapproval. But there’s a moment at which Myrtle does cross the line, and that is when she says Daisy’s name and that Tom does not stand for, which is interesting. This one holy ideal for Tom is just, you know, not getting your wires crossed: Myrtle not infringing on the territory of Daisy by saying her name in this incantatory sense, summoning her up.
Wes: There’s kind of a Madonna whore thing going on here, and…
Erin: Oh, absolutely.
Wes: She’s his mistress, she’s his sexual object, and his wife is the object of his respect, and he’s even willing to continue to respect her, you know, of a sort, right? Even after she’s had an affair with him. He has a special relationship with her. But intimacy that Gatsby sees when he looks in on them and they’re eating (or not eating together but conversing) and she’s not gonna call him after all. So those are two different things. And the exploitative relationship to Myrtle is part of what helps sustain the more significant longer term relationship that he’s gonna have, the more intimate relationship of a sort, with Daisy.
Erin: It just reminds me of the story that my grandmother always tells about one of the towns that she comes from, back in Italy, where everyone in the town, all of the married couples in the town, there was an equal number of men and women. So there were all married couples and every man had a wife and every man had a mistress, and every man insisted that his wife was pure. [laughter] They were the only towns, maybe in the world, where every wife was both a Madonna and a whore. But the moment that she does say this name of Daisy, she’d get that the violence of that moment, where he then just breaks her nose, you realize the danger of crossing a line with Tom. There’s so much foreshadowing in this book that it’s almost ridiculous, with all the car accidents and the flicking of buttons and the ripping off of the wheel and all this stuff, and then the swift violence of breaking her nose and then cutting in with blood into the scene and destroying the scene with that evil christening or something is what Myrtle receives when she puts her foot in it. The description in the book is “Making a short, deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.” A one-sentence paragraph and just a short, deft movement of the prose just reaches in and breaks her nose and “there were bloody towels upon the bathroom floor, women’s voices scolding and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain.” This intrusion of death and injury on the scene is really, really violent. I don’t know if we’re supposed to feel sorry for Myrtle at the end. This is mirrored by her body, the shocking moment which, when I was a kid reading this for the first time, I could not believe the violence of this description. She’d been hit by the car. “Her life violently extinguished, her thick, dark blood mingling with the dust.” I’m sort of paraphrasing here. Michaelis, the Greek coffee-shop owner, reaches in and tears open “her shirtwaist still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.” This tremendous vitality I recognized just from you reading something about Tom’s tremendous vitality a few minutes ago. So that same description. But yeah, I don’t know what’s more disgusting there, the left breast, which is great because it would have to be a breast which is removed from her in this death blow because she’s such a sexualized object, and then the corners of her mouth being ripped as… uff… that’s difficult to read, but that she had choked.
Wes: Do you feel sorry for her? It’s kind of a horrible… but I don’t I… don’t know. I don’t feel this really connected either her or her husband and their plight.
Erin: No, neither do I. I feel sorry for her husband. I don’t feel sorry for her.
Wes: Yeah, his wailing is really something. And the way he wails at her death is very powerful, disturbing, and…
Erin: When they’re trying to console him and they’re saying, you know, ”do you have a church? Do you go to a church?” He says “No.” And they say, “Well, did you get married in a church?” He says, “Yes. But that was a long time ago.” And he has no avenue to salvation, you know, or even just what religion is that it’s most basic level, which is something to console yourself with. So that’s when he looks out and he sees the eyes of Dr Eckleburg.
Wes: That’s a good segway, yeah. So let’s first talk about that scene, and then let’s try to say what that… When I told someone I was doing an episode on The Great Gatsby they said: “That’s the first thing they ask me, “Well, what do you think Dr T. J. Eckleburg represents” to go for it?
