Summary of the plot
[4minute read time]
Gatsby’s story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a Midwesterner in his mid-twenties who has “come East”. The story covers the summer of 1922 and is set mainly on the two spits of land off Long Island: East Egg and West Egg. West Egg, which is nearer New York, is populated by “new money”, the more exclusive East Egg, by “old money”.
Nick has taken a job as a bond salesman in Wall Street, where he commutes daily by train. He lives in a ramshackle “cardboard” house on West Egg adjoining “an elaborate road house”, owned by the mysterious and very rich Mr Gatsby, who throws parties which, even for the Jazz Age, are extravagant. Rumours swirl around Gatsby: he is a gangster, a war hero, an aristocratic foreigner.
In another mansion – on more fashionable East Egg – lives Daisy Buchanan, a cousin of Nick’s. Daisy is married to Tom, whose main interests in life are his polo ponies and his mistresses. Nick was a classmate of Tom’s at Yale where he (Tom) was a star footballer. Now he is a bully, a snob, a racist and an inveterate adulterer. He and Daisy have come East after an ugly business involving a car accident and one of his “sweeties”.
Tom has more recently found another sweetie in Myrtle, the coarse but sexually alluring wife of a local garage owner, George Wilson. Tom has set up a love-nest for her in Manhattan. Myrtle’s husband suspects nothing. Daisy, however, knows about her husband’s infidelities.
Before Tom married Daisy, we learn, she had been engaged to Jay Gatsby, then a young army officer. But Gatsby, after being sent to France, was delayed in Europe for several months after the war had ended – and during the delay, Daisy married Tom. Now Gatsby, who has felt spiritually “married” to Daisy ever since, has returned to New York to win her back.
Keeping Daisy company over the summer is her girlhood friend Jordan Baker – a champion golfer. She and Nick start an affair, which gives him an insight into the unfolding Buchanan- Gatsby drama as it moves towards its climax.
It is never really clear where Gatsby’s immense riches come from, but gradually we learn more of his history. He was born Jimmy Gatz, the son of an unsuccessful farmer in the Midwest. Scraping a living on the shores of Lake Superior, young Gatz caught sight of a yacht in danger of being wrecked on a sandbar. He rowed out to warn the owner, Dan Cody. Cody, a “debauched” magnate enriched by his investments in metal mining, took to “Gatsby”, as the young man promptly renamed himself. Over the next few years, he became Cody’s right-hand man. More importantly, he learned how to look and act rich.
On Cody’s death, Gatsby was left almost penniless, having inherited nothing from his former mentor, but contrived to get himself on an officer’s training course, when America joined the war against Germany. It was as Lieutenant Gatsby that he won the heart of the southern belle, Daisy Fay.
After the war, having lost Daisy to Tom, Gatsby was taken up by another patron, the Jewish gangster, Meyer Wolfshiem, and became involved in the racketeering that boomed in the Prohibition era (1919-33): fixing sports events, rum-running, running illicit casinos, speakeasies and brothels, dealing in stolen bonds, even – it is rumoured – murder. We are uneasily aware of all this as a “foul dust”, trailing the dazzling Gatsby glamour.
By 1922, Gatsby is rich enough to pursue his dream of reclaiming Daisy and the main narrative of Fitzgerald’s novel revolves around a series of summer parties, lavish (in Gatsby’s West Egg mansion) and squalid (in Tom’s New York love nest).
There is a final showdown between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband, Tom, in the Manhattan Plaza Hotel. Gatsby declares his intention to run off with Daisy. She is present, as are Nick and Jordan, and cannot decisively say which man she loves. After this tense encounter, Gatsby and Daisy drive back to Long Island together. She is driving, allegedly “to steady her nerves”.
As they pass George Wilson’s garage, Myrtle contrives to break out from the bedroom where her husband (suspicious at last) has locked her. The unlucky woman assumes Tom is in the speeding car, rushes into the road, and is killed. Daisy, terrified, drives on. The police are later unable to identify the “death car”.
Gallantly, Gatsby does not reveal that Daisy was the driver. Tom tells Wilson it was Gatsby, and Wilson, in a fit of homicidal rage, guns down Gatsby in his swimming pool before shooting himself. Nick knows the truth about the hit and run incident but keeps it to himself. The Buchanans “retreat into their money”. Nick returns to his home in the Midwest.
What is the novel about?
[5minute read time]
The Great Gatsby is a young man’s novel – a novel about being young, and about the loss of youthful dreams.
No-one, Fitzgerald proclaimed, after the triumph of his first book, This Side of Paradise, should live beyond the age of 30. That novel was published when he was a precocious 23. The Great Gatsby is another novel about the 1920s, written by a novelist still in his twenties. It has a narrator in his twenties and a hero only a year past them attempting to recover the woman he loved when he was 27. Our twenties are not only the best time in our lives, The Great Gatsby asserts. They are the only worthwhile time in our lives.
The novelist Jacqueline Susann once observed that “for every woman, forty is Hiroshima”. Fitzgerald was even more apocalyptic. In his world, thirty is the “far side of paradise”. The point is stressed when, late in the novel, driving back with Tom from New York, Nick Carraway, the narrator, suddenly realises that it’s his birthday. He has passed, without realising it, what Joseph Conrad called the “shadow line” in his life. Darkness awaits:
I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade... Thirty – the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair... So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight. (Chapter 7)
As the critic Matthew Bruccoli has observed, the primary emotion The Great Gatsby generates is regret: regret for the loss of youth and of youthful dreams and “for depleted emotional capacity, a regret as intense as the emotions that inspired it were”. While writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald acknowledged that this was indeed his intention in a letter to a friend:
That’s the whole burden of the novel – the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.
But if The Great Gatsby is about a particular time of life, it is as much about a particular era in American history. Set in 1922, it is the novel about what became known as the Jazz Age (a term, incidentally, which Fitzgerald himself invented).
Fitzgerald, of course, was not a documentary writer and his grasp of historical detail is occasionally shaky. He took little interest in politics or the stock market and knew little about organised crime. Nonetheless, no writer has caught the “feel” of the “Roaring Twenties” better, and The Great Gatsby is as damning an indictment of a civilisation in decay without ever having fully flowered as anything to be found in American literature. Gatsby represents America; his youthful dream is America’s; his loss is America’s loss. The novel mourns the death of the American Dream while simultaneously mourning the passing of youth.
In 1931, in an article about the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald talked of a generation living on “borrowed time” and of the “whole upper tenth” of the country “living with the insouciance of grand dukes or casualness of chorus girls”. A few years later, in an essay reflecting ruefully on his early success, he expanded on this theme:
The uncertainties of 1919 were over – there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen – America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The whole golden boom was in the air – its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in Prohibition. All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them – the lovely creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy’s peasants.
Fitzgerald was writing in The Great Gatsby about a world turned upside down by the First World War – a world infused with a collective sense of disillusionment and despair at the loss of settled values. The writer Gertrude Stein described young adults after the war as “a lost generation of men and women adrift in a chaotic hell of their own solipsism”.
Bereft of beliefs, they lived for thrills. This idea of people in continuous frenetic pursuit of hedonistic excitement features in other novels of the period, notably those of Fitzgerald’s near contemporary, and closest literary friend, Ernest Hemingway – although in Hemingway’s case they tended to be people living the expatriate life (as Daisy and Tom, in The Great Gatsby, also do for a while).
This, then, is the mood which Fitzgerald creates. If the Jeffersonian dream of a peace-loving, unmaterialistic America of infinite potential had not died before America’s involvement in the horrors of the First World War, The Great Gatsby implies, it died in the mud of Flanders.
The theme of The Great Gatsby was prefigured in a short story Fitzgerald wrote in 1922, not long before he began serious work on the novel. In “Winter Dreams”, the hero is a poor young man who becomes unexpectedly wealthy but loses the girl of his dreams. As a boy he was a caddy and later, when he becomes rich and has caddies of his own, he keeps looking at them, “trying to catch a gleam or gesture that would remind him of himself, that would lessen the gap which lay between his present and his past”.
Green, like Jay Gatsby, is haunted not just by his dreams but by the loss of his younger self. He sees his future as lying in the past – and when, at the end, he learns that the beauty of the girl he loves has faded, he experiences a poignant yearning, like Gatsby, for what he has forever lost:
The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. In a sort of panic he pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes and tried to bring up a picture of the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold colour of her neck’s soft down. And her mouth clamped to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why, these things were no longer in the world! They had existed, and they existed no longer.
For the first time the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care but could not care. For he had gone away and he could never come back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gay beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusions, of youth, of the richness of life, when his winter dreams had flourished.
