The Great Gatsby
'One of the best novels to have come out of America: concisely expressed, rich in imagination, lyrical in style' Anthony Powell, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Century 'Fitzgerald confronts no less a problem than what might be involved, what might be at stake, in trying to see, and write, America itself. The Great Gatsby is, I believe, the most perfectly crafted work of fiction to have come out of America' Tony Tanner, in the Introduction 'A modern classic, a key American novel... For once, Fitzgerald really had won what he wanted: to create, amid the glitter and the gold, "a conscious artistic achievement" ' Malcolm Bradbury, Mail on Sunday
'It must be one of the most perfect novels ever written. Technique and tact and moral sensibility are as finely tuned as in any of Turgeniev's great novels, and yet it is as American as Hollywood' John McGahern, Irish Times
'A prose that has the tough delicacy of a garnet' Brad Leithauser, The New York Review of Books
'Lost time and the irretrievability of the past are themes which filter through almost every page of this exquisite novel' Jason Cowley, Sunday Times
ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND EDITOR
F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in St Paul, Minnesota, and went to Princeton University, which he left in 1917 to join the army. He was said to have epitomized the Jazz Age, which he himself denied as 'a generation grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken'. In 1920 he married Zelda Sayre. Their traumatic marriage and her subsequent breakdowns became the leading influence in his writing. Among his publications were five novels, This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned, Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon (his last and unfinished work); six volumes of short stories and The Crack-Up, a selection of autobiographical pieces. Fitzgerald died suddenly in 1940. After his death The New York Times said of him that 'He was better than he knew, for in fact and in the literary sense he invented a "generation"... he might have interpreted and even guided them, as in their middle years they saw a different and nobler freedom threatened with destruction.'
Tony Tanner was a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, and Professor of English and American Literature. He taught and travelled extensively in America and Europe. Alongside books on Conrad and Saul Bellow, he published The Reign of Wonder (1965), a study of American literature; City of Words (1970); Contract and Transgression: Adultery and the Novel (1980); Jane Austen (1986); Scenes of Nature, Signs of Men (1987); Venice Desired (1992); and Henry James and the Art of Non-Fiction (1995). Tony Tanner died in December 1998.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
The Great Gatsby
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 1926
Published in Penguin Books 1950
Reprinted with an Introduction and Notes 1990
Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000
Introduction and Notes copyright (c) Tony Tanner, 1990
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THE GREAT GATSBY
IT was not always to be called The Great Gatsby. In a letter to Maxwell Perkins Fitzgerald wrote: 'I have now decided to stick to the title I put on the book. Trimalchio in West Egg' (circa 7 November 1924). Trimalchio is, of course, the vulgar social upstart of immense wealth in the Satyricon of Petronius - a master of sexual and gastronomic revels who gives a banquet of unimaginable luxury in which, unlike Gatsby who is a non-drinking, self-isolating spectator at his own parties, he most decidedly participates. He is a most literal glutton, while Gatsby stands at a curious distance from all he owns and displays, just as at times he seems to stand back from his own words and consider them appraisingly, as he would the words of another, just as he will display shirts he has never worn, books he has never read, and extend invitations to swim in the pool he has never used.
If Fitzgerald thought of Gatsby as some sort of American Trimalchio thrown up by the riotous licence of the Twenties, he certainly subjected him to some remarkable metamorphoses. (He is called Trimalchio just once in the novel.) But there are some distinct genealogical traces of Gatsby's ancient ancestor. In the Satyricon Trimalchio is first mentioned in the conversation of two friends discussing where that night's feast is to be held: 'Do you not know at whose house it is today? Trimalchio, a very rich man, who has a clock and a uniformed trumpeter in his dining-room, to keep telling him how much of his life is lost and gone.' Gatsby's concern with time - its arrestability, recuperability, repeatability - is equally obsessive (as was Fitzgerald's - he seemed to write surrounded by clocks and calendars, said Malcolm Cowley). One of the 'punctilious' Gatsby's few clumsy physical movements nearly results in the breaking of a clock. No doubt in some corner of his being he would like to break them all. The obsession is partly the Trimalchian fear of transience - there is always too little time left: more grandly (if more foolishly), it comes from some deep refusal to accept the linear irreversibility of history. 'Banish the uniformed trumpeter!' would be Gatsby's cry: 'I will not hear his flourish.'
