Copyright text fragments:
In The Great Gatsby Scott Fitzgerald plunges his readers into a world of millionaires. For most of us this is a completely unknown world. The world of the likes of wealthy Russian and Emirati billionaires who buy British football clubs as a sidekick, or of football stars like Lionel Messi who is claimed to have earned 555,237,619 euro in four years’ time. But what Scott Fitzgerald – he was only 29 when his novel was published in 1925 – is showing us in that world, is exactly the same as what is happening in the real world we all live in: the eternal struggle with love, sex and lust.
Desire and marriage
In The Great Gatsby we are witnesses of the fight for the lovely Daisy Fay between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Quite remarkably though, the story is not told by an omniscient narrator who lets us drift from one character to the other (like all soap writers do these days) or by one of the main characters (who then confesses or cries his or her heart out, or tries to justify his or her acts). No, the whole story is told by another young man. Not a millionaire, but just a more or less normal person like you or me who just happens to be there at the right time, being the neighbour of Gatsby and a relative of Daisy. More importantly, a young man who himself struggles with love, having not decided yet on his true love. A brilliant touch of genius of the author to double his exploration of the desirous heart in this way.
There are all sorts of biological, psychological, social … theories about our love life: who do we fall in love with, why do we marry, why do people divorce etc. I think Scott Fitzgerald shows us that the intricate and complex love life in The Great Gatsby and from everyone else is a constant conflict because of two conflicting forces: human desire and the laws of the society we live in.
One. We humans desire someone because someone else desires that same person. We always imitate others. Philosopher of social science René Girard called it mimetic desire half a century later.
Two. In order to make sure humans are not constantly fighting to determine who finally wins the object of his or her desire, there are a number of laws we humans have agreed on. These rules differ from culture to culture and have also constantly evolved. The Great Gatsby is set in the United States of the 1920s and was written by a writer that lived in the same era. Quite possibly we (I am living in Belgium) think differently today, one hundred years later, but one of these rules is marriage, whether this takes place in church (the Catholic tradition I was brought up in calls it the sacrament of matrimony) or in the town hall, whether there is a feast or not, marriage means the end of a complicated search of two people for the right one.
In June she married Tom Buchanan of Chicago, with more pomp and circumstance than Louisville ever knew before. He came down with a hundred people in four private cars, and hired a whole floor of the Muhlbach Hotel, and the day before the wedding he gave her a string of pearls valued at three hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Marriage shows all the people in a certain community they should not desire any of these two people any longer. This also makes it easy for the husband to know whose child his wife will bear.
The next April Daisy had her little girl, and they went to France for a year. I saw them one spring in Cannes, and later in Deauville, and then they came back to Chicago to settle down.
But obviously, in every sort of society, marriage laws can clash with the desire of human beings. Once married, we still are humans who desire what others desire. In religious but also secular communities in the past and in the present, there are not only strict rules to make sure that doesn’t happen – rules or laws that are backed up by sacred beliefs or volumes of legislation. There is also a (vast) majority of the community who believes and observes these laws.
The rich and the mighty, though, have been notorious for getting round that conflict between what the heart desires and the law forbids. King David of the Jews sent Uriah to war to be killed, so that he could have his lovely wife Bathsheba, who he had got pregnant first! Henry VIII is said to have started a new church to be able to divorce his first wife, who couldn’t produce a male heir (after six pregnancies). Afterwards, he had another two divorces, and he had two other wives killed.
Crime and morality
In The Great Gatsby the battle between the two love rivals for the lovely Daisy leads to homicide, murder and suicide. Jay Gatsby is murdered and his killer commits suicide. While everyone thinks that the murderer has taken the law into his own hands and has taken revenge on the man who ran over his wife and drove away, there is one man who knows better: Nick Carraway. As a matter of fact, that is the reason why Nick writes down the story of Gatsby. The Great Gatsby may therefore also be called a (modern?) moralistic or even Biblical story. A story of moral awakening set in the immoral world of the millionaires and beau monde of New York in the early 1920s. A world without God in which not one but two of His Ten Commandments are violated: ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ and ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
Although the evidence seems to point in the other direction, Nick’s attitude towards Gatsby is one of admiration, hence also the title of the book: The Great Gatsby. No wonder, thus, that Scott Fitzgerald named the character who tells us the story Nick Carraway. Nick is indeed carried away, enraptured, fascinated, even hypnotized by the enormously rich man who happens to be his closest neighbour when he has just moved from Chicago to New York.
Because of the hit-and-run accident, the murder and the suicide, The Great Gatsby is eventually also a crime story – involving unexpected twists as well! As we only look at the events that have led to the tragic death of Jay Gatsby from Nick Carraway’s point of view, Scott Fitzgerald hides not only his own moral opinion but also the truth about these murders. In doing so he makes every reader a sort of jury member in a double murder trial … with only one witness.
The Great Gatsby is finally also a search for the identity of the millionaire. Who is Jay Gatsby really? Where does this mysterious man, whom guests at his house claim to have even never seen, come from? Where does his money to throw such wild parties come from? In the story people tell Nick all sorts of contradictory things about him. Jay Gatsby, who reveals to Nick that he changed his first and second name, tells Nick a few different versions of his life story himself. Which one is true? Or does Gatsby constantly make up new ones?
Though these are only some of the themes Scott Fitzgerald mixed into his multilayered novel, it is – almost a century later – still a highly entertaining page turner. No wonder that since the book was published in 1925, more than a dozen film, television and stage adaptations etc. have been produced.
In libraries and online you may find numerous books and essays that have been written on this novel. So yes, this is just one more essay, and yes, this essay will only focus on the themes of love, desire and morality. Moreover, my focal point is not the main character, Jay Gatsby, but the one who tells us the story, Nick Carraway. Nevertheless, I hope that my close reading may help teachers to unravel the ingenuity of this novel to yet another generation of readers and show them how The Great Gatsby sheds an ever so interesting light on one of the most important emotions we human beings have: love.
One – Thou shalt not commit adultery
(Chapters 1 – 7)
At the very start of the story, Nick presents himself as the perfect man to tell us this complicated moral tale. He claims to be a highly tolerant person who is ‘inclined to reserve all judgements’. His whole life he has tried to live up to his father’s advice:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
In this way Nick (and Fitzgerald behind him) hopes we too might reserve our judgement of Gatsby, of which Nick says on the next page he ‘represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.’
Nick and Gatsby do not know each other when Nick finds by some coincidence a small house next to the ‘colossal’ mansion of this millionaire. But a few weeks after Nick has settled in his new home, it will become clear that Nick happens to be the cousin of Daisy, the woman Gatsby loves madly. After five years of not seeing her, Nick will be the privileged witness of their new encounter. Gatsby will ask Nick to act as a sort of go-between, a mediator. Nick has to invite his cousin for tea in his own house and by some coincidence Gatsby will then drop in … Nick will not only do this, but he will do his utmost best so that the two of them can renew their love.
Daisy’s husband Tom is cheating on her
The main moral obstacle in the romantic love affair between Gatsby and Daisy is that Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan and that they have a young child, a daughter who is now two years old. So, what Nick does in this story, is facilitating an adulterous affair.
Why does he do that? Why does he help Gatsby, a stranger to him? Not only is Daisy his cousin, in college he was together with her husband, Tom. Moreover, Nick says he loathes dishonesty and adultery.
But that moral attitude gets challenged from the moment he has arrived in New York. Before he even meets his neighbour, he hears Tom is having an affair. On his first visit to the house of the couple (in chapter 1), he is told about it when he is a moment alone with Daisy’s friend, miss Baker, who is also staying over for dinner.
“Tom’s got some woman in New York.”
“Got some woman?” I repeated blankly.
Miss Baker nodded.“She might have the decency not to telephone him at dinner time. Don’t you think?”
(Telephones will play an important role in the book! Back in 1925 the telephone was a quite recent invention only the rich could afford.)
In the next scene, he indeed hears how unhappy Daisy is in her marriage. In a private talk, she tells him that when she gave birth to her first child, she had already realized she was trapped in a bad marriage. A fate she thinks all girls in the world share!
“Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when she was born. Would you like to hear?”
“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’
Nick feels sorry for his cousin:
I was confused and a little disgusted as I drove away. It seemed to me that the thing for Daisy to do was to rush out of the house, child in arms—but apparently there were no such intentions in her head.
In chapter 2 the rumour about Tom’s adultery proves to be true. As a matter of fact, Tom himself takes Nick to town to meet his mistress.
“We’re getting off,” he insisted. “I want you to meet my girl.”
He doesn’t only meet Myrtle, but also Wilson, her husband, who doesn’t realize that the frequent visits of his wife to her sister are an excuse for the two lovers to meet each other in town. That day Nick is the witness of such an (adulterous) afternoon, evening and night. On that occasion Tom even buys a dog for Myrtle to keep her company in the apartment where they meet. There is no doubt, they clearly have been lovers for some time now. Myrtle is Tom’s mistress.
Sitting on Tom’s lap Mrs. Wilson called up several people on the telephone; then there were no cigarettes, and I went out to buy some at the drugstore on the corner. When I came back they had both disappeared, so I sat down discreetly in the living-room and read a chapter of (…)
Several people drop in later on and there is even an explicit talk about Tom and Myrtle’s failed marriages and their adultery, between Myrtle’s sister Catherine and Nick:
Catherine leaned close to me and whispered in my ear:
“Neither of them can stand the person they’re married to.”
“Can’t stand them.” She looked at Myrtle and then at Tom. “What I say is, why go on living with them if they can’t stand them? If I was them I’d get a divorce and get married to each other right away.”
“Doesn’t she like Wilson either?”
The answer to this was unexpected. It came from Myrtle, who had overheard the question, and it was violent and obscene.