“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
But while Green grieves for what has gone, and the fact that he can no longer respond to “the richness of life”, he doesn’t fight the sensation. Gatsby does:
“Can’t repeat to the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!” (Chapter 6)
And in a novel full of very unheroic characters – including the narrator, Nick Carraway – there is something heroic, the book suggests, in Gatsby’s attempt to recapture his dream.
The sense of loss, and of time inexorably passing, is reinforced in The Great Gatsby by a profusion of references to time: there are, it has been calculated, a total of 450 time words in the novel, words like moment, minute, day, year, month, past, clock, etc. The critic Malcolm Cowley once observed that Fitzgerald wrote as if surrounded by clocks and calendars.
The sense of time passing is woven into the fabric of the narrative. In the middle of the novel, when Gatsby is reunited with Daisy, his head “leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantelpiece clock” (Chapter 5). A moment later he nearly knocks it off the mantelpiece, “whereupon he turned and caught it with trembling fingers, and set it back in place”. It is a strikingly ironic image: the clock may have stopped but nothing can stop time. “We’re getting old,” sighs Daisy at the last party in New York, when they hear the sound of a jazz band and think that, had they been younger, they would have got up and danced.
Before settling on The Great Gatsby as the title, Fitzgerald toyed with other possibilities. His original plan had been to call it Trimalchio in West Egg, Trimalchio being a vulgar and rich social upstart in Petronius’s Satyricon, a man who loves giving banquets as Gatsby loves giving parties. Trimalchio is also, like Gatsby, acutely conscious of time passing and is described by one of his guests as “a very rich man, who has a clock and a uniformed trumpeter in his dining room, to keep telling him how much of his life is lost and gone”. But there is one important difference between the two men: Gatsby, unlike Trimalchio, treats his parties as a spectacle and doesn’t participate in them.
At the heart of The Great Gatsby is a paradox: only in youth, Fitzgerald suggests, can we have truly intense experiences, can we feel truly abandoned to the moment. Yet this sense of abandonment can be so intense as to submerge any consciousness of enjoyment, and the attempt to live the moment to the full later is doomed because by then it is too late – too late for new, similar experiences, because youth is gone, and too late to recapture the experiences of youth or even how it felt to have those experiences. As Susan Parr has put it, except in the imagination, “the past is irrecoverable” while “the present brings with it only the betrayal of dreams”.
In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald made this point in a slightly different way: “The sentimental person thinks things will last – the romantic person has a desperate confidence they won’t.” Fitzgerald was conscious of the danger of holding on to our dreams for too long, and it is the potentially devastating consequence of doing this, and of trying to make them the basis for action, which he dramatises so effectively in The Great Gatsby.
Few novelists have entitled their work more poetically, or more aptly, than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Finding the “right” title for his third novel, however, caused chronic problems for the author and his faithful editor, Maxwell Perkins.
The Great Gatsby was, the manuscript workings reveal, an early title, soon discarded. Fitzgerald initially disliked it. As he told Perkins “The Great Gatsby is weak because there’s no emphasis, even ironically, on [Gatsby’s] greatness or lack of it”.
Other titles the two men kicked around between them were: Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires (Perkins thought the stress on “Ash” would put readers off ); Gold-hatted Gatsby (grotesque in the image it evokes); Trimalchio in West Egg (as Fitzgerald’s friend Ring Lardner pointed out, no-one would know how to pronounce Trimalchio, or know who the hell he was – or, come to that, what kind of hen laid west eggs); On the Road to West Egg; The High- bouncing Lover, or, pure and simple, Gatsby.
Fitzgerald’s last brainwave, communicated to Perkins by telegram – after the novel had gone to press – was The Red White and Blue (alluding to the Star-Spangled Banner, composed by Fitzgerald’s distant relative, Francis Scott Key).
Perkins eventually persuaded his author to go with The Great Gatsby.
How great is the novel?
In 1990, Tony Tanner called The Great Gatsby “the most perfectly crafted work of fiction to have come out of America” and it undoubtedly has a power and a fascination which few short novels can match and which was underestimated by some early critics, like H.L. Mencken. While praising the charm and beauty of the writing in the novel, Mencken, whom Fitzgerald much admired, found the characters mere “marionettes” and the story itself “obviously unimportant”. Fitzgerald, however, was quite capable, when the occasion demanded, of rounding out characters, as he does very effectively, for example, in his depiction of the tormented movie mogul, Monroe Stahr, in The Last Tycoon. The Great Gatsby is more impressionistic: he is dealing with a corrupt and superficial world and a world, moreover, in which what matters is appearance, where inner lives are more or less irrelevant – where the whole concept of an inner life is in effect almost denied.
