Monday, June 10, 2013
Fantasy Animates All Great Books: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Pt. 2)
Click here for Part 1 of this analysis.
I hold this notion about great fiction: A great book always incorporates elements of fantasy. Fantasy (and poetry, also) requires symbolism (or myth, if you prefer), and we gain our greatest insights into the nature of things through symbolism, metaphor, and myth. Gatsby reaffirms my notion.
First, a word about the book's lyricism. It's fraught with images that are a delight in themselves. Here are two examples.
Gatsby is showing Daisy his 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, with 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 -- because I've never seen such beautiful shirts before.' "
So much poetic sensuality and color pulled from something so simple! And of course it's symbolic, too. It reminds Daisy of what she may have missed out on.
And then this quotation, describing how Gatsby's parties develop:
"The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music [isn't that wonderful?], and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. 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 with triumph, glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light."
When I read that paragraph, I paused and thought, that reminds me of the style of some other writer -- who does that remind me of? It eluded me. And then it hit me. Dylan Thomas! That sea-change at the end. Sea metaphors are so important in Thomas. The room becomes an ocean of shifting sounds and colors, in which nothing is permanent and all this vitality is swept along toward dissolution.
Before I speak of the book's deeper symbolism, I want to talk about its comedic qualities, for while its tragic slant may take precedence, it remains a sharp, funny satire. Some of the most notable comic elements occur in the extravagent parties held at Gatsby's mansion. There are some great comedic vignettes here -- the man in the library, the permanent guest who occupies a bedroom as a squatter. But my favorite comic element is the mock epic catalog of the names of the attendees at Gatsby's parties. The book is worth reading for that alone! I don't have room here to quote the whole thing (it's on p. 61 of the Scribner, 2004, edition), but I will quote the first paragraph:
"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."
This goes on for a good two more pages and I can just imagine Fitzgerald having a blast writing it. It's definitely a blast to read! But it has a certain serious purpose, also. These hilariously named people are all hollow, insubstantial, satiric cliches without lives apart from the venue of Gatsby's magnificence.
Before I get to the deeper symbolic elements, let me insert an example of incidental symbolism in the awkward scene where Gatsby and Daisy meet. It involves a "defunct clock" that the agitated Gatsby knocks off the mantel, catching it in his hands and apologizing.
" 'It's an old clock," I told them idiotically.
"I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor."
This isn't just an idle bit of business; the dead clock symbolizes time standing still, as Gatsby and Daisy are transported back to their last meeting. But of course it's impossible to recapture the past; time has been symbolically smashed and can never be restarted.
The first chapter of the book displays the beautiful people, the elegant home and lifestyle of the Buchanans. However, there is trouble in the Buchanan paradise; Tom Buchanan is having an affair. The chapter ends with our first glimpse of Gatsby, a shadowy figure in the dark gazing with trembling yearning across the water at the green light at the end of the Buchanan's dock that symbolizes Daisy for him. We are ushered into his world of a misty, unattainable dream.
Chapter 2 (the "slumming" chapter) couldn't contrast more sharply. We meet Tom's mistress and see how the scruffier portion of humanity lives and how the rough-and-tough football player Tom can move between both worlds without compunction.
And here is how Chapter 2 begins:
"About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is the valley of ashes -- a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghostly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with laden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight."
We can see that we are actually in the sterile world of T. S. Eliot, the world of the Waste Land and of "Prufrock" and of the "Hollow Men." But brooding over this ash dump (in the days before gas and electric heat, all of New York City would have been warmed by coal and wood, and the ashes have to be disposed of somewhere) is a remarkable vision: Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's eyes behind a pair of enormous yellow spectacles -- a billboard advertising an oculist's business. What a sight! By the end of the book this unsettling vision has become a symbol for the all-seeing, all-knowing (perhaps uncaring or perhaps vindictive) watchfulness of God.
How this transformation occurs I won't discuss, not wanting to play the spoiler. But I will say this: This question remains to the end: Whose version of the accident was correct? The narrator wasn't present in the car, so he can't verify anything (clever!). Gatsby tells him Daisy was driving. Obviously Daisy told her husband that Gatsby was driving, because Tom says at one point, "He ... never even stopped his car."
But isn't it possible that she told him the truth and Tom -- or both of them -- chose to put the blame on Gatsby, anyway? There is a scene where Nick peeks through the window and sees Daisy and Tim talking:
"They weren't happy ... and yet they weren't unhappy, either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said they were conspiring together."
Obviously we'll never know for sure. Personally, I think Daisy would have never had the backbone to take responsibility if she had been driving, and I think it's entirely possible that she lied to Tom, or else caved in to him or willingly conspired against Gatsby. And I'm inclined to think Gatsby was telling the truth. He made his money in the sleaziest way imaginable, and he can't be called honest, and yet he retains a kind of impractical dreamer's sense of honor. I don't think he would have let Daisy take the rap as it were if she hadn't actually been driving. And he's talking to Nick, who is his only real friend -- he had no reason to lie, nothing to gain by it. It's my opinion that Daisy was driving that car.
What we do know is that the Eyes of Dr. Eckleburg found an avenging angel who wreaked his vengeance on the wrong man because of Tom Buchanan's lack of honor. Perhaps an adaptation of my favorite quotation from Evangeline Walton's The Island of the Mighty is relevant here: the god Eckleburg went forth "after the fashion of all orthodox gods, to damn the creature that he had fashioned ill."
And so we return again to "The Hollow Men" (who meet in Gatsby's mansion, search for the unattainable, and await the vengeful Eyes of Eckleburg):
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death's twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.