In a few months, we’ll be celebrating the 90th Anniversary of The Great Gatsby, published for the first time in April 1925, although technically F. Scott Fitzgerald had completed his masterpiece in the winter of 1924. In June 1923, he had penned a genesis (referred by scholars as ‘Ur-Gatsby’) of what would become the Great American Novel, featuring the protagonist’s duality towards the figure of Father Schwartz —inspired by Father Fay, Fitzgerald’s headmaster at Newman college. The ‘Ur-Gatsby’ would be assimilated into his short story Absolution (June 1924).
Encouraged by his editor Maxwell Perkins to make new revisions, Fitzgerald had to “adumbrate” his Gatsby’s character, seen somewhat as “vague” by Scribner’s Publishing. On December 20, 1924, Fitzgerald sent a letter to Perkins from Hôtel des Princes in Rome, commenting about the novel’s chapter VII: “the trouble with Daisy — it may hurt the book’s popularity that it’s a man’s book.” While perfecting Gatsby, the Fitzgeralds had put a glittering tree with silver bells in their hotel room and attended a Christmas Eve party in honor of Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur (the most expensive silent movie ever).
Armed with “sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world,” Fitzgerald felt “an enormous power, more than I’ve ever had.” The masculine ideal of the 1920s for Fitzgerald was “the old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch.” Despite innumerable analysis, there is still an indefinite quality that confers The Great Gatsby value as a mystifying and illimitable work of art. Due to a serious matrimonial crisis (Zelda’s liaison with Edouard Jozan), Fitzgerald declared he’d “dragged” his most renowned book “out of the pit of my stomach in a time of misery.” His conflicting sentiments during the Gatsby period emerged in a letter to Zelda: “no one believing in me except you… and then I was really alone with no one I liked.”
Much has been pondered about the enigmatic Daisy Fay Buchanan (whose conflated portrait was based on Fitzgerald’s old flame Ginevra King and his wife Zelda), although she is at moments almost a nondescript character, only defined by a minimal characterization. “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says of Daisy’s catchy vocal tone, prompting Nick to embrace his second cousin’s “inexhaustible charm”. Daisy is “the king’s daughter, the golden girl,” wrapped in white clothes and luxury, sometimes only “a disembodied face [that] floated along the dark cornices.” Actually, Fitzgerald advanced that in Gatsby there was “no important woman character”. The story revolved mainly around the intriguing kinship between James Gatz (Gatsby) and Nick Carraway (the Narrator), both clashing against the East Egg faction represented by Tom Buchanan (Daisy’s unfaithful husband).
One of the alternative titles for Gatsby was Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires, as if Fitzgerald –Malcolm Cowley writes in Fitzgerald: The Romance of Money (1973)– “were setting the two against each other while suggesting a vague affinity between them. Tom Buchanan, the brutalized millionaire, finds a mistress in the Valley of Ashes.”
“My characters are all Scott Fitzgerald. Even the feminine characters,” the complex author reckoned. In the recent critical essay Understanding Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (2014), Robert A. Albano clarifies: “Fitzgerald was able to incorporate the many sides of his own personality into the creation of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald himself was a romantic who ignored the reality in order to achieve a goal which many would have thought to be impossible.” However, Fitzgerald had confessed to John Peale Bishop: “I never at any one time saw him [Gatsby] clear myself — for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself — the amalgam was never complete in my mind.”
The first kiss between Jay and Daisy (“the incarnation was complete”) is seen by Albano as a Biblical reference to God taking human form as Jesus Christ. Gatsby worships Daisy as his sacred duty: “the sacredness of the vigil.” Zelda remembered when she first danced with Scott (in 1918) in her dazzling novel Save Me the Waltz (1932): “There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention.”
In An Almost Theatrical Innocence (2014), John T. Irwin asserts that Gatsby exemplifies (“Gatsby had broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice…”) how “the Pausanian and the Ovidian myth of Narcissus lie at the heart of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.” Irwin continues: “Fitzgerald would also have been attracted to the Pygmalion-Galatea myth because of its subtext, its parabolic evocation of the male artist’s relationship to his work of art considered as a female double.” Fitzgerald was, as his Princeton friend Alec McKaig observed, “absorbed in Zelda’s personality.” Zelda’s influence was key in the shaping of Gatsby‘s sensibilities.
Jay Gatsby’s description is more an abstract illustration than a realistically detailed portrayal: “an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” Daisy opines Gatsby resembles “the advertisement of the man,” alluding possibly to the models for J. C. Leyendecker’s drawings.
