Friday, June 03, 2005

Watching you watching you watching you watching me

A little while ago, on Fitzgerald's eightieth anniversary, The Valve had a little to-do over The Great Gatsby. Is it great literature, is it painfully adolescent, is it mellifluous, is it bad writing, &c. Although the entire discussion is great stuff, this comment in particular kept on coming back to me as I was re-reading the novel:
One of the things that affected me so much when I was first read the book was the way that Daisy herself completely didn’t matter - Gatsby didn’t actually have any valid idea of her as a personality, and it wasn’t important. It really hit me - this idea that we never really know other people, and always interact only with our own conceptions of them.

I don’t think I was sophisticated enough at sixteen to take this one step further, and see to what extent the book was really just Nick’s inscribing of the figure of Gatsby. But now that I am infinitely older and wiser, I think that the fact that Nick is doing to Gatsby something reasonably similar to what Gatsby does to Daisy (or, at least, what Nick obviously thinks Gatsby does to Daisy) is pretty neat, and part of what makes it a worthwhile read for me.
The fact that Gatsby idealizes Daisy - well, that's staple. But upon re-read, I think the chain does go deeper than that. Nick idealizes Gatsby; in many ways, Gatsby is Nick's Daisy. Compare Nick's descriptions of Gatsby - "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life... (2)" - to Gatsby's reverent "'Her voice is full of money.' (120)" To Gatsby, Daisy represents a romantic, perfect specimen; if she makes mistakes (like, oh, accidentally running over a person), it is because of external factors. To Nick, "Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby(2)" that is at fault.

But can we extend this further? To what extent does the reader idealize Nick Carraway?

The first time around, I left the novel liking Nick. He's a good guy - honest, objective, and smart enough to not allow himself to be sucked in by everyone else's crap. At least that's how he represents himself. But I think Fitzgerald has dropped some hints that he's really not all that he seems - after coming home from the war, for example, he chooses the uninspired path of going into the bond business, yet never mentions cracking open the "dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Maecenas knew.(4)" or in any way getting involved in his work. He prides himself on reserving judgments, yet within an hour or so of meeting Tom Buchanan he is already describing him as "pathetic in his concentration, as if his complacency, more acute than of old, was not enough to him anymore.(14)"

Or how about his father's advice to "'remember that all the people in this world haven't had all the advantages that you've had,'(1)" which is nice but also rather condescending, especially after we find out (as was pointed out on The Valve) that Nick's family only received its fortune two generations ago when his grandfather's brother sent a substitute into the Civil War.

The implications of this are rather face-scrunching. If Gatsby is Nick's Daisy, then Nick is a Gatsby. So when Nick watches Gatsby, he is watching Gatsby-as-a-Daisy, but he is also watching a de-familiarized version of himself. Perhaps the two are related - perhaps Nick idealizes Gatsby in order to idealize himself. And then what are the implications for us, the readers, who idealize someone who idealizes someone who idealizes someone? We are watching ourselves (Nick) watch ourselves (Gatsby) watch ourselves (Daisy). While T.J. Eckleburg watches us back.