I've read the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic more than any other novel -- and with each reading, I grow more convinced
I HAVE READ The Great Gatsby more times than any other novel. With each reading, my understanding of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest work deepens, and I pick up something I missed previously. My first time was in high school, when our English class discussed the symbolism of the green light and the eyes on the billboard and the silk shirts in the vast closet. In college, I was drawn to Gatsby as tragic romantic and giver of epic parties of the kind I wanted to throw. After I moved to New York, I read the book again and finally understood its geography.
Subsequent readings have been slower, more careful. I parse the words—there are not many in this masterpiece of economy—and delve into the text in a way I was not capable of as a teenager. I’m reading like a writer, in Francine Prose’s phrase. As an adjunct professor, I always include the novel on my syllabus. My Gatsby lecture was a high point of my three semesters as an adjunct.
My reading of the book starts with this premise: Nick Carraway, and not the more dashing eponymous character, is the protagonist of the novel. This is not a hard case to make. It could be argued that the narrator of every first-person novel is the protagonist, even if the book is “about” someone else. Nick is the only character who “changes,” in the way they used to teach in high school, and anyway Gatsby is absent for many of the book’s scenes, including the drawn-out ending (which slow fade, incidentally, will forever doom attempts at cinematic treatment; sorry, Baz).
My other premise is less obvious, but no more difficult to argue: Nick is a) gay and b) in love with Gatsby.
From here, we look to Nick’s impressions of the various characters—characters that, for many readers, are indelibly rendered.
Daisy Buchanan is the Southern belle with whom Gatsby is so desperately in love that he joins the underworld, amasses a small fortune, and ultimately ruins his life. It is safe to assume that a man as shallow as Gatsby would not be drawn to someone unattractive. There’s a reason Daisy has been played in the movies by fair beauties like Mia Farrow and Carey Mulligan. Yet here is how Nick, a distant enough cousin to lust for her with impunity if he had such impulses, describes her:
I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
Essentially, Daisy, this legendary beauty, this great love of Gatsby’s life…had a nice voice. A voice they later realize sounds like money. (Note that “men who had cared for her” does not imply that Nick was among them.)
Next up, the golfer Jordan Baker. Nick’s take:
I enjoyed looking at her. She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, disconcerted face.
We can easily imagine Jordan, a prototype of the modern-day female athlete: sporty, fit, trim, and a bit flirty. Even reading this in high school I came away thinking that she was hot. But Nick doesn’t think so, any more than Humbert Humbert finds Charlotte Haze attractive, although the descriptions of Lolita’s mother suggest that in “real” life, the opposite is true. Also: other than the word small-breasted—which de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes—this could be a description of a man.
Nick spends a lot of time with Jordan during the summer when the story takes place—enough so that she is under the impression that he “threw her over.” But we never hear about this. Jordan Baker does not interest him. He is dating her to try and convince himself that he is attracted to her, this boyish woman, but he is not.
Then Myrtle, who we can also assume, because a wealthy and athletic man like Tom Buchanan could probably have his pick of available women, is easy on the eyes:
She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.
To Tom, Myrtle is the smouldering portrait of voluptuousness, but Nick is not taken with her at all. Granted, he might not be inclined to like his cousin’s husband’s lover, but I find it curious that he’s so sure her dress is made of crêpe-de-chine.
Compare the way the women are rendered with this description of Tom Buchanan, someone Nick does not particularly care for:
He had changed since his New Haven years. Now he was a sturdy straw-haired man of thirty with a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes had established dominance over his face and gave him the appearance of always leaning aggressively forward. Not even the effeminate swank of his riding boots could hide the enormous power of that body — he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage — a cruel body.
Daisy is about the voice, Jordan the erect carriage, Myrtle the crêpe-de-chine. Only Tom is given such raw carnality. If you didn’t know you were reading Fitzgerald, you might think that this decidedly erotic description was lifted from Shoshanna Evers’Enslaved trilogy. I mean, this passage is racy.
The bodice-ripping language goes into overdrive when Nick meets his wealthy neighbor Mr. Gatsby for the first time:
He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you might come across four or five times in your life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Again, if you came across that passage out of context, you would probably conclude it was from a romance novel. If that scene were a cartoon, Cupid would shoot an arrow, music would swell, and Nick’s eyes would turn into giant hearts.
What’s that you say? This is all semantics, a matter of language, and you need action to prove that Nick prefers men? Fine, we’ll skip to the part where he hooks up with Mr. McKee.
