All Commentary
Friday, May 10, 2013

Hollow Men

F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, [1925] 1953. 159 pages.

In whatever afterlife awaits fictional characters, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is probably feeling very much at home. After all, with Baz Luhrmann’s movie about to debut, everyone is talking about him again. And in Fitzgerald’s novel, everyone is always talking about Gatsby. When narrator Nick Carraway first experiences one of Gatsby’s famed parties he notes that amid all the gossip about Gatsby’s wealth and mysterious past, and Gatsby’s equally mysterious businesses, no one actually seems to know Gatsby at all. “I made an attempt to find my host, but the two or three people of whom I asked his whereabouts stared at me in such an amazed way, and denied so vehemently any knowledge of his movements that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table.”

Even when Nick finds Gatsby and meets him, he finds himself observing him as if from far away, “standing at the top of the marble steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes. . . . No one swooned backward on Gatsby, and no French bob touched Gatsby’s shoulder, and no singing quartets were formed with Gatsby’s head for one link.” Gatsby is unknowable and untouchable. It is probably no accident that for all his public display, this most famous inhabitant of West Egg is, to paraphrase M. F. K. Fisher, as private as an egg before it is broken. 

In much the same way that the novel’s characters are frustrated and critical of Gatsby’s unknowability, Kathryn Schultz’s widely circulated piece, “Why I Despise the Great Gatsby,” asserts, among other charges,

The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable. . . . It is possible, of course, to deny your readers access to the inner lives of your characters and still write a psychologically potent book: I give you Blood Meridian. But to do that, you yourself must understand your characters and conceive of them as human.
Fitzgerald fails at that, most egregiously where it most matters: in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. This he constructs out of one part nostalgia, four parts narrative expedience, and zero parts anything else—love, sex, desire, any kind of palpable connection.

But I have never thought that the story of Jay and Daisy was supposed to be that kind of story—a story where a great love saves people from lives gone wrong. And that certainly doesn’t seem to be the story Fitzgerald gives us. Instead, we get something much more complicated and much closer to the kind of criticism of the “glamorous dissipation of the rich, [and our] cheap satisfaction of seeing them fall” that Schultz says she cannot find in the novel. 

Gatsby’s distance from us and the distance that separates all the novel’s characters from one another is not a failure of Fitzgerald’s powers. It is a demonstration of them. These are hollow people, with hollow lives, and hollow ambitions. Fitzgerald sees the “glittering swinishness” of the nouveau riche who crowd Gatsby’s parties, and of the old-money Tom and Daisy Buchanan, and of the grasping Myrtle Wilson as all the same. While Gatsby’s early ambitions suggest that he began better than they, any potential he had is destroyed when he meets Daisy, “and all of a sudden I didn’t care. What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?” he says. With Daisy as his goal, he heads off to fight in WWI. When he returns from the war to find her married, he is soon good for nothing more than making money through various and unspecific unsavory deals, in order to spend it wildly to try to attract Daisy’s attention. And, as my favorite American literature professor has remarked of Daisy, “She’s the perfect demonstration of Gertrude Stein’s comment. There’s no there there.”

The novel is filled with famous images of exactly this kind of hollowness. The towns of East and West Egg, with their “shells” crushed flat on one end; the unseeing eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleberg, abandoned and dimmed and surveying the ashpiles; the books in Gatsby’s library with their uncut pages; Daisy and her friend Jordan floating as if “on an anchored balloon;” and always, always, Gatsby’s enormous house—filled with complete strangers at the beginning of the novel, then lit up and empty, and then empty of even the light. If Fitzgerald’s characters have no human emotions, it is because their world has none. Cars run off roads. Noses are broken. Couples divorce. Women are dumped into pools. And it all happens amid endless hilarity. No one mourns for Myrtle. No one goes to Gatsby’s funeral. If Shultz reads Gatsby and finds it empty, she is reading it right. Gatsby may well be “worth the whole damn bunch of them put together.” But the whole damn bunch of them put together isn’t worth an empty eggshell. And Fitzgerald knows it.

We are not meant to admire Daisy or Tom or Jordan or even Gatsby. We are not meant to emulate Gatsby’s ceaseless longing for Daisy. We are not meant to find it romantic and redemptive when he stretches his arms out to that tiny green light at the end of the dock. We are meant to understand the bitter hollowness of coming back from a war to find out that the visions that sustained one are empty, and that the world one fought to protect offers nothing more than a valley of ashes and some parties filled with “happy and vacuous laughter.”