jueves, 18 de julio de 2013

The Great Gatsby and the American Dream

A fine passage from Richard Gray's History of American Literature (2004: 404-7), on the novel by Francis Scott Fitzgerald (1926):

In writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald set out, as he put it, to "make something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." And, to achieve this, the first and most important choice he made was to drop the third-person narrator of his two previous novels: This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned (1922). Instead of an omniscient viewpoint, there is a fictional narrator: Nick Carraway, a man who is only slightly involved in the action but who is profoundly affected by it. To some extent, Nick is quite like the protagonist Jay Gatsby. Like so many representative figures of the 1920s, including Fitzgerald himself, both are young people from the Midwest trying to prove themselves in the East. The East, and in particular its cities, have become for them a new frontier, a neutral space in which their dreams of wealth, measureless power, and mobility may perhaps be realized. Both Nick and Gatsby, too, have a love affair with a charismatic woman that ends in disillusion: Gatsby with Daisy Buchanan (a character modeled in part on Zelda Sayre) and Nick with a glamorous golf professional called Jordan Baker. This creates a bond of sympathy between the two men. Part of the immense charm of this novel is inherent in its tone of elegiac romanceNick is looking back on an action already completed that, as we know from the beginning, ended in disaster, some "foul dust that floated in the wake" of Gatsby's dreams; he is also recording how he grew to sympathize, like and admire Jay Gatsby—on one memorable level, this is the story of a love affair between two men. Liking, or even loving, does not mean approval, however; and it does not inhibit criticism. Nick has had "advantages" that Jay Gatsby, born to poverty as James Gatz, has not had. He has a reserve, a common sense, and even an incurable honesty that make him quite different from the subject of his meditations. That helps to create distance, enables him to criticize Gatsby and the high romanticism he embodies, and it makes his commentary vividly plural; Nick is, as he himself puts it, "within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled" by the hero he describes. The use of Nick Carraway as a narrator, in effect, enables Fitzgerald to maintain a balance for the first time in his career between the two sides of his character.

The idealist, the romantic who believed in possibility and perfectibility and the pragmatist, the realist convinced that life is circumscribed, nasty, brutish, and short: these opposing tendencies are both allowed their full play, the drama of the narration is the tension between them. "The test of a first-rate intelligence," Fitzgerald was later to say in his autobiographical essay "The Crack-Up" (The Crack-Up (1945)) "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." That is precisely what he does in The Great Gatsby, thanks to the use o Nick Carraway as a narrator: by his own stringent standards, the book is the product, not only of a refined sensibility and a strenuous act of imaginative sympathy, but also of "a first-rate intelligence."

What this first-rate intelligence is applied to is a story about the reinvention of the self: the poor boy James Gatz who renamed and recreated himself as Jay Gatsby, and who sees a woman as the crown, center, and confirmation of this process. Daisy Buchanan is the dream girl whose voice, sounding like both music and money, measures the contradiction of the dream, its heady mix of mystery and the materialmoral perfection and economic power. Gatsby had known Daisy when he was younger, Nick and the reader learn, before she was married to Tom Buchanan. Tom, incidentally, is a man born into wealth and former football hero, whose sense of anticlimax since his days of sporting glory has tempted him to embrace racist ideas for explanation and excitement, to convince himself that he is not stale and passed it; Fitzgerald is a brilliant analyst of the political through the personal, and his story, lightly and even comically sketched, is a brief history of what tempts people into fascism. But Gatsby now wants to win Daisy back—to "repeat the past," as Nick characterizes it, and "fix everything just the way it was before." The erotic mingles with the elevated in this strange but somehow typically American desire to remold the present and future in the shape of an imagined past: looking backward and forward, Gatsby embodies a national leaning toward, not just the confusion of the ethical with the economic, but a peculiar form of nostalgic utopianism. Quickly, subtly, the dream Gatsby cherishes begins to fray at the edges. The narrative moves forward on an alternating rhythm of action and meditation, a series of parties or similar social occasions around which the moments of meditative commentary are woven; and Gatsby's parties—which he approaches with the air of an artist, since they are momentary realizations of his dream of order, glamour, and perfection—deteriorate ever more quickly into sterility and violence. Daisy becomes less and less amenable and malleable, less open to Gatsby's desire to idealize or, it may be, use her (part of the subtle ambivalence of the novel is that it can, and does, include the possibilites of both idealism and use). Quite apart from anything else, she refuses to declare that she has never loved her husband—something that may seem perfectly reasonable but that Gatsby takes as proof of her contaminating contact with a world other than his own. 


