In the weeks leading up to Friday’s release of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I suffered from many of the same symptoms that the institutionalized Nick Carraway exhibits in the film: nervousness, irritability, insomnia—perhaps even a heightened propensity for drink. My anxiety level rose incrementally with each departmental meeting and office discussion that focused on the film. As my colleagues giggled with glee at their Gatsby video game, I cowered self-consciously in my cubicle. What was this stupid green light they were going on about, and why was that poor rower forever being borne back into the past?!
You see, I had a terrible secret: I have never read The Great Gatsby. I’m tempted to blame my otherwise excellent high school English teachers for this sad state of affairs; instead of Fitzgerald, we studied classics like Ethan Frome, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and How Does a Poem Mean? However, I obviously bear some responsibility, too: I certainly could have picked up the great American novel during my English studies at a rival school of Tom Buchanan’s alma mater, or at any point since. But I didn’t. For whatever reason, Gatsby was consigned to my particular version of the list of classic books one pretends to have read while making small talk at dinner parties.
My status as a Gatsby virgin, though personally embarrassing, proved useful to my editors, who wanted me to belatedly undergo the quintessential high school Gatsby experience. How would someone who hadn’t read the book fare on a multiple-choice quiz about the novel after viewing the film, they wondered? For that matter, could I pull off a convincing essay about Fitzgerald’s most famous work after watching the movie? I avoided reading commentary on the film, saw it on Friday evening, and then got to work on my assignments.
My first task was to answer 25 questions, mostly plot-related, from SparkNotes’ Great Gatsby study guide. (Try it for yourself.) I expect this quiz would be a cakewalk if you had read the book—the questions were on the order of “Who is Dan Cody?”—but, having not had that pleasure, I found the premises of certain questions (i.e., the ones I botched) completely confounding.
I earned 84 percent, not knowing details like why Gatsby dropped out of college. (Apparently he had to work as a janitor and was embarrassed? The film, as far as I can remember, is unclear about why his five-month military-sponsored stint at Oxford ended.) I was also completely oblivious to the fact that Gatsby’s father came to his son’s funeral. (The movie is quite clear that only Carraway was in attendance). Additionally, according to this quiz, Gatsby and Carraway fought in the same battle in World War I, which unless I blinked at the wrong moment, was not in the film.
For the essay portion of the test, we roped in Michael Donohue, an English teacher at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn (and a National Magazine Award-winning writer). Donohue provided me with a list of essay topics he routinely gives his sophomores after they read The Great Gatsby, and he kindly agreed to grade my essay as though I were a high school student who had read the book. I chose the following prompt:
Nick Carraway: Write an essay offering an interpretation of his role in this novel. Why does Fitzgerald choose to have the story narrated by a minor character? What's the effect of having the story told from Nick's perspective? To what extent is this Nick's story, and not Gatsby's? Is it a tale of his coming of age? Of his coming to realize that he belongs in Minnesota?
The prompt struck me as appealing (and a bit strange, given that this is clearly “Nick’s story” in the film) because I easily found Carraway to be the most compelling character in Luhrmann’s movie. Indeed, Gatsby seemed a two-dimensional cutout in comparison with Carraway’s complex position as a somewhat introverted naif who nevertheless almost single-handedly drives the action of the plot. I also found his crypto-gay relationship with Gatsby the most intriguing “romance” in the film (though I decided not to touch on that too much in the essay because I probably wouldn’t have done so in high school). The final essay, written over the course of about three hours the day after I watched the movie (and finished around 2 a.m., per my usual high school workflow), follows:
Carraway’s Comfort: Writing as Virtual Bildungsroman in The Great Gatsby
At the start of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald introduces us to a man who’s searching—for health, certainly; for absolution, perhaps; but, above all, for an understanding of himself. Nick Carraway, our narrator, has found himself in a sanitarium after what has clearly been a period of serious profligacy: He is suffering from “morbid alcoholism,” insomnia, and irritability, among other maladies. But these are, according to his doctor, merely symptoms of an underlying psychic tension that must be addressed if Carraway is to have any hope of recovery. Of course, the normal means of working through such unease would be talk therapy, but, seeing that Carraway is not a keen speaker, his physician recommends writing “to bring [him] comfort.” And write he does, filling page after page with recollections and confessions. It is from these pages that emerge the matter of the novel, the story of Jay Gatsby.
Story is the operative word here. After all, given Carraway’s mental disquiet, to what extent can we trust his version of events? Perhaps his torrid affair with the fast, wet life in New York City clouded his memories, in which case, perhaps Gatsby is not so wonderful or terrible as he would have us believe? Indeed, how do we know that Gatsby even existed?
In this essay, I want to imagine what happens to the novel if we entertain that last question, if we treat Gatsby’s story not as a work of more-or-less accurate reportage, but rather as the written projection of a man—Nick Carraway—who needs a virtual construct in which to sort out the competing value systems that besiege him during his time in New York. More specifically, I will argue that the act of writing—specifically, writing the figure of Gatsby—is a means of testing vexing dichotomies that amount, ultimately, to incommensurable life paths in Carraway’s mind. In other words, Gatsby may be less a man and more a kind of machine for simulating different systems of ethics. Of course, to suggest that “Gatsby isn’t real” is to summon the M. Night Shyamalan-shaped specter of a conspiratorial rereading of Fitzgerald’s text. That is not my intent (though one could go a ways toward making that argument given the evidence at hand). Rather, my interest is in thinking through how a Gatsby-as-written-life-experiment allows us to understand Carraway’s place in the novel.