“You see,” cried Catherine triumphantly. She lowered her voice again. “It’s really his wife that’s keeping them apart. She’s a Catholic, and they don’t believe in divorce.”
Daisy was not a Catholic, and I was a little shocked at the elaborateness of the lie.
The two sisters are quite open and frank about their failed relationships and after Myrtle admits having married the wrong guy, she describes to Nick how she met Tom.
“It was on the two little seats facing each other that are always the last ones left on the train. I was going up to New York to see my sister and spend the night. He had on a dress suit and patent leather shoes, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off him, but every time he looked at me I had to pretend to be looking at the advertisement over his head. When we came into the station he was next to me, and his white shirtfront pressed against my arm, and so I told him I’d have to call a policeman, but he knew I lied. I was so excited that when I got into a taxi with him I didn’t hardly know I wasn’t getting into a subway train. All I kept thinking about, over and over, was ‘You can’t live forever; you can’t live forever.’ ”
Why stay married if you are unhappy? There is plenty of opportunity to meet someone else in a big city like New York, isn’t there?”
That same afternoon Nick is not only the witness of the (double) adultery, he also witnesses the extremely violent behaviour of Tom who suddenly slaps Myrtle in a very aggressive way. He and the guests at the apartment – including Nick! – had had lots of alcohol, but that is – of course – no excuse for such brutality.
Some time toward midnight Tom Buchanan and Mrs. Wilson stood face to face discussing, in impassioned voices, whether Mrs. Wilson had any right to mention Daisy’s name.
“Daisy! Daisy! Daisy!” shouted Mrs. Wilson. “I’ll say it whenever I want to! Daisy! Dai—”
Making a short deft movement, Tom Buchanan broke her nose with his open hand.
Then there were bloody towels upon the bathroom floor, and women’s voices scolding, and high over the confusion a long broken wail of pain.
It is only after these disturbing events that Nick gets to know Jay Gatsby. This encounter only takes place in chapter 3.
So, before he is even asked to play a matchmaker for Gatsby and the love of his life Daisy, he gets to know the sad situation Daisy is in as a married woman. Moreover, he has become a sort of accomplice of her brutal husband Tom, as he doesn’t inform Daisy about that afternoon. So, he may feel like a guilty coward, too.
What about Nick and love? Does he fall in love with Jordan?
In these first two chapters we also get to know the complicated love life of Nick himself, which may help too to explain his attitude towards adultery.
When Nick is at the house of the Buchanans for the first time, Daisy’s girlfriend Jordan is also present. In fact, she is staying there for a few days. When her girlfriend wants to go to bed, Daisy – half earnestly, half in jest? – sees herself as a matchmaker of Nick and her friend!
(Miss Baker:) “Good night, Mr. Carraway. See you anon.”
“Of course you will,” confirmed Daisy. “In fact I think I’ll arrange a marriage. Come over often, Nick, and I’ll sort of—oh—fling you together. You know—lock you up accidentally in linen closets and push you out to sea in a boat, and all that sort of thing—”
“Good night,” called Miss Baker from the stairs. “I haven’t heard a word.”
If that is something that Nick appreciates or would like to happen, we don’t know at that moment, but if first impressions count, what about this one? Nick describes the moment he first sets eyes on her as a sort of epiphany (note: the other woman is his cousin):
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
A few minutes later, he describes Jordan in more detail:
I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face.
And so at the end of the evening when he first meets this young woman, his cousin wants him to spend more time together with Jordan, her lovely girlfriend who in the course of the evening has turned out to be Jordan Baker, a female champion golf player and a sort of local celebrity!
When Daisy says goodbye to Nick only a few minutes later that same evening, she suddenly seems to remember having heard that Nick is … engaged. Did she forget that when she was suggesting he may perhaps start seeing Jordan?
“I forgot to ask you something, and it’s important. We heard you were engaged to a girl out West.”
“That’s right,” corroborated Tom kindly. “We heard that you were engaged.”
“It’s a libel. I’m too poor.”
“But we heard it,” insisted Daisy, surprising me by opening up again in a flower-like way. “We heard it from three people, so it must be true.”
Nick doesn’t add anything else to his first reaction, but tells his readers:
Of course I knew what they were referring to, but I wasn’t even vaguely engaged. The fact that gossip had published the banns was one of the reasons I had come East. You can’t stop going with an old friend on account of rumours, and on the other hand I had no intention of being rumoured into marriage.
This seems to contrast totally with his explanation to the Buchanans that he can’t marry that girl because they belong to different classes: ‘I am too poor’. As a reader, we are of course inclined to give more credits to this inner thought. But doesn’t that mean he is running away from … two girls, is that the truth about the end of the engagement the Buchananans refer to?
Anyway, in New York, Nick starts seeing Jordan Baker quite a lot. On his first visit to the house of Gatsby (in chapter 2) she happens to be there too, and he spends most of the evening and night in her company, though they only talk. He is very glad he knows at least one person there that night, and she willingly helps him to find the host, Gatsby, a mission that takes up most of the evening and leads to all sorts of encounters. But quite a lot of time she is having private talks with Gatsby too.
In chapter 3 Nick discloses he now spends lots of time with Jordan and even has a crush on her. As a matter of fact, that only started after he has had a short romance with yet another girl:
I even had a short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City and worked in the accounting department, but her brother began throwing mean looks in my direction, so when she went on her vacation in July I let it blow quietly away.
When he is seeing Jordan, he finds it quite pleasing that wherever they go, people know her as a golf champion. Later on, he finds out Jordan is ‘incurably dishonest’. But that doesn’t seem to have an effect on their relationship:
It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, and then I forgot.
Jordan seems to like him a lot, too. At one point, she tells him: “I hate careless people. That’s why I like you.” It is then Nick suddenly fills in more details about his love life back home.
(Jordan’s) grey, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her. But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires, and I knew that first I had to get myself definitely out of that tangle back home. I’d been writing letters once a week and signing them: “Love, Nick,” and all I could think of was how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint moustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip. Nevertheless there was a vague understanding that had to be tactfully broken off before I was free.
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.
Is Nick ironic, or does he deceive himself? It is clear that he too sees the affair with Jordan as some sort of adultery. Has he joined the likes of Tom, has he been intoxicated by the New York liberal values?
Party time at Gatsby’s mansion
Nick’s confession about still writing letters to a girl in Chicago while he is seeing Jordan in New York is mentioned in chapter 3 after he has spent a long evening and night at one of the notorious house parties of his wealthy neighbour Gatsby. Quite possibly these parties might have had some repercussion on the ethics of Nick too.
Every weekend, there are lots and lots of people who come to Gatsby’s mansion to have a good time. There is live music and dancing, lots of food and even more champagne and cocktails. Joyous nights indeed.
The guests of Gatsby, however, have a strange relation with their host. They seem to come uninvited, they even seem not to know Gatsby, and Nick hears all sort of wild gossip about him.
“Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.”
“I don’t think it’s so much that,” argued Lucille skeptically; “it’s more that he was a German spy during the war.”
At the same time they are enjoying themselves like hell: they drink, dance and have fun. Like hell? Well you might also say that at weekends the house of Gatsby is like heaven on earth for lots of New Yorkers! But let’s be clear, these religious metaphors do not enter the minds of the guests, nor are they written down by Nick.
The other thing Nick nor any of the guests mentions, but all the people in New York know, is that alcohol was prohibited. There was a “nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920 to 1933” (Wikipedia). But it is an immoral tale, isn’t it?
Nick drank a lot when he was in the company of Tom and Myrtle (in chapter 1 and 2) and at that first party where he will meet Gatsby he will even drink more. Nick seems not to know anybody at the party, he can’t find the host Gatsby either, so he starts to drink and that has its effect on his reaction when Jordan suddenly turns up at the party:
I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table—the only place in the garden where a single man could linger without looking purposeless and alone.
I was on my way to get roaring drunk from sheer embarrassment when Jordan Baker came out of the house (…)
“Hello!” I roared, advancing toward her. My voice seemed unnaturally loud across the garden.
The fact that Jordan is there now, however, doesn’t stop him from drinking:
With Jordan’s slender golden arm resting in mine we descended the steps and sauntered about the garden. A tray of cocktails floated at us through the twilight and we sat down at a table.
Later they have dinner at a table with the friends of Jordan. Only then we get to know that Jordan has come with a male friend to accompany her: ‘her escort, a persistent undergraduate’. Who is that young student, an admirer, a suitor? Anyway, after the meal, Jordan and Nick leave him and her company behind for a good reason!
“Let’s get out,” whispered Jordan, after a somehow wasteful and inappropriate half hour. “This is much too polite for me.”
And yes, it is now time for some (dirty) dancing:
There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden, old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably and keeping in the corners (….)
So it is a joyous night, the free alcoholic drinks have lifted the spirits and have made everybody merry and flirtatious. But Nick seems not to understand what Jordan may have suggested by leaving her friends behind.
Not long after both have met Gatsby later that night, Gatsby is called away. There is a telephone call: ‘Chicago was calling him on the wire’ (!) Nick and Jordan stay on talking to all sorts of people. At one point, Jordan tells Nick out of the blue:
“And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
Nick may perhaps understand that at small parties everybody can see who you are dancing and talking to, and that at the parties at Gatsby’s there is room for a bit of secret flirting and kissing, but he doesn’t think Jordan wants him to start kissing. Not that Nick hasn’t seen and heard lots of possible adulterous acts. The most funny one is perhaps the one at the end of the long night involving the ‘polite’ party of Jordan’s friends. It is about four in the morning then. He sees how a girl plays a few notes on the piano and then falls asleep on it:
“She had a fight with a man who says he’s her husband,” explained a girl at my elbow.
