For once I did the thing I said I would do and reread The Great Gatsby. By now I’ve heard at least a half dozen people say, “Oh I should reread it too. I don’t remember much of it from high school.” I was curious to know, what book did they remember reading in high school? Without hesitation, The Catcher in the Rye. I remember that one. A friend made an interesting point: she had loved Catcher so much in high school that she decided to revisit it a few months ago.
“But I realized I couldn’t stand him,” she said of the narrator, “I just wanted to say, ‘Shut up! Stop whining!’ But in high school I felt I could relate.”
That’s the thing. In the tenth grade, Nick Carraway, who turns thirty in the novel, seemed so very adult, almost another species. At fifteen I didn’t quite catch his judgments of Gatsby, of Daisy and Tom and only faintly understood his subtly delineated relationship with Jordan Baker who though “unlike Daisy, was too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age” was also too unlike Nick for them to be truly compatible.
In short, I couldn’t relate. Not to that crowd. Not to those themes. The American dream was one of those things that other, older people like my parents strove to achieve so they could raise bored, thankless kids like me. Now though, I’m closer to thirty and have made the acquaintances of a few real-life Gatsbys (though less doomed) along with members of the careless rich, among them young women like Daisy who want “their life shaped now, immediately – and the decision must be made by some force – of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality – that was close at hand.” I think I’m getting closer.
And most important, I think, by simply being born into this day and age of careless everybodies, descendants all of the Buchanans and their lot, but who actually really do care and as a defensive measure judge, judge, judge, I’ve a better grasp of the key points that literally bookend the story:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “Just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
But it’s too reductive not to include the paragraphs that come before (I’d copy and paste the whole novel to prove my point…), in which Fitzgerald illustrates beautifully what he means without bringing it down like a heavy branch over our skulls.
Nick retells Gatsby’s falling in love with Daisy with the same symbolic parallels he later uses to elevate Gatsby to a symbol of the American dream:
…One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the house were humming out into the darkness and there was a stur and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees – he could climb to it, if he, climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.
His heart beat faster and faster, as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.
Nick returns to Gatsby’s abandoned private beach on his last night in New York, several weeks after Gatsby’s funeral:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy moving glow of a ferryboat across the sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had been made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
Daisy’s “white face” becomes “the green breast of the new world,” of “this continent,” America, and Nick turns Gatsby’s dream into the American dream, one we can strive for but which if we don’t wholly understand why and what for, could fell us with a single bullet.
Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something – an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.
And now I’m beginning to realize too, that I didn’t appreciate what is quite simply some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever encountered, both within the flesh and bones of the story and without, the skin of the writing itself. And I wonder, what was this “something,” this “elusive rhythm” that Nick “had heard somewhere a long time ago?” Perhaps it’s not at all something he heard but something he will say in the near future, still alive and able to contemplate both Gatsby’s memory and what lies ahead:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther… and one fine morning ——
What little I’ve accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back – but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: “I’ve found my line – fron now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty – without this I am nothing.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald