“Boats Against the Current”: Gatsby Forty Years On

Bishop Edward King Chapel

I am not quite sure what my old English Literature teacher, Bruce Ritchie, would have made of this short article.  I count myself blessed to have been taught by him at A-level, and having grown up in a house that was not especially into books or English literature (that is some understatement), it was no mean feat of his to inspire our class of somewhat lazy, precocious late-adolescents to read.  And then to begin to love reading. Here, I do mean ‘love’.  I have never stopped since.

That said, my adult novel-habit would probably have disappointed Bruce.  It is rarefied by any measure. I read very, very few novels – perhaps one or two a year – and mostly choose to graze on history, politics, theology and social theory. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was one of the set texts for our A-level class, and it is some forty years since I sat in Bruce Ritchie’s class at his feet, as we debated the text with one another and its multiple layers of meaning.  

Bruce Ritchie was a truly brilliant teacher, and a master of conversational pedagogy. He inspired in me a love of later twentieth century American writers, which takes in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) to the complete works of Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion.

The Great Gatsby (1925) is a short novel, and it is part of a body of work that comprised a handful of novels (e.g., The Beautiful and the Damned and Tender is the Night), over 160 short stories, some screenplays and several essays.  In all this, The Great Gatsby has endured as a serious contender for the great American novel, and I think its time has come again.

Fitzgerald’s novels depicted the flamboyance and excesses of the ‘Jazz Age’ – a term which although he did not originate, was one he nevertheless popularized.  Gatsby is semi-autobiographical.  Whilst at Princeton, the 19-year-old Fitzgerald met Ginevra King, a 16-year-old socialite with whom he fell madly in love. However, Ginevra’s family strongly discouraged Fitzgerald’s pursuit of their daughter due to his “lower-class” status, and her father allegedly told the young Fitzgerald that “poor boys shouldn’t even think of marrying rich girls”.

Smitten but rejected, Fitzgerald signed up for the Great War draft in 1917.  While stationed in Alabama, he fell in love with another rich socialite named Zelda Sayre. She also rejected him due to his financial situation, but then did agree to marry Fitzgerald after he had published his commercially successful This Side of Paradise (1920). The marriage was always troubled, however, with Zelda eventually being committed to a psychiatric hospital, and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

In the interim, Fitzgerald unexpectedly found that his new-found affluent lifestyle as a successful writer in the exclusive Long Island ‘social scene’ to be both seductive and repulsive. Think of The Kardashians, The Only Way is Essex or Made in Chelsea, but now set one hundred years ago – a world of affluence and conspicuous consumption.  But a world that was gaudy, and trying too hard – lacking in class, depth and discernment. And yet for many viewers, almost grimly absorbing.

Re-reading the novel forty years later, one cannot escape the stain and stigma of shame that most of the characters carry. The majority seek to evade the shadow of shame through conspicuouls consumption, excessive drinking, illicit affairs, social climbing (clambering, really) and forms of abrogation that leave us with characters who seem invested in forgetting the past and presen. There is no religion in the novel, yet there is this sense of unshifting sin that pre-stains the actors, gradually hemming in the characters, enclosing them and ultimately overwhelming them in further episodes and events that will need to be left behind. Yet can’t be. This is a novel of consequences, yet it offers little hope of any redemption.

The past, it seems, is not a foreign country. It is, rather, a place from which few can expect to escape. The past catches up with everyone. Gatsby is pretty realistic about the power of life’s currents: it is hard to not get pulled back to where you began, to what you started out as. Varieties of shame stalk each of the characters, and their strategies for avoidance resemble a futile fictional character trying to escape their own shadow. This is a dark Greek tragedy set in the 1920s: fate is fickle, but no hero will emerge.

The Great Gatsby is alive to many of the issues that are familiar to us today.  A world where ‘new-money’ (nouveau-riche), despite everything it has acquired, cannot buy its way into an elite and educated upper-class. Affluenza does not bring with it any acceptance to the prevailing establishment. Old money, inherited wealth, and the intelligentsia can still evoke sneering amusement, patronising fascination and barely disguised contempt for the newly wealthy. Fitzgerald originally titled his novel Under the Red, White and Blue, and there is no reason to suppose he did not envisage the stars-and-stripes of the American flag here, with his story being a barely concealed critique of contemporary culture.

