Thoughts on The Great Gatsby II; or, Spectacular Excess


The thing that struck me most on re-reading Gatsby was how much it felt like a novel written not long after 1929. The scathing indictment of excess and acquisitiveness—and the use of Gatsby as a dark parody of Horatio Alger—seems prescient in light of the stock market crash that came four years after it was published. Gatsby would work well taught alongside The Big Money, the third novel in John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy. Except that where Dos Passos published his novel in 1936 and wrote with the benefit of hindsight, Fitzgerald’s critique was aimed at the culture of excess and hedonism while it was at its apogee. With our benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to see Gatsby’s violent end as prophetic.

As I suggested in my last post, Gatsby’s principal figure of speech is understatement—but not even Nick Carraway’s tendency to be laconic (albeit elegantly and sometimes baroquely so, which is quite the needle to thread when you think about it) obviates the splendor and mind-numbing displays of wealth at Gatsby’s mansion. In many ways, Fitzgerald gives us a familiar contrast, between new money and old. The property and possessions of the Buchanans are impressive, but Fitzgerald’s description of the house articulates the comfort and complacency of inherited, dynastic wealth:

Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.

hotel de ville

An example of an Hotel de Ville.

The first description of Gatsby’s mansion, by contrast, calls it “colossal affair by any standard” which was “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy.” Fitzgerald never calls Gatsby’s mansion gauche or tacky in so many words; but the evocation of a palatial French manse, still so new that the “raw ivy” can’t hide its youth,” is in stark contrast with the easy elegance of the Buchanan home—whose ivy is so venerable that it is of a piece with the manicured lawn.

Beyond this initial description, however, Fitzgerald does not devote much time to the objective appearance of the house. Rather, the lion’s share of his descriptions of Gatsby’s home, over the course of the novel, is devoted to Gatsby’s stuff—most startlingly later on when Gatsby starts pulling his tailored, imported shirts giddily off his shelves where they’re piled dozens deep and throwing them to Daisy (I’ll have more to say about that later)—but the first party Nick attends begins not with the festivities but the goodies brought in to stock them:

Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York—every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors d’oeurve, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another.

And it goes on … The reason I belabor this point is to emphasize the subtitle of this post: that Gatsby’s displays of wealth and excess are, quite literally, spectacular: that is to say, the very point of them is as spectacle, an answering beacon to the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, in the hopes that she’ll see his display and eventually make her way over to one of his parties.

I’ll talk about that symbolic gesture in a moment—and more when I talk about the recent film version of Gatsby in my next post—but for now I’m interested in what Fitzgerald leaves unspoken. I concluded my previous post with a favourable comparison of Fitzgerald’s technique to Hemingway’s, namely, the calculated elision of detail. Gatsby, is, after all, a pretty economically written novel: my edition runs to 180 pages. I’d argue that it’s as much what Fitzgerald leaves out as what he puts in that fascinates so many readers. What exactly did he do to make his money? Who’s on the end of all those phone calls he takes? How did he manage to accumulate such vast wealth in a mere three years? At the very beginning of the novel Fitzgerald signals Gatsby’s “mysteriousness” by having so many random party-goers spin increasingly elaborate stories about him. And even though we do eventually get his backstory, we’re still only privy to a fraction of the story proper: namely, Gatsby’s obsessive, childlike, and ultimately doomed love for Daisy.

The untold account of his meteoric rise, however, is the foundation for the novel’s critique. Wealth in Fitzgerald’s novel—huge wealth, at any rate—is consonant with moral and spiritual carelessness. That is, in the end, Carraway’s verdict on Tom and Daisy: “It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness.” And while these damning words are directed at Tom and Daisy, they resonate with the memory of Gatsby too—for he is in his own way careless, reckless in his pursuit of enough wealth that Daisy will notice him there across the sound and see him as worthy of her love.

His parties are symbolic expenditure, and are symbolically wasteful; the aforementioned “pyramid of pulpless halves” leaving his house after every weekend is as apt a metaphor for his expenditures as any. But given the ephemeral nature of his spending, it begs readers to speculate on just how solid his wealth is. On reading the novel this time around, I kept coming back around to how literally unbelievable his riches are—for we know, once we have his backstory, that he came out of the war penniless. So if he was demobbed in early 1919, and then spent five months at Oxford, he had less than three years to accumulate the money he spends in the summer of 1922. In a recent New York Magazine article, Kevin Roose crunches the numbers, tallying up the likely costs of Galsby’s mansion and possessions and the amount he would have had to spend on his parties. His conclusion is that, even allowing for Gatsby to earn far more than was likely for a bootlegger to earn in the early years of Prohibition, he would have been experiencing significance shortfalls, and would most likely have gone into debt.