Inspecting the Chapter V, some parallels we find are chilling, like the apparition of Owl-Eyes (a character who attends Gatsby’s funeral following the departure of Nick and Gatsby’s father), “with enormous owl-eyed spectacles” at the Merton College Library. Owl-Eyes inevitably reminds us of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg (the phantasmagorical billboard “over the solemn dumping ground” — an Eliotesque Wasteland): “above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles.”
“I am too much a moralist at heart and want to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them,” Fitzgerald explained. That’s the reason real events are inserted in Gatsby under a caustic light, such as the Black Sox Scandal (“one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people”), using Meyer Wolfscheim’s character as a variation of mobster Arnold Rothstein who conspired in the fixing of the 1919 World Series.
“Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply,” ironizes Nick when he learns of Jordan Baker’s vapid and invidious personality. According to Rena Sanderson’s analysis Women in Fitzgerald’s fiction (2006): “Fitzgerald expressed his uneasiness at the feminization of American culture… a symptom of a larger disorder – the decline of the West. Like Carl Jung, D. H. Lawrence, and Oswald Spengler, whose theories he admired, Fitzgerald believed that men and women had complementary natures and feared that a loosening of binary gender distinctions simply encouraged each side to adopt the worst characteristics of the opposite sex.”
Zelda’s early letters echoed her concepts about bisexuality (“two souls incarnated together”) —based on her mother Minnie Sayre’s theosophical doctrines— and greatly aroused Fitzgerald’s imagination. Zelda’s casual rapport with the bisexual novelist Nancy Hoyt or female artists (Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney) could be misinterpreted as lesbian tendencies, especially when she obsessed with her ballet trainer Lubov Egorova. Fitzgerald’s attitude was of intense discomfort toward homosexuals (or ‘fairies’), observing in his Notebooks: “The great homosexual theses — that all great pansies were pansies.”
Zelda’s literary style showed her irrational, genially bended vision like a negative photograph of Fitzgerald’s elegiac pathos, most evidenced in Save Me the Waltz: “Asthmatic Christmas bells tolled over Naples. Alabama went to see the wax Nativities at Benediction. The gleam of gold damask on the altar was as warm and rich as what it represented. She said to herself that human beings have no right to fail. She did not feel what failure was.”
Blending Ginevra King’s flighty elitism and Zelda’s esoteric sensuality, Daisy is also a symbol of sexual illusion, since she’s not fitted anymore for the romantic soldier who had wooed her virginal version in 1917. In my book (pun intended), one of the scariest passages that damages Daisy’s aura irreparably: “in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, she laughed with thrilling scorn. The instant her voice broke off, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick… as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society.” Likewise, Gatsby’s dark side is exposed through his interminable self-delusion: he’s not the lovesick soldier with an ‘incorruptible dream,’ but a duplicitous shady businessman.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness,” Nick claims, convinced that Gatsby’s ideals have been replaced by inertia. Gatsby’s innocent flaw was turning his magic into a social acclivity, while searching for his identity in Daisy (a woman he doesn’t know anymore). In Sex & Character (1906), Otto Weininger philosophized: “A man’s attempt to find himself in a woman, rather than simply seeing her, presupposes a neglect [of her]. This is where the parallel between the cruelty of eroticism and the cruelty of sexuality becomes complete… Love is Murder. Those who ‘couldn’t care less’ are incapable of love. Love is the most modest of all requests, because it begs for the highest.”
Fitzgerald places the green light shining from Daisy’s dock and the green land as symbols of a mythical Shangri-La. In the United States, Fitzgerald believed, the greatest Americans have “almost invariably come from the very poor class – Lincoln, Edison, Whitman, Ford, Twain.”
According to Maureen Corrigan in So We Read On (2014): “The great theme running throughout all Fitzgerald’s writing and his life is the nobility of the effort to keep one’s head above water, despite the almost inevitable certainty of drowning.”
When Fitzgerald courted Zelda in Montgomery (Alabama), she had taken him to Oakwood cemetery. Among the Confederate graves and the glorious vestiges of the past, the prodigy writer proposed to the Southern Belle. In another legendary letter, Zelda had enskied their shared reverie: “All the broken columns and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances. Old death is so beautiful… We will die together —I know—Sweetheart.”
“He found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a ‘nice’ girl could be. He felt married to her, that was all.” —The Great Gatsby
Article first published as The 90th Anniversary of ‘The Great Gatsby’ on Blogcritics.