What, I wonder, would Fitzgerald have made of Donald Trump’s absurd wealth, built largely on debt, his excessive consumerist desires in our viral ‘affluenza’? All of it lacking in class and depth, and yet Trump somehow installed in the White House?  In some respects, Gatsby gives us an archetype for the here-and-now.  A century ago, Fitzgerald’s novel gave us class, money and education, and a restless struggle for social acceptance – all set against a culture of shocking indifference, personal shame, shady pasts and unspoken shadow-vices. Indeed, speaking truth and being open and honest is hard for most of the characters in the novel. The veneer of mannered socialising suffocates so much of their conversation, and is only occasionally pierced by sharp retorts and flashes of flint-like insight, that leave most readers flinching.

Set in the Jazz Age, arguably like our time,  this was a morally permissive culture at a time when many Americans had also became disillusioned with prevailing social norms, and so easily prey to self-gratification. As then, so now. The gold-hatted lover is a trinket-figure of pity, not desire. Fitzgerald’s novel is set on the prosperous Long Island of 1922.  If he were writing today, Gatsby would surely be set somewhere like Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago in Florida. And be a reality TV show too.

Fitzgerald was similar to Jay Gatsby in some respects, in that he fell in love while a military officer, stationed far from home, and then sought success to prove himself to the woman he loved.  However, Fitzgerald’s discreet allusions to bootlegging as the source of Jay Gatsby’s fortune are where Fitzgerald chooses to inhabit the voice of the narrator for much of the book, Nick Carraway. 

The novel is set in the year 1922, and Carraway – a Yale alumnus from the Midwest and a veteran of the Great War – rents a bungalow in the Long Island village of West Egg, next to a luxurious estate inhabited by one Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multi-millionaire who hosts dazzling soirées – yet does not partake in them.   One evening, Nick dines with his distant relative, Daisy Buchanan, in the fashionable town of East Egg. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, formerly a Yale football star whom Nick knew during his college days. The couple have recently relocated from Chicago to a colonial mansion directly across the bay from Gatsby’s estate. In the novel then, size matters. And the Buchanan’s are ‘old money’ and ‘establishment’.

At their palatial mansion, Carraway encounters Jordan Baker, an insolent ‘flapper‘ and also golf champion who is a childhood friend of Daisy’s. Jordan confides to Nick that Tom keeps a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, married to George, the hapless owner of a local car garage. The Wilson’s home is in the ‘valley of ashes‘ a sprawling refuse dump of cheap housing. The novel explores Gatsby’s love for Daisy, and the infidelity of Tom. The valley of the ashes is a kind of twilight zone. As I reflect on the shadow of shame I mentioned earlier, what is striking about this place is that it is a ‘valley of the shadows’, and akin to Psalm 23 without any of the aid or comfort that the same psalm offers.

Carraway discovers that Gatsby and Daisy met around 1917 when Gatsby was an officer in the American Expeditionary Forces. They fell in love, but when Gatsby was deployed overseas, Daisy married Tom. Gatsby entertains the unreal hope that his newfound wealth and dazzling parties will make Daisy reconsider. Gatsby uses Nick as a go-between to stage a reunion with Daisy, and the two then embark upon an intense sexual affair.

The novel closes with the relationships all unravelling – and with tragic consequences.  Tom discovers the affair when Daisy carelessly addresses Gatsby with unabashed intimacy in front of him. Gatsby insists that Daisy declare that she never loved Tom. Daisy claims she loves Tom and Gatsby, upsetting both of them. She is unsure and unstable: literally a ‘flapper’ who flits and flips. Tom then discloses that Gatsby is just a swindler whose money comes from bootlegging alcohol. Learning of this, Daisy elects to stay with Tom. The affair with Gatsby is over. Daisy chooses security, not love.

That evening, Tom scornfully instructs Gatsby to drive her home, knowing that Daisy will never leave Tom.  While returning Gatsby and Daisy drive by George and Myrtle Wilson’s garage; Myrtle, remember, is Tom’s mistress. Myrtle sees it is Tom’s car coming towards them, and tries to flag down the car she supposes her lover to be driving.  But Daisy is driving, and Gatsby is the passenger.  Daisy accidentally runs over Myrtle, killing her instantly.

Gatsby later reveals to Nick that it was Daisy who was driving the car, but that he intends to take the blame for the accident to protect her. Nick urges Gatsby to flee to avoid prosecution, but he refuses. After Tom tells George that it was Gatsby driving who struck Myrtle, a distraught George assumes the owner of the vehicle must be Myrtle’s lover (in fact it was Tom Buchanan). George then fatally shoots Gatsby in his mansion’s swimming pool, and then commits suicide using the same gun.