I looked around. Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands. Even Jordan’s party, the quartet from East Egg, were rent asunder by dissension. One of the men was talking with curious intensity to a young actress, and his wife after attempting to laugh at the situation in a dignified and indifferent way broke down entirely and resorted to flank attacks—at intervals she appeared suddenly at his side like an angry diamond, and hissed “You promised!” into his ear.
(This humorous anecdote is followed by an even more hilarious one. As a result of the alcohol, someone drives his car in a ditch on the premises of Gatsby. Nick sees a man who everybody assumes to be the driver. He seems not to know what really happened, but after a conversation full of misunderstandings he says he isn’t the driver, the driver is still inside. In a panic, the driver is then taken out of the car. He seems not to be wounded, but thinks he has run out of petrol – he wants to get in his car again, although one wheel is off – “No harm in trying,” is his explanation! A nice little anecdote which will contrast in more than one way with the catastrophic accident later on in the novel.)
Nick finally meets Gatsby and admires him even more
So, that same night at the joyous and exuberant party in the house of this mysterious Gatsby, there is suddenly this man who turns up next to Nick, who smiles and asks if he was a soldier in the war too. The man claims he saw him once in those days. And yes, Nick was. They must have seen each other before! This friendly man and co-veteran happens to be … Gatsby himself! Nick has been in awe of Gatsby ever since he has become his neighbour. He admires the enormous house, the hospitality of Gatsby to entertain his guests etc. He is also quite pleased when he finds out he must be the only one to have actually received an invitation for that night. Gatsby’s chauffeur gave him that letter that very morning. And then when he first sets eyes on Gatsby, he hears that Gatsby seems to remember meeting him, in the war … And then there is Gatsby’s smile:
He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
An extraordinary ride in Gatsby’s grand automobile
So, yes, Nick Carraway adores Gatsby. He is indeed carried away by his mysterious, charming and unbelievably rich neighbour when in chapter 4 Nick finally is asked to invite his cousin Daisy to tea and in this way arrange a meeting with Jay Gatsby. Before that day, he was already on a second party, went on a trial trip with Gatsby’s hydroplane and now Jay Gatsby arrives at Nick’s house with his luxurious automobile and invites him to lunch in town.
The car – which is going to play a very important role in the story – makes quite an impression on Nick. Cars were a fairly new invention at that time, but had become rapidly popular in the USA thanks to the Ford Motor Company. But Gatsby’s car was nothing like a Model T.
“It’s pretty, isn’t it, old sport?” He jumped off to give me a better view. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?”
I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream colour, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and toolboxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town.
Nick later calls it a ‘disconcerting ride’ not only because he is invited to lunch and is now in that fantastic automobile. Gatsby also talks a lot. He wants to know what Nick thinks of him. He tells him his life story in quite some detail and with painful elements as “My family all died” and spending some years in Europe “trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.” And then the war came … “I tried very hard to die, but I seemed to bear an enchanted life.” Nick doesn’t know if and what he has to believe of these confidentialities, but then Gatsby shows Nick one of the medals he got in the war. Still driving that car, Gatsby reveals why he tells Nick all this: he wants to ask Nick a big favour:
“I’m going to make a big request of you today,” he said, pocketing his souvenirs with satisfaction, “so I thought you ought to know something about me. I didn’t want you to think I was just some nobody. You see, I usually find myself among strangers because I drift here and there trying to forget the sad things that happened to me.” He hesitated. “You’ll hear about it this afternoon.”
Nick is curious, but Gatsby stops talking. More strange things happen on the way to town involving ‘a glimpse of Mrs. Wilson straining at the garage pump with panting vitality as we went by’, there is also a meeting with a ‘frantic policeman’ and they pass ‘a limousine (…) driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl.’ No wonder Nick thinks: ‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge’. And yes, he then still has to meet that strange friend of Gatsby, Mr. Wolfshiem, a gambler who will tell him in quite some detail how he had been present when Rosy Rosenthal was shot in the old Metropole opposite the place where they are now having lunch. Gatsby and Nick will even briefly meet Tom Buchanan in the same crowded restaurant that serves ‘highballs’ – (forbidden) alcohol.
But it is not Gatsby who will ask him to organise a date for Daisy and himself. He seems to have asked Jordan Baker to do that for him. So, later that same day Jordan tells him about the tragic love story of Jay Gatsby and her girlfriend Daisy. And Nick quite easily gives in. He agrees to invite her to tea one of the next days, so that Gatsby can be reunited with his former girlfriend, now Mrs. Buchanan. He is mostly present during the time the two are seeing each other. Of course, he tries to give them some private moments as well.
It is crystal clear at this point in the tale that Nick sympathises with Gatsby and that he likes the fact that he has played a part in reuniting Gatsby and Daisy. Nick knows that by doing so, she is cheating on her husband. But like Nick, we know Tom Buchanan is an adulterer himself and a brute. Gatsby, on the contrary, is not only Nick’s generous neighbour, but he has become a dear friend, a sort of soul mate in the first few weeks that Nick is in New York. And Gatsby really loves his cousin Daisy, and now he courts her like a gentleman.
Where does Gatsby’s money come from?
There are, however, quite a lot of other alarming and disturbing things about Gatsby. Does Nick see them? Perhaps he does. Has he not written at the very start of the tale :
Gatsby represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
Nick does not explicitly mention what he despises. But it may have something to do with Gatsby’s wealth. Gatsby can be not much older than 30, and he lives in an enormous castle-like mansion; he is the owner of a hydroplane, an exceptionally beautiful car; and he can entertain an enormous amount of guests each weekend in his gardens and house.
Nick doesn’t mention what Gatsby does for a living. Gatsby says he inherited lots of money when his parents died, but later he tells Nick that he lost all that money just before the war. Now and then, while Nick is present, Gatsby happens to get telephone calls from all sorts of cities in the USA. He also often tells his butler that he doesn’t want to answer the phones at that moment, and some time later the butler informs him that some people want to speak to him.
But the most alarming is that he entertains his guests with plenty of alcohol in a time when alcohol is prohibited by law. Is he one of those notorious bootleggers who became mighty and rich thanks to selling alcohol illegally?
Lots of rich and well-known people in New York come to his alcohol lavished parties. But despite the widespread popularity of these loud feasts, the police seem not to know what is happening there every weekend. The first time a policeman enters the story, is when Gatsby is driving Nick to town for lunch (in chapter 4). It is a quite funny anecdote with an intriguing religious touch to it. The ‘frantic policeman’ obviously wants to fine the driver for speeding, but Gatsby seems to have a special guardian angel:
With fenders spread like wings we scattered light through half Astoria—only half, for as we twisted among the pillars of the elevated I heard the familiar “jug—jug—spat!” of a motor cycle, and a frantic policeman rode alongside.
“All right, old sport,” called Gatsby. We slowed down. Taking a white card from his wallet he waved it before the man’s eyes.
“Right you are,” agreed the policeman, tipping his cap. “Know you next time, Mr. Gatsby. Excuse me!”
“What was that?” I inquired. “The picture of Oxford?”
“I was able to do the commissioner a favor once, and he sends me a Christmas card every year.”
Now it is clear. The police turn a blind eye to the ways and wonders of the wealthy and mysterious Mr. Gatsby. The card that Jay shows the policeman is hilariously called ‘a Christmas card’. As if God(‘s son) himself is helping him to bend the laws. Or do you rather see the fun of the commissioner being some Father Christmas, giving around precious presents?
Gatsby and Daisy were madly in love in 1917
Gatsby seems to be madly in love with Daisy and though he knows she is married now and has a child he still wants to date her and win her back. Of course, there is something highly romantic about this long-time quest, but why has Gatsby waited five years to be reunited with the love of his life? Why did they not marry? What went wrong?
Gatsby has asked Jordan Baker to tell Nick how he fell in love with Daisy, and so she does in quite some detail. Jordan was Daisy’s bridesmaid when she married Tom Buchanan. She tells Nick that Gatsby fell in love with Daisy just before he was sent to Europe to fight (in the First World War). At that time Daisy was 18, drove around in ‘a white roadster’ and was one of the most popular girls among the officers in Camp Taylor. Daisy too was madly in love with him, but she was forbidden by her parents to say goodbye to Gatsby, her beloved officer, when he had to go to war. She was furious for weeks, didn’t date officers or any other young man for months. A year later though, she seemed recovered, she was first said to wed with a man from New Orleans, but married the extremely wealthy Tom Buchananan instead. On the day before her wedding, however, she was found ‘as drunk as a monkey’ and didn’t want to marry Tom at all. She had a letter in her hands, but didn’t want to say what was in it.
“Here, dearies.” She groped around in a wastebasket she had with her on the bed and pulled out the string of pearls. “Take ’em downstairs and give ’em back to whoever they belong to. Tell ’em all Daisy’s change’ her mine. Say: ‘Daisy’s change’ her mine!’ ”
Was it a letter of Gatsby’s? I think it is perhaps more likely that somebody has just told her about a possible affair of her fiancé Tom. Didn’t Daisy imply that the string of pearls had to be given to that other girl – “whoever they belong to”? Anyway, she was in great despair. Jordan had a hard time to convince her to marry. She did though, and the newly-wed couple seemed to have a happy first year together, but then Tom got involved in an accident and Daisy read in the paper that there was also a female passenger in his car.
Nick, who knows by experience Tom is an unfaithful brute, can only be more impressed by the sad love life of his cousin. She seemed to have been denied the love of her life by her parents; when she had found a man they no longer objected to, the very day before her marriage she knew she was about to marry the wrong person; and that proved to be true within a year after they had been married. How much bad luck can one girl have?
And now the love of her life, this former officer has returned and has found her here in New York. He told Jordan he has even built his house opposite the bay to be near to her, and he has been throwing parties in the hope she once will be present too and meet him again. But all in vain so far. He now hopes Jordan will be able to convince Nick to arrange a private rendezvous with her at his house so that Gatsby can turn up and surprise Daisy.