It can be argued that in depth and richness of content, The Great Gatsby never quite matches the greatest works of the man Fitzgerald acknowledged to be his literary master, Joseph Conrad. Nor can The Great Gatsby really be compared with a novel as vast and complex as Anna Karenina, with its extraordinary insights into the love between men and women, a dimension missing in Fitzgerald’s work as in much American fiction. It is not overstating the case to say, indeed, that many of the best American novels, like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, are “buddy novels”. There are exceptions – notably the unforgivably neglected Edith Wharton – but many of the great American writers, like Fitzgerald and his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, wrote essentially about relationships between men.
In a provocative essay in 1948, Leslie Fiedler ascribed this to what he called:
the regressiveness... of American life, its implacable nostalgia for the infantile, at once wrongheaded and somehow admirable. The mythic America is boyhood – and who would dare to be startled to realise that two (and the two most popular, the two most absorbed, I think) of the handful of great books in our native heritage are customarily to be found, illustrated, on the shelves of the Children’s Library.
Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, of course, are not just children’s books, but boys’ books – and boys’ books which “proffer a chaste male love as the ultimate emotional experience”.
Twelve years later, in his equally brave Love and Death in the American Novel, Fiedler says the essential difference between the American novel and its European prototypes is its “chary treatment” of women and sex – the subject par excellence of the novel being love or, more precisely, “seduction and marriage”. Where, he wonders, is America’s Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice or Vanity Fair?
Perhaps the whole odd shape of American fiction arises simply (as simplifying Europeans are always quick to assure us) because there is no real sexuality in American life and therefore cannot very well be any in American art. What we cannot achieve in our relations with each other it would be vain to ask our writers to portray...
The endemic weakness Fiedler identifies, however – reflected in The Great Gatsby, essentially a buddy-buddy story about two men – is a weakness of the American novel as a whole. Putting it aside, how convincing, in its own terms, is the novel? How much does it really engage our sympathy? In a way, the strength of The Great Gatsby is also its weakness. It takes a brutally deterministic view of its characters’ lives: trapped in a society without morals, they don’t have the capacity to develop as people or show any capacity for self-analysis. It is hard to escape the view that Fitzgerald disliked, even despised, them, including Gatsby. Most, with the exception of Tom, and possibly Jordan, lack energy; few of the interactions between them are engaging; they lack warmth and charm; their view of the world is too limited; were it not for the compelling way Nick tells the story, they would be of little interest. We don’t feel, as we do in, say, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, that this is a tragedy of unfulfilled potential.
In Middlemarch, both Lydgate and Dorothea marry worthless people: the former chooses a
wife as he would a piece of furniture. (His choice is as shallow as Gatsby’s dream of putting Daisy into his gilded palace or, for that matter, Citizen Kane’s dream of doing the same to his “rosebud”.) Lydgate’s marriage to Rosamond and his decision, later, that he can’t leave her, ruin his vocation and his life. Dorothea’s choice of Casaubon is no less unreal: he, too, is worthless, as worthless as Daisy. But while Lydgate and Dorothea have dreams and ambitions that mean something, Gatsby does not. We believe in them in a way we never quite believe in him; Lydgate’s loss seems greater, and more tragic, than Gatsby’s.
That we are moved by Fitzgerald’s novel is a tribute to the extraordinary power of his writing, to the beautiful imagery he uses and to his uncanny talent for creating a mood and capturing a particular world, so that we come to care about his elusive hero and to be saddened by his death. Yet there are questions which any intelligent reader must confront. Is there, for all its brilliance, a moral emptiness at the heart of the novel which vitiates it? Surely Fitzgerald didn’t feel that Gatsby should really be worshipping this worthless woman? Or is she perhaps the best that he can hope for given the world he’s in? And is there really nothing else but such a world? If this is true – if this is Fitzgerald’s vision – then does the book have the grandeur of tragedy? Does the loss of illusions itself constitute a form of tragedy, even if the illusions are not worth having? Or is this, rather, an anti-tragedy in that Gatsby’s death is merciful since his worthless dream, like Emma Bovary’s, is spared fulfilment? And is Fitzgerald as trapped by his own clear-eyed despair as his characters are by their dreams (necessary but hopeless – and doomed)?