Erin: The fact that he looks out and sees those eyes which have been compared in the book to the eyes of God. And I think maybe the idea is put in his head that he needs to get vengeance and find who did this to his wife. That’s the message he’s taking from it. But what I love about it is that God is an advertisement. Just like Gatsby is an advertisement of a man, here, the eyes of God are just an advertisement. And they can project, just like you could project onto Gatsby any history and human feeling that you want to attribute to him any background, you can project onto the eyes of Dr Eckleburg, any kind of religion or motivation or any kind of words of God that you feel like hearing in that moment.
Wes: What’s interesting is that from what I’ve read, he was inspired to put that into the novel by the illustration. So the cover illustration of the novel was completed before the edits were, so that famous cover illustration that we all know: the blue sky with eyes and lips of a woman and in the eyes and the irises are images of naked women, and then there’s the city underneath. Fitzgerald really loved that. I don’t think he quite realized that the author was inspired by a passage in the novel in which Nick says, “Unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs and so I drew up the girl beside me, tightening my arms.” So that’s Jordan Baker, sort of representative of cynicism and skepticism and reality and sportiness and jauntiness and all these other things, as opposed to the idealized Daisy-type. The artist was inspired by that to create this image, and then he just saw that and said, “I got to write that into the novel” and created the TJ Eckleburg billboard. So I hope I have that right. A listener can correct me if I’m wrong about that.
Erin: That’s really interesting. As a kid, I always thought that the cover art was supposed to be Eckleburg, even though it took me a while to realize that the cover art isn’t wearing any glasses, and it’s clearly a woman. Yeah, but another weird piece of trivia just that I learned, is that Francis Cugat did the cover for this, who was actually the brother of the bandleader Xavier Cugat. He was really big. He was in movies as a bandleader.
Wes: Wow. Very cool.
Erin: Yeah, it’s really random. Yeah, and he was actually, Xavier Cugat, actually, a pretty good cartoonist. He’s in this great Fred Astaire/Rita Hayworth movie called You Were Never Lovelier, where he does cartoons of people that are pretty good… Not cartoons: caricatures. Anyway, that’s apropos of nothing, but I guess they were both artistically inclined. So those eyes, I guess, related to Owl Eyes, too. Owl Eyes, who sees everything.
Wes: The idea that there’s kind of solemn, brooding eyes that are watching.
Erin: And not intervening, right? [laughter]
Erin: The implication being that, you know, God sees and doesn’t care about this age. God is no longer part of the goings-on of the world. He’s exiled to a billboard.
Wes: I mean, the way I’ve seen this written above, if capitalism had a God, this would be its God: T. J. Eckleburg, and it’s kind of faded, abandoned advertisement billboard watching over the kind of ruin of its own creation, right? If capitalism’s creation is this sort of wasteland.
Erin: Right. And the deist, you know, the American deism, the laissez-faire God who doesn’t intervene, you know, is in a way, Nick himself. Nick is also Dr Eckleburg, I guess. It just now occurred to me. Even in that apartment scene, what strikes me is when Nick says that he is imagining what the outside windows of the apartment look like. And he says, (this is the kept apartment of Myrtle) he’s drunk and he’s in the room. But then he also imagines what the lights of the apartment must look like from outside the room, describing how he keeps wanting to leave: “…but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” So he’s within and without. And his, you know, moral ambivalence is similar to Eckleburg’s just watching and, of course, not being able to intervene because it’s just a billboard. [laughter] But Nick watches all of these goings-on, and he doesn’t say so much of a word to anybody. And with Tom, too, I mean being taken to Tom’s mistress’s apartment. Daisy is his cousin.
Erin: And he is really not bothered and really doesn’t make any kind of moral judgment about… it’s implied in the descriptions that he thinks that the whole thing is vulgar, but he doesn’t intervene on behalf of his cousin’s honor or anything.
Wes: Yeah, he’s very passive. I mean, the only confrontation with Tom is in the end, right, when he refuses to shake Tom’s hand initially because he thinks Tom got Gatsby killed and then relents with a little explanation from Tom [laughter] and does end up shaking his hands
Erin: And says, “Well, you know, this is the best Tom could do” or something. You know, something like that.