When Gatsby's illustrious forebear Trimalchio is first seen he is 'busily engaged with a green ball. He never picked it up if it touched the ground.' Gatsby comes to orient his life in relation to not a green ball but a green light. 'You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock,' he says to Daisy. Seen from across the water - and everything else - that separates him from Daisy, the green light offers Gatsby a suitably inaccessible focus for his yearning, something to give definition to desire while indefinitely deferring consummation, something to stretch his arms towards, as he does, rather than circle his arms around, as he tries to. The fragile magic of the game depends on keeping the green light at a distance or, we might say, on keeping the green ball in the air. The green ball fallen to the ground would be too much of a reminder of that ineluctable gravity that pulls all things back to the earth, balls and dreams alike. Likewise with the annulment of distance: lights too closely approached may well lose their supernal lustre and revert to unarousing ordinariness. You can wish only on the star you can't reach.
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
Possibly - and possibly not. Or possibly something different. Certainly in this book there is abroad a hunger for 'enchanted objects', a taste for the 'colossal' and a concern to try to establish and differentiate those times - moments, configurations - when a light might be a star of 'colossal significance' as opposed to just another dock light. This is Nick Carraway's version, and we may wonder whether, in retrospect, the green light didn't shine more brightly for him even than, possibly, for Gatsby.
Of the many exotic courses served at Trimalchio's banquet I want to single out one:
a tray was brought in with a basket on it, in which there was a hen made of wood, spreading out her wings as they do when they are sitting. The music grew loud: two slaves came up and at once began to hunt in the straw... Peahen's eggs were pulled out and handed to the guests... we took our spoons and hammered at the eggs, which were balls of fine meal. I was on the point of throwing away my portion. I thought a peachick had already formed. But hearing a practised diner say, 'What treasure have we here?' I poked through the shell with my finger and found a fat baccafacio rolled up in spiced yoke of egg.
In October 1922 the Fitzgeralds moved to a house in Great Neck, Long Island, on a peninsula at the foot of Manhasset Bay. Their house was a relatively modest one compared with the opulent summer homes of the seriously rich old American families - the Guggenheims, the Astors, the Van Nostrands, the Pulitzers - on another peninsular across the bay. This, of course, provided Fitzgerald with the basic topography for his novel: new-money Gatsby and no-money Nick on one side of the bay and 'old-money' (but what is 'old' money in America?) Buchanans on the other. In the course of being transposed into the novel the 'Necks' became 'Eggs'.
Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound. They are not perfect ovals - like the egg in the Columbus story, they are both crushed flat at the contact end - but their physical resemblance must be a source of perpetual wonder to the gulls that fly overhead. To the wingless a more interesting phenomenon is their dissimilarity in every particular except shape and size.
A deep, generating question behind the whole book is just this. As a result of the 'domestication' of the great wild continent discovered by Columbus, what has been hatched from it? What will you find if you take your spoon to the great egg - or is it eggs? - of America? A disgusting, aborted, stunted and still-born thing, fit only to be thrown away? Or a treasure, something special (baccafacio, a small bird, was considered a great delicacy) and marvellous and rare? Are the true products of America as 'dissimilar' as the two Eggs might suggest, with the East Egg Buchanans representing and embodying the sort of devouring, self-pleasuring and hypocritical materialism that the stupendous and ruthless success of nineteenth-century capitalism fostered and enabled, and the West Egg alliance of Nick and Gatsby holding out for the possibility, the necessity, of that something else, something more, which materialism can never satisfy - a nostalgic yearning for some sort of ideal that refuses to concede any absolute dominion to the merely accidental triumphs of the matter and matters of the day? From this point of view, if you went back far enough into American history, then, archetypally, Benjamin Franklin was the driving genius of East Egg, while Jonathan Edwards would be the tutelary spirit of West Egg. This is a comprehensible and justifiable reading of the striking 'dissimilarity' of two of the more striking types hatched by America - Nick himself speaks of 'the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast' between the two Eggs. But, in his own terms, this is the perspective of the 'wingless'. Seen from a sufficiently soaring height, it is their 'resemblance' that is a source of 'perpetual wonder'. This novel will indeed concern itself with dissimilarities and resemblances, and there is no disputing the differing aspirations and fates of the necessarily wingless protagonists. But near the end Nick makes a summarizing statement: 'I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all - Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.' Is there a Buchanan egg and a Gatsby egg? This one an abortion, that one a treasure? Or, allowing for mutations and variations, does the barnyard produce only one animal? It depends, perhaps, on how high you fly, how far away you stand - which points to a crucial matter raised by the book: what is and is not 'distorted' vision? What mixture of proximity and distance affords the best, the most appropriate, perception? How should Nick look at what he has seen?
