I’ve known for a long time that The Great Gatsby is a shape-shifter. If Gatsby is its protagonist (and it’s not at all clear that he is), the novel follows the trajectory of a tragedy, in which a hero falls from a high place because of an innate flaw in his character. On the other hand, if Nick Carraway is meant to be its protagonist (and, again, it’s not at all clear that he is), it fits the mold of a coming-of-age narrative, in which a young hero leaves home to accomplish a specific goal (in this case, to succeed in “the bond business”) and is transformed and changed by the people he meets and the experiences he has in his new locale, only to return home without having completed his original mission but with a deepened, saddened conception of his identity.
There is a passage near the end of the novel that has always puzzled me – and as far as I can remember I’ve never heard anyone else cite this passage when they reference this novel. It’s located at the end of chapter 7, just after Daisy Buchannan kills her husband’s mistress by slamming into her full-speed in Gatsby’s car. Nick happens upon Gatsby – who still expects that Daisy will leave Tom and marry him – watching the Buchannan house from the shrubbery outside