The story Jordan has told has awoken a similar gesture of romance, as at the end of their talk, Nick puts his arm around Jordan and bends over to kiss her.
We desire what other people desire
In the story Jordan tells about the love life of Daisy Fay we see the workings of mimetic desire once more. Back in those days, Daisy was a girl desired by many:
The largest of the banners and the largest of the lawns belonged to Daisy Fay’s house. She was just eighteen, two years older than me, and by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville. She dressed in white, and had a little white roadster and all day long the telephone rang in her house and excited young officers from Camp Taylor demanded the privilege of monopolizing her that night, “anyways, for an hour!”
In courting her, Jay is doing what he sees other officers do – just like the rest of them, he is trying to get her in his arms / in his bed. And lo and behold, she gives in. She too finds him nice, kisses him, wants to spend whole days together with him etc.
When Daisy eventually marries, she has to forget Jay (it took her a year to overcome her grief and anger) and another young suitor. Only to find out on the day before her marriage that she will be trapped in a loveless marriage. When she marries anyway, her informant proves to be right. Shortly after their marriage, Tom has an affair.
According to Jordan, Daisy too could have had numerous affairs after her marriage but she didn’t. Although that might change now – Gatsby may have a chance:
The next April Daisy had her little girl and they went to France for a year. I saw them one spring in Cannes and later in Deauville and then they came back to Chicago to settle down. Daisy was popular in Chicago, as you know. They moved with a fast crowd, all of them young and rich and wild, but she came out with an absolutely perfect reputation. Perhaps because she doesn’t drink. It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care. Perhaps Daisy never went in for amour at all—and yet there’s something in that voice of hers.
Jordan thinks giving in to adultery has something to do with alcohol. The fact that Daisy doesn’t drink alcohol seems to make her stick to the rules of marriage, although Jordan ironically insinuates this can also have made her more alert and discreet.
Daisy falls for the charms of Gatsby once again
In chapter 5 Gatsby finally gets together with his beloved Daisy. It is an over the top organised rendezvous – Gatsby even sends somebody to cut the lawn of Nick’s house.
When Daisy arrives, unaware of the grand scheme, she thinks she has been invited to the house because Nick is in love with her. Would she have minded? Perhaps only because she doesn’t like where he lives. But, would he? He certainly likes her voice and smile a lot:
Under the dripping bare lilac-trees a large open car was coming up the drive. It stopped. Daisy’s face, tipped sideways beneath a three-cornered lavender hat, looked out at me with a bright ecstatic smile.
“Is this absolutely where you live, my dearest one?”
The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain. I had to follow the sound of it for a moment, up and down, with my ear alone, before any words came through. A damp streak of hair lay like a dash of blue paint across her cheek, and her hand was wet with glistening drops as I took it to help her from the car.
“Are you in love with me,” she said low in my ear, “or why did I have to come alone?”
When she enters the house, she finally sees Gatsby after a sort of slapstick scene of Gatsby going in and out of the house and back in. So, yes, he is extremely nervous and shy – he accidentally almost made a clock fall onto the floor: ‘he turned and caught it with trembling fingers, and set it back in place.’ But soon the two have a romantic get-together. Nick leaves them to it.
When he returns Gatsby insists on showing Daisy the house and asks Nick to accompany them – as a chaperon? Gatsby told Jordan he had the house built to be near Daisy, and now Nick observes the stress Gatsby has to go through … will she like what he likes?
He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way, as though in her actual and astounding presence none of it was any longer real.
It is clear that Gatsby has done his utmost best to become fabulously rich to impress her, just like her rich husband and the other officers who dated her back in 1917. Nick describes the tension of this moment of truth. It is as if he feels what Gatsby feels.
He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an over-wound clock.
But the tour in Gatsby’s house is a triumph. Daisy adores literally everything and there is absolutely no doubt, when Nick says goodbye to them, we know that Gatsby and Daisy are in love (again).
They had forgotten me, but Daisy glanced up and held out her hand; Gatsby didn’t know me now at all. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life. Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together.
Gatsby’s mythical background
In chapter 6 Nick reports how at about the same time of Gatsby and Daisy’s first secret rendezvous, the press becomes interested in Gatsby. There are all sorts of rumours about his activities and even more about his identity, also among his numerous guests. And now, as a sort of counterbalance, Nick tells us the fantastic but what he believes to be the true life story of Gatsby’s younger years. Gatsby himself told this to him in confidence much later (after the tragic car accident). A story that is giving Gatsby a sort of mythical background.
Jay was born in North Dakota, his parents were poor, and he fled from his home as a young man:
his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all.
He had all sorts of little jobs like … salmon fisher, and he changed his original name James Gatz into Jay Gatsby after he met the miner multimillionaire Dan Cody. He had warned him on his yacht about a storm, and in this way made quite an impression on the owner. But for Gatsby, the yacht had been love at first sight.
To the young Gatz, resting on his oars and looking up at the railed deck, the yacht represented all the beauty and glamor in the world
He was asked to stay on Cody’s ship and did all sorts of duties on the yacht while sailing around the world with him three times. He became a good friend of Cody and five years later when Cody died, he said he was entitled to inherit lots of money, but that was prevented in one way or another by Cody’s wife.
Gatsby’s story about his early years and his years with Cody – so before he met Daisy in 1917 – are full of remarkable details also about women.
He knew women early and since they spoiled him he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorption he took for granted.
It is clear that Gatsby not only had a wild and chaotic life before he met Daisy, but he had also had lots of women before he actually fell in love with Daisy. Moreover, we now know where the idea of his wild parties came from.
Sometimes in the course of gay parties women used to rub champagne into his hair; for himself he formed the habit of letting liquor alone.
Gatsby and Tom become rivals
But back now to what happens now that Gatsby has been united with Daisy again. In the same chapter 6 Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, is one of three guests who suddenly turn up at the house of Gatsby one Sunday afternoon. Nick, who arrived only minutes before them, is a witness of a first confrontation between Gatsby and Daisy’s husband, his love rival. He sees how Gatsby tries to show he is in control of his rival.
Moved by an irresistible impulse, Gatsby turned to Tom, who had accepted the introduction as a stranger.
“I believe we’ve met somewhere before, Mr. Buchanan.”
“Oh, yes,” said Tom, gruffly polite, but obviously not remembering. “So we did. I remember very well.”
“About two weeks ago.”
“That’s right. You were with Nick here.”
“I know your wife,” continued Gatsby, almost aggressively.
A bit later, while Gatsby is getting a hat and overcoat to accompany them, Tom reacts to the fact that his wife knows Gatsby:
“I wonder where in the devil he met Daisy. By God, I may be old-fashioned in my ideas, but women run around too much these days to suit me. They meet all kinds of crazy fish.”
He clearly dislikes Gatsby because he is the one that convinces his friends to leave to another house without waiting for the equally invited Gatsby.
The rivalry between the two men will be the main theme in the next and main scene of chapter 6 because in the next line Nick writes:
Tom was evidently perturbed at Daisy’s running around alone, for on the following Saturday night he came with her to Gatsby’s party.
Daisy seems to be in the mood for frivolous love that night, and that even includes Nick (!).
“These things excite me so,” she whispered. “If you want to kiss me any time during the evening, Nick, just let me know and I’ll be glad to arrange it for you. Just mention my name. Or present a green card.”
Daisy seems to amuse herself and is enthusiastic about the people she meets, but ‘Tom’s arrogant eyes roamed the crowd’. Gatsby finds a way to annoy his rival all the time. No wonder, Nick feels ‘an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness that hadn’t been there before.’
(Gatsby) took them ceremoniously from group to group:
“Mrs. Buchanan… and Mr. Buchanan—” After an instant’s hesitation he added: “the polo player.”
“Oh no,” objected Tom quickly, “not me.”
But evidently the sound of it pleased Gatsby for Tom remained “the polo player” for the rest of the evening.
Daisy and Gatsby dance that night and spend some time together in private, thanks to Nick:
while at her request I remained watchfully in the garden. “In case there’s a fire or a flood,” she explained, “or any act of God.”
Obviously she means in case her husband turns up and yes, he does but only to say that he will eat with some people. Daisy of course doesn’t mind, but she can’t resist to remind Tom that she knows what he is up to:
“Go ahead,” answered Daisy genially, “and if you want to take down any addresses here’s my little gold pencil.”… She looked around after a moment and told me the girl was “common but pretty,” and I knew that except for the half-hour she’d been alone with Gatsby she wasn’t having a good time.
Daisy is really sarcastic, she knows how her husband really is, the address that her husband might have to write down is the one of the girl. Well, he can have her.
But then Gatsby has to leave them alone for quite some time and eventually Daisy, and her husband go home without seeing him again. As they go away, Tom wants to show Nick and Daisy how much he loathes Gatsby.
“Who is this Gatsby anyhow?” demanded Tom suddenly. “Some big bootlegger?”
“Where’d you hear that?” I inquired.
“I didn’t hear it. I imagined it. A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know.”
“Not Gatsby,” I said shortly.
He was silent for a moment. The pebbles of the drive crunched under his feet.
“Well, he certainly must have strained himself to get this menagerie together.”
There is an argument now between Tom and his wife about the misconduct of some guests at the party, and one clearly hears Tom’s disapproval while Daisy tries to defend Gatsby. No wonder he repeats his accusations towards Gatsby, but now Daisy answers.
“I’d like to know who he is and what he does,” insisted Tom. “And I think I’ll make a point of finding out.”
“I can tell you right now,” she answered. “He owned some drugstores, a lot of drugstores. He built them up himself.”
