Tuesday, June 27, 2023

A Disturbance in the Atmosphere: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ as a Summer Novel

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”—American novelist and short-story writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), The Great Gatsby (1925)

A week or so ago, a friend’s quote from The Great Gatsby—"And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer”—led me to ponder what had never really occurred to me in nearly a half-century of reading and re-reading my favorite book: the extent to which F. Scott Fitzgerald had written a summer novel.

What previously came to mind when I heard the phrase “summer novel” was fiction in a seaside or resort setting, often featuring young or forbidden love that was fully a match for the hottest season of the year (as in Edith Wharton’s underrated 1917 book Summer), or some combination of the two.

Occurring in New York City and Long Island, The Great Gatsby had not had the same seasonal or geographic associations for me.

But even in its first chapter, narrator Nick Carraway casually observes that he will be presenting “a history of that summer” when the mysterious figure of Jay Gatsby entered his life.

Far from throwaway lines

With that in mind, let’s look more closely at my “Quote of the Day.” It’s nowhere near as rhapsodic as the “boats against the current” ending that, for instance, inspired the title of this blog. But these are far from throwaway lines.

What seems like a simple wind shifting objects around in the room symbolizes the disturbance in the emotional atmosphere during this fateful summer, represented by the arrival of Jay Gatsby.

Air conditioning is now so taken for granted that it’s hard to imagine how summer heat affected Americans a century ago—and how they reacted to it, architecturally and psychologically.

Cooling units were too big and bulky for the home in the 1920s, so Americans adjusted through light-colored apparel and homes filled with long draperies to keep out the heat and multiple large windows to circulate air. (For an excellent short history of air conditioning, see this summary from the Department of Energy.)

But when heat waves stretched the limits of endurance, tensions rose and people often acted aggressively—with or without the cool drinks that momentarily fed the illusion of comfort and ease.

Over a year removed from his disastrous attempt to write a profitable play, The Vegetable, Fitzgerald had absorbed a valuable lesson from this ill-starred foray into the theater: Don’t provide a static description, but one that also includes action, highlighted here by verb forms involving movement: “blew,” “twisting,” “rippled,” “fluttering,” “shut,” and, in a quiet fall, “died out.”

The color of money

The passage does more than vividly detail the setting: the Georgian Colonial mansion of narrator Nick Carraway’s second cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, among “the white palaces of fashionable East Egg” that represent the attainment of dreams.

The passage also foreshadows the tragic arc of the novel, in which the exertion of force results in the end of Gatsby’s dream.

In these two paragraphs Fitzgerald is already suggesting associations for the complex color scheme that will dominate this most concise of American literary classics.

White is the most commonly repeated here—particularly in the summer dresses worn by the two young women on the coach, Daisy and her friend, the “incurably dishonest” golfer Jordan Baker (or, in the image accompanying this post, actresses Mia Farrow and Lois Chiles from the 1974 film adaptation)—but also in the “gleaming white” windows and, implicitly, in the “frosted wedding cake of the ceiling.”

That last, striking metaphor signals the motifs of acquisition and possession that will become more pronounced with the appearance of Jay Gatsby later. During infantry training in Kentucky for WWI, Gatsby had fallen in love with the 18-year-old Daisy, but he lacked the money to marry the debutante.

Tom has had the wedding that Daisy wanted, and her white dress even now parallels the white gown she would have worn at the ceremony. For Gatsby, Daisy will always be the symbol of innocence and purity he just missed and hopes to have again, no matter what may have transpired since then—or her moral failings that he will be too blind to recognize.

The non-white colors in this passage are implied rather than explicitly drawn out. The “fresh grass” is green, and will be echoed in the novel’s famous conclusion that evokes “the fresh green breast” of the New World encountered by Dutch sailors three centuries before.

The red in the “rosy-colored space” and “wine-colored rug” evoke wealth, risk, and blood—the violence that erupts periodically, including:

*Daisy’s accusation that Tom caused her black-and-blue knuckle, even though he didn’t mean to—hinting at coercive control he wields over her, whether physically or psychologically;

*Tom’s breaking of the nose of his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, during a drink-fueled squabble—witnessed by Nick, instead of being inferred, as with Daisy;

*The party that Nick attends at Gatsby’s mansion, a riotous affair, concludes with women fighting “with men said to be their husbands” and, lying in a ditch, “a new coupe” wrecked by one of the tipsy revelers;

*The party in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel, preceded by a “loud and tumultuous argument” that worsens when drinks are consumed—and Tom and Gatsby have it out over Daisy;

*The auto accident on the way back, when Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, runs over Myrtle Wilson;

*Gatsby’s murder in his pool at the hands of George Wilson, maddened to violence by Tom’s false suggestion that Gatsby rather than Daisy drove the car that killed his wife.

Rising temperatures…and aggression

Violence also lurks beneath the surface in the backgrounds of two other figures, in ways that Fitzgerald did not need to spell out for contemporary readers but which probably require an explanation for those who encounter the book for the first time in 2023.

Bootlegging, for instance, lurks beneath the surface, conducted in defiance of the Prohibition laws on the books in the Roaring Twenties (underscored, again, by the “wine-colored rug”).

Meyer Wolfsheim (the name translates, roughly, as “home of the wolf”), Gatsby’s business partner and friend, is an organized crime figure who, rumor has it, had “fixed” the 1919 World Series.

Moreover, although never spelled out in the novel, Gatsby, as a member of an organized-crime enterprise, could only have maintained his market “niche” by forcibly removing competitors.

But Fitzgerald judges Gatsby (and even, admittedly to a far lesser extent, Wolfsheim) less severely than another purveyor of violence: Tom.

Reading the list of bulleted items above leads to the inevitable (and correct) impression that much of the aggression it summarizes happens through the instigation of Tom, who possesses “a body capable of enormous leverage—a cruel body.”

“Leverage” is defined as the exertion of force. But Fitzgerald, wanting to leave no doubt of its possessor’s intentions, adds that Tom’s is a “cruel” body—and Tom prefigures how he will impose himself on the threat to his marriage represented by Gatsby even on the mildly ruffling breeze coming through the windows as his wife and Jordan await the arrival of Nick.

With not just his new-found wealth but with his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life,” Gatsby imperils Tom to such an extent that he even disrupts how the Buchanan house keeps the outside world at bay. The “fresh grass outside,” like Gatsby’s hope for Daisy again, “seemed to grow a little way into the house,” which itself is, like the Buchanan marriage, “fragilely bound.”

Tom reacts the only way he knows how: by crushing any outside influence on his home through power. You can feel it through four words used as nouns here but which double as verbs: “whip,” “snap,” “groan,” and “boom.”

As a lover of poetry, especially Keats, Fitzgerald was acutely aware of the weight, feel and rhythm of words, and in the last sentence of the quoted passage, you can sense Tom's almost tactile deflation of Daisy and Jordan:

“Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

If you associate summer novels with “light,” “beach” reading, then The Great Gatsby doesn’t fit the bill. But if you think of this genre as evocative of the senses, of depicting a time when the rules of life may seem suspended but when so much can turn on unexpected moments of exultation and deflation, then Fitzgerald’s classic eminently qualifies.

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