Tuesday, 4 October 2011

No place for the Innocent.

"The Great Gatsby" and F.Scott Fitzgerald’s New York.

Published in 1925, the decadent romance of The Great Gatsby remains as alluring and elusive as ever. It is a tale of lost illusions, almost hagiographical, as narrator Nick Carraway deifies his dead friend in a way that speaks volumes about his devotion and causes some critics to question his sexuality. By the novel’s end, adultery, accidental death, betrayal and murder leave the naïve Carraway longing to return to the simpler, family-oriented life he had previously struggled to escape. The louche sophistication of New York, with its casual liaisons and broken promises cuts to the heart of the American Dream, of which Carraway is made a victim by his fundamental sense of fair play and loyalty. As Gatsby’s disciples fade away, only he is left, to organise the funeral and meet the dead millionaire’s father: it is a bitter lesson for a young man.

In a moment of poignant realisation, Carraway concludes his story with a lament for an idealised pre-Lapsian American landscape; an old, innocent life of fresh air and nature. Adopting the perspective of the Seventeenth Century Dutch settlers for whom the old island “flowered,” with a “fresh green breast,” stilling them in an “enchanted moment” of “aesthetic contemplation,” he regrets the country’s metaphoric lost purity and his own more recent awakening. This nostalgia for the vision of a clean, bright motherland offers a bittersweet message at the end of the novel: he sees the national impetus for self and social betterment, the belief that “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…” as self-defeating. The American Dream is an elusive grail, its capture elliptically suggested “one fine morning” but never realised, making the Platonic quests of “modern” (1920s) Americans as futile as “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  It is upon this flawed, irretrievable vision that Carraway pins the failure of Gatsby’s vision; his warning “you can’t repeat the past” cannot correct his friend’s blindness to the dark side of his dream: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Ironically the greenness of the light inviting Gatsby to pursue his dream is a false, man-made version of the true verdant landscape of the country’s innocence.

But perhaps there is more to Carraway’s yearnings. As a Mid-West American, he is an outsider, a social migrant and his ruminations are underlined by the experiences of migrants and immigrants of all nationalities, whose presence swelled the districts of central New York in the decades either side of the turn of the last century: by 1900, six out of every ten children in the city were not native born. They flocked to the city to escape poverty and persecution, dreaming of a better life where a nobody could rise to become president. Anything was considered possible in the socially-mobile new world, a dream voiced by Carraway as Gatsby’s car passes over the Queensboro’ bridge, but his “anything could happen” springs from the seemingly magical possibilities that wealth and privilege can bring, inspired by the “wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world” of the “sugar lump…city seen for the first time.”  At the other end of the social scale, vast crowds flocked to take advantage of an economy that was years ahead of Europe, sometimes to find the reality was just as harsh as that they had left behind, complicated by the territorial warfare of over-crowded tenement districts, such as those photographed so powerfully by social reformer Jacob Riis.

 Fitzgerald’s view of the city is elitist and selective; a distorted fantasy of opportunity which contradicts some evocations of New York at the time, such as Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep,” and the short stories of Anzia Yezierska, whilst later works like E.L.Doctrow’s “Ragtime” attempt to unite these seemingly disparate halves. Using a similar narrative of awakening, Doctrow fiercely undermines his child narrator’s innocence, following “there were no negroes. There were no immigrants,” a page later with; “apparently there were negroes. There were Immigrants.” A certain tense inversion of expectations is sensed as Gatsby’s car travels over the Queensboro’ bridge, passed by a limousine driven by a white chauffeur “in which sat three modish negroes…the yolks of their eyeballs rolled towards us in haughty rivalry” but this only causes Nick amusement, as do Tom Buchanan’s pronouncements about the threat to the “Nordic race.” Carraway’s and Fitzgerald’s concerns do not lie with the immigrants; it is simply a struggle that pits them against each other and Nick’s lack of solidarity with them is part of his essential detachment. He has come to the city in search of excitement, on the flimsy pretext of a dull job and the marriage of his cousin Daisy. Secretive and reticent, he serves as the foil to Gatsby’s ebullience: the rest of New York can take care of itself.

                                Robert Redford as Gatsby in the 1974 film

There is a tone of jaded sophistication in the fey Daisy Buchanan’s early inertia and existential wondering; “what’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon…and the day after that, and the next thirty years.” Even though the Great War was physically and emotionally removed from the characters of East and West Egg, there is a sense of Americans having come through differing periods of personal crisis. Carraway looks back with nostalgia to the regimented simplicity of conflict; “I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever;” Gatsby’s uniform allowed him to access a social set that he was usually denied, with cataclysmic results and even Daisy stresses recent suffering; “I’ve had a very bad time…and I’m pretty cynical about everything.” These blithe hints at traumas, real or imagined, partly explain the exhaustive hedonism of the era but do not excuse its excesses, as this pain is never fully developed for the reader and subsequently appears less real than the pain of love, or social disillusionment. The pangs of the rich are in stark relief to the real suffering of those struggling to make ends meet in the hinterland between New York and the mansions of West Egg.

Fitzgreald creates a similar no-mans land in the T.S.Eliot inspired wasteland lying between the playgrounds of the rich in “The Great Gatsby”. The location of the valley of ashes stresses not only the economic dependence of the Wilsons but the equally real practical dependence of figures like Gatsby and the Buchanans upon this silent, grey underclass of mechanics, butlers and servants who facilitate their world. To travel from West Egg to New York, the motorist has no choice but to pass through this powerful memento-mori landscape, hurrying as if it could infect them; even travellers by train cannot escape it; “the motor road hastily joins the railroad…so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” The valley of ashes has an active malevolent force, a compulsive power that could pull travellers off their path, to be absorbed in the quagmire of greyness; its terror lies in the fact that death appears to be its life force, it flourishes on death, self-regenerating, Greek-myth style, with an army of ashes “growing” like wheat into a landscape of the “grotesque,” a colourless mockery of the real, vibrant life Fitzgerald contrasts through Gatsby’s identification with the colour yellow. In this barren inert world, life itself requires “a transcendent effort.” Its inhabitants are “ash-grey men,” even Wilson, showing the “faintly handsome” traces of former health has become “spiritless and anaemic.” He is enveloped by a symbolic “white dust,” which also veils “everything in the vicinity” and blends him into the “cement colour of the walls.” Tom Buchanan’s arrival brings the possibility of life, measured by the transference of colour; “a damp gleam of hope sprang into his light blue eyes,” but the only other glimmers of pigment; the billboard eyes; are “dimmed” by weather and “paintless days.” The incongruity of Myrtle Wilson’s presence is made apparent through opposites; she is colourful, “smouldering” and “sensuous” in comparison with the “ghost” of a husband she walks through. Her physical vitality and her association with Tom make her immune to the all pervasive “white dust” but this is deceptive, for in drawing away from what she perceives to be death, she propels herself towards her own violent demise. Both Myrtle and Gatsby are classic over-reachers whose hectic efforts to live life to the full result in their own inevitable destruction.

This “solemn dumping ground” acts like a cancer or tumour on the healthy surrounding world. Its efforts are all feeble and sickly; it is its own graveyard; “occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest.” This bathetic reminder of death as the necessary result of life, essential for regeneration, shows the reader how the colourful charismatic lifestyle of West Egg is brought full circle; the valley of ashes provides the cars and fuel and reclaims them after use; a powerful metaphor for the human life cycle, attributing the garage and the billboard eyes with a higher sense of the purpose and ultimate end of all life. It is the valley of ashes, which reminds us that death is the great leveller, regardless of morals and wealth. The drawbridge over the “small foul river” forces the passing cars to sit and wait in enforced contemplation of the “dismal scene” for up to half an hour. The very randomness of this descending trap itself echoes the unpredictable call of death and the ever-present sense of doom that permeates the entire landscape of the novel. Fitzgerald’s emphasis on the lack of control the motorists have over their period of waiting clarifies how the innocent are equally as likely to become trapped as the guilty.

Nick Carraway finds the bleakness of the valley of ashes almost impossible to accept. He romanticises what he finds distasteful until reality later shatters his illusions; “this shadow of a garage must be a blind…sumptuous and romantic apartments were concealed overhead.” Carraway’s belief in the treasure trove, the secret wealth hidden away from the grim reality is based on stories of gangsters and luxury in New York, a romance that quickly fractures when it breaks through Gatsby’s fragile idyll. A similar dishonesty oozes from the furnishings and artefacts of Tom and Myrtle’s New York apartment. Myrtle’s indulgences, paid for by Tom; gossip magazines, a puppy, cold cream and perfume; indicate her ultimate goals of luxury, to which Tom is her passport. In possession of these, having twice changed her clothes and arriving at her “long white cake” of an apartment, she casts off her previous role as easily as an actress, “throwing a regal homecoming glance around the neighbourhood.” Inside the flat, the “tapestried furniture” covered with Fragonard-style swing images echo a lost grandeur and social aspiration that belies the adulterous and brutal reality of their relationship. Myrtle’s furnishings smack of the desperate hopes of fabricating herself a new identity. Her uneasy social status is reflected in the ambiguity of other details; the photograph that tricks the eye, the dog biscuit “decomposing apathetically:” it is among these trophies of refinement that Tom breaks her nose. Even Carraway’s deteriorating perceptions mirror this subjectivity; “either it was terrible stuff or the whiskey distorted things because it didn’t make any sense to me.” His seemingly innocent pseudo-religious read; “Simon called Peter,” was in reality a contemporary work of soft pornography. The surreal, elliptical break down of narrative at the end of this chapter, propelling him from the bedside to the four o’clock morning train, reminds the reader of the fluid nature of the city and the existence of pockets of resistance to the general climate.

Carraway’s relationship with New York, is that of observer rather than real participator: in Myrtle and Tom’s flat, his impulse is to “get out and walk Eastwards towards the park through the soft twilight” and imagines himself “within and without,” looking up from the “darkening streets,” his “enchanted” attraction and “repulsion” echoing the dual nature of the city. New York is more alive for Nick than it is for Gatsby: location has a more powerful pull than people; he leaves behind his family for adventure in the West and fails to make any real personal connections, save that with Gatsby which only gains real significance as a result of Gatsby’s death, elevating him to the status of biographer. He drifts in and out of a half union with the morally ambiguous Jordan, while other incidental cast members remain unnamed; the “friend,” “other clerks,” and “girl who loved in New Jersey” are far less real than the “racy adventurous” city, with its bittersweet polarity of crowded “enchanted metropolitan twilight” and “haunting loneliness.” One of a crowd of dislocated, drifting “young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life,” Carraway feels the voyeuristic thrill of the observer and the “sinking heart” of the outsider. His New York is a glamorous composite of hotels, parties, restaurants, bright lights and the bustle of crowded streets and theatre goers, where people “hurry towards gaiety,” a grown up playground where the dark side can be sensed by not visualised.

Even though Nick Carraway recognises the city as “superior” to the “sprawling swollen towns beyond the Ohio,” he eventually decides to return home to the West, possessing some deficiency that made him “subtly unadaptable” to Eastern life. In retrospect, the city becomes “haunted,” “distorted beyond (his) eyes’ power of correction,” “a scene by El Greco,” both “conventional and grotesque,” devoid of lustre. One of his final images is the highly symbolic scene of men in dark suits carrying home a jewelled woman in white; no one knows the address “and no one cares.” For Carraway, the city is rotten at the core, infected by the disease of inertia and callous irresponsibility that has pervaded the glittering exterior.  The urban landscapes of “The Great Gatsby” are vibrant and complex in character, sustaining layered moral networks of goodness and innocence alongside vice and villainy. They are also highly subjective, shifting environments, constantly being reassessed and redefined with varying degrees of success by those who experience them from within and without. Their identities and distinct characteristics, influenced by global and local affairs are shown by the disillusioned narrator as able to permeate life in a more profound and lasting way than many human relations can. As Nick discovers, it is no place for the innocent.

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