Friday, June 7, 2013

"We Are the Hollow Men": The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Pt. 1)

Find Part 2 of this analysis here.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw.  Alas!
--T.S. Eliot (published 1925)
        In my American literature class in college, we read the 20th-century novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.  It's a compelling piece of realistic fiction, but it doesn't hold a candle to The Great Gatsby and it's too bad I never got around to reading Gatsby until now.  Of course, I'm a person who relishes a subtle, poetic style and complexity clothed in simplicity, and that's just what Gatsby has.
       I realize that thousands of essays, critiques, masters' theses, and doctoral dissertaions have been written on Gatsby, and I haven't read any of that material.  What follows is not a scholarly analysis, but simply my personal impressions of the book.  I don't plan to publish a review on Goodreads or Amazon -- it's superfluous for a classic of this sort -- but I did rank the book on Goodreads.  I noticed that, incredibly, some readers had given it only one star.  I assume those are people who have no literary education and no grasp of literary fiction, and they can't be faulted for that.  That's why we have such a wide variety of authors and books.  But certainly  I find anything less than five stars for Gatsby to be laughable.

       First, the Zeitgeist.  We're told that Fitzgerald acutely rendered the Jazz Age -- the time of affluence and loosening moral sensibility that arose in the 1920s.  But life at any period is multilayered and fiction reflects only the layers that the author chooses to discuss.  No period of history is so simple that displaying one aspect or portraying one class can reveal it completely.  I say that because my mother grew up in the 1920s.  She was born in 1909 and so was only 13 in 1922, the year the book is laid; the book's characters are thirtyish.  But she was definitely a flapper -- she and her mother both "bobbed" their hair about 1922, she danced the Charleston, and she wore the short dresses with fringe (but she always said they came just above the knee -- nothing like the underwear length women sport nowadays).  Her family was comfortably off but not rich; she never drank or frequented speakeasies and organized crime was only a story in the newspapers.  She was also a smart, serious student in high school, studying Latin and loving math.  She belonged more to the class discussed by the book's narrator near the end, where he is about to return home to the Midwest.  So I would say, don't take Gatsby as typical of the great majority of people in the United States in the Jazz Age, any more than aliens just come to Earth ought to take reality shows, the Kardashians, and Lindsey Lohan as the types by which to measure our own moment of time.

       I do think Fitzgerald fits with the era's artistic sensibility, however, because as I was reading I kept thinking of T. S. Eliot and of James Joyce, both of whom wrote in the same period.  I couldn't give you a direct comparison with Joyce because I haven't read him recently, but something about Chapter 2, where Tom and Nick go "slumming," reminded me of the way society is portrayed in Ulysses and other Joyce books.  And the same sense of emptiness and despair that underlies most of Eliot's poetry also exists beneath the beautiful exteriors in Gatsby.  These really are "hollow men," destined to end with a whimper.
       The narrative technique in Gatsby is worth studying.  However, I want to point out that apparently nobody ever told Fitzgerald that it's a no-no to use speech verbs other than "said," "asked," "replied," etc.; or to use adverbs to describe how people are speaking.  Here is a list of certain phrases:  he asked helplessly; she cried ecstatically; she added irrelevantly; he remarked decisively; I answered shortly; she complained; Daisy retorted; she remarked contemptuously; demanded Daisy; objected Daisy; objected Tom crossly; insisted Daisy; I confessed; broke out Tom violently; insisted Tom; she whispered enthusiastically; suggested Miss Baker; I inquired innocently; she said hesitantly, I repeated blankly; she said suddenly; inquired Daisy coldly; I asked quickly; demanded Tom suddenly; he advised me; corroborated Tom kindly.
       And that's just the first chapter!  It would be easier to count the few times that Fitzgerald actually used an unqualified "said."  So, if an unquestionably brilliant stylist like Fitzgerald could do that, I don't think the beginning writers out there need to worry too much about an occasional "he queried abruptly."  Actually, it's the overall effect that matters.  If it's obtrusive and awkward, then don't do it.  (I confess, I doubt that I would ever write: corroborated Tom kindly.)    
       However, that's just an amusing quibble.  Let's talk about the point of view and the characterizations.  I'm not fond of first person; it often feels artificial to me, because it always implies that the narrator is writing the tale.  Was Huckleberry Finn really writing his own story?  I don't think so!  I do use first person in my Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head series; Di'fa'kro'mi is a bard and he is composing the story, so it doesn't feel phony. 
       This said, I found Gatsby's narrator, Nick Carraway, to be exactly what the story needs.  He isn't just a wooden figure posed to observe and tell about the action; he is both a bystander and a essential participant in the plot and it's made clear later in the book that he is indeed writing down these memories.  He is Daisy Buchanan's cousin so he has a right to step into her social circle; he lives next door to Gatsby, so of course he would meet him and get to know him; and he is a subtly drawn character in his own right.  
       One never knows with narrators; when they make statements about themselves, can you take them at face value?  Nick says at one point: "Every one 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."  Should this statement be believed?  Somehow I think it should; in his actions Nick comes off as a decent, honest man who is grounded in compassion and who tries his best to do the right thing.  I found the first few pages of the book to be a bit enigmatic; I even thought, if the whole book going to be this obscure, I don't know if I'm going to like it. 
       But if you go back and reread the beginning after you finish the book, you understand that Nick is trying to account for why he behaved as he did during the course of the story.  "I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me."  People sense this and tend to share confidences with him and reveal intimate things.  This makes Nick the perfect narrator.  Nick ultimately becomes disillusioned about this inclination of his: "I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.  Only Gatsby ... was exempt from my reaction -- Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." 
       In fact, all the way through, Nick's reaction to Gatsby consistently displays this ambivalence -- he goes on to say in the beginning: "No -- Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men." 
       Even the last time Nick sees Gatsby, his reaction is ambivalent:  " 'They're a rotten crowd,' I shouted across the lawn.  'You're worth the whole damn bunch put together.'  I've always been glad I said that.  It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end."  It isn't Gatsby himself that Nick admires; it's what he symbolizes -- an incorruptible, idealistic dream that can never be fulfilled amid the world's cynical, self-seeking corruption. 
       The book ends like this:
       "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 -- to-morrow 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."

       Presumably, a past that symbolizes a better time.

       As for the other characters, Nick's non-judgmental approach allows us to view them with a dispassionate and unsentimental eye.  There is no cut-and-dried villain; all possess the same character flaw of  smallness, of never seeing the need to take responsibility for one's actions.  Tom Buchanan is the most despicable in that regard, and Daisy is simply too weak a character to even understand the possibility of rising to any noble plane.  She is not the newly liberated woman of the 1920s; it's Jordan Baker the golf champion who typifies this phenomenon -- a woman who doesn't need to truckle under to a man for support (consider the symbolic contrast of the names "Jordan," more commonly a male name, and "Daisy," a quickly fading feminine flower).  Baker remains a bit of an enigma.  At one point, Nick pronounces her inveterately dishonest; she once got into trouble for moving her ball in a golf tournament, and yet toward the climax, he describes her as "too wise to ever carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age."  Perhaps her type is destined to survive.
        Among the lesser characters, even Mr. Wolfsheim, unfortunately portrayed as the stereotypical Jewish shyster, is not castigated; he is merely the opportunistic charlatan seizing all opportunities to advance his self-interest.  George Wilson the mechanic and his wife Myrtle (who is Tom Buchanan's mistress) play more significant roles.  Myrtle deserves a better fate; she is simply acting out a desire to share the life of beautiful people as she understands it.  Wilson, whom Tom describes at one point as "so dumb he doesn't even know he's alive," ends by being the agent of the plot's climax.  Interestingly, when Tom realizes that Daisy and Gatsby had a relationship, he remarks to Nick, "You think I'm pretty dumb, don't you?"  And shortly thereafter, Nick observes "there is no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well."  Both Tom and George Wilson have just discovered that their wives may have cheated on them, and it is making them equally sick.
 In Part 2 of this analysis,
I'll consider the symbolic and mythical underpinnings
 of the book, as well as its comedic qualities.


  1. Lorinda, You offer a *very* intelligent and perceptive analysis of "Gatsby" -- as as good or better than any I've read.

    Interesting your comparison of Fitzgerald and Joyce since at the time of Fitzgerald's death in 1940, The Modern Library named The Great Gatsby the second best English-language novel of the 20th century; their choice for number one: Joyce's Ulysses. Likewise, your comments about Fitzgerald's idiosyncratic choice of speech verbs. You probably already know this, but he was a terrible speller as well. Just goes to show how convention is no match for genius.

    I can't help thinking how sad that poor Scott died thinking his wonderful book a commercial failure doomed to be forgotten. Your perceptive analysis is yet another reason why *that* won't ever happen.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jack! Your comments are always cogent and relevant! Actually, as I said in the piece, I don't know anything about Fitzgerald (except that he was in love with Zelda) - never studied him - so this analysis is based completely on a reading of the book. I was honestly surprised at how much I liked it! I was sort of expecting a dry dissection of the times, not the wonderful lyrical and symbolic presentation that I found!
      Writing this sort of analysis was my favorite thing when I was in college and grad school, and so I'm reverting to my youth, without having to worry about grades! In ordinary life one rarely writes term papers on books!
      You did read the second part of the post, didn't you?

    2. Yes, Lorinda. I did read part 2, and I think it's even more beautifully insightful than part 1. Bravo.
      A bit of trivia: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings all had the same editor at Scribners -- Maxwell Perkins.

    3. Yes, I like Pt.2 better also, and I'm afraid people won't read it, because I've had 22 pageviews on Pt. 1, but only 6 on Pt.2. It would help if I were a little less long-winded! Obviously I never had trouble writing 20-page papers in college!
      Yes, I've heard about Maxwell Perkins. He must have been a really good editor. My favorite professor told the story about Thomas Wolfe and Maxwell Perkins. Perkins would send a piece back to Wolfe asking him to shorten it, and he would do that, but then he would add about twice as much as he took out! Thomas Wolfe and I must be kindred spirits!

  2. Hi Lorinda! We just got back from holidays and one of the books I read was Gastby (which I am still mulling over in my head), so I popped back to read your two commentaries on it again! I read the first half on the plane down and it left me rather ambivalent. Lyrical descriptions aside, there didn't seem much to it (Gatsby only meets Daisy about half way through the book). But that first half laid a wonderful groundwork for the second, bringing out the poignant ephemerality of Gatsby's entire existence, as if he had been sustained by his dream of love for so long, that when it dissipated, he too dissolved and was gone with almost no trace of his having ever been there. Thanks again for these posts, so eloquently articulating so many aspects of what makes the book interesting...

    1. Thanks for commenting, Kat! Yes, I think this book lives up to the hype. So many elements combine to make it a near-perfect story, with great complexity and depth.

  3. At first I found the book hard to understand for some odd reason, I have to read it for 11th grade in an IB class but now it's so easy to understand maybe it was to complex for my 15 year old brain but it turned out it was not.

  4. Hi, Lorinda. I know I am probably overlooking the obvious, but I cannot find Part 2. Could you please help me out?

  5. Oops! I haven't always gone back and added links to later posts. Here it is, and I will add it to Part I. But you can always scan the humongous list of Labels at the left, in this case under "Great Gatsby" or "Fitzgarald." Thanks for reading my posts!