Nick stays on at the party after Tom and Daisy have left and when Gatsby returns he has to cheer him up, because Gatsby believes Daisy didn’t like the party at all. It is quite funny Nick does not immediately get what Gatsby means.
“She didn’t like it,” he insisted. “She didn’t have a good time.”
He was silent, and I guessed at his unutterable depression.
“I feel far away from her,” he said. “It’s hard to make her understand.”
“You mean about the dance?”
“The dance?” He dismissed all the dances he had given with a snap of his fingers. “Old sport, the dance is unimportant.”
He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: “I never loved you.” After she had obliterated four years with that sentence they could decide upon the more practical measures to be taken. One of them was that, after she was free, they were to go back to Louisville and be married from her house—just as if it were five years ago.
Nick hears now that Gatsby’s rivalry has taken a wrong turn: she has to tell her husband she has never loved him. He warns him, but Gatsby ignores Nick’s hint.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
What Nick doesn’t tell Gatsby is that Gatsby not only glorifies Daisy’s feelings for him, but he also reduces Daisy’s feelings for Tom, now and in the past, to zero. What Nick doesn’t say to Gatsby either is that Gatsby is saying things that only Daisy can disclose. Gatsby prescribes what she has to feel. Another thing is that in this way Gatsby is perhaps too keen on degrading Tom, instead of conquering Daisy’s love.
Instead, Gatsby tells Nick about how he once kissed her five years ago. What a kiss that was. Nick spends one page to describe the circumstances. Did that make Nick romantic too perhaps? Anyway, Jordan is not present this time to kiss her!
The ultimate fight for the love of Daisy
According to René Girard, we desire what others desire, and thus the one who shows us what is desirable can become our rival. If a person desires the same object as his neighbour, this may not lead to competition and strife if there are enough of them: drinks, cars, yachts, houses … Scott Fitzgerald seems to show in his novel that also being in love doesn’t have to lead to rivalry. Nick admired and copied Gatsby’s behaviour, but he never became Gatsby’s rival. He fell in love with – the best second choice – Daisy’s friend, Jordan. Of course, he too had to deal with rivals who lusted after her – as Nick’s story wonderfully abundantly demonstrates. But what happens if two people do desire the same girl? That’s what Fitzgerald explores in the main mimetic conflict in the story: who could win Daisy’s heart: Gatsby or Tom? How and why?
After 5 years of not seeing her, Gatsby has entered into the life of Daisy again. He has finally succeeded in becoming exceedingly rich, and so he can compete with any other former and present suitor and that is at the moment: Tom, her husband. In this way illustrating once again what René Girard observed in mimetical conflicts: rivals start to resemble one another.
Gatsby’s strategy seems to be a successful one. In chapter 7 Gatsby tells Nick he and Daisy are seeing each other quite a lot – according to Gatsby always in the afternoon. Things have changed drastically at his house too. To start with, he has fired his whole staff. He explains to Nick he doesn’t want any gossip about him seeing Daisy. Next, even more remarkable, there aren’t any parties at his house any longer. Nick is sure this is due to Daisy too, though the reader may also link Gatsby’s concern for his privacy to other matters.
“I hear you fired all your servants.”
“I wanted somebody who wouldn’t gossip. Daisy comes over quite often—in the afternoons.”
So the whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes.
Anyway, in chapter 7 we see what the adulterous affair of Daisy has led to, in a double scene in which the rivals Jay and Tom fight very hard to get or keep Daisy. In both scenes the other couple Jordan and Nick is present too.
Scott Fitzgerald added nice little dramatic touches to the two scenes. The conversations take place while it is unbearably hot and alcohol is consumed all the time, two elements which make people both highly irritable and unrestrained. The author also adds a hilarious thematic note to the whole dramatic situation: the second scene takes place in a hotel where, through the open windows they all of sudden hear …
Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from the ballroom below.
“Imagine marrying anybody in this heat!” cried Jordan dismally.
Quite a sarcastic coincidence indeed!
To make these scenes even more hilarious and sensational the protagonists drive from one scene – the house of the Buchanans – to the other – a hotel room they rent in town – in the car of their rival, and as there is no petrol enough in Gatsby’s car, Tom Buchanan even has to stop at the petrol station of … the husband of his mistress Myrtle! That stop will later prove to be of utmost importance for the denouement of the plot.
On the way to the house of the Buchanans there is also a thematically quite ironic, little scene in which Nick is involved. He has been invited to Tom and Daisy’s house, and he goes there by train. The scene proves to be a copy of the first encounter between Tom and Myrtle, and the start of their adulterous affair. Nick certainly doesn’t want to start one himself, but sees that all the other people on the train believe he does!
The straw seats of the car hovered on the edge of combustion; the woman next to me perspired delicately for a while into her white shirtwaist, and then, as her newspaper dampened under her fingers, lapsed despairingly into deep heat with a desolate cry. Her pocketbook slapped to the floor.
“Oh, my!” she gasped.
I picked it up with a weary bend and handed it back to her, holding it at arm’s length and by the extreme tip of the corners to indicate that I had no designs upon it—but everyone near by, including the woman, suspected me just the same.
Now that we know all the dramatic and hilarious elements of the setting and the circumstances of the scenes, let’s point out a few remarkable elements that shed an interesting light on the adulterous affair and the behaviour of the two rivals.
Nick arrives at the house of the Buchanans at the same time as Gatsby and meets Jordan and Daisy. Where is Nick? He is on the phone.
‘The rumour is,” whispered Jordan, “that that’s Tom’s girl on the telephone.”
When Tom joins his guests, Daisy orders him to get some drinks and while he is away to get them she shamelessly reveals to Jordan and Nick that she and Gatsby are having an affair now:
(…) she got up and went over to Gatsby and pulled his face down, kissing him on the mouth.
“You know I love you,” she murmured.
“You forget there’s a lady present,” said Jordan.
Daisy looked around doubtfully.
“You kiss Nick too.”
“What a low, vulgar girl!”
Right after that moment, the nanny brings in her little daughter. Obviously the child, who is Tom’s and Daisy’s, is a possible difficulty when she would divorce. But Daisy feels at ease and asks her to give a hand to the guests. The reaction of Gatsby is a strange one. Has he forgotten Daisy has a little girl? Or is that the imagination of Nick?
Gatsby and I in turn leaned down and took the small reluctant hand. Afterward he kept looking at the child with surprise. I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before.
Just before her daughter leaves again, Daisy asks the child how she feels about the guests, especially the child’s reaction to Gatsby might be an interesting one. And it is!
‘How do you like mother’s friends?” Daisy turned her around so that she faced Gatsby. “Do you think they’re pretty?”
The child is taken away, and now Nick enters with the drinks.
A bit later, the sexual tension rises when Daisy addresses Gatsby in an unusual way, and Tom seems to understand exactly what she means:
“You always look so cool,” she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw. He was astounded. His mouth opened a little, and he looked at Gatsby, and then back at Daisy as if he had just recognized her as someone he knew a long time ago.
The compliment Daisy gives to Gatsby seems indeed to be a wake-up call for Tom. Nick observes that Tom suddenly realizes for the first time that she loves Gatsby, and immediately she transforms in his eyes into the woman he loved a few years ago. The old love for her which may have dwindled – hence his affair with Myrtle – is there again. We desire what others desire, don’t we? The fight for Daisy can start.
Tom now tries to regain control over the situation, he desperately tries to win back Daisy, and so he repeats the proposal Daisy has made a few minutes before. She wanted to go to town together. But now Daisy asks to smoke a cigarette first … When a few minutes later the men are outside waiting for the women who are upstairs to get ready, Tom seems to dislike Daisy’s suggestion, in this way revealing how nervous he is and what he thinks of women!
“I don’t see the idea of going to town,” broke out Tom savagely. “Women get these notions in their heads (…)”
Gatsby has been quite reserved and polite so far. He obviously must be convinced by now that Daisy has chosen for him. But when Nick and Gatsby are a moment alone – Tom is getting a bottle of whisky from inside while Daisy and Jordan are still powdering their nose – Nick hears that Gatsby has become uncertain:
Gatsby turned to me rigidly:
“I can’t say anything in his house, old sport.”
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of—” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
Nick has been hearing that Daisy is open and blunt about their affair, but that is not what Gatsby thinks. Gatsby, has remarked something else, he must have heard Daisy saying or doing something he doesn’t like. My guess is it is her suggestion to go to town. Have they agreed that they would tell Tom about their affair today, and is she now avoiding that confrontation? This is the fragment:
“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon?” cried Daisy, “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?”
“Don’t be morbid,” Jordan said. “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”
“But it’s so hot,” insisted Daisy, on the verge of tears, “and everything’s so confused. Let’s all go to town!”
Is she afraid of the consequences of a divorce? Does she not know who to choose? Indeed, quite a difficult choice after she has just seen her child. Gatsby may also have heard she seems to think more about a very far away future, and not about the present love she feels for Gatsby.
So, they go to town by car. Tom tries to show he is in control of the situation again, and proposes to switch cars, ridiculing his rival:
“I’ll take you in this circus wagon.”
But Daisy tackles his decision once more in an even more sarcastic way, she will accompany Gatsby.
On the way to town, Nick obviously doesn’t know what happens in Tom’s car between Daisy and Gatsby. He only knows what Tom and Jordan do and say in Gatsby’s car. Tom tries to make it very clear for Nick that he knows what is going on between Daisy and Gatsby:
“You think I’m pretty dumb, don’t you?” he suggested. “Perhaps I am, but I have a—almost a second sight, sometimes, that tells me what to do. Maybe you don’t believe that, but science (…)”
He goes on saying he has done some digging in the past of Gatsby and tells them Gatsby must be lying about having studied in Oxford. But Jordan comes to the rescue of her friend Daisy:
“Listen, Tom. If you’re such a snob, why did you invite him to lunch?” demanded Jordan crossly.
“Daisy invited him; she knew him before we were married—God knows where!”
And now we know for certain that the whole afternoon was Daisy’s plan. Did she indeed intend to tell her husband about her affair?
The stop at the garage is not a happy episode for Tom either. His wife and his rival Gatsby drive on and here and now he hears the Wilsons are going to move away from New York because her husband suspects her of infidelity.
“I just got wised up to something funny the last two days,” remarked Wilson.
Nick observes how Tom gets even more stressed.
There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and as we drove away Tom was feeling the hot whips of panic. His wife and his mistress, until an hour ago secure and inviolate, were slipping precipitately from his control. Instinct made him step on the accelerator with the double purpose of overtaking Daisy and leaving Wilson behind, and we sped along toward Astoria at fifty miles an hour, until, among the spidery girders of the elevated, we came in sight of the easygoing blue coupé.
When the two cars catch up and stop along the road for a moment to make up plans, Tom proposes to go to the movies (where you can’t talk to each other), but Daisy has a better idea – with a humorous touch inspired by a (secret agent) film:
“It’s so hot,” she complained. “You go. We’ll ride around and meet you after.” With an effort her wit rose faintly. “We’ll meet you on some corner. I’ll be the man smoking two cigarettes.”
Of course, Tom does not agree. They will decide what to do outside a hotel in New York. On the way to the hotel, Nick observes how nervous Tom is that he is going to lose Daisy.
Several times he turned his head and looked back for their car, and if the traffic delayed them he slowed up until they came into sight. I think he was afraid they would dart down a side-street and out of his life forever.
They enter the hotel and rent a room. And once inside, the real quarrel starts. Tom gets irritated by some expression Gatsby uses all the time, but Daisy tries to calm him down in an irritated manner:
“Now see here, Tom,” said Daisy, turning around from the mirror, “if you’re going to make personal remarks I won’t stay here a minute. Call up and order some ice for the mint julep.”
But Tom keeps on trying to humiliate his rival. He now says Gatsby has lied, saying to everyone that he is an Oxford man. But Gatsby can calmly explain the misunderstanding. Daisy thinks it is about time Tom stops misbehaving like that, and in this way making it very clear that he is fighting a lost cause. But Tom doesn’t stop, and he now accuses Gatsby of causing unrest in his house. Daisy tries to calm him down once more, but Tom is now really furious:
“I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out… Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”
Quite a remarkable reasoning for an adulterer, of course, to cough up traditional (white, racist) values. But all arguments are good enough to stop Daisy and Gatsby from having an affair.
Gatsby, still in a calm voice and seemingly in control of the situation, says that he is going to be frank.
“I’ve got something to tell you, old sport—” began Gatsby. But Daisy guessed at his intention.
“Please don’t!” she interrupted helplessly. “Please let’s all go home. Why don’t we all go home?”
Gatsby doesn’t listen to the advice of Daisy. On the contrary, he gets very excited:
“Your wife doesn’t love you,” said Gatsby. “She’s never loved you. She loves me.”
“You must be crazy!” exclaimed Tom automatically.
Gatsby sprang to his feet, vivid with excitement.
“She never loved you, do you hear?” he cried. “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved anyone except me!”
And now the rivals keep on bickering about this and while doing this Gatsby even answers instead of Daisy:
Tom turned to Daisy sharply.
“You’ve been seeing this fellow for five years?”
“Not seeing,” said Gatsby. “No, we couldn’t meet.”
In his effort to win the battle with his rival Gatsby, also Tom gets very honest, forgetting how that must hurt Daisy tremendously.
He nodded sagely. “And what’s more, I love Daisy too. Once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, and in my heart I love her all the time.”
“You’re revolting,” said Daisy.
And now Gatsby smells the taste of victory, he comforts her, and he now forces her to say things to hurt his rival beyond repair.
“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth—that you never loved him—and it’s all wiped out forever.”
But when she indeed says so, Tom confronts her with all sorts of moments when they loved each other, and she now cries out:
“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once—but I loved you too.”
Gatsby is bewildered by this answer. He was sure she only loved him.
The words seemed to bite physically into Gatsby.
“I want to speak to Daisy alone,” he insisted. “She’s all excited now—”
“Even alone I can’t say I never loved Tom,” she admitted in a pitiful voice. “It wouldn’t be true.”
But when Tom smells victory, she blames him of his adulterous affairs, and he promises to change. At that moment, Gatsby tries a last attempt:
“You do not have to change, she is going to leave you.”
Tom gets furious once more and tries to prove now that Gatsby can’t take care of Daisy because his money is criminal money, and that is the start of a bitter quarrel that goes on and on, until Gatsby loses his nerve once again and Daisy too, it seems.
(Nick) glanced at Daisy, who was staring terrified between Gatsby and her husband, (…). Then I turned back to Gatsby—and was startled at his expression. He looked—and this is said in all contempt for the babbled slander of his garden—as if he had “killed a man.”
It passed, and he began to talk excitedly to Daisy, denying everything, defending his name against accusations that had not been made. But with every word she was drawing further and further into herself, so he gave that up, and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.
Daisy now begs to go home, and then Tom does something totally unexpected. He orders Daisy to go with Gatsby.
She looked at Tom, alarmed now, but he insisted with magnanimous scorn.
“Go on. He won’t annoy you. I think he realizes that his presumptuous little flirtation is over.”
This can only be understood as a means to ultimately humiliate his rival. Tom even doesn’t realise he humiliates his wife too – not only by ordering her once more and forcing her in a car with – he is absolutely sure about it – her former lover.
Who wins the love of Daisy in the end?
The rivals Tom and Gatsby have been fighting the whole afternoon to get Daisy, constantly forgetting too what they are really fighting for: the love of Daisy, a human being with own feelings, an own history etc. They seemed to be more interested in destroying one another.
As Nick is in the other car, we don’t know what Daisy and Gatsby say to each other on the way back. What will Daisy do when they get home? Will Gatsby try to convince her once again? Will she eventually give in and leave Tom or is her ‘little flirtation’ indeed over? We will never know what would have happened when they got home in normal circumstances because on the way home they get involved in a deadly accident. A hysterical woman runs in front of their car and gets killed.
Two – Thou shalt not kill
(Chapters 8 – 10)
Although the (triple) violation of the Biblical commandment (and present-day law) ‘You shall not kill’ in the final three chapters of The Great Gatsby deserves a minute close reading too, I will mainly deal with this part of the novel from a moralistic point of view and focus on how the catastrophic ending colours the central theme I am exploring in this essay: love, desire and lust.
The court verdict
The deadly nightly accident and the killing of Gatsby and the suicide of Wilson the next day obviously leads to a police investigation but is soon closed as a simple, straightforward case. The press is covering the double murder in quite some detail too.
To start with, the accident seems not to be the fault of the driver, as a witness saw the woman run in front of the car. But the driver did not stop, making it a hit-and-run accident.
There are two different contradictory stories about why the husband of the victim of the car accident shot the driver the next day. His neighbour, ‘the principal witness at the inquest’, claims that Wilson thought his wife was having an affair and that Myrtle was running out of the house onto the street because she was afraid to be beaten up by him.
“Beat me!” he heard her cry. “Throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!”
The next day Wilson was seen by some people while he was on his way to town on foot and one of them told the police that Wilson had asked the way to the house of Gatsby. But, Catherine, the sister of Myrtle, swears her sister didn’t have an affair with Gatsby.
So Wilson was reduced to a man “deranged by grief” in order that the case might remain in its simplest form. And it rested there.
The truth and nothing but the truth
We know that the neighbour isn’t lying. His testimony fits with what we know about this couple since Tom’s petrol stop. Strictly speaking, Catherine doesn’t tell a lie in court either. Nevertheless, she doesn’t tell the police that Myrtle had an affair with Tom Buchanan. Tom has nothing to do with the accident, so why should she? Of course, by not telling this to the police, Catherine is protecting the reputation of her dead sister and her family too.
More remarkable is that the other protagonists in the story are not even interrogated by the police. On the other hand, nobody of the witnesses of the accident has mentioned anything about them. Nobody saw that there were actually two persons in ‘the death car’. The culprits could not be heard either: the driver of the car is dead and so is his killer. It is not that surprising the police don’t want to look any further. Moreover, the encounter between Gatsby and the policeman who wanted to fine him for speeding, revealed a corrupt police force (chapter 4).
The most alarming and disturbing thing about this tragic ending is, however, that none of the protagonists stepped forward to witness. What about Daisy? She was in the car when the car hit Myrtle, wasn’t she? What about Tom? He was having an affair with the woman who was run over, and he knows his wife was in the hit-and-run car. What about Nick, who has become a friend of Gatsby?
As Nick isn’t in the car, we don’t know how Daisy reacted immediately after the accident. As a matter of fact, we don’t hear Daisy say anything at all in the rest of the story, which will end two years after the fatal facts.
Gatsby brings her home, takes leave, but stays in the garden to see what will happen when her husband comes home. Later, when Nick finds him there, he asks if Nick can have a look inside to see if everything is alright. Nick sees husband and wife talk, but they seem to be quite calm. Nevertheless, Gatsby stays in the garden as Nick goes home. Later – at 4 o’clock in the morning – Gatsby sees her standing at a bedroom window for a moment. Now he is convinced she is alright. That will be the last time Gatsby will have seen her. The next day, she doesn’t phone Gatsby like he expected. After Gatsby gets killed that same day, Nick tries to reach Daisy by telephone, but by then Daisy and Tom have left their home. Some weeks later, Nick accidentally bumps into Tom, but Daisy is not even mentioned.
So, Daisy doesn’t do anything at all for her (former) lover. She doesn’t contact him the next day. On the contrary, she leaves town together with Tom without leaving an address etc. That’s why Nick can’t find Daisy (nor Tom) for Gatsby’s funeral … The woman who loved Gatsby to the fullest until a few hours before the fatal accident, lets him down the next day and doesn’t change her mind after Gatsby gets killed.
Why is that? Does Daisy not love Gatsby any longer? Does she now indeed realize he is rich only because he really is a criminal? Possibly. But quite strange is that she seems to have chosen to stay with her adulterous husband. Has he promised once more to change his ways (he did do that in the hotel) and does she believe him once again? Is it because of her daughter? But why does she not attend Gatsby’s funeral? Why does she not try to contact Nick, her cousin?
What about Gatsby? Did he realize that Daisy wanted to stop seeing him before he died?
Nick sees Gatsby the night of the accident in the garden of the Buchanans while he is on the watch in case Tom would have a fight with Daisy when he comes home. What he says to Nick then and the following morning is all he can ever say about it to anyone. Before the police can find and question the owner of the car that killed Myrtle Wilson, he is shot dead by her husband.
When Nick confronts him in the garden the night of the fatal hit-and-run, Gatsby tries to explain what has happened. By a slip of the tongue he gives away that he didn’t drive but sat next to Daisy who was driving.
“How the devil did it happen?”
“Well, I tried to swing the wheel—” He broke off, and suddenly I guessed at the truth.
“Was Daisy driving?”
“Yes,” he said after a moment, “but of course I’ll say I was.”
He then describes the accident in detail …
“It all happened in a minute, but it seemed to me that she wanted to speak to us, thought we were somebody she knew. Well, first Daisy turned away from the woman toward the other car, and then she lost her nerve and turned back. The second my hand reached the wheel I felt the shock—it must have killed her instantly.”
“It ripped her open—”
“Don’t tell me, old sport.” He winced. “Anyhow—Daisy stepped on it. I tried to make her stop, but she couldn’t, so I pulled on the emergency brake. Then she fell over into my lap and I drove on.”
The accident itself was nobody’s fault, but Daisy was driving and Daisy was the one driving away … Still, Gatsby wants to cover up Daisy’s irresponsible behaviour. We don’t know the reasons why she accelerated after the accident. But we obviously know the state she was in after the shock of the confrontation between her, Tom and Gatsby (in the presence of her cousin Nick and her friend Jordan). We can imagine that it must be a terrible shock too, to see a woman suddenly jump in front of your car and the fact that you can’t avoid hitting her except if you hit the car coming from the opposite direction; and then, there is of course also the possible effect of the amount of alcohol she had drunk that day.
Gatsby didn’t have the slightest suspicion that Daisy would not only flee from the accident, but also run away from him. On the contrary, he is staying in the garden, to intervene in a fight between Daisy and Tom if necessary. He is helped by Nick, who can secretly go nearer to the house. When Nick tells him that everything is calm in the house, he still waits in the garden until about four o’clock in the morning, when he sees her in a bedroom window for a moment. Only then he goes home.
Minutes later, when he comes home in a taxi, Nick who couldn’t sleep rejoins Gatsby and then Gatsby explains in much detail and in a very open and honest way how he made love to Daisy five years ago. At one point he even admits the whole affair started off under false pretence. Nick summarizes his confession like this:
But he knew that he was in Daisy’s house by a colossal accident. However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders. So he made the most of his time. He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand.
He knew he morally couldn’t stop what he had started.
“I can’t describe to you how surprised I was to find out I loved her, old sport. I even hoped for a while that she’d throw me over, but she didn’t, because she was in love with me too.”
This confession happens a few hours before he gets killed. So when Nick takes the train to go to his work, for him there is no doubt, despite having made all sorts of serious mistakes, Gatsby considers Daisy to be his one and only true love. Gatsby himself is also quite sure that Daisy will call him that day. So, Gatsby must have been killed still thinking that would happen. Or was he perhaps, already doubting as it was past noon? Or was he convinced only Tom was to blame for that delay?
What was the role of Tom in these tragic events? We know that just before the accident, he was convinced that Daisy would drop Gatsby. He was so sure that he wanted both to go home in Gatsby’s car.
On their way home,Tom, Nick and Jordan see lots of people in front of the garage and Tom stops the car. He wants to know what the fuss is all about, he can enter the garage and sees the dead body of his mistress. When a witness tells the police the car that killed the woman is a yellow one, Wilson immediately thinks Tom was driving as he came to get some petrol for a yellow car in the afternoon. But thanks to a witness, Tom can convince him and the policeman that he has only just arrived in a blue car. He tries to calm down Wilson, and makes sure there is someone with him. When he comes home Daisy is already there, Jordan goes in as well, but Nick has got enough and doesn’t want to enter the house. He will wait outside until a taxi turns up.
The strange thing is that the next day Tom, Daisy and their two-year-old daughter move to another place and don’t leave behind an address. Does Tom know that Daisy was driving? We don’t know, but both certainly seem to have agreed that they wouldn’t tell the police that Daisy was in the car too. Obviously, Tom does not want the police or the press to know that the victim of the hit-an-run happens to be his mistress.
But the reader is in for a surprise in the final chapter 9 almost at the end of the novel. By some coincidence, Nick bumps into Tom a few weeks after the accident and then Tom reveals that Wilson came to his house the day when Gatsby was killed and threatened to kill Tom if he didn’t say who the owner of the car was he was driving the previous day. And now it becomes clear to Nick that Tom is in a way responsible for the death of Gatsby – and so perhaps Daisy too! Tom knew Wilson had a gun, he knew that Wilson thought that the owner of the yellow car had killed his wife. Nevertheless, he didn’t inform the police nor did he warn Gatsby by telephone. Of course, Daisy may not have informed him she was driving that night. Perhaps she did not want him to think she had run over his mistress on purpose?
“What if I did tell him? That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust into your eyes just like he did in Daisy’s, but he was a tough one. He ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car.”
There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn’t true.
“And if you think I didn’t have my share of suffering—look here, when I went to give up that flat and saw that damn box of dog biscuits sitting there on the sideboard, I sat down and cried like a baby. By God it was awful (…)”
His defence is really unforgivably selfish: Gatsby deserved his fate. Tom does not only blame him for courting his wife, but even more for destroying the life of his mistress! The thing he deplores most of all a few weeks later, is that he lost Myrtle! The next thing Tom does, is entering a jewellery shop. The reader may wonder whether the necklace he may be buying will be for Daisy or his new mistress? Nick is more objective, he adds Tom might be buying something for himself too:
Then he went into the jewelry store to buy a pearl necklace—or perhaps only a pair of cuff buttons (…)
So, that Gatsby was killed was very convenient for Tom and Daisy. Daisy got away with manslaughter, guilty neglect and drunk-driving in the car accident and if she wasn’t driving (but why would Gatsby have lied about this?) she got away with complicity. For Daisy, it may perhaps be a comforting but selfish consolation that she ran over the mistress of her husband. Tom (and if he told her, also Daisy) got away with guilty neglect in the murder of Gatsby.
Nick’s final meeting with Tom also reveals that Daisy is not better off, really. Her husband hasn’t changed a bit. He is still an adulterer at heart, regretting that he lost his mistress and his afternoons with her in the apartment, and perhaps he has even already replaced her with a new mistress.
But what about Nick? Why did he not step forward and tell the police what really had happened? Nick doesn’t answer those questions himself. So let’s find out.
To start with, Nick only knew who had been driving because Gatsby told him so. As Gatsby got killed, it was Nick’s (and the deceased Gatsby’s) word against that of the Buchanans. Nick eventually found out that Tom knew that Wilson might kill Gatsby, and still he gave him Gatsby’s address. Of course, he knew Tom would not want to repeat that to the police.
So Nick might have felt that everybody betrayed Gatsby and that he knew the truth but couldn’t say anything at all. No wonder he was disgusted by New York and could not stay there.
He also broke up with Jordan. He didn’t want to enter the house of the Buchanans together with her the night of the car accident. The next day he said a few mean things on the phone too. But when he wanted to end it properly some time later, she announced that she had already got engaged. But that seemed (almost) to start his love for her again – we desire what others desire!
She didn’t answer. Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.
More importantly, Nick may feel guilty too. Especially because he didn’t inform Gatsby about the intimate conversation he saw after the accident in the Buchanan house. He couldn’t hear what Tom and Daisy were saying, but still …
Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.
They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.
That may partly explain why Nick did his utmost best for Gatsby after his death. He arranged the funeral and tried to get all sorts of people to attend the service. None came. He also naively tried to have Gatsby’s criminal friend or partner Meyer Wolfshiem there, but all in vain (hilarious scenes!). The only family member present was Gatsby’s poor father, who turned up the third day (inspired by the Bible?) and who told him how polite and ambitious his son was as a teenager.
But though he may feel guilty, he still has told us the story – and the writer seems to honour him for that by (also?) calling the bookThe Great Gatsby.
Anyway, Nick was very glad that the last words he had said to Gatsby were …
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
We can conclude that Gatsby is – in the eyes of Nick Carraway – a scapegoat, an innocent person “who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others” (Oxford Dictionary). Gatsby got killed by George Wilson, who blamed him for killing his wife. But Gatsby was the wrong (i.e. innocent) person, as it had been Daisy who was driving his car at that moment. Moreover, Wilson’s wife was partly to blame for the accident herself too, as she was jumping recklessly in front of the car believing she could make the driver stop. All she wanted at that moment was to flee from her raging husband – so he too was to blame for the accident! Myrtle must have wanted to go away with Tom Buchanan, who she believed to be the driver of that beautiful yellow car, as she had seen him in that car that very afternoon when he had stopped to get petrol. Wilson had just found out his wife was seeing another man – he had discovered a dog collar (oh irony!) she couldn’t account for – and he wrongly believed that man to be the very owner of that car. So, by killing him, Wilson thought he killed his wife’s suitor at the same time. But he was wrong again, that person was Tom Buchanan. In this way, Gatsby was blamed for the faults committed by Daisy and Tom. Whereas Wilson didn’t know he had killed the wrong person – he does not know what he is doing! – Tom and Daisy both knew Gatsby was innocent. But still, for various reasons they let him down and then, a couple of weeks later (40 Biblical days?) Tom admitted to Nick he gave Gatsby’s address to the vindictive husband searching for the owner of the yellow car that ran over his wife, without warning the police or Gatsby by telephone for the armed lunatic that had threatened to kill him.
In this way, another hypothesis of René Girard on our human behaviour is illustrated. In times of chaos and disorder – he has shown in numerous studies – people try to find peace of mind and restore order by putting the blame on one person who is then sacrificed: scapegoating. In the novel of Scott Fitzgerald, this ancient mechanism is revealed to us because the story is told by someone who is convinced that Gatsby – despite his numerous other faults – is really innocent. According to René Girard, this fundamental law of human behaviour was exposed once and for all in the Bible, to be more precise in the New Testament. For this reason too, The Great Gatsby can be truly called a Biblical tale.
Does Nick himself understand this mechanism of scapegoating? Partly. He surely understands the chaos and the moral implications that he experienced in those months in New York. As a matter of fact, he wrote down the whole story after the catastrophic events and in chapter 1, he starts his retrospection with a firm moral statement:
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.
In the next line he immediately makes a clearly positive moral exception for Gatsby formulated in a paradoxical way and in this way showing he doesn’t intend to make a saint of the person he wants to talk about.
Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
The last time he sees Gatsby alive (in chapter 8), he not only literally says:
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.
But the paradox he used at the very beginning of the book, is repeated there too:
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.
In the final chapter, he reformulates the same disgusting moral attitude like this:
After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction. 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.
When he then finishes the story – he does so immediately after having revealed how immoral Tom and Daisy really were! – he takes his readers back to the last night in his New York house. He describes how he goes to see the now deserted house of Gatsby. There he wipes out some graffiti – in a way showing once more how respectful he has become but, more importantly, how he can’t stand Gatsby’s name being smeared.
On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight, and I erased it, drawing my shoe raspingly along the stone.
Afterwards, he goes up to the shore, and he suddenly thinks of the promise this stretch of land had for the Dutch discoverers:
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.
And that hopeful promise of something new and big and enormous of these first settlers, that volatile but mythical dream of possibilities America and its people have held so highly then and still today, brings him back to the dream Gatsby once had. How he wanted to get Daisy back, a feeling symbolized by his gazing at the green light on the pier at her house at the other side of the water. And how he once must have thought how close he was to realize that dream.
The last lines of his story seem to suggest that Nick himself thinks we humans will keep on chasing mythical dreams that can’t be fulfilled.
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, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
So yes, we humans will keep fooling ourselves, chasing impossible dreams. One could argue that in this way Nick – and Fitzgerald, who has hidden himself behind his narrator – seems to forget that Gatsby’s dream was immoral. Did he not want to become a millionaire in an illegal way in order to get back the rich girl he seduced five years ago? Had he not been madly in love with her for five years, although she got married to somebody else? Was his dream not to lure her away from her husband, with whom she already had a little daughter?
I am inclined to think that Scott Fitzgerald may have been convinced that thanks to the strength of the tragic but highly ironical plot twists, the reader would have seen through it all.
Or was Fitzgerald not so much ironic as sarcastic?
The plot surely unmasks the morals of ‘new money’ millionaires. Illegal and criminal bootlegging on Gatsby’s side leads to illegal and immoral parties. On the other hand, the explicit racism of Tom may refer to the fact that his family money or ‘old money’ was based on slavery and plantations. And Tom certainly doesn’t want to share these (immorally) acquired privileges with others.
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read ‘The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why, no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.” (chapter 1)
Moreover, Nick’s (relative) family wealth seems to be based on a legal but rather immoral trick to avoid getting killed in the American Civil War, the founding war of the United States.
My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today. (chapter 1)
And what about the love life of these millionaires? Gatsby doesn’t mind courting a married woman, and Daisy doesn’t object to his advances. Her husband Tom is a brutal, serial adulterer, who gets mad at the thought his wife would act in the same way. Also Nick’s love life has turned out to be quite a disaster.
But, by the end of the story Fitzgerald’s naive but honest, morally disgusted narrator had amply proved that Gatsby’s immoral love for Daisy had been purified by the accident, as he was willing to take up the responsibility for Daisy’s hit-and-run. As a matter of fact, Gatsby had already stopped to organise the parties at his house too – momentarily perhaps, but still. Due to his tragic death, his love for Daisy turned out to be worth so much more than Daisy’s whimsical, frivolous and selfish love for him; so much more than the unfaithful love of Tom for Daisy; and vice versa when Daisy started to date Gatsby again; so much more than the brutal love of Tom for his mistress – his aggressive slam in her face broke her nose … Gatsby’s larger-than-life love for Daisy had eventually made him the deadly victim of the immoral attitudes of Tom and Daisy. A fatal fate that – oh irony! – was triggered by the foolish behaviour of Tom’s mistress and carried out by her deceived and vindictive husband.
The green light
So, the only thing that might perhaps be a beacon of light in these mad pursuits for love and happiness, can only be Gatsby’s corrupt love for Daisy that might have changed Gatsby completely, if only he hadn’t been killed, and if only Daisy had felt the same for him – little chance she might have changed too, though! No wonder, thus, the book ends with Nick remembering Gatsby staring at that green light on the pier at her house at the other side of the water. And Nick trying to imagine how Gatsby once must have thought how close he was to realize that dream.
Is that ultimate, vulnerable longing for (purifying) love something only Nick Carraway wants to hold on to or believe in? Or also Scott Fitzgerald? The fact that the answer to that question will remain a mystery, is due to the genius of Scott Fitzgerald, the 29-year-old writer of The Great Gatsby, who hid himself behind the both hilarious and dramatic events his imagination had come up with, and behind his naive, promiscuous but morally awoken narrator, while meanwhile revealing the darkest secrets of the desirous heart that René Girard would theorise half a century later and give it names like mimetic desire – object, subject and model – rivals and doubles – and scapegoating …
That Scott Fitzgerald too was in search of true love, may perhaps be convincingly proved by the only words in The Great Gatsby he chose not to assign to Nick. Scott Fitzgerald dedicated the novel ‘Once again to Zelda’ (his wife). And he added a poem fragment evoking some crazy advice (but fitting to his novel!) for a lover to convince the girl of his dreams to cry out she loves him too:
“Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
Thomas Parke d’Invilliers
But of course, these words too may be ironic!
– Joost Dancet –
Feedback on language or content is greatly appreciated – mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a matter of fact, the poet on the dedication page of The Great Gatsby does not exist! So, the poetic verses are really the words of Scott Fitzgerald, but once again he had hidden himself, now behind Thomas Parke d’Invilliers, a fictional character he had created in a previous novel, This Side of Paradise.
Love and marriage and Scott Fitzgerald
May I take a risky guess about the relation between the novel and its author concerning desire, love and marriage?
There are lots of parallels between the novel and the love life of Scott Fitzgerald. Like Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald himself was rejected because he was too poor. Not by one, but by two women! First by Ginevra King, the second time by Zelda Sayre. Scott Fitzgerald could eventually marry Zelda in 1920 after he had become a successful writer. (1)
While writing The Great Gatsby the couple went through a bad patch, though. Zelda was having an affair with a French pilot, she wanted to divorce, she survived an overdose of sleeping tablets etc.
Scott Fitzgerald may be covering up everything in The Great Gatsby under tons of irony or even sarcasm, but while writing the novel he must have identified himself largely with Jay Gatsby. (2) I believe – like many critics do – that Daisy stands for Scott Fitzgerald’s first love, Ginevra King, who rejected him in 1917 (!). She refused to marry him, among other things because she and/or her parents thought he was too poor. Instead, she wedded the millionaire William Mitchell a year later. One of her closest friends was the almost two years younger Edith Cummings, an amateur golfer who Fitzgerald transformed into Jordan Baker in his novel.
In the early 1920s, while Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were on the verge of a divorce, he wrote the novel, imagining trying to seduce Ginevra once more. Her refusal to marry him (in 1917) and letting him down again in his imagination (5 years later) felt like a murder attempt. Scott Fitzgerald may admit having lots of flaws and vices – just like Gatsby, but his love for her was pure! Nick Carraway is then the apostle Scott Fitzgerald needed to prove to Ginevra what a terrible mistake she had made to let him down in a cold-hearted way and choose once more for her husband, a betrayal of his pure and genuine love for her. Or did he prove how loveless Ginevra was in order to win back Zelda?
As other critics have pointed out, Zelda too could recognise lots of her own in Daisy. Anyway, Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda didn’t split up but went on together to face many other marriage storms.
Ah, those mysterious wonders of the loving heart!
However, I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works. Scott Fitzgerald, 1938, Letter to Anne Ober, Selected Letters by Scott Fitzgerald
(He told a friend that) the whole idea of Gatsby is the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money. This theme comes up again and again because I lived it. Scott Fitzgerald – a biography by Andrew Turnbull
Also you are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear myself— for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself—the amalgam was never complete in my mind.
Scott Fitzgerald, 1925, Letter to John Peale Bishop, Selected Letters by Scott Fitzgerald
- About Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940)
After a long struggle with alcoholism, Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, at the age of 44.
More about Scott Fitzgerald’s alcohol problems, including wild parties – see link above.
- About René Girard (1923 – 2015).