First, let’s allow that all events up through the debauched apartment party with Tom Buchanan and his mistress “really happened.” That leaves us with a Carraway still new to the excesses of city life, trying to make his way in an unfamiliar, competitive industry (bond trading) and finely-tuned social milieu. Having come from a place with a much more “wholesome” value structure, Carraway has cut most of his moorings, including his previous interest in becoming a writer. And yet, far from accepting urban decadence wholeheartedly, Carraway remains wary about the temptations that surround him. He constantly struggles with dichotomous choices—work responsibilities vs. playboy leisure, for example—and clearly wishes for some kind of resolution or balance. Indeed, the alluring green light that begins and ends the story is clearly meant to signify an elusive desire—but what if instead of Gatsby’s unthinking yearning for Daisy, it’s Caraway’s longing for peace from his cognitive dissonance?
If we entertain the latter reading, Gatsby may be better understood as a kind of closed arena in which Carraway’s competing desires can be played out in the safe remove of the sanatorium. Or, put in a more writerly way, Gatsby is “an essay” in Montaigne’s original sense—a means of advancing and appraising an idea or set of ideas. And after Carraway’s lurid experience at Tom’s orgiastic, hooch-soaked apartment party (in which he may have had sex with a man), such an appraisal becomes all the more urgent—enter Gatsby (in the form of a written invitation, no less), heretofore a figure made of whispers, now an impossibly handsome, wealthy man who oddly faces many of the same questions that plague the author who creates him.
Indeed, if both men can be said to have a tragic flaw, it is their inability to leave. For Gatsby, this manifests as his stubborn refusal to elope with Daisy, instead insisting that they “do things right”—which, as Daisy puts it, is to “ask too much.” Meanwhile, Carraway seems incapable of leaving situations that are equally self-sabotaging—whether it’s an out-of-control party or a marital row at the Plaza. Further evidence for the notion of Gatsby-as-projection can be found in the surrealism of his and Carraway’s encounters, filled as they are with choreographed, Technicolor fireworks and never-ending bottles of Moët. Finally, it can be no accident that Gatsby’s “real nature” or “true identity”—a bit of information desired most by Carraway throughout the novel—is in flux almost until the end, where we learn in final night of revelation the Great Gatz is not all that different from Carraway: Both are strivers with somewhat old-fashioned morals that clash with the lifestyles they are pursuing. After this confession, Gatsby dies, with Nick his only mourner.
And what else could Gatsby do? He had served his purpose in allowing Carraway a space for testing out questions of ethics and respectability that had troubled him since his move to the City. In writing the figure of Gatsby, Carraway had gamed out the life he was pursuing (in an exaggerated fashion, to be sure), and he did not like what he found. Which leaves us with a final question—what do we make of his appending the adjective “Great” to the top of his finished manuscript? Perhaps it’s just an acknowledgement that while Gatsby’s lot may not be desirable, the ever-upward desire he represents remains alluring, flickering on the horizon of our psyches like a faint light in the fog.
Donohue agreed to pretend the Luhrmann film didn’t exist and to evaluate my essay as though I were a 10th-grader taking his class. He sent me the following comments:
This is a stylish and thought-provoking essay—on the whole, a strong finish to your study of Gatsby. Your prose, as always, is spirited and poised, and I find your central claim quite interesting: that Gatsby, even in the world of West Egg, may not actually exist. Nick Carraway, you suggest, may have invented Gatsby as a sort of moral flight simulator, a way for a wary Midwesterner to rehearse a few possible responses to 1920s “urban decadence.” According to this reading, the Buchanans and Wilsons are “real,” but everything else is not—not Gatsby, not the Louisville back-story, not Meyer Wolfsheim, not the death of Myrtle Wilson. It’s a refreshingly wild idea, and you develop it cleverly. You’re also careful—wisely—to temper your argument by stating that you aren’t really asserting this thesis; you’re merely wondering what would happen to our reading of the novel if we entertained the possibility that Nick is a writer of fiction.
But while the paper is definitely stimulating, it stops far short of supplying enough textual evidence to support its claims. In fact, your paper stands at some distance from the actual novel. You note the dream-like quality of Nick’s encounters with Gatsby, but you don’t provide any specific examples of it; you claim Gatsby faces “many of the same questions that plague” Nick, but you don't show us where in the text these questions arise. Even more troubling to me is that your memory of the text is sometimes deeply flawed. Nick does not, as you write, ever acknowledge a past ambition to become a writer. He is not an alcoholic (in fact he specifically tells us, while narrating a scene that even you admit is real, that he has been drunk only twice in his life). And what is the deal with all this stuff about Nick’s being in a sanitarium? Bryan, I understand that sophomore year is hard, but there’s really no excuse for mixing up Gatsby with the ending of The Catcher in the Rye.
Ultimately, this interpretation flounders—not only because it turns Gatsby into a sort of Prohibition-era Fight Club, but also because we can take away almost all of its power by replacing “Nick” with “Fitzgerald.” If, instead of claiming that Nick invented Gatsby, we argue that Fitzgerald did—well, you see my point. What your essay makes clear is that someone, a writer, was trying to make sense of 1920s decadence—and no one can argue with that.
Ouch. The lesson here? I should read the book. Also, Luhrmann’s adaptation is, at best, only 80-84 percent accurate. Kids, learn from my mistakes: Read the real deal, and don’t let some Hollywood director’s carnivalesque, hip-hop-infused, champagne-soaked siren call lead you astray. The film contains no warning light—green or otherwise—to save you from the shoals of intellectual mortification.