Wes: You know, Tom’s explanation is lame, too. It’s… yeah, it says something like that. This is the… this is what he thought was best in the… So yeah, Nick is quite passive. That’s a good point. The way T. J. Eckleburg is used in the end. And you know, this is the lead up to Wilson’s… what’s Wilson’s first name?
Erin: George, I think?
Wes: Okay, I guess he’s just called Wilson in the novel, So this is the lead up to Wilson murdering Gatsby. And he’s gone insane, and he’s “looking out at the eyes of Dr T. J. Eckleburg, which had just emerged pale and enormous from the dissolving night.” That’s the way it’s put and then says, “‘God sees everything.’ ‘That’s an advertisement,’ Michaelis assured him.” I’m trying to figure out if that works, if that thematically does what it needs to do, or if Fitzgerald just kind of inserted that.
Erin: Oh, I think it absolutely does. It’s a little easy in a way, you know, to have this billboard so perfectly placed over the murder scene, the death scene. And so I think, the symbols that Fitzgerald is trucking in are… you know, it’s what makes this book so well suited to a high school curriculum, which is not the greatest compliment you could give something.
Wes: Well, so it’s very plotty the way things were so tied together thematically and how plotted it is. It’s not dissimilar in its tightness of plot and theme to the way a screenwriter would try to write, strangely enough, since Fitzgerald tried to be a Hollywood screenwriter and didn’t make it, right? And I’ve seen that criticism of this. I think some people are offended just by the fact that it has a plot, that anything with pretensions to being literary would dare to have a plot. I don’t mind that. It’s not like, you know, Shakespeare’s plots are also quite absurd, and it’s not really the point. They’re scaffolding, right, for something else.
Erin: Right. Maybe it’s just because having read this book when I was really young and having a really… affect me in a way, I’m recapturing the past every time I read it and looking at it with my young eyes. But when someone remarked to me that the plot was incredibly ridiculous, I just couldn’t believe that I was like, “What do you mean, it’s ridiculous?” like I had never thought of that before, that the whole thing is so unbelievable. It never occurred to me [laughter] because it’s just such a ubiquitous part of our culture, and it’s also, I mean, it could be a true story, really. So a guy becoming wealthy just to win over this woman… Maybe that’s a little bit unreal, but I find everything in it to be extremely believable, besides that.
Wes: Well, it relies on coincidence, of course, and it’s a kind of astonishing type of story that would make it perfect for a tabloid. And Fitzgerald is writing, right, these more commercial stories. That’s part of how he made a living, and I think he even compared… he even, in his letters, talked about this a little bit, about literary aspiration versus more kind of baser, just-telling-a-story stuff.
Erin: I mean, what makes this book so enjoyable is how beautiful it is and how fantastic it is. So in the same way that Nick is charmed by Gatsby’s tales as a Raja and everything else, so Fitzgerald is using that effect with us and the blue lawn of Gatsby’s party, and the women like moths on it, you know, I mean, so many great images in this that are truly enjoyable in a purely fantastical kind of sense. I mean, there’s you know the element of the fantasy novel in it. But that being said, I mean, if Howard Hughes is a real guy and William Randolph Hearst is a real guy, then why is Gatsby so unbelievable?
Wes: Yeah, it’s interesting, because this was not a novel that was popular. Fitzgerald had had some success to previous novels, but this novel did not do well while he was alive. And then, of course, he died young in his forties. And then, of course, that’s when your novel really takes off. It’s when you’re dead. So you have to die first. [laughter] And I think, part of its popularity… they produced a lot of copies to give away to soldiers in World War II, and that was the beginning of its revival, strangely enough. Some other trivia, you know, when I was looking at some of the background for this, is the number of different titles for the book that he entertained. One of them is Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires, Trimalchio in West Egg, Under the Red, White and Blue, The Gold-hatted Gatsby, The High-bouncing Lover. Just a lot of really bad options. [laughter] I think he’s really lucky. I’m not sure the novel would have done well ultimately under some of those other titles. I think we might have had to change the name to The Great Gatsby if he had named it something else.
