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Gatsby as a Representation of Modernism
Prt 1 - Desire's Second Act
Prt 2 - Desire's Second Act
Prt 2 - Desire's Second Act
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).
Narrating Nick's Gatsby: The form of cynicism
The Great Gatsby 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.
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 Great Gatsby
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.
. 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 affective and analytical, at once earnest and ironic.
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