How much of this Fitzgerald worked out for himself is largely beside the point—and nor is it strictly necessary to apply the relevant numbers to the novel in a “how many children did Lady Macbeth have?” fashion. While there is more than enough there in the novel to suggest that Gatsby was living well beyond his means, he was manifestly living metaphorically well beyond his means. As already mentioned, Gatsby plays out the old chestnut of old money’s solidity versus new money’s upstart tactlessness; Gatsby himself is a paragon of hyperactive, conspicuous consumption. One of his most striking characteristics is his childishness, and his childlikeness: he has throughout the vaguely pathetic faith that his “success”—or perhaps more significantly, the outward signs of his success—will ultimately dazzle and woo Daisy.

If Gatsby is prescient in its vilification of the mindless drive toward wealth and accumulation that resulted in the stock market crash of 1929, it is more subtly prescient of the rise of a popular film genre during the Great Depression: the mobster film. Indeed, even if one didn’t know that Gatsby was written in the mid-twenties rather than in the midst of the Depression, one big clue lies in the person of Gatsby’s partner in crime. Modelled loosely on the Jewish gangster Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Wolfsheim is about as ugly an anti-Semitic caricature as one is likely to find, a figure right out of fevered late-19th century paranoia—and indeed right out of Tom Buchanan’s “scientific” books about the coming “colored empire.” At first glance, Tom’s enthusiasm for geopolitical race theory reflects back on his jealously guarded privileges of race and class, but the depiction of Wolfsheim goes a long way toward giving credence to what Carraway calls his “impassioned gibberish.” Gatsby, it becomes clear toward the end, is not the sole architect of his own doom—Wolfsheim is the puppeteer, playing the role of the scheming Jew as he preys vampirically on Gatsby’s whiteness.

(I’ll have more to say about Wolfsheim in my next post, vis à vis Baz Lurhmann’s casting versus the Wolfsheim of the Redford version).

This dynamic between Gatsby and Wolfsheim, as I say, is more a product of late-19th century thoughts and fears than what we see in the mobster genre of the 1930s—in which the (anti-)hero is more in the Horatio Alger mode, a scrappy young(ish) immigrant—usually Italian—who makes his way in the world of organized crime through his native intelligence and audacity. The mobster was a popular figure in Depression-era film specifically because he effected a critique of “legitimate” capitalism—he was the dark mirror to the robber barons, while at the same time offering the fantasy of wealth and excess.

Gatsby thus straddles a significant cultural line—the novel is a reflection of unease and anxiety about affluence and ready wealth, while anticipating its glaring absence. When I say the novel is prescient about the coming rise of the mobster film, it is because I can too well imagine a dramatization of the flip side of Gatsby’s story: the chronicle of his meteoric rise under Meyer Wolfsheim’s tutelage, his ruthless and single-minded dealings, and the other lives he ruined in his pursuit of wealth enough to impress Daisy. Consider this exchange between Tom and Gatsby, after Tom has done some research:

“I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were.” He turned to us and spoke rapidly. “He and this Wolfsheim bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter. That’s one of his little stunts. I picked him for a bootlegger the first time I saw him, and I wasn’t far wrong.”

“What about it?” said Gatsby politely. “I guess your friend Walter Chase wasn’t too proud to come in on it.”

“And you left him in the lurch, didn’t you? You let him go to jail for a month over in New Jersey. God! You ought to hear Walter on the subject of you.”

“He came to us dead broke. He was very glad to pick up some money, old sport.”

“Don’t you call me ‘old sport’!” cried Tom. Gatsby said nothing. “Walter could have you up on the betting laws too, but Wolfsheim scared him into shutting his mouth.”

That unfamiliar yet recognizable look was back again on Gatsby’s face.

“That drug-store business was just small change,” continued Tom slowly, “but you’ve got something on now that Walter’s afraid to tell me about.”

This is about as explicit as the novel gets about Gatsby’s business, but it’s enough to cast a pall over what has been tactfully glossed before as phone calls from Chicago or Philadelphia. We come at this point to see Gatsby in vaguely schizophrenic terms: he must be a ruthless bastard to have done as well as he obviously has in the world of organized crime, but we only get hints of it. Even here, confronted by Tom, Gatsby is mild and unruffled. It is only in his struggle to get Daisy to admit she never loved Tom that the veneer starts to crack—which is arguably the biggest insight we get into his character. There is something almost sociopathic about that need, like a child who has never been properly socialized, who on the cusp of getting most of what he desires will only be satisfied with total victory.

In my penultimate post on my last blog, I wrote at length about how HBO has ruined me: how I have become addicted to its long-form, complex narratives and character studies that unfold over hours and hours. With Gatsby I imagine a series that begins with him being demobbed, returning to the U.S. and setting his sights on Daisy … the three-year slog in the trenches of Wolfsheim’s cabal, and all of the ruthless decisions and lives he destroys, all of the parcels of his soul he ransoms for the wealth he imagines will win Daisy for him. The series (which only need run a season) could end with him meeting Nick Carraway at that party and his words “I’m Gatsby.”

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