Erin: [laughter] I gotta say, that’s really heartening to me, because if there’s one thing that my friends… now that I struggle with its titles… titling poems…
Erin: …I’m absolutely terrible at them, so it makes me feel better that Fitzgerald came up with such glams…
Wes: [laughter] Yes.
Erin: …for Great Gatsby.
Wes: Just go with the one that deliberates. I mean, you know, you’re done.
Erin: Yeah, well, yeah. It’s very true. So in spite of his inability to come up with good titles, I mean, he’s really a master of these beautiful descriptions. And I just… one of my favorites, which I don’t think that we can end without me reading a little bit from is right before that ending passage, which you already read with the fresh green breast of the New World. Before that, Nick makes up his mind to go back West, and he talks about what that might mean. And it’s an interesting segway, actually, because he’s just at Gatsby’s funeral and he sees Owl Eyes, who’s the only guest besides himself and Gatsby’s father, calls Gatsby “the poor son of a bitch.” And then, suddenly Nick makes this incredible turn, and he says, “One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: ‘Are you going to the Ordways’? the Herseys’? the Schultzes’?’ and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate. When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again. That’s my middle west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”
Wes: Yes, I love this passage as well. I was surprised to find out that it was a story about the West. [laughter]
Erin: Right. Yeah, it’s so convenient that Fitzgerald tells you that, but in a way he’s helping to write all those JSTOR articles that probably exists about Gatsby.
Wes: Oh, yeah. It’s important.
Erin: [laughter] It’s important to create your own critical commentary embedded in the book. [laughter]
Erin: That scene reminds me of the sleigh ride in The Magnificent Ambersons. I always think of… Parts of this. I mean, I know Orson Welles. I’m sure how to flag a copy of Great Gatsby next to him when he was making Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons in the early forties. But that bracing air, and what I love about that, of course, is the green tickets in their hands. I mean, Nick ends the novel by going out west and returning to… you know, what he thinks is the truer, the more pure, the better American way of life, where there seems to be some kind of European stability, old world stability, of having an ancestral home, a house that has a name attached to it over the generations. A firmness. And he says, you know, admittedly some complacency, which is maybe where he gets it from. But he too, is going with his green ticket back out to where things are better. He’s making kind of the same mistake that everybody makes in America, I guess, and the realization that eventually you’re going to run out of new chances and you’re going to run out of Continent and land somewhere in the Pacific. But, you know, for now, anyway, it seems that Minnesota is the place he would rather be.
Wes: Yeah, it’s an interesting way to bookend that introduction that he gives us that famous introduction about his father’s advice about reserving judgment and all of that. I wondered if that had really paid off, and the way it ends is kind of… it’s an obvious return in tone to the way the book begins, so it gives a sense of completion. But I haven’t been able to figure out in what way those two passages, or the beginning and the ending, are related.
Erin: Well, you know, I think that this is the book, and, I mean, part of Nick, the character’s motivation for (quote-unquote) “writing” this book is that he extols the virtues of tolerance at the beginning, and then he finally comes to the end of tolerance. When real life comes in, tolerance eventually has only so much sway over us, or even the most tolerant among us have our limit. What Nick is willing to ambivalently put up with and entertain it allows for the events of the book to happen. But then maybe that endpoint of his tolerance then allows for the book to actually be written, to put a pin on things at the end in order to have some ironic distance from the events of the novel from these events in Nick’s (quote-unquote) “life”. And I’m acting as though Nick is a real person writing this. But I mean, in a way, I think this is very much Fitzgerald, originally coming from Minnesota, moving to New York and experiencing many of the events in the novel. The writerly inclination comes, you know, as you’ve often pointed out, Wes, in that depressive moment after the manic, and we can’t really accuse Nick of mania at any point. Maybe he has a mania for tolerance, and ultimately, where that ends is where he’s able to get some ironic distance and to write about what he’s seen and that allows the events to be transcribed.
Wes: Okay, very good. I think that is a good way for us to wrap it up.
Wes: So thank you.
Erin: Thank you.