LECTURE 1 - 19/08/99 and 20/08/99
How can we read Gatsby - what is it (about)?
A few broad narrative & thematic patterns that I use in my reading of the novel:
LECTURE 2 - 24/08
Gender, desire and power in The Great Gatsby
In general, Gatsby is a novel that deals with the slippery quality of language, and deconstructs all kinds of binary oppositions: we already looked at "East" and "West" in the last lecture. Other dichotomies that are rendered suspect in Gatsby are man/woman and some of the associated oppositions - subject/object, active/passive, victimiser/victim, etc. It is never entirely clear who the "real" victims are in the novel, or who is being objectified by whom - furthermore, the hetero-normative model of "boy desires girl" is constantly in trouble, as desire seems rather amorphous & free-floating.
In terms of judgements and descriptions, of gender and more generally as well, the narrator is unreliable. Nick posits himself originally as "inclined to reserve all judgements" (7), which would suggest a certain objectivity, but this is constantly problematised. A good description of his placement relative to the narrative occurs on page 37:
"I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I saw him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."
Nick is half-invested in the action, and half outside it, his eye/"I" both inside the "room" of the narrative and doubled/reflected "outside" in the guise of the "casual watcher". Certainly, he seems to desire Gatsby - in fact, there are many suggestions that his desire is not a conventionally "masculine", heterosexual one. On p.16, Nick's love interest, Jordan, is described in conventionally "masculine" terms:
"I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backwards at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her grey sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity..."
The scene where Nick takes the elevator with Mr McKee is also relevant here:
"'Come to lunch some day,' he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
'Keep your hands off the lever,' snapped the elevator boy.
'I beg your pardon, said Mr McKee with dignity, 'I didn't know I was touching it.'
'All right,' I agreed, 'I'll be glad to.'
... I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands." (39)
There is something phallic about the lever in the elevator, and the elevator boy functions here to articulate a prohibition that extends beyond the physical reality of the elevator. As so often in Gatsby, what is "really" happening is between the lines, in a certain slippage of meaning.
The narrator's construction of gender & of desire is therefore mediated by his own unconventional desires & his often unspoken involvements. We cannot entirely trust the text, its descriptions & its categories.
Daisy is originally constructed against Tom's violence - on page.17, he hurts Daisy, who appears as his victim. Tom's physically violence assertion of authority is repeated on page 39, where he silences Mrs Wilson by breaking her nose. He likes to dominate women physically and psychologically, and derives something of his own sense of masculine potency through this. Tom's violence extends to his ideology - he reads The Rise of the Coloured Empires (18) and constructs himself against the lesser races, as white, as a Westerner. There is the suggestion that this "philosophy" of white supremacy is linked to his fantasies of masculinity when he hesitates to include Daisy under the rubric "Nordic". However, Daisy complicates this dichotomy - where she is the "Other" to Tom's "self", the victim in Tom's self-construction, firstly by agreeing with him that the other races have to be "beaten down": she shares this ideology, she is half inside & half outside Tom's world, a victimiser herself. Her "victimisation" at the hands of men is undercut by, traversed by, other considerations: of class, of privilege, of whiteness, etc. Note also the physical violence that she inflicts, and the easy way in which the guilt & responsibility become transferred to someone else - her violence is more clandestine, but just as potent & terrifying. She enjoys the power she exercises.
Her description of her plight as a woman (page 22) is undercut by the sense that her narrative is artificial, that she is in fact constructing herself in a particular way - instead of establishing herself as a victim in Nick's mind, she reenforces the idea that she belongs with Tom, in his "rather distinguished secret society".
To complicate matters even further, we must remember that Nick's interpretations are never entirely trustworthy. There is frequently something grotesque and artificial for him about women & feminine sexuality. One example of this is on page 32, in the room on 5th avenue:
"Mr McKee was a pale, feminine man... and I gathered later that he was a photographer and had made the dim enlargement of Mrs Wilson's mother which hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall. His wife was shrill, languid, handsome, and horrible."
Nick responds here to a kind of "excess" femininity in the room - the mother is an uncanny, spectral figure, Mrs McKee is "shrill" and "horrible"... throughout the novel, Nick constructs the "feminine" as grotesque and untrustworthy, and recoils from it. In descriptions like the one above of Daisy, then, we are frequently lost in a labyrinth of representations, agendas & subjective realities.
To a certain extent, we can say that Daisy is Gatsby's "object" of desire, but it seems as if Gatsby is the one who loses his humanity, his agency & subjectivity, and becomes what he would like Daisy to see. He "wed his vision to her breath" (107), suggesting that in some sense, she speaks him, he falls from her lips, he makes himself for her. His heroic act of giving birth to himself is ultimately a compromise, a stripping down.
We see, then, how many of the conventional gender categories & associated divisions become dismantled or are rendered unstable.
LECTURE 3 - 25/08/99 AND 26/08/99
History and time in Gatsby
In one way or the other, many of the characters in Gatsby attempt to escape from the past, from the historical forces that shaped them, and ultimately from time & its effects.
This is introduced early on in the novel, where Nick positions his narrative in the context of voices that came before - the first sentence mentions the influence of the discourse of Nick's father on the present narrative. The idea of historical involvement, the function of history in giving form to the present, is introduced early on. The notion of escaping from the past, of rewriting history, is also underscored early on in the novel: on page 8, Nick mentions how his family has a tradition that they are descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, while their wealth actually derives from the wholesale hardware business that his grandfather's brother started.
Nick describes himself as an "original settler" (page 9), further developing a frame for the concepts of history & historicity that the novel explores. The idea of an "original settler" puts the troubled relationship to history in a particularly American context; in some ways, this is an American dilemma - how can the past be escaped from, how can the "self" be reinvented on new soil, and at what cost?
Again, we see that Nick is intimately involved in the problematics that he describes. History, and the passing of time, is a concern for Nick as well. On page129, he realises that it is his thirtieth birthday, and that he too is in the grip of time & subject to mortality.
Gatsby is the most obvious example of a man who attempts to elevate himself above his own past, to proscribe his history, and also, in a sense, to become immortal by living in one, repeated, frozen moment. In this sense, Gatsby is also a kind of "first settler", a representative of the American without a past in the "New World". (The East Coast here is both the place of "original settlement" and of course, in the time-frame of the novel, the place of old settlement, so that the old and the new are superimposed.) He has invented a personality - and, in the process, a past - for himself. He has realised that the past does not exist as such, that it is always interpreted, a narrative, and that it can be retold. In this retelling, in splitting his past, he becomes many Gatsbies. When Nick asks Jordan whether she knows Gatsby, she replies "What Gatsby?" (16) While she means that she doesn't know him, there is a deeper significance to this statement - there is not just one Gatsby, in recasting the story of his past, he has divided himself.
This is not to say that Gatsby represents the past as an entirely mutable fiction. The "real story" does surface, often as a disturbance, a slip, an uncertainty. From the outset, people feel that Gatsby does not tell the "whole" story. On page50, Jordan suggests that there is more to Gatsby's tale, that there is something fictive about it, but she can't put words to it. Note also how for Nick, who Gatsby is becomes identified with where he comes from and what he does:
"'Who is he?' I demanded. 'Do you know?'
"'He's just a man named Gatsby.'
"'Where is he from, I mean? And what does he do?'
"'Now you're started on the subject,' she answered with a wan smile. 'Well, he told me once he was an Oxford man.'
"A dim background started to take shape behind him, but at her next remark it faded away.
"'However, I don't believe it.'
"'I don't know,' she insisted, 'I just don't think he went there.'
"Something in her tone reminded me of the other girl's 'I think he killed a man', and had the effect of stimulating my curiosity.
The past, in Gatsby, is frequently beyond words, but no less real because of it. In one way, the suggestion that Gatsby "killed a man" is true - he killed himself when he reinvented himself. Gatsby killed Jimmy Gatz, and other characters realise this "between the lines" (often, in Gatsby, "between the lines" is the locus of truth & reality). When Daisy says "I heard it three times so it must be true" (24), it doesn't make it true - history, in this novel, is not merely based on consensus. History leaves traces - like the dark spots in the dust (148), marks of guilt - that demand interpretation. We should note, though, that the sense that Gatsby "invented" himself adds to, rather than subtracts from, his mystery & allure.
Throughout the novel, Gatsby's isolation is foregrounded. He has fabricated an artificial world for himself, composed on the one hand of pleasure, and on the other a contrived past. This is symbolised by his library, with the uncut books, if one thinks of the "cut" as evidence of having experienced the text of the past (47). Another symbol of how the characters in the novel escape from, repress, cover the past, occurs on page 39, where the Town Tattle is spread over the tapestry scenes of Versailles. This "covering up" of history with "town tattle" duplicates Tom's physical violence, it is a kind of violence done to the past, where transient gossip covers over the inheritance of (European) history & high art. In reinventing himself, he freed himself but also trapped himself in a world of fiction. None of his "fictional fathers" come to his funeral, only his real father. His "true" origins re-emerge when he dies, and the value & significance of his fictional life is reduced to nothing. This return of the "real" father is also a cogent illustration of the inescapability of the past: in death, Gatsby returns to his first father, the locus of trauma that his artificial world attempts to eschew.
Ultimately, his attempts to transcend time & historical forces are unsuccessful. On page 84, when he meets Daisy, he catches the falling clock, exemplifying his attempts to hold on to time, to stop the damage of time. On page104, Nick says to Gatsby that he can't repeat the past. Gatsby denies this: "of course you can!" Repeating the past, here, really means rising above it, holding onto one instant forever, having the power to turn the clock back. Gatsby's reply can be read in another way too, though. Because he denies the inevitability of historical process, of change, he is doomed to repeat the past - he lost Daisy before, and he will lose her again, he tried to escape from his father's world, but he is doomed to return to it in death.
Despite the futility of what Gatsby attempts, there is, in Nick's narrative, also something tragically heroic about it. Gatsby aspires to a kind of God-like status, a self-authorship, that in the humanist tradition is the highest expression of human aspiration. Perhaps one can ask what the ideological/political consequences are of such a glamorisation of the bourgeois fantasy of self-authorship & self-containment.
LECTURE 3 - 25/08/99 AND 26/08/99
Judgement and morality in Gatsby
a few questions:
Chapter summaries of Gatsby
A beginner's guide to Gatsby
"Fitzgerald campire chat"
Chapter One: "Centers of Interest"
Modern American Literature on the Web