The first time I read The Great Gatsby I was less than enthused. I remember proudly stating to my teacher (my mom’s friend that was exchanging literature lessons for babysitting) that “His name isn’t Gatsby and he isn’t even great!” As if I was imparting some gem of understanding and wit.
I recently read through the book again for a class I’m taking on the Modern American Novel and I was blown away by its depth and substance. This time I took note of how status and power were defined, who had the power to consume or to speak, and how this power revealed each character’s identity.
In The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions by Thorstein Veblen,Veblen argues that status of individuals within a capitalist society is based upon social stratification rather than upon merit. And similar to feudal systems of past eras the wealth you are born into is far superior than the wealth you must attain and retain.
This could be the synopsis of The Great Gatsby in a nutshell. Gatsby, although a hard working, Benjamin Franklin sort of self made man…will forever be that: self made. His wealth and status will never be able to compete with the wealth and status of the leisure classes, because ultimately his wealth and status is precariously balanced on a black market industry that relies on Prohibition to pay dividends.
I’ve seen many references to The Great Gatsby being a quest for the “American Dream.” In his introduction to The Great Gatsby, Malcolm Bradbury describes Fitzgerald’s novels as a general rule following a similar template:
“An imperfect but interesting man falls unreservedly in love with, and pursues to the end, an imperfect dream, usually embodied in a beautiful and generally wealthy woman. This is part of a much bigger dream, made out of the American sensibility of expectation, hope and promise, the belief that it is possible for Americans to live out myths that are larger than the life of plain reality or unadorned history.” (XX) 1
Arguably, this book takes place in the interstitial space between the “American Dream” and a world structure built on consumer capitalism, a structure that emphatically relinquishes its soul for the power to consume.
The first glimpse we see of Daisy, Gatsby’s personified American Dream, she is encased in a cocoon of white billowing fabric.
“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 minutes 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.”
There are many significant things to this introductory passage. First, Daisy is both an object of her husband’s conspicuous consumption and a sign of his conspicuous leisure. She has the leisure to be unemployed and is well dressed and as such displays his wealth and status. The irony is that even within the post-suffrage age of the liberated woman, life for women remains bleakly the same, if not worse, because now there is a level and expectation of independence and freedom.
But as Tom walks in the door, the metaphorical floating and liberation comes to a halt and both women are once again tethered to a dreary reality.
How do I build a case for Daisy’s dreary reality? I took note of all the times characters were interrupted throughout the novel. Daisy is interrupted seven times, twice while trying to talk about her daughter. Although an object of status, she is voiceless. Although a mother, her status as such is overlooked and ignored:
‘Then she added irreverently: ‘You ought to see the baby.’
‘I’d like to.’
‘She’s asleep. She’s three year’s old. Haven’t you ever seen her?’
‘Well you ought to see her. She’s —‘
Tom Buchanan, who had been hovering restlessly about the room, stopped and rested his hand on my shoulder.
‘What you been doing, Nick.’
Interestingly for a book struggling to come to terms with identity, the daughter is never named. The nanny at one point refers to “Pammy”…but this is obviously a derivative of something else. Instead Tom, who is described earlier as “a brute of a man, a great big, hulking physical specimen of a —“ (Daisy is once again interrupted by Tom mid-sentence), by the end of the novel has become described as a “child.” So in some sense Daisy’s maternal duties have been redirected from her child to Tom.
At one point as Gatsby is dragging Daisy through the nooks and crevices of his enormous house he rouses the sleeping piano player that has been living with him and demands a song:
“‘One thing’s sure and nothing’s sure
The rich get richer and the poor get- children.
In the meantime,
In between time—“
And yet for Daisy, she gets neither. She has neither the freedom to consume independently nor even the power to mother her child.
Clothing is constantly referenced throughout the novel in great detail. There are pink suits and cream colored chiffon dresses. At the end of the book, a caller asks for the shoes he has left at one of Gatsby’s infamous parties, while giving his condolences about not being able to make it to the funeral. The shoes outrank the social obligation of friendship.
According to Veblen “… the function of dress as an evidence of ability to pay does not end with simply showing that the wearer consumes valuable goods in excess of what is required
for physical comfort. Simple conspicuous waste of goods is effective and gratifying as
far as it goes; it is good prima facie evidence of pecuniary success, and consequently
prima facie evidence of social worth.” 2
My favorite example of this is Myrtle who is married to a low class car mechanic and also Tom’s paramour. In the span of a few hours she changes her outfit three times. While her sartorial identity crisis references her ambiguous sense of self and her lack of power, it also shows her status as an object of desire and as such secondary wealth.
“Mrs. Wilson had changed her costume some time before, and was now attired in an elaborate afternoon dress of cream-colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room. With the influence of the dress her personality had also undergone a change. The intense vitality that had been so remarkable in the garage was converted into impressive hauteur. Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air.” (pg.26)
This again reminds me of Veblen. In his chapter on “Pecuniary Emulation” he argues that low-status people will attempt to emulate the rich by their consumption. They will consume over-priced luxury items to identify themselves with the purchasing power of the higher classes. When Myrtle spontaneously asks for Tom to buy her a puppy and he does, and when she creates a list of all the new purchases she must make in the near future, she is asserting her place within the pecuniary world. In the end the farce is exposed when Myrtle thinks she has a right to mention Daisy’s name. Tom disagrees and breaks her nose with his open hand.
Between the lines we see the underlying sterility of this wealth and status. While the right kind of (hulking) men have purchasing power and ownership of this capitalist modern discourse, the wrong kind of men and all women are left marginalized.
Gatsby is the wrong kind of man, without heritage or legitimacy. But in some sense, Nick Caraway, our pathfinder through this incomprehensible world is also the wrong kind of man. Although he has the right lineage, he does not posses the right wealth. His wealth is not of the leisurely kind but of the “make something of yourself” kind. As such, within this jungle he is equally marginalized. He is the most interrupted male character. While both Gatsby and Tom are described as powerfully standing with their feet on the ground as if expressing a type of general ownership and manifest destiny, Nick is the masculine counterpoint. His presence actually serves to make Gatsby and Daisy feel “more satisfactorily alone.” (pg. 77)
His first image of Gatsby comes in the evening, as silhouettes make shadows in the moonlight. Nick sees Gatsby standing on his lawn, looking up at the stars:
“Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.” (pg. 19)
Nick decides to call out to him, and then decides against it. Gatsby’s certainty of universal position is contrasted with Nick’s ineffectual existence. He wants to communicate but can’t, he “involuntarily” glances seaward following the trajectory of Gatsby’s view, yet unlike Gatsby’s vision of destiny and ownership of the local heavens, Nick “distinguishes” nothing. Our narrative guide is figuratively blind. When he looks again Gatsby is gone and Nick is alone in the “unquiet darkness.” (pg.20)
From Nick’s narrative viewpoint Gatsby is enigmatic. A self made man, confident in what he has created:
"The truth was that Jay Gatsby...sprang from a Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God - a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that - and he must be about his Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.” (pg.80)
Nick on the other hand is less sure of himself. After Gatsby’s narrative of exchanging his ‘divinity’ for Daisy, Nick is rendered speechless/ voiceless.
“Throughout all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something - an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.” (pg 91)
Interestingly when Myrtle calls Tom at home he picks up the phone, but toward the end of the novel when Nick calls Gatsby (four times) his call doesn’t go through and the operator tells him the line is being kept open for a long distance call from Chicago. Another example of the impotence of Nick’s voice.
Nick, in some undefinable way is “other.” He is the counterpoint to the definitive masculinity of both Gatsby and Tom. Unlike Gatsby and Tom he has no “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs…” Unlike Daisy he does not have a voice “full of money”…his status is ambiguous and intangible. Ultimately he is the only character that seems objectively not consumed by the culture of consuming and the drive for status.
He pursues a career after his family agrees it’s the best choice. He lives in an unassuming house in West Egg, and devotes himself without much ambition to a career in finance. By being neither an idealist (like Gatsby) or a pessimist (like Tom) he manages to survive as a realist.
In his essay “Fitzgerald and the Collapse of the American Dream” Marius Bewley describes the Great Gatsby as an “exploration of the American dream as it exists in a corrupt period, and its attempt to determine that concealed boundary that divides the reality from the illusions.” 3
I would argue that America has always existed in a period of corruption, the specificity of the corruption just ebbs and flows and recreates itself for each new generation. The “Dream” has always been limited to a few while rhetorically accessible to everyone:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
As hypocritical as this statement was in 1776, it was equally unaccessible in 1925 despite both the 13th amendment (outlawing slavery) and the 19th amendment finally granting suffrage to women. The 1920’s were less interested in an ideological “American Dream” and more interested in their right to consume. The Roaring Twenties became an era of avaricious consumption, people were encouraged to buy on credit and recognize their identity in their ability to consume. Like Gatsby, America nourished the “colossal vitality of this illusion.”
The Great Gatsby was not a financially successful book. It was not the breezy college boy novel that gave Fitzgerald so much success and notoriety as his previous books had. But then the financial market collapsed, and what had initially seemed like a bit of a depressing take on exceptionalism became a clarion call for the illusive hopes and dreams of the middle class and the empty sterility of the wealthy.
This narrative plays out over and over again. Culturally we define status and identity in terms of consumption, the consumption is encouraged beyond the sustainable means of the middle classes who begin to consume on credit, until eventually the market collapses and the cycle begins again. We see a similar quest for the American Dream, in slogans like “Make America Great Again” as if there was a time when America was ever truly great while simultaneously glossing over the specifics of how to go about getting to that place “again.” When we begin to define that greatness in smaller and more contained definitions we destroy the thing that makes America truly great: its resilience and diversity, its multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and its hopefulness that there is always a better more equitable future around the corner.
By being an emasculated voice, Nick allows the reader to navigate these hopes and illusions for ourselves, forcing us to choose which reality we will pursue.
1. All quote from The Great Gatsby are found in: Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Everyman’s Library, 1991.
2. Veblen, Thorsten. The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. 1899, pp.78.
3. Bewley, Marius. “Fitzgerald and the Collapse of the American Dream.” Modern Critical Views: F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp.32.
Here's a link exploring some of the great cover art of this book over the years!