This would be the end of chapter two, before he meets, and falls instantly in love with, Gatsby. He is in Manhattan with Tom, who wanted Nick to meet “his girl,” Myrtle. They are at Myrtle’s apartment with her sister Catherine (“Her eyebrows had been plucked and then drawn on again at a more rakish angle,” we are told, “but the efforts of nature toward the restoration of the old alignment gave a blurred air to her face.”) and some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McKee—the former being “a pale, feminine man.” They spend the afternoon together and drink into the night—it is, Nick says, one of the few times in his life he has drunk to excess. There are two couples plus Nick and Catherine, and that arrangement suggests that she is who he should wind up with, but at the end of the night, after Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose, here’s what goes down:
Mr. McKee awoke from his doze and started in a daze toward the door. When he had gone halfway he turned around and stared at the scene—his wife and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid….Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.
“Come to lunch someday,” 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.”
Then the strange ellipses—the only time in the book Fitzgerald uses them—suggesting action that we’re not privy to. And I do mean action.
. . . 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.
“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery House…Brook’n Bridge….”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morningTribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.
The Great Gatsby is often praised, and rightly so, for its economy. So much is packed into this slender volume—not much more than 50,000 words, practically a novella. Why would Fitzgerald bother to include this strange interlude, a loopy Nick in bed with the “feminine” Mr. McKee in his underwear at 3 in the morning, if not to show the narrator’s sexual preference? What other purpose can it possibly serve? That Nick is interested in photography?
First, it’s a testament to Fitzgerald’s talent as a novelist (or Maxwell Perkins’s talent as an editor, if you hold, as I might be inclined to, that Perkins had much more to do with Gatsby than did the drunken F. Scott) that he was able to provide so much textual evidence that Nick is gay without confirming it or drawing undue attention to it. Subtlety is an art.
More important is how Nick’s sexuality affects what we are reading. Gatsby is, after all, an account written by him in Minnesota the year after the events in the book. We see only what Nick lets us see, and our perception of the events and the characters are colored by his biases. If Nick is in love with Gatsby—and this seems pretty clear—then the entire novel operates as a rationalization of that misplaced love. Nick romanticizes Gatsby in the exact same way that Gatsby romanticizes Daisy.
Speaking of Daisy: One of the more interesting aspects of this novel is that Mrs. Tom Buchanan, for whom Gatsby has moved proverbial mountains, is unworthy of his obsession. Daisy is a piece of shit—one of the biggest pieces of shit in all of literature. As a young woman, she is in love with Gatsby, but when he ships out, caves almost immediately under pressure from her family and marries Tom, whose hateful and racist rants she permits. She has no job, no discernible skill (unlike her BFF the professional athlete), and her life is one of complete leisure. She is a lousy mother—her daughter, raised by a nanny, makes a cameo appearance but does not factor into any of her decisions. As soon as Gatsby reveals his ardor, she goes off with him, betraying her husband. And it is Daisy who runs down Myrtle Wilson, and then compounds the sin by driving away from the scene. Whatever dollar-pegged gaiety might exist in her voice, we can’t hear it, her voice is filtered through Nick’s; all we know is that she is a horrible human being.
Nick wants us to believe, as he does, that Gatsby is different, that “only…the man who gives his name to his book, was exempt from [his] reaction” of scorn because of Jay’s “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such that I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Translation: “I loved this man.” Unlike the Buchanans, “Gatsby turned out all right at the end….”
But when we look at the facts about Gatsby, we see that he and Daisy have more in common than Nick would like to believe. In order to woo her, he changes his name, abandons his family, and turns to a life of crime. He takes up with a smuggler, and then goes to work for Meyer Wolfsheim—the man who rigged the 1919 World Series; in real life, the mobster Arnold Rothstein—and runs liquor. He amasses a fortune. He uses that fortune to throw lavish parties, in the manner of the nouveau riche, in the vain hope that they will register on Daisy’s radar. When this does not work, he befriends, with cold calculation, Daisy’s cousin and uses him to arrange a meeting. He thinks nothing of the fact that she is married, or that she has a child. And although Daisy drove the death car, Gatsby orchestrates her escape—he’s willing to take the blame for the crime, to sacrifice himself for her, but cares not a whit about the woman Daisy killed. Finally, when he dies in his useless swimming pool, no one comes to the funeral, which, irony and symbolism aside, speaks volumes about how well-liked he really was.
Nick runs into Tom one last time before he leaves New York. This is at the very end of the novel. Of the late Gatsby, Tom says, “That fellow had it coming to him. He threw dust in your eyes just like he did in Daisy’s….” And that’s why it matters that Nick is gay and in love with Gatsby: because Tom’s assessment is spot-on, but Nick will never admit it. Instead, he’ll write a whole book denying the truth. Nick Carraway, failed bond trader, unreliable narrator, believer in the green light, who knows that gay, exciting things are no longer hovering in the next hour, and never will again.
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