Source: Twentieth Century Literature. 53.2 (Summer 2007): p153. From Literature Resource Center.
Document Type: Critical essay
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I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives.
--Fitzgerald, "My Lost City" (31)
Few books have suffered Americanism's presumptions more unremittingly than has The GreatGatsby. This has again become apparent in the recent outpouring of work that draws attention to dynamics of racialization in the novel--to how Fitzgerald's book engages discourses that render racial and ethnic difference recognizable, including how certain characters are made to bear distinguishing racial or ethnic markers. By highlighting the novel's interest in race and its role in the development of discourses that continue to administer the recognition of race and ethnicity in America, this new criticism--most appearing in the last 10 years or so--purports to rescue The GreatGatsby from the sentimental attractions of a universalized, imperial American identity. Like the scholarship it claims to challenge, however, this new criticism reveals the enduring hold of the Americanist romance and its confidence that the novel offers a straightforward description of something called "America" or "American" identity. In its attention to representations of raced difference in the novel, much of this new work--as represented by such critics as Michaels, Goldsmith, Thompson, Washington, and Nies--is enabled by an assumption that practices and signs already bear racial meaning. This scholarship thus often ends up reifying a variety of presumably characteristic raced American identities in place of a presumably characteristic unraced (if surreptitiously white) one, reinforcing the very formations whose genealogy it purportedly seeks to unearth. Thus this essentially statist inquiry into American literature and culture presumes, as it is administered by, the self-evidence of "American" history and identity. Foucault, we should remember, indicted just such rightist thinking in Discipline and Punish, where he warned against "writing a history of the past in terms of the present" (31). In this essay I show how The GreatGatsby resists precisely the recognizant expectation upon which historicism, especially in the guise of an analysis of the novel's interest in racialization, is based, and how in doing this it points toward the possibility of a more open and critical form of reading.
By repeating the primal error of assuming coherence between text and nationalized--and racialized--symbolic order, of seeking the national in the individual, recent criticism overlooks the irreducible complexity of the novel's attention to identity and betrays a desire to buttress the ideological coherence of "America" as that entity is currently understood. One reason for the enduring critical fascination with the novel's rendering of American selves, to be sure, is that The GreatGatsby is intimately engaged with tropes of identity. But the narrative structure of this engagement, ever suspicious of the sentimental enticements of recognition, precludes taking "American" identity--even racialized or ethnicized American identity--for granted. Despite more than two-thirds of a century of criticism portraying The GreatGatsby as the avatar of the American novel, (1) the manner in which the novel is thought to represent America continues to be taken for granted, relying on the same assumptions about identity that drive the "romantic speculation" about origins to which Gatsby himself endlessly gives rise (48): unswerving attention to the significance of "Gatsby"--both in the text and in its criticism, either as an unmarked typical American or as an index to the hold of discourses that encode race and ethnicity--precludes focus on the presumption that he means anything at all.
If the desire to read American history into The GreatGatsby ends up locating in the novel particular racial or ethnic representations of American identity, in doing this it also illuminates the book's cynical relationship to the representational enticements of a nationally encoded identity: the irreducible complexity of the novel's attention to identity--its narrativization of a longing for precisely the kind of stable identity that Americanist criticism has so consistently found in it--in fact challenges the instrumentalist critical tendency to anchor interpretation of the novel in the recognizability of "America." Notably, the novel is deeply troubled about the positivism underlying what Nick calls Gatsby's "appalling sentimentality" (118), remaining ambivalent about both what Gatsby has done with the sentimental category of "America" and how Nick responds to it, and illustrating a longing for the imaginative and ideological matrix out of which this sentimentality arises. This book enacts a deeply problematical drama of identification whereby the representational capacity of identity--ultimately American identity--is an object alternatively of desire and skepticism. Interpreted through Nick's insecure skepticism rather than through Gatsby's deluded optimism--and therefore through doubt about identity's ability to signify rather than through faith in its representational promise--the novel ultimately lacks faith in the symbolic orders on which stable conceptions of identity rely. When read for its narrative production of this cynicism rather than for its construction of raced American identities that we already know how to recognize, The GreatGatsby offers a means to liberate criticism of American literature from the straitjacket of an increasingly racialized Americanism.
The GreatGatsby and American identity
In order to show what is at stake--and especially what is lost--in reading the novel in terms of identities that can already be recognized, I start with an examination of how Gatsby has recently been read for race. This new scholarship falls into the historicist habit of relying on recognition as the final warrant of legitimacy. Looking for the national present in the literary past, it takes as self-evident the very racial and ethnic differences--along with the behaviors that, according to racialist logic, constitute those differences--that it presumably wants to challenge. Thus this criticism, which seeks to uncover racial particularities elided in an existential fantasy of universalized American identity, remains constrained by a positivist national fantasy that particular identities can reliably be recognized.
With Our America, Walter Benn Michaels is probably the most visible recent critic to pay close attention to The GreatGatsby's engagement with race and ethnicity. In arguing generally for a "structural intimacy between nativism and modernism" (2)--for a link between modernism's "fantasy about the sign" as material and self-sufficient and nativism's fantasy about identity as inherited, racial, and determinative of beliefs and practices--and more polemically that "the great American modernist texts of the '20s must be understood as deeply committed to the nativist project of racializing the American" (13), Michaels rereads The GreatGatsby as an anxious meditation on racial identity. Michaels is most interested in characters--in particular, Gatsby and how other characters think about him. At root, Michaels suggests that Gatsby functions in the book as a figure of the threat of racial admixture. As the text's most transparent register of xenophobic concern, Tom is most overtly sensitive to this threat: "For Tom ... Gatsby (ne Gatz, with his Wolfsheim 'gonnegtion') isn't quite white" (25). Thus Michaels cites the confrontation at the Plaza, where Tom begins by mocking Gatsby's lack of origins--"Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" (Gatsby 137)--and "ends by predicting 'intermarriage between black and white'" (Michaels 25), as evidence of how the text evinces anxiety about the danger of inherited racial difference. Indeed, Tom isn't the text's only racist in Michaels's account: Nick also seems to think Gatsby wants to defile Daisy's--and nativist white America's--racial purity. Nick understands Gatsby's love for Daisy as "the following of a grail. [Gatsby] knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn't realize just how extraordinary a 'nice' girl could be" (25). Michaels argues:
"Nice" here doesn't exactly mean "white," but it doesn't exactly not
mean "white" either. It is a term ... that will serve as a kind of
switching point where the Progressive novel's discourse of class
will be turned into the postwar novel's discourse of race.
Nick's confusion arises in part because Gatsby initially appears oriented toward the "magically" (Michaels 26) transformative future and away from his possibly racially suspect grandfathers, who, as Horace Kallen reminds us, cannot be changed (220). Socioeconomic barriers give way before him: that he initially misleads Daisy into believing he is not, in fact, penniless is immaterial because all those things whose absence he conceals from her--including "one's clothes, one's manners, [and] one's friends," as Michaels puts it--are easily obtainable. But Gatsby's real problem, in Michaels's account, is that he is "without a past": he does not have an acceptable pedigree, and winning Daisy (in the nativist imaginary) requires that he have one. Only rewriting the (racialized) past--precisely what Gatsby cannot do through (economically) transformative agency--could "retroactively make him someone who could be 'married' to Daisy" (Michaels 26). The past cannot be changed; indeed, in Michaels's modernity, the "meaning" of an American's past "has been rendered genealogical," has been racialized, suggesting that no degree of class mobility can make Gatsby into something he is not (which is to say, in the crucial instance for Michaels, a [white] American). "Insofar as the desire for a different future is the desire to belong to a different class," Michaels argues, "the desire for a different past that replaces it should be understood as the desire to belong to a different race" (150).
It remains unclear, however, who Michaels imagines "should" be doing this understanding. He convincingly indicates the representation of nativism in the text by demonstrating how certain nativist characters respond to what they see as a racial threat. But this isn't the same as showing that Fitzgerald's novel enacts its cultural milieu's nativist worry over a racialized American identity, or illuminating "the structural intimacy between nativism and modernism." Racist characters alone do not make a racist book, and Michaels has done little to argue that Fitzgerald's book itself--rather than Tom and, to a lesser extent, Nick and Daisy, and, to a more "vulgar" extent, Myrtle Wilson and Lucille McKee (26)--is "deeply committed to the nativist project of racializing the American." It is indeed probable that "race" operates for Tom et al. as a self-evident category, but that doesn't mean that it necessarily does so for the text. Suppressing this distinction, Michaels doesn't engage Fitzgerald's complex relationship to the hold of self-evidence itself. In fact, we don't have to draw attention to the fantasy that signs like race are unproblematic in The GreatGatsby: the book already does this. Michaels sees Gatsby as a reactionary book because he doesn't account for how it already worries about the manner in which signs signify. Fitzgerald's novel is far more concerned about how identity is understood than it is about the representative traits of its particular characters. Michaels thus seems to treat the book in the same way that Tom, encouraged by "this man Goddard" (Gatsby 17), treats Gatsby: he reduces it to a simple signifier within an unquestioned sign system where race is already visible and subject to social hierarchy and valuation. (2)
In a book published the same year as Our America, Bryan Washington also appears to reduce the novel's perspective to that of a group of its characters. Like Michaels, Washington claims that The GreatGatsby is "preoccupied with and intolerant of the racial and social hybridization of America" (42) and that Gatsby is a threat to the "family" (45), the "Middle West," and to "the white cultural center" precisely because he "sprang from his Platonic conception of himself" (Washington 45; Gatsby 104). Lacking the right kind of origin in a novel where all origins are racial, Gatsby is "the worst kind of outsider" (Washington 45). Also like Michaels, Washington sees Nick as nativist, even if, as in Nick's reaction to the "three modish negroes" in a limousine "driven by a white chauffeur" (Gatsby 73) who pass Gatsby and Nick on the way into the city, (3) it is less obtrusive than Tom's "unabashed racism" (Washington 43). Revealingly, Washington finds the many "so-called ethnic" names of Gatsby's party guests--as recorded by Nick--to
clearly attest to Fitzgeraldian outrage at the new America, one in
which so-called ethnics are ubiquitous--in which the citizens of
East Egg, who form a "dignified homogeneity" in the midst of "many-
colored, many-keyed commotion," must contend not only with the
inhabitants of West Egg but with all of New York. (49; my emphasis)
The danger here, according to Washington, is that Gatsby stands "ready to welcome the masses," posing a threat to an embattled WASP America. But Washington ultimately doesn't suggest why Nick's behavior should be relied on as a key to Fitzgerald's agenda. He can finally argue that the "celebrated concluding paragraphs of The GreatGatsby compose a reactionary social manifesto dressed up in the romantic rhetoric of loss" (52) only by assuming that the novel doesn't allow for something outside Nick's self-admitted narrow-minded provincialism. As with Michaels, missing here is precisely the examination of how racial and ethnic difference become visible in the first place and operate within the text (as different from Nick's imagination) in the second place.
Unlike Michaels and Washington, Carlyle Van Thompson attends to how the text, and not just some of its characters, treats Gatsby, though he too rests his analysis on the categorical stability of race. Thompson notably reads Gatsby as a light-skinned African American; he cites, for example, repeated descriptions of Gatsby as "pale" that render his racial identity ambiguous (79), the novel's many associations of Gatsby with colors that associate him with minstrel imagery (85), and Nick's description of Gatsby's estate as having "forty acres of lawn and a garden," which associates Gatsby with Reconstruction. "Although the class and ethnic tensions in the novel are lucid," he argues, "literary scholars have not considered the theme of racial passing. Indeed, the narrative constantly whispers the presence of blackness" (75). Xenophobic, against immigration, and a white supremacist, Fitzgerald in Thompson's estimation makes passing a kind of impossible metaphor for achieving the American Dream (77-78). Indeed, Thompson casts The GreatGatsby as a product of Fitzgerald's anxiety about the racial other transposed onto the established American narrative of class aspiration; insofar as he evinces a "desire for whiteness," Thompson's Gatsby is threatening to the worldview with which the text allies itself (85). Along with the attempt at class passing, the novel's
subversive subject is the paradoxical phenomenon of racial passing,
the racial masquerade implicit to many black people's desire for
enduring inclusion in the American Dream. By appropriating the
symbolism, diction, and associations of racial passing, Fitzgerald
illuminates the miscegenation core of the American Dream. (102)
However, if Thompson seeks to expose the reification of class in critical reception of the novel as having served actually to hide Fitzgerald's (and America's) own "specious" (102) reification of race--"simply put," he says, "race constructs class" (103)--he himself seems to participate in this reification by taking it as the key to this text: the visibility and ideological coherence of racial difference, that is, is assumed.
Meredith Goldsmith similarly locates reified ideological constructions of race at the center of Fitzgerald's book, though she finds them to work to opposite effect. The scandal of Gatsby's performance, according to Goldsmith, is his suppression of his "ambiguously ethnic, white, working-class origins" in a relatively successful "imitation of African-American and ethnic modes of self-definition" (443). Gatsby adopts modes of self-fashioning proper to African American passing narratives and ethnic (frequently Jewish) Americanization narratives, in both of which "racial and national identities become objects of imitation ... through the apparatus of speech, costume, and manners" (443-44). Goldsmith understands Gatsby's negotiation with these non-WASP modes of performativity to underlie what for her is a desirable "explosion of the dialectic between imitation and authenticity," one by which "Fitzgerald refutes the possibility of any identity, whether racial, class, or ethnic, as 'the real thing'" (444) despite his flirtation with "the scientific racist thought of his day" (446). In fact, Goldsmith argues that reading the novel alongside "narratives of racial passing and ethnic Americanization complicates Fitzgerald's class politics" by "complexly and ambiguously intermingl[ing]" the "ostensibly biological imperatives of 'race' and the supposedly more fluid boundaries of class" (451). She sees this as a function of style: Fitzgerald "engage[ed] with the racially and ethnically diverse popular culture of his day through textual allusions and stylistic innovations" (463). However, though she reads the novel for its textual ironies, Goldsmith, like Michaels, Washington, and Thompson, ends up essentializing racial categories, claiming that Fitzgerald engaged in a "tacit dialogue with the African-American and ethnic literary context of the era" (445); her argument thus relies on the existential legitimacy of the very categories (or "contexts") she wants to debilitate. If Michaels and Washington accuse Fitzgerald of the racism of his characters, and Thompson reads one of his characters as black in order to accuse him of reproducing his culture's race panic, Goldsmith celebrates Fitzgerald for deconstructing the category of race because, in her account, a white character adopts behaviors that are the province of nonwhite people. These arguments depend on the logic they want to destabilize.
Finally, Betsy Nies, too, argues that the "theme of the rise and decline of a Nordic civilization prevails" in the novel (95), but in lieu of arguing either the book's racism or its performative potential, she promisingly claims that identity--especially as a racial category tied to the body--is held in contention by Fitzgerald's text, which, by worrying about the diminishing "physicality" of identity, focuses attention on the mechanisms by which race and ethnicity become legible as facts:
The text's ethnic angst--registered both as a fear and fascination
with shifting identities--seems bound up with the idea that identity
itself may be a performance, a textual performance linked only
loosely to some referential reality, not to a stable, definable
body. The concern about Gatsby as either black or a new immigrant
send-off seems based on the idea that Gatsby has created an
identity, thus rendering the whole concept of identity as physically
based unclear. Gatsby, of course, is the ultimate text, fabricating
an identity in a unique imitation of the real. Nick's concerns over
changing ethnic identities seem interminably tied to this concept of
Because Gatsby can "narrate" his own identity, according to Nick's anxious logic, any identity can be "simulated" or "fabricated," endangering the physical foundation of Nick's own privileged WASP identity. Nick's reaction to Gatsby's prevarication about his past is important to Nies's argument:
Nick, while not concerned with racial purity per se, is still
concerned with a certain type of eugenic logic when he tries to find
out Gatsby's background. He looks desperately for a referent for
Gatsby's sign, something to undergird and back up the image of the
man Gatsby proposes to be. (103)
Nies reads Nick's faith in Gatsby as diminishing to the extent that he marks Gatsby's performance as performance; for as long as Gatsby sounds like a textual melange, like discontinuous "bits and pieces of collected phrases" and "misplaced textuality removed from any defining anchoring physicality" (103), Nick distrusts him. But Gatsby's presentation of the photograph from Oxford quiets Nick's doubts and establishes, in Nies's words, "physical proof of his identity."
Nies wants to expose in Fitzgerald an anxious desire to hold on to the body or some other physical basis as "an anchor for the meaning of identity" (107), and she discovers a suspect nativist drive to conflate racial identity with nation in Nick's elegy to "my Middle-West ... the thrilling, returning trains of my youth" (183) traveling at Christmas time through the "the real snow, our snow," and in his recognition of his own "complacen[cy] from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name" (184). For Nies, this scene presents
a vision of ethnic similitude naturalized against the background of
an American landscape. As the text ends, Nick returns to the image
of the train tracks [the first tracks being those along the ash
heaps], yet covers them not with the ashes of outlying New York, but
with the snow of his Mid West. (104)
If the trains that travel to New York run through the anomic gray of racial and ethnic admixture, the trains that travel home to the Midwest, on which Nick and his WASP schoolmates are "unutterably aware of our identity with this country" (Gatsby 184), are invariably as white as snow. "What ... seems threatened," as Nies sees it, "is a class and national identity which became registered through racial terms" (109). Not quite the eugenicist Nick is, Fitzgerald uses race to imagine a "homogeneous ... physical body which carried with it all the referents for self-definition." Nies's Gatsby is a nostalgic text, longing "for a time when identities were tied firmly to fixed bodies" (102).
But here Nies's argument typifies the way the genealogies of racialization offered by Gatsby's recent critics depend on the racialist premise that race is physical, biological, or otherwise anchored in the body (rather than a more loosely defined if still binding representational category, which is perhaps closer to what these critics want to say (4)). Bodies can only be critically examined as sites of racialized discourse if they have already become "registered through racial terms." In other words, Nies, like many who share her interest in "whiteness studies" (xi), begins by assuming precisely what she proposes to provide a history of: the correlation of cultural discourse (about race) and physical body. In this context, her calling Gatsby's photograph from Oxford the "physical proof" that Nick needs to believe Gatsby's mostly fallacious story is telling: it betrays the equation of representation and thing in her interrogation of the book's concern with physicality. In fact, the photograph functions to undercut any attempt to rely on it as a benchmark of accuracy, and Nick's justification in understanding it as proof that Gatsby is telling the truth is certainly limited. (5)
The most important question in a genealogy of race, I'd argue, is how bodies become raced in the first place, not how they are administered by discourses like nativisim once they are raced. I don't really know how they get raced, but to limit oneself to examining the disposition of raced bodies within racist (and ultimately nationalist) discourses, as Michaels, Washington, Thompson, Goldsmith, and Nies all essentially do, is both to reproduce--according to their own shared logic--those racist (and ultimately nationalist) discourses and, more to the point, to preclude any critical account of the novel's participation in processes of racialization in the United States. Ironically, Nies gets this point perfectly as she ends: while Fitzgerald's anxious "rewrit[ing] and rephras[ing of] eugenic logic ... suggests the difficulties of escaping the body as a textual ground for identity," it also "raises the possibility of rewriting social and ethnic hierarchies based on re-envisioning 'types'" (107). Thus it seems that the literary critic's job is done when blacks and immigrants, perhaps, are no longer the objects of racialist discourse, though some other, as yet undetermined, groups are.
The perspective common to these accounts finds nativism and racism in the text because it's looking for nativism and racism. Taking for granted that racial difference is already legible, such a perspective cannot really offer an explanation of how race becomes legible. Interpretation in this mode is built on a desire to recognize current understandings of identity in the past. But by offering a prescribed discovery of the present in the past and of "America" in American literature, recent criticism of Gatsby's racialization illustrates the machinery of literary critical Americanism. In fact, while these readings are grounded in a faith in the stability and national significance of identity, The GreatGatsby lacks precisely this faith. This book does not simply illustrate patterns of identity and thereby invest them with particular political meanings that remain--at least insofar as they always already are--recognizable and valid within a larger, essentially statist inquiry into American literature and culture. Focusing on the techniques of the text's narrative management of identity rather than on locating the validity of particular images of identity in the text reveals this inquiry at work in Fitzgerald's American novel. It also indicates a way to examine how racialism may serve to compensate for--and fill the breach left by--this problem in the thinking of identity.
Narrating Nick's Gatsby: The form of cynicism
The GreatGatsby is cynical about identity as a sentimentally invested category: while it rehearses the desire that identity serve as an interpretive key to America, the book insists on that desire's frustration and fundamental inconsequence. Through its administration of longing, Fitzgerald's text resists the attempt to recognize identity--including raced identity--as nationally representative. Analysis not of what identities the book represents but of how it narrates identity--including the emotional and epistemological network identity occupies, the desire, intention, and imagination it constitutes--helps us avoid reducing Fitzgerald's novel to an instrumental accessory of racialist Americanist ideology. The principle forum in which the text carries out this narration is Nick's conflicted assessment of his experiences, and the structure of this assessment is established fairly early on. A scene in the second chapter articulates a model of intelligence--one always in contention with an impulse to reify, at once holding on to the fetish it makes of experience and exposing it as such--that will underlie Gatsby's significance to Nick and the novel's cynical approach to American identity.
Dragged by Tom to meet his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, Nick spends a drunken evening in the Washington Heights apartment Tom keeps for her. While he is as straightforward as he gets in describing his displeasure, Nick also admits to being captivated. Both eyewitness and participant, at once disdainful and attracted, Nick feels at the same time an urge to escape and a sense of wonder:
I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the
soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in
some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes,
into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows
must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual
watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and
wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and
repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life. (6) (40)
Repeated throughout the novel, this sense of being both inside and outside indicates Nick's alienation--by turns compelling and cowardly--but it also discloses the structure of Nick's ambivalent skepticism, a form of intelligence marked by a conviction of its own impertinence. As the tension between estrangement and participation mounts, disaffection and desire butt heads over the same object. The GreatGatsby never resolves these two equally persuasive positions: announced in his brief prologue, where he admits to contemning the world Gatsby gorgeously represented but also to admiring Gatsby's existential magnanimity, Nick's ambivalence underlies the book's cynicism.
Nick thinks of himself as an outsider--and as having a kind of autonomy. That the war left him apprehensive that the "Middle West" (7) of his youth, that erstwhile "warm center of the world," is in fact the "ragged edge of the universe" intimates a new independence, and once on Long Island, he delights in the proud residential "freedom" a tourist's request for information confers upon him. Nick's attempt to end his "rumored" engagement and the observation that he is "a little disgusted" (24-25) with Daisy and Tom also contribute to a narrative of sovereignty. He displays just enough contempt that we want to trust him. (7)
We suspect, however, that his autonomy may not be inviolate. We know at the outset, for example, that he eventually gives up on the East, presumably defeated by the "foul dust" (7) that circulated around Gatsby. And his independence is certainly embattled in Washington Heights, where his attempts to reclude himself are foiled by his "entangle[ment]." The apartment is claustrophobic: it
was on the top floor--a small living-room, a small dining-room, a
small bedroom, and a bath. The living-room was crowded to the doors
with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it, so
that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies
swinging in the gardens of Versailles. (33)
Though containing at its fullest only six people--Nick, Tom, Myrtle, Catherine, and Chester and Lucille McKee--the apartment overflows. Myrtle's proclamation that "I'm going to make a list of all the things I've got to get.... I got to write down a list so I won't forget all the things I got to do" (41) aggravates this sense of congestion. Even the photograph on the wall (later revealed to be of Myrtle and Catherine's mother) is "over-enlarged" (33). And Myrtle herself, her ego fed by Tom, is monstrously uncontained: "Her laughter, her gestures, her assertions became more violently affected moment by moment, and as she expanded the room grew smaller around her, until she seemed to be revolving on a noisy, creaking pivot through the smoky air" (35).
Nick's attempts to leave the congested apartment for the expansive "soft twilight" outside are thwarted--"each time I tried to go I became entangled ... as if with ropes"--but he is also outside, looking up in wonder at the mysteries lying behind that "line of yellow windows." Provincial Nick is now drawn toward the spectacle. Still inside--"I was him ["the casual watcher on the darkening streets"] too" (my emphasis)--"wonder" supplements "entangle[ment]." Nick is at once critical and inside the apartment, annoyed by its tacky pretension, and compelled and outside, spellbound by its promise. Alienation and fascination are simultaneous. If he bristles at the "inexhaustible" degeneracy of the scene, the "variety of life" he glimpses challenges his self-assurance. Neither enchantment nor scorn alone is an adequate response. This scene characterizes the way Nick experiences and knows in this novel, and it points to the manner of the text's disposition of sentimental attraction. Simultaneously in his encounters and outside them, both "within and without," Nick construes experience as both affective and analytical, at once earnest and ironic.
This theme of imaginative doubling is well established in Fitzgerald scholarship, even if its full implications have not been pursued. John Aldridge, a whipping-boy of recent "lost generation" criticism, calls attention to an opposition between a "spectatorial role" and a "role of active participation" common to Fitzgerald and his peers:
The two together--the sentimental and essentially immature longing
of the observer ... and the premature disillusion of the participant
who saw too much too soon--seem to me to account for the duality of
so much of the literature that generation produced. (6)
Arthur Mizener quotes Fitzgerald's friend John Peale Bishop (from an October 1921 article in Vanity Fair) that Fitzgerald had "the rare faculty of being able to experience romantic and ingenuous emotions and half an hour later regard them with satiric detachment." As Mizener himself elaborates, "At his best, his mind apprehended things simultaneously with a participant's vividness of feeling and an intelligent stranger's acuteness of observation" (xxi). Later, Mizener cites Malcolm Cowley:
It was as if ... all his novels described a big dance to which he
had taken ... the prettiest girl ... and as if at the same time he
stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to
the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the
music. (qtd. in Mizener 63)
Here, Fitzgerald is both knowingly immersed and ingenuously excluded; the affiliations of inside and outside are reversed. Fitzgerald's "double vision" is revealed as a tension alternatively between earnestness and irony and between participation and naivete. Identification in Fitzgerald shuttles between dispossession and involvement, governed by neither a simple opposition of inside and outside nor a narrative of corruption. Nick's adventure with Myrtle and Tom reveals a desire for identification that ultimately precludes the emotional investment it demands. Cynicism makes its first appearance in The GreatGatsby as desire's proleptic knowledge of its own shortcomings.
This cynicism will govern Nick's final judgment of Gatsby, his simultaneous craving and unwillingness to identify with him. If Gatsby is attractive in his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life" (Gatsby 6) and his rare sincerity, then Nick, in declaring also that Gatsby "represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn," marks disenchantment as the register in which that sensitivity and sincerity are proven to be incommensurate with the welter of cliches to which they were directed. Gatsby's naively romantic sincerity and sentimental dream of fetishized identity, of course, are not the center of this text; their impertinence is, and while Nick remains skeptically incapable of identifying with Gatsby's desire, he also wants to disown the conditions that undermine it. Nick reads Gatsby's fate through his own ambivalence, caught between acknowledging Gatsby's effort to maintain ignorance on the one hand and the benign productivity enabled by such ignorance on the other. As we do, he sees through Gatsby long before he starts liking him, but he does start liking him, and the end of the book is nothing if not an attempted defense of him. The text puts us in the position of wanting to sanction both poles of Nick's ambivalence, rendering Nick--precisely in his skepticism--the reader's potential proxy. Indeed, the one thing Nick does that the reader really cannot sanction is retreating back to the Midwest, racially pure or not. This is decisive: just as Nick can't quite identify with Gatsby, so the reader can't quite apologize for Nick. But if this novel is not really about Gatsby, Nick--with whom we feel more empathy--untragically validates Gatsby's failure, and not the dream it followed: Gatsby mistakenly believed he was justified in shaping his world, while Nick correctly knows he is unjustified in valuing Gatsby's imaginative labor. (8) So, while The GreatGatsby is more fundamentally the story of Nick Carraway's disillusionment than it is of Jimmy Gatz's tragic rise and fall, it is about Nick precisely to the extent of his miscarried identification with Gatsby. Through Nick, Fitzgerald's novel dramatizes a naive longing for interpretive security. If it emerges in desire's canny bad conscience before Nick even meets Gatsby, the novel's cynicism coalesces around the representation of Nick's disenchanted and unsustainable identification with Gatsby's failure. Staging an identification that ultimately cannot be consummated even as it is repeated for the reader, this book renders representivity itself untenable.
Nick never discovers something in Gatsby that survives outside Gatsby's sentimental delusion. The discomfiture or Gatsby's naive imaginative project and the banality by which it is framed articulate for Nick Gatsby's inevitable trajectory: Gatsby is a cliche searching, via Nick, for substance. He expends himself in his vigorous, futile faith, and Nick is left alienated from this faith because he knows it transcends nothing of its contemptible field of exercise. The pathos of Nick's "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together," coming on the heels of "They're a rotten crowd," is that Gatsby may stand out from his milieu, but it is a milieu he has chosen.
I've always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever
gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.... His
gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the
white steps, and I thought of the night when I first came to his
ancestral home, three months before. The lawn and drive had been
crowded with the faces of those who guessed at his corruption--and
he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as
he waved them good-by. (162)
Critics interested in exposing the lineaments of racialist discourse in the novel might see here the text's implication of Gatsby in practices of concealment and passing (pace Thompson) or its ironic foreclosure of Gatsby's impossible claim to ancestry (pace Michaels), but such attempts would belie the cynical negotiation of pathos through which the text narrates Nick's appraisal of Gatsby. The opposition of Gatsby's rumored "corruption" and his actual "incorruptible dream" is transfigured in Nick's ambivalent transit between admiration and scorn. Refusing to wise up, Gatsby is never really deceived by the failure of his vision. Nick, however, is another story, insofar as he tries to draw meaning from the "foul dust [that] floated in the wake of [Gatsby's] dreams" (7). Nick's Gatsby stands out like his suit against the steps, like his "complete isolation" at the first party (60), because he has to, because this is how Nick rescues Gatsby's imagination from its "rotten" setting.
Despite the best efforts of its titular character, The GreatGatsby is about knowing better. Nick's disenchanted knowledge at the novel's end of Gatsby's perversely naive desire is framed by that desire's optimistic trajectory. This tension between the propulsive energy of the imagination and skepticism about its experiential investment is heralded in the interrogation of hope in the novel's initial pages, an interrogation that forges an alliance between Nick and Gatsby. Nick first claims, in discussing himself, that "[r]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope" (6). If he in fact finds it difficult to reserve judgment, his narrative nonetheless offers a kind of testimony to a "hope" that Gatsby would, indeed, repay his investment of attention. Nick soon invokes hope once more, this time in the context of introducing Gatsby's "gorgeous" sincerity, a "responsiveness" that was also "an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again." Through the linking term of a hope that he has not quite embraced, Nick reveals how hard he tries to disown his skepticism, insofar as it is a skepticism that--as the ensuing narrative will reveal--short-circuits identification and therefore the possibility of forging useful knowledge from experience. At the end of the book (as at the beginning), only Nick cannot find such significance; like Tom and Daisy (and every other figure in the novel's rogues' gallery), Gatsby has absolute faith in experience's significance, believes experience to be an affair of signs that bear the straightforward representations of desire. If Tom and Daisy provide Nick with evidence that he is right to presume that experience cannot be affirmatively significant, Gatsby offers impossible confirmation of imagination's benign productivity.
Nick leaves the East finding "riotous excursions" distracting, but they are distracting because, despite hope's "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life," those promises can never be fulfilled. The "extraordinary gift" bestowed by Gatsby's hope survives in--but only in--its degradation: "No--Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it was what preyed on Gatsby ... that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men" (7). Nick finds value in Gatsby's dream precisely in its naivete, but this discovery also marks that desire as unavailable. Gatsby's naivete is his expectation that he will find what he longs for, his fundamental faith that experience follows desire; indeed, his naivete figures its own imaginative potential. (9) Yet Nick's commentary narrates hope's ultimate failure: Gatsby's idealism is continuous with Nick's skepticism. Nick neither can nor, it turns out, does he necessarily desire to look at the world except through the broken prism of Gatsby's shattered dream; Gatsby's hope survives, but only in Nick's rejection, only at the inaccessible limit of the text's cynical production of reality.
This ambivalence becomes obvious in Nick's imaginary account of Gatsby's final moments before Wilson murders him:
I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it [Daisy's call]
would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must
have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for
living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an
unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found
what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon