Thoughts on The Great Gatsby I; or, the Art of Understatement

One of the features of my new blog will be discussions of the course texts I’m teaching, though not necessarily as I’m teaching them. The first novel I’ll be doing in English 2213: Twentieth-Century U.S. Fiction is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I reread it just recently, apropos of the new film adaptation, and so am posting about it now. This post is the first of three.

This will be the first of three posts on The Great Gatsby, and will consider the novel’s stylistic elements, and Fitzgerald’s ostensible place amongst his fellow American modernists. The second post, which will hopefully be up in a few days, looks at the themes of excess and expenditure in Gatsby, and speculates on the nature of Gatsby’s apparently inexhaustible wealth. And finally, the third post will look at the recent film version directed by Baz Lurhmann, and consider what he got right and wrong, and how it reflects on our understanding of the novel

A caveat: these posts are not meant to be scholarly essays, nor are they prettied-up lecture notes. I’m more interested in approaching the texts from a slightly more personal and subjective perspective, and ideally starting a conversation. Undoubtedly some of what I write here will get recycled in lecture, but if you’re a student who has found your way to this blog, you absolutely should not treat these posts as me putting my lecture notes online. You have been warned.

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Before picking up the novel at the beginning of May, it had been twenty-three years since I’d last read The Great Gatsby. Like many people, I read it in high school—in my case, for OAC English (OAC = Ontario Academic Credit, the now-defunct year five of high school for those planning on going to university). That was the first and only time I read it, and I realized that with the exception of two short stories it was the only fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald I’d ever read.

This really should be an embarrassing admission for someone whose avowed specialty is twentieth-century U.S. fiction (and to a certain extent it is), but the truth of the matter is that Fitzgerald never loomed large, or really at all, in the firmament of my studies. No one I knew, professors or grad students, worked on him in any scholarly way; he did not show up on courses during my undergrad or grad years; and I have never felt much compulsion to include him in the courses I have taught. Part of this absence proceeded from that fact that most everyone I knew had read The Great Gatsby in high school, and it had taken on that stigma of being a “high school book.” When Fitzgerald got mentioned, it was usually in the context of his wife Zelda, who was and has been in the process of undergoing scholarly recuperation, or in terms of his friendships within the 1920s Paris scene.

I confess that, until picking up Gatsby again, his place amidst his Paris peers has largely been how I have thought of him these long years. I did not read him again after high school, but I read those peers voraciously in undergrad and glutted myself on the expat Parisian scene: Joyce, Pound, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, and so forth. In addition to reading their works, I also read a slew of memoirs and biographies of the period, which is mostly where Fitzgerald made his appearances. He has thus been, in my mental map of modernism, the dipsomaniac butt of Hemingway’s jokes whose wife was either crazy or more talented than him or both (depending on whom you spoke to).

Reading him again today, his prose still feels oddly out of step with his fellow moderns: the writing is lush and elevated, almost Edwardian in its manners. And his subjects—the wealthy and feckless scions of the jazz age—are effectively an alien species when held up to Hemingway’s brittle, damaged men and women, Faulkner’s haunted vestiges of the Old South, Woolf’s complex and psychologically daunting character studies … At first glance (and indeed, in my vague memory before picking the book up again), Gatsby seems obsessed with surfaces: the characters are described in pungent detail, and the descriptions of their behaviour slots them into a set of types. Only Jay Gatsby appears to have much of an inner life, and that is only because he comes with a ready-made air of mystery fostered and furthered by everyone else’s rampant speculations.

On second and third glance however, it becomes apparent that the novel is preoccupied with surfaces—which I italicize to emphasize a fine distinction between superficial writing and writing about superficiality, which may itself take the guise of shallowness. One of the criticisms often leveled against the novel is that the prose is beautiful but empty—that Fitzgerald is quite brilliant at writing exquisite sentences that do not, ultimately, mean much of anything. Certainly, that was Jared Bland’s assertion in his May 3rd column in The Globe and Mail, where he writes:

Consider the following passage from the novel’s closing pages: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” This isn’t simply a question of taste. It’s a question of emptiness. Amorphous trees? Ghosts breathing dreams like air? Scarcely created grass? None of these things actually means anything, just as there’s really no such thing as “riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart,” just as “the full bellows of the earth” don’t really blow “frogs full of life.” This is all lyricism, all metaphor, yes. But it is void lyricism, hollow metaphor.

I don’t know that I agree with his argument—“amorphous trees” seems a perfectly crumulent image to me, and the figuration of ghosts that breathe dreams like air is one I could spend a long time unpacking, both in the context of the novel and out. But let’s provisionally grant Bland’s premise, because, truth be told, there are a lot of moments in the novel when it feels like Fitzgerald is performing a charlatan’s magic trick, or offering a fireworks display, all in the name of dressing up emptiness and vacuity as something spectacular; he does seem, to paraphrase an obscure Irish poet, to spend the novel sliding across the surface of things. But I differ with Jared Bland’s assessment of “void lyricism”—the metaphors are not themselves hollow, not when Fitzgerald employs them as he does in the passage Bland quotes. Rather, it feels as though he spends his precious prose on objects and characters not worth his skill.

But this dissonance between his prose and its objects, of course, is the novel’s ironic center. And for all the occasional flourishes Fitzgerald employs (his occasional “spectroscopic gayety,” to use an appropriate example), I’d argue that the novel’s most marked figure of speech is understatement. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive at first glance, considering the frequent descriptions of excess and frivolity, but what struck me most consistently as I re-read the novel was how often Fitzgerald blandly drops comments or observations that beg to be unpacked and expanded on.

For example: right at the beginning, as he briefly tells the story of his own background, Nick Carraway says: “I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless.” Take a moment to reread those two sentences. He dispenses with the traumatic experience of the First World War so casually, it barely seems worth mentioning—except that the culture of the 1920s, in America and in Europe, was fundamentally shaped by the memory of war. (And yes: this will be something I belabour in class, considering that our second novel will be A Farewell to Arms). Though Fitzgerald himself did not fight in the war—he enlisted and was stationed in Alabama, but the war ended before he was shipped overseas—he was friends with Hemingway, and moreover spent a lot of his time in France, where memory of the war was somewhat more acute than in the U.S. It would be easy to dismiss his dismissive characterization of the war, except that the war is a subtle presence in the novel. He met Gatsby overseas, and whatever other lies Gatsby tells himself and others, his experiences in the trenches (and ostensible heroism) appear in the novel with the burnish of truth. Couple that with the fact that the near-hysterical partying at Gatsby’s mansion functions almost as an apotheosis of the “Jazz Age” hedonism that was itself a desperate attempt to forget the war’s trauma (potential students: at this point in class, expect an extended riff on Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory, and possibly Modris Ekstein’s The Rites of Spring).

But in Carraway’s economical retelling, the war was an exhilarating “counter-raid.” That Carraway comes back “restless” begs speculation. Restless how? He says it moved him to “go East and learn the bond business.” There is such a careful detachment in Carraway’s narration—of which his tendency toward understatement is a big part—disaffection from all those with whom he interacts (including and especially Gatsby) that it is not hard to infer emotional damage. In the end, Carraway describes Gatsby and the Buchanans—and everyone else he meets in their orbits—with the disconnected distaste of an alien, at first slightly (but only slightly) enamoured of their beauty and manners, but in the end completely disgusted with them all.

I find it rather amusing and perhaps a little ironic that, in the end, what I admire most about The Great Gatsby’s style is a trait most often attributed to Hemingway: the tendency to leave the vast majority of the material and substance of the story unsaid. Hemingway’s reputation was that of the great leaver-outer of things (it’s a literary expression. Look it up). He’d write a story that was two thousand words and then pare it down, pare it down, until it was half the length, or less. To give Scott Fitzgerald his due, however, where his buddy’s prose was so self-consciously spare—you can’t really read Hemingway without being aware of what he’s not telling you—The Great Gatsby manages to be exactly that pared down and spare, while seeming baroque and excessive. That`s a pretty impressive line to navigate, I must say.

We’ll be revisiting this comparison when I post on A Farewell to Arms. But for now, advantage: Fitzgerald.

Next up: leaving behind this whole question of understatement and considering Gatsby’s (literally) spectacular wealth!

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