Over the years, aspects of the book have continued to catch up with me. I have read the book several times, and am struck by how relevant it is for our time.  The senseless amoral hedonism is a reminder of how much of the conspicuous consumption that surrounds all the characters simply ends up consuming them.  There is no God referred to, and no religion or any kind of faith that any of the characters seem to be able to turn towards, or ever lean on. 

If there is a God in The Great Gatsby, the only candidate is the all-seeing billboard in the ash-grey landscape where the Wilson’s live, and that features the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg – which are on an enormous billboard advertisement for spectacles.  The image is creepy and unsettling, and the fact that several characters seem disturbed by these eyes renders the billboard significant in the novel.

The eyes seem to watch the characters, and see through to their vices. Yet all the billboard does is half-convict the characters: it does not convert or change anyone.  The eyes are vividly described by Fitzgerald in several places in the novel, but they are also faceless, and so devoid of any empathy or compassion. 

These eyes featured on the original and striking cover for Fitzgerald’s book – the dust jacket was designed by Francis Cugat (a Catalan-born illustrator), whose family had moved to Cuba in 1903, and then later to the USA, settling in Chicago and New York. The Hispanic feel to the illustration is a nod towards Dali and Picasso. We are given a disembodied face, with un-pitying eyes that have hints of sadness and melancholy.

Some observers go further, and discern a mildly occultist sense to the jacket cover; a one-off tarot card, perhaps? To be sure, Francis Cugat had plenty of personal experience to draw on in giving us this haunting image. Cugat was immersed in the lush and opulent club and music scene of early jazz. His younger brother, Xavier, was a band leader, and often played at the grand hotels of New York City and Chicago, where you could run shoulders with mobsters, politicians, businessmen and bootlegeggers. Between the two of them, they would have been utterly at home in the world of Jay Gatsby.

The eyes of Eckleburg seem to float on an unpromising blue-grey ash background. The red lips are full, yet small, and the face behind these features, one supposes, is somewhat genderless. The eyes stare at the reader before the book can even be opened. They hover above a kind of Coney Island fairground – gaudy and colourful, but also full of cheap prizes and distracting thrills. In other words, almost worthless.

This is perhaps what Foucault might have termed the ‘panopticon gaze’: a silent, unknown overseer in the society in which Fitzgerald sets his novel. For Foucault, this panopticon gaze meant any form of government that could subconsciously control the aspects of our lives. The panopticon gaze of Eckelburg’s eyes symbolise the searing transparency of a world where idle rulers can look down on others, yet not lift a finger to help. They can see exactly what is going on. Yet these eyes – all-seeing as they are – are utterly indifferent to truth, the abuse of power or human compassion. The eyes are un-kind and un-caring. That is their point. The eyebrows suggest an expressive frown. We are not meant to approve of what we are about to read and encounter in the novel. Only sadness and fate await.

I’m sure this is deliberate. With Eckleburg’s eyes, Fitzgerald might well be saying something like this: “God may well see everything – but he does not care enough to get involved”.  All these characters are on their own, and they reap what they sow. The novel seems to say to the characters and the reader, “your shame is your own shit: deal with it”. The eyes that range over the novel’s plot are not so much of God, as they are of some shady guilt, deceits, fatalism, secularism, consumerism and agnosticism.

The lack of moral agency in the novel continues to surprise the reader at almost every turn.  Added to which, the novel sets other hares off running around throughout the story.  There is a lot of truly awful driving, casual domestic violence, mental instability, excessive drinking, abrogation of any sense of social responsibility, and an absence of empathy and compassion. By the close of the novel we are left tiring of these people, and their futility and emptiness.

We are not meant to like them. In real life, I don’t think Fitzgerald did either. Like some reality TV stars of today, their lives fascinate and repel, but they seldom endear. The very point of reality TV is its shallowness. (Some programmes like Schitts Creek play on this with ironic comedy. Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on the other hand, confounds us with its depth, empathy, compassion and absorbing receptive pedagogy).

To be sure, Gatsby does not give us people who are embodiments of evil, per se. That is its genius. But apart from Carraway they are essentially un-kind folk – they are just a little bit bad by degrees, and simply don’t seem to know how to be good.  For example, Gatsby has many fine qualities, and he can be gentle and considerate. But his obsessive, possessive love and desire for Daisy suffocates his potential for kindness towards others.  His acquisition occludes his moral judgment and emotional intelligence. The novel has no real space for carers of any kind; and it seems to marginalise and mute the kindness of those who might care, such as Carraway.

Indeed, apart from Carraway, it is hard to name any character that displays what we now term ‘emotional intelligence’. Consumption consumes them; self-absorption eats away at them from the inside; the characters nearly all melt away as transitory people who came, saw, spent and went.

Other features of the novel still trouble this reader some forty years on from first reading the book.  I am shocked by the undertones of anti-Semitism, and the lack of any colour or racial consciousness. The utter emptiness of the lives’ of most of the characters, and the filling of this void by alcohol, spending, material acquisition and climbing the social ladder, craving social acceptance – it all seems cravenly pointless.  Class and new money re-emerge as major motifs for understanding the characters.

The Jazz Age is past, and this is our time. Kerouac, and whom we mentioned earlier, wrote poetry that was in part shaped by his immersion in Buddhism and jazz.  He once wrote of himself as “a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session on Sunday”.  Like a kind of Miles Davis or a Johnny Coltrane, many of Kerouac’s poems follow a style of free-flowing, uninhibited prose-style: jazz-in-words, if you like.  That spirit of jazz pervades much of Fitzgerald’s work. 

Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues was a collection of published poems made up of 242 choruses following the rhythms of jazz. In much of this poetry, and to achieve this jazz-like rhythm, Kerouac made use of the long dash in place of a period. Indeed, just as jazz is often best-understood and appreciated as the spaces and the silences between the notes, so with Keouac.  Here we see this in the 113th Chorus:

Is Ignorant of its own emptiness—
Doesn’t like to be reminded of fits—

Those lines alone could almost be an epitaph for most of the characters in The Great Gatsby.

The amorality of Gatsby is played out in a series of hedonistic episodes which eventually implode into the ash-grey landscape presided over by the all-seeing but un-caring eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The novel ends in a kind of perpetual Ash Wednesday, where sins of omission, of intention and of culpable neglect all come to reify themselves in a bleakness and tragedy that is devoid of kindness, caring and compassion.  Shame is unresolved, and these sins of the past stick to the characters as though they were their own personal shadow, which they cannot evade. That’s why the end of the novel is as haunting now as it was nearly a century ago:

“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 out our arms farther… So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

What did Fitzgerald mean by this?  That word ‘orgastic’ is portmanteau term, coined by Fitzgerald.  It carries within it all the overtones implied, not least the momentary personal pleasures and self-gratification that consume virtually all the characters in the book, as they make little effort to ensure that others are satisfied ahead of their own desires and needs being sated.  The past that is gone cannot be retrieved, and the yearning for personal fulfilment eludes us – and some may say it was illusion.  Gatsby did not retrieve his first love.

Nor did Fitzgerald.  And so we ‘beat on’, says Fitzgerald – not letting us know whether this a slow march through Ash Wednesday to somewhere brighter, or the beat of jazz, that continues to flow, long after we have ceased to exist. “Everything flows”, said Heraclitus, “nothing stands still” – words from 501 BCE that still resonate in 2021…

The beat flows on in Kanye West’s Jesus Walks (2004), an explosive Hip-Hop musical march, that splices together protest, Christian consciousness and the threatening sound of a cultural and political revolution. The beat we hear today is rather different – it is one that rebels against the status quo. Fitzgerald gives a laconic novel; an elegy of disenchantment, tinged with revulsion for the prevailing consumptive materialism of his day. Our time may now demand far more than mere disenchantment. We must beat on to a better future for all.

Yet for all its atmospheric ambiance, I think Gatsby is a story for Ash Wednesday. Especially in our emerging post-Trump and current pandemic era. Gatsby is the stuff of ashes-to-ashes, dust-to-dust. The American dream has in-built mortality. It will die.  All empires and dynasties do. So will I and so will you. What we yearn for is often not life-giving.  Only God is eternal.  Just as the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg look down on the characters in the ash-grey landscape of Gatsby, so on Ash Wednesday, the eyes of God are on us too. They see it all. 

That orgastic future we craved is but dust, compared to those transfiguring powers of love, compassion and forgiveness found in Good Friday and the Resurrection. Lent is knowing that, and dwelling upon it; ridding ourselves of the chaff and the ashes, and entering into the poverty of our nature, so we might then find the measureless riches of God’s grace.