Economical but also elegant, precisely visual but also patiently ruminative, The Great Gatsby rapidly moves toward catastrophe. It is a catastrophe that draws together many of the pivotal images of the book. The initial setting for this concluding sequence is the Valley of Ashes, a waste land that embodies "the foul dust floating in the wake of Gatsby's dreams," not least because it reminds the reader that success is measured against failure, power and wealth are defined by their opposites, there is no victory in a competitive ethos without a victim. Among the victims in this valley, presided over by the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg—an enormous advertisement that somehow sees the realities Gatsby is blinded to—is Myrtle Wilson, a resident of the place and the mistress of Tom Buchanan. Her victim status is only confirmed when she runs out in front of a car being driven by Daisy and is immediately killed. Wilson, Myrtle's husband, makes the easy mistake of thinking Gatsby is responsible for his wife's death. Tom and Daisy, when he asks them where Gatsby lives, do not disabuse him. So, although it is Wilson who actually kills Gatsby at the end of the story, the Buchanans are morally responsible too. They retreat "back into their money, or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them going." And, with Gatsby, destroyed with the tacit connivance of the "very rich" he has always admired, his dream shattered thanks to the quiet agency of the woman he wanted to dwell at its center, the story is almost over.

Almost, but not quite. At the funeral of Gatsby, Nick meets Henry C. Gatz, the father of the man who tried to reinvent himself. What he learns about, among other things, is the scheme of self-improvement that Gatsby drew up when he was still James Gatz and only a boy. The scheme is written on the fly-leaf of a copy of "Hopalong Cassidy." And, although it is an anticipation of the later ambitions of the hero, it is also clearly a parody of the manual of self-help that Benjamin Franklin drew up. By extension, it is a parody of all those other manuals of self-help that have thrived in American writing ever since. It does not take too much ingenuity to see that a link is being forged between Gatsby's response to life and the frontier philosophy of individualism. The link is confirmed when Nick confessses that he now sees the story of Gatsby as "a story of the West after all"; in a sense, Gatsby and the Western hero are one. But this is ont only a story of the West, Nick intimates, it is also a story of America. That is powerfully articulated in the closing moments of the story, when Gatsby's belief in "the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us" is connected to "the last and greatest of all human dreams" that "flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes" as they encountered the "fresh green breast of the new world." Gatsby believed in an ideal of Edenic innocence and perfection, Nick has disclosed. So did America. Gatsby tried to make the future an imitation of some mythic past. So did America. Gatsby tried to transform his life into an ideal, the great good life of the imagination, that strangely mixed the mystic and the material. So, the reader infers, did America. Gatsby's dream is, in effect, the American dream; and Fitzgerald is ultimately exploring a nation and a national consciousness here as well as a single and singular man.

But who are the "we" in the famous ending sentence of the novel: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past?" Americans, certainly, dreaming of the West in particular, but also surely anyone who tries to search for meaning, realize an ideal, or just make sense of their life—which includes just about everyone. Even the brutally material Tom Buchanan tries to grope for an explanation, something to help him feel his life is not just decline and waste. What he finds to help him explain things may be not only absurd but obscene, but it shows that even he, in his own blundering way, is trying to make sense of things. Within the confines of the story, though, the person who matters here, along with Gatsby, is the teller of the tale. Nick is the crucial other member of the "we," the company of those driven by the desire to shape experience into some meaningful pattern, some radiant revelation. All the while, the reader is reminded, it is Nick's consciousness recalling and rehearsing the past in The Great Gatsby; trying to understand it, to discover its shape and meaning. Nick replicates in his telling of the tale what, fundamentally, Gatsby is doing in the tale being told: there is a shared need ofr order here, a pursuit of meaning that is definitively human. To that extent, Gatsby's project is like Nick's; the form of the book dramatizes its theme. And both form and theme point to a paradox basic to Fitzgerald's life and writing. As Fitzgerald saw it, "we" must try to pursue the ideal; in this sense, "we" are and must be romantics, and on this capacity depends our survival as moral beings. But "we" must always remember that the ideal will remain ceaselessly beyond our reach; in this sense, "we" are and must be realists, and on this capacity depends our simple continuation and our grasp on sense. No matter how hard "we" try to reach out to the green light, it will continue to elude us, but "we" must keep on trying. That is the paradox that fires Fitzgerald's work into life. Or, as Fitzgerald himself succintly put it in "The Crack-Up": "One should ... be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."


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