In 'Winter Dreams', a story Fitzgerald wrote in 1922, Dexter Green is the son of a grocery-store owner in Minnesota, a quick, alert Midwestern lad who is 'unconsciously dictated to by his winter dreams'. The winters are characteristically 'dismal'; the dreams, reactively, turn towards intimations of the 'gorgeous'.
But do not get the impression, because his winter dreams happened to be concerned at first with musings on the rich, that there was anything merely snobbish in the boy. He wanted not association with glittering things and glittering people - he wanted the glittering things themselves. Often he reached out for the best without knowing why he wanted it - and sometimes he ran up against the mysterious denials and prohibitions in which life indulges... He made money. It was rather amazing.
Dexter Green is an embryonic Gatsby, and we may note a rather curious distinction on which the narrator insists-'not association with glittering things and glittering people [but] the glittering things themselves': not association but possession. But what would, or could, or might it be to possess a glittering thing or a glittering person? Can the attempt to go beyond association into appropriation ever not encounter 'denials and prohibitions'? These are tacit questions that will haunt the later novel.
Like many aspiring children of immigrant parents, Dexter cannot afford to be natural and spontaneous, for that might betray something of his 'peasant' origin. He assembles himself, as he assembles his wardrobe, with care. 'He recognized the value to him of such a mannerism and he had adopted it...' This is to build the self from the outside, as it were. The result is successful - 'He made money. It was amazing' - but vulnerable and precarious. The more he gets, the less he has. On one level he simply allows himself to be ensnared and enthralled - and used and abandoned - by a heedless, capricious, whimsical, dizzy, shallow rich girl, Judy Jones, who announces and reveals herself in her smile, 'radiant, blatantly artificial - convincing' (like Gatsby's smile). But she is perhaps no more artificial, self-constructed, than Dexter himself, and we might think of it as a matter of artifice reaching out and responding to artifice. We might, a little, think of Gatsby and Daisy that way too. For Dexter it is simply immaterial whether Judy is sincere or acting when she again takes him up before she again lets him down: 'No illusion as to the world in which she had grown up could cure his illusion as to her desirability.' It might seem as though Judy is the glittering thing-person of his winter dreams, but in a curious way she is a rather incidental figure, almost a function around which he can assemble and indulge a personal lexicon of ineffable glitteringness - 'beautiful', 'romantic', 'gorgeous', 'ecstasy', 'magic of nights', 'fire and loveliness'. His relationship is with these words more than with her. Early in their relationship he says to her: 'I'm nobody... My career is largely a matter of futures.' But - and this is the other, more important, level of his relationship with her - his future is largely a matter of pasts.
As a boy Dexter was a caddy. Now a wealthy young man, he can afford caddies of his own when he goes golfing. But he keeps glancing at them, 'trying to catch a gleam or gesture that would remind him of himself, that would lessen the gap which lay between his present and his past'. The greatest intensity of feeling comes not from possession but from intimation of imminent or actual loss. Fairer through fading, writes Emily Dickinson: glittering because going, Fitzgerald implies ('It was a mood of intense appreciation, a sense that, for once, he was magnificently attuned to life and that everything about him was radiating a brightness and a glamour he might never know again'), glittering because the radiance is about to dim. And when it has dimmed and the world seems definitively deglamorized, then emotionally the only future that matters really is the past.
The story concludes with an incident that occurs many years after Dexter has resigned himself to the fact that Judy has disappeared from his life. From a chance encounter Dexter learns that Judy has married a boor who 'drinks and runs around' - shades, or rather intimations, of Tom Buchanan - that she probably loves him and that her looks have gone: squalor and degradation all round, in other words. And now Dexter feels a further loss:
The dream was gone. Something had been taken from him. In a sort of panic he pushed the palms of his hands into his eyes and tried to bring up a picture of the waters lapping on Sherry Island and the moonlit veranda, and gingham on the golf-links and the dry sun and the gold color of her neck's soft down. And her mouth damp to his kisses and her eyes plaintive with melancholy and her freshness like new fine linen in the morning. Why, these things were no longer in the world! They had existed and they existed no longer.
For the first time in years the tears were streaming down his face. But they were for himself now. He did not care about mouth and eyes and moving hands. He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the grey beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.
'Long ago,' he said, 'long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.'
This is - very young man's prose, and such a plangent lament for not only loss but also