So I finally gave in and read The Great Gatsby. I had resisted for a long time–the few short stories of Fitzgerald’s that I had read left me pretty cold, and at a certain point the knowledge that you are supposed to have read a book takes away the sense of fun in reading it. But a lot of people seem genuinely fond of Gatsby (in contrast to Moby Dick, which few people I know actually got pleasure from), so I decided to give it a try.
Fitzgerald has a flair for satire, in an arch style that sometimes seems odd coming from the pen of our otherwise colorless, flavorless narrator Nick:
Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby’s house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed “This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922.” But I can still read the gray names, and they will give you a better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby’s hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.
From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whosoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie’s wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
The first paragraph has an elegant poise that serves as the straight man for the Thurberian sendup of society gossip that follows. My own fave is Doctor Benjamin Civet, but it’s all good.
Fitzgerald is at his best when he seems to be satirizing Gatsby’s little fantasy world. At a party, Nick and his girlfriend (if that is the right word for Jordan) wander into the mansion’s lavish library, where a drunken guest raves about the “realism” of it, atonished that the library contains actual books, not just pasted on spines, and that Gatsby has had the good sense not to cut the pages (which would implausibly have implied that he had read them). When Gatsby finally realizes his dream of showing his house to Daisy, she marvels at his collection of shirts:
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher–shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such–such beautiful shirts before.”
Surely Fitzgerald has an eyebrow raised at this shallow, idle rich girl being overcome with the tragic grandeur of Gatsby’s shirt collection…or maybe not. It’s easier to tell where he stands with his heavy-handed and not very pleasing mockery of Daisyt’s vulgar husband Tom and his odious mistress. They are generally nasty and brutish, but one suspects that her greatest sins are a lack of breeding and large hips, and the force of the satire is undermined by the lack of any basis in real values from which to launch criticisms.
The problem gets worse for me when things get serious. For Nick, Gatsby assumes a tragic nobility; he is worth more than the rest of them put together (given the cast of characters, this is rather lame praise, but I think Nick is sincere). As the style becomes more elevated and elegiac, I gather that we too are supposed to admire Gatsby, but for what? Because, seeing the world dominated by vapid exploiters, he determined to lie and exploit on a grand enough scale to be accepted as one of them, and for a while accomplished this with some flair? Gatsby’s pathetic deceptions, such as his treasured Oxford photograph, do arouse some pity, but it would be easier for me to understand why he wants to belong to high society if the people at his parties were at least witty or interesting rather than just drunk, and especially if his belle ideale had more to offer than a voice that drips with money.
If it seems that I’m being too hard on Scott, consider that, having chosen Princeton as (in his view) more fashionable than Harvard or Yale, and having somehow gotten in despite crappy high-school grades, his great ambition was to gain entrance into the most snooty and exclusive of the “eating clubs” (actually his first great ambition was to be a start football player, which he considered the best route to social distinction, but having failed at that, he moved on to the eating club project, at which he succeeded). He never appears to have questioned the inane and repellent class system, only to have longed to reach the top of it. He had little time to spare for classes, many of which he flunked.
And here is the advice he wrote, at age 19, to his 14-year-old sister. They were not close, and one can hardly imagine that she asked for this guidance, but Scott was notoriously bossy. He begins by evaluating her main attributes, good (e.g., overall size, eyes) and bad (e.g., teeth only fair, large hands and feet).
“(c)You should never rub cold cream into your face because you have a slight tendency to grow hairs on it…(d) A girl should always be careful about such things as underskirts showing, long drawers showing under stockings, bad breath, mussy eyebrows. With such splendid eyebrows as yours you should brush them or wet them, and train them every morning and night as I advised you to do long ago. They oughtn’t have a hair out of place. (e)…I noticed last Saturday that your gestures are awkward and so unnatural as to seem affected. Notice the way graceful girls hold their hands and feet, how they stoop, wave, run, and then try, because you can’t practice those things when men are around, it’s too late then.
Just what every 14-year-old girl needs to hear about what’s important in life. Way to go, dickhead.