I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby recently. I bought the substantial looking Penguin Modern Classics paperback edition (2000) because it was printed on half-decent paper and had a pretty picture on the front. Essentially, I judged a book by its cover.
My initial complaint about this edition was that although it looked thick, there was a 50-page introduction to pad it out, which was duly skipped. However, after reading the novel, I went back; and the essay introduction by Tony Tanner is actually very worthwhile.
On one level, yes, it gives a far deeper insight into Fitzgerald’s most famous novel; but what he talks about somehow managed to reach me on a far more profound level than the content I bought the book for.
One of the most poignant themes of the novel is the idea of one character (Gatsby) pining for a lost love (Daisy) for years, loving her over a long period of time without any contact. When they get back together, circumstances have drastically changed and the love he once felt – and had built up in his own head – had diminished. This sticks out for me. I share this trait with Gatsby (probably along with some of his other qualities: the delusions of grandeur; the denial of a past; the being weird at parties; and following the homely moral of, as Henry James noted in The American Scene “When you haven’t what you like you must perforce like, and above all misrepresent what you have”).
Anyway, the introductory essay makes a great deal of Gatsby’s habit of staring over the bay to Daisy’s house, marked out by a green light. As Tanner says: “Gatsby comes to orient his life in relation to… 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… 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.”
Essentially, building someone up in your head can lead to a fall when one is faced with reality. I know that fall well. Oh look! Yet again, this blog has returned to the theme of its writer being unable to handle reality. How passé.
Tanner’s introduction gives a really interesting history of Fitzgerald’s development of the novel, referring back to older works by the author and other novels which influenced him. One of the older works included is Fitzgerald’s 1922 story Winter Dreams, which includes a character Tanner refers to as an “embryonic Gatsby”. The character, Dexter Green, is haunted by this same obsessive trait I share with Gatsby.
Tanner writes: “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 imitations, of Tom Buchannan [Daisy’s husband in The Great Gatsby] – that she probably loves him and that her looks have gone: squalor and degredation all round in other words.”
Fitzgerald, through this embryonic Gatsby, has managed to articulate my own problems. That is the real beauty of Literature, I think: that it affects the reader so deeply that they can understand their own lives better. At least I know that’s why I read!
Fitzgerald writes: “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 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 the 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 never come back no more.”
Isn’t that heavy? I think it’s heavy. I never meant for this blog to be so long, and I think I should end here. I apologise for being so candid, but if I do not end here, I will just continue giving evidence of depression and come to no positive conclusion. The problem with my (and Gatsby’s and Dexter Green’s) trait of all-in-the-mind intimacy is that there can be no positive conclusions; and the problem with real life, away from the pages of a book, is that there are never any conclusions – as they say, life goes on. Life goes on regardless of how heartbroken one gets; and every time one remembers someone they love who has disappeared from their life, the conclusion to a relationship is delayed just a little longer until both parties completely and permenantly forget about each other.
Right up until this moment, I thought “life goes on” was one of the most positive sentences in the English language.