These questions will go on troubling critics, and it is right that they should, but they arise only because The Great Gatsby is so clearly a masterpiece. The famous 20th-century critic F. R. Leavis believed that great novels were moral fables, to be read for their humane intelligence and moral maturity, and Lionel Trilling, the first to recognise the importance of The Great Gatsby in his book, The Liberal Imagination, argued, similarly, that literature was society’s most potent civilising force and that a trained sensibility was the highest thing a civilised American could aspire to. Trilling thought The Great Gatsby lived up to this lofty view. He was right.
The green light
The green light has both a symbolic and literal meaning. But it is seldom asked what a green light is actually doing at the end of Tom Buchanan’s dock. The nautical explanation is given by “madmariner” on his salt- encrusted website. The Buchanans’ green light is a warning to vessels negotiating the tricky Manhasset Bay which may be veering dangerously close to the East Egg shore:
The color-coding of lights is consistent. Green lights are placed atop green buoys as well as green and red buoys with horizontal bands in which green is the topmost color. If you see one of these, you know it is marking the left-hand side of the channel as you return from sea.
"If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him." (Chapter 1)
"These reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfa”ctory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely
on a fairy’s wing." (Chapter 6)
"The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his platonic conception of himself." (Chapter 6)
"He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about." (Chapter 8)
"or a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood or desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder." (Chapter 9)
"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 further… And one fine morning – So we beat on, boats against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past." (Chapter 9)
Ten facts about the novel
1. At barely 50,000 words, The Great Gatsby is the shortest of the so-called “Great American Novels”, less than a third as long as Moby Dick.
2. Fitzgerald had trouble publishing The Great Gatsby in England – his English publisher, William Collins, remarked that “to publish The Great Gatsby would be to reduce the number of his readers rather than to increase them”. Eventually, it was published by Chatto & Windus, but only in a print run of 3,000 copies.
3. Of the 450 “time” words in the novel, the critic Matthew Bruccoli has calculated it is the word “time” itself which crops up the most – no less than 87 times, the second most frequent word in the book (beaten into second place by “house”, which occurs 95 times). The others are, in descending order: moment/s (73); day/s (70); minute/s (49); hour/s (47); o’clock (26); year (19); past (18); month/s (15); week/s (15); twilight (9); clock (9); watch (as in wristwatch) (5); future (5); time- table (3).
4. In the 21st century The Great Gatsby is among the two or three most studied works of fiction in British and American schools and universities. It sells, it is estimated, some 500,000 copies every year, outselling all other works of Fitzgerald’s combined by a margin of four to one.
5. The Great Gatsby’s narrative covers three summer months in 1922. It was an annus mirabilis for literature: the year in which James Joyce’s Ulysses, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room were published, as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age.
6. The original cover of The Great Gatsby is a famous one. It features a disembodied woman’s face, with reclining nude women for pupils, hovering above the bright lights of an amusement park. Completed by a little known artist named Francis Cugat before the novel was finished, a delighted Fitzgerald told his publisher that he had “written it into” the novel, giving rise to the idea that the eyes inspired those of Dr T.J. Eckleburg, “blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high”, with his “non-existent nose”, or even the description of Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs”.
7. Three major films have been made of The Great Gatsby. A silent movie, now lost, was made in 1926; a 1949 Paramount film, and the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, with a script by Francis Ford Coppola. Recently, the novel has been turned into a hip-hop movie, G, set in the Hamptons. And in 2008, the acclaimed though inconsistent director Baz Luhrmann announced that he had acquired the film rights to Fitzgerald’s novel.
8. Fitzgerald was popular amongst his peers. The Matthew J. and Arlyn Bruccoli Collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books includes books inscribed to him by Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, H.L. Mencken, John Dos Passos, Ring Lardner and Thomas Boyd.
9. One of the novel’s most famous fans is Holden Caulfield, the fictional protagonist of
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Speaking to his brother, Holden said: “I still don’t see how he could like a phony book like [Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms] and still like that one by Ring Lardner or that other one he’s so crazy about, The Great Gatsby…I was crazy about
The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old Sport. That killed me.”
10. Fitzgerald was a notoriously poor speller. The novel’s famous and mysterious “coda”
features the esoteric word “orgastic”. Fitzgerald’s posthumous editor, Edmund Wilson, assumed this was yet another example of the writer’s careless spelling, and corrected it to “orgiastic”, and several posthumous editions carried this emendation. But Wilson was unaware that Fitzgerald had already thrashed out the orgiastic/orgastic issue with Maxwell
Perkins, his editor. Perkins had also queried the apparent misspelling. Fitzgerald replied, defiantly: “‘Orgastic’ is the adjective from ‘orgasm’ and it expresses exactly the intended ecstasy.”
How important is the narrator in the novel?
The voice we hear in the opening pages of The Great Gatsby is subtle and compelling: it holds our attention and wins our respect more than any other we hear in the novel. When Fitzgerald’s clever editor, Maxwell Perkins, read the manuscript, he thought Chapters Six and Seven were the weakest; Fitzgerald himself had also decided (before reading Perkins’s reader’s report) that they were “shaky”. This may seem odd in a way, because they are the chapters which bring the novel to its climax – the hit- and-run car accident which leads to the final catastrophe – so they ought to be more gripping than they are.
But it isn’t really odd at all, since we hear little from Nick in these chapters. The voices we hear instead are those of the other characters, who are more vacuous and one-dimensional than he is.
The narrative frame of The Great Gatsby clearly derives from another short novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Fitzgerald hugely admired Conrad, who died while he was at work on The Great Gatsby. (Fitzgerald was profoundly affected by the event.) He was particularly influenced by the way in which Conrad manipulates time, so that we discover things bit by bit, as we do in life, by his rich and evocative imagery and, in particular, by his use of an observing narrator to tell his story.
Heart of Darkness, though appalled by the adventurer Kurtz’s deplorable behaviour in the Belgian Congo, is fascinated by him and comes, in the end, despite his awfulness, to see him as more real than those who’ve stayed safely behind in Europe. Gatsby comes to acquire similar heroic status for Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, though Nick is perfectly conscious, as was Marlow, that he is morally compromised by his hero-worship.
The opening paragraphs of The Great Gatsby are brilliant in establishing Nick’s character and interest. His voice recalls Marlow’s and is impressive in some of the same engagingly wry ways. He tells us, for example, that “reserving judgement is a matter of infinite hope”, before coming “to the admission that it has a limit”: “Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.”
Like Marlow, Nick is concerned with “conduct” in a way that shows his probity, and what he says in these early paragraphs is borne out by events. Gatsby, it becomes clear, is involved in selling bonds in some corrupt or criminal way, and when, in Chapter Five, he suddenly offers Nick a way into this easy dirty money, Nick – who is in this important if limited sense genuinely “honest” – recoils. Later, near the end of the novel, Nick takes a phone call from a man who mistakes him for Gatsby. The call shows that the police have caught up with the bond racket, but Nick, to his great credit, doesn’t allow himself a self- congratulatory reflection on how lucky he was not to get mixed up in it himself.
Arguably, with Nick so much in the background, it is harder to sustain an interest in their world – to care about what happens to them when nothing really happens in them. Gatsby, after all, is never explained as a character; nor, in Heart of Darkness, is Kurtz: what chiefly interests us about both of them is the effect they have on the narrators, which is precisely because in these two cases the narrators are also the real protagonists.
There are echoes of Heart of Darkness throughout The Great Gatsby. Nick’s last tribute
to Gatsby, for example, recalls the key moment in Heart of Darkness in which Marlow delivers his epitaph on Kurtz – the mad, genocidal, plunderer of the upper Congo’s ivory wealth. Kurtz was, Marlow “affirms”, despite all his loathsome crimes against black humanity, “a remarkable man”. Why? Because he had looked over the edge of life into the “Heart of Darkness”, and had taken the plummeting final step:
Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness. It was an affirmation, a moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats, by abominable terrors, by abominable satisfactions... But it was a victory! That is why I have remained loyal to Kurtz to the last.
Kenneth Bruffee has described The Great Gatsby as an “elegiac romance” (see Critics section), arguing that our real interest is always in the narrator and not in the book’s actual hero. This is true of Marlow, as in the passage above, and it is true of Nick:
We never see the hero “as he was”. We never know for sure what he was “really” like, what he “really” did, or what “really” happened to him. We must take the narrator’s account of the hero, even his very existence, on faith... [It] is axiomatic of elegiac romance that the narrator’s hero exists, as Marlow says of Jim, “for me, and after all it is only through me that he exists for you”.
The implication of this is that, to understand the stories these narrators are telling, we need, most of all, to understand them, and to understand, too, why they are telling us their stories at all.