Gatsby: The Great American Story

Posted by John Truby on

The Great Gatsby is a true Great American novel. What is even more amazing is that F. Scott Fitzgerald did it in little more than a short story.

How did he do it? Essentially, he wrote a Great American Story. Fitzgerald was able to create what may be the fundamental story structure of 20th Century America and weave together a number of characters that each express a different take on the problem that the structure exposes.

Let's begin with the novel's endpoints, because they tell us the structure. And the structure tells us more about how the story works than anything else.

At the start of the book, Nick tells us a story about a person he met when he went east. At the end of the book, Nick says he went back home to the Midwest.

Looking at the story's frame tells us two key points. First, the true main character is Nick. Fitzgerald uses the third-person storyteller. So the basic structure of the story will track how Gatsby changes Nick's life.

Second, Nick doesn't go west. He goes east.

To see why this is so important to this novel and indeed all of American storytelling, we have to look at the fundamental movement of American history. That movement: "Go west, young man. Go west."

How did this movement define the American character? In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay entitled, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," one of the most important essays in the history of history.

The Frontier Hypothesis said:

* The frontier was the meeting point between savagery and civilization.

* As the immigrant confronted the crucible of the free, harsh land, the land transformed him from a European into an American.

* As the line of the frontier moved west, the country became gradually less English, more American.

* The most important effect of the frontier was that it promoted democracy. When you live on the frontier, central authority disappears, and even the little man can take control of his own life.

How did the frontier and the move west affect American character?

* The frontier created an American who was selfish and individualistic, valuing personal freedom above all, along with strength, inquisitiveness, a practical, inventive mind, and exuberance.

In short, said Turner, "America has been another name for opportunity."

But Turner ended his essay with a crucial point:

* In 1890, after 400 years, the frontier disappeared, and with it ended the first great period of American history.

Notice that if Turner is right, the close of the frontier means a fundamental shift in the American character, because the frontier is no longer exerting its power.

Cut to 1925 and the publication of The Great Gatsby. We are now 35 years after the close of the frontier, and seven years after the Great War, fought among the corrupt European powers we originally fled to form America in the first place.

In the America of 1925, the call of destiny is now: go east young man, go east.

In other words, the great American myth is no longer the Western, it's the "Eastern." This is precisely Nick's movement: he starts in the Midwest - solid, nothing fake - and goes east, not to make things, but to sell bonds, to make a lot of money off of money. Nick goes to make it rich in the great American city of business.

Gatsby undergoes the same eastern movement: he's a Midwesterner who goes east and makes his fortune.

Gatsby's opportunity to change his life, and go after this new American dream, comes with the arrival of a man named Dan Cody. Nick says Cody is " -- 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."

Of course, Cody's name takes us back to one of the legendary characters of the American West, Buffalo Bill Cody. Ironically, Buffalo Bill was one of the men most responsible for not only closing the west but also turning it into a mythical story and a commercial spectacle for Easterners to enjoy from the comfort of their seats.

One form of the "Eastern" is the gangster story. In the gangster story, instead of becoming a person of substance by confronting the land on the frontier, the immigrant enters the world of the city, of façades, of extreme differences of wealth and power. The gangster hero is corrupted by false goals and false success, by his craving for money and status.

The gangster story was codified by three movies in the early '30s: "Public Enemy," "Little Caesar," and "Scarface." All were heavily influenced by The Great Gatsby. "Scarface" even makes direct steals, like the sign and the scene with the shirts.

Within the Eastern story structure, Fitzgerald places another structure, a simple love story. Gatsby wants Daisy. By placing the love story within the Eastern structure of going after American success in the city, Fitzgerald turns Daisy into the human expression of the American promise which is being corrupted by money and status. And love itself is twisted and destroyed.

Having set up this very clean, tight story structure, a love story set within an Eastern, Fitzgerald makes all of his characters' variations on this theme. This is one of the techniques that allows Fitzgerald to tell the Great American Story so succinctly.

Nick, the main character, is solid, substantial, and moral. He says, "I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules." Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known."

Fitzgerald contrasts solid Nick with Gatsby: fake, hollow, immoral and illegal. But Gatsby has one saving grace; he's going after the ideal of true love.

Nick says of Gatsby, "He smiled understandably. And much more than understandably -- [the smile] assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished - and I was looking at an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd."

Gatsby tells Nick: "I am the son of wealthy people in the Middle West - all dead now. I was brought up in America but educated at Oxford, because all my ancestors have been educated there for many years."

"What part of the Middle West?" I inquired casually.

"San Francisco."

Gatsby continues: "After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe - Paris, Venice, Rome - collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game -- I didn't want you to think I was just some nobody."

Adding to this sense of Gatsby as a fake, Fitzgerald has everyone create rumors and false images of him. Myrtle's sister says of Gatsby, "They say he's a nephew or a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm's. That's where all his money comes from."

At one of his parties a woman says, "Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once." Another replies, "-- it's more that he was a German spy during the war."

Tied in with the hollow characters and the rumors is everyone's desire for status. Status is value bestowed in the eyes of others. By definition it is not substantial.

Status is a form of keeping score of success: I'm better because those people are worse. Mrs. McKee says, "I almost married a little kike who'd been after me for years. I knew he was below me." Myrtle, talking about her husband, says, "I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn't fit to lick my shoe."

One of the techniques that Fitzgerald uses is to slowly let out the real information of Gatsby's past throughout the entire book.

This has an important thematic effect. As the story unfolds, and we see who Gatsby really is, we find out that this story is larger than one man trying to win another man's wife.

Gatsby and Nick are both trying to accomplish the great American project of remaking yourself. America is the land of the eternal clean slate. When you have no past, you can be anything you say you are. This gives you total freedom, but if it is based on deception, it can crumble quickly.

Nick says, "The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God - a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that - and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end."

The ultimate expression of a land of total opportunism is the gangster. The ethic of the gangster is that the goal is everything. What you do to get it is nothing.

Gatsby's business associate is Meyer Wolfsheim, rumored to be the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. When asked about this, Gatsby says, "He just saw the opportunity."

What about the character who is the object of Gatsby's quest, his grail? Daisy is literally the dream girl. In fact she is the American dream girl.

Daisy is pretty, airy, childlike, charming, and full of money. But she is also completely hollow, and in her case, unlike Gatsby, she has no saving grace. She is cowardly and careless.

When we first meet her, Nick says about her and Jordan, "The two young women ballooned slowly to the floor -- there was an excitement in [Daisy's] voice -- a promise -- that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour."

When Daisy speaks she says things like: "Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it."

Like David Copperfield's child bride, she holds her little finger up for everyone to see and says, "Look! I hurt it -- You did it, Tom."

Later, when describing Daisy's voice, Nick says, "She's got an indiscreet voice -- It's full of" - I hesitated." Gatsby says, "Her voice is full of money."

Nick's girlfriend, Jordan, is a variation on Daisy and a foreshadowing of her actions. From the beginning, Nick wonders what Jordan is concealing. When she leaves a borrowed car out in the rain and lies about it, Nick remembers a newspaper story about how Jordan moved her ball from a bad lie in a golf tournament.

And then Jordan is driving and she almost hits someone with her car. She's careless but she doesn't care. When Nick confronts her on it, she says it's up to other people to keep out of her way.

Another technique that Fitzgerald uses to tell the Great American Story is the way he describes Gatsby's parties. They are a microcosm of the novel, because everyone there is inflated, false, and insubstantial.

Fitzgerald switches to the present tense. Notice how he describes the party like air or water to express swelling and falling and nothing being permanent.
"Laughter is easier minute by minute -- The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath; already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group, and then, excited by triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light."

One of the guests confirms that the books in Gatsby's library are real.
He says, " -- they] have pages and everything -- It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism!"

Of course, most of the guests are not invited and don't even know the host.

But Fitzgerald's best technique for expressing these parties and the entire Eastern world is the way he names the guests. These names are as good as any Dickens ever created. Notice how Fitzgerald lists the fancy names and then follows with the harsh reality of who they really are or what became of them.

"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 -- From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O.R.P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells. Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett's automobile ran over his right hand."

Until the end of the novel, the sum total of all these actions is a few pompous parties and an unrequited love affair. But then the full moral ramifications of who these people are breaks through the surface, and the result is disillusionment and destruction.

What triggers this moral explosion is Gatsby's battle with Tom over Daisy. We see that when forced to make a decision, Daisy is a coward. She fails to leave Tom, even though he is a racist, a bully, and is cheating on her. Then she kills Myrtle in a hit-and-run car accident and lets Gatsby take the fall for it.

Then Gatsby takes the fall again, when Tom tells Wilson who owned the car and he kills Gatsby. She and Tom leave town, once again proving what cowards they are.

Nick says, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness -- and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Careless is one of the key words of the book. Careless is where flightiness and false values take on moral force and become destructive.

The story ends with Nick's self-revelation and change. He says, "That's my middle West...I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters...After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that -- So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home."

At the end, Nick is not rich or flashy or glamorous. But he is authentic. And when the chips are down, he is the only one who acts as a moral, decent person.

We know this because he makes a number of moral decisions. The last thing he says to Gatsby is: "'They're a rotten crowd. You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.' I've always been glad I said that." He stops seeing Jordan, then ties things up with her. He takes care of Gatsby's funeral and is one of the very few who attends. And finally, he goes home.

The novel concludes not just with Nick's change but also with America's change. Here Fitzgerald uses the technique of Utopia, specifically the end of a Utopian moment.

Utopia is key to the concept of America. It is the ultimate expression of a clean slate where you combine huge wealth with high ideals. In a utopian place, all things are possible and all things are expected.

What utopias does Fitzgerald set up? Utopia is that one great summer with all the parties at the shore. Utopia is falling in love with that perfect girl. Utopia is the guy who could lift himself up by his bootstraps and make a fortune.

But with utopias there's always a rub. They are always temporary or fake. The endpoint is always disappointment.

So it is in Gatsby. The summer parties at the shore are full of phony hustlers and parasites sucking pleasure and money from their host. The perfect girl is hollow, and a coward when the chips are down. The rags-to-riches guy is making a fortune because he is doing it illegally.

Gatsby loses his utopia when Daisy slinks back to Tom. Nick says, " -- he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream." A moment later, he's murdered.

Then, in maybe the best final page in American literature, Fitzgerald kicks the tragedy up one final level when he talks of the lost promise of the country itself. The spiritual ideal that we started with three hundred years ago has been corrupted to nothing but material craving.

But he also says, for America, the party is over. The real value is the fields of the Republic, the land. The real value is a person of character like good ole Nick.

" -- 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...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.

" -- [Gatsby's] 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 orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run fast, stretch out our arms farther -- And one fine morning --

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

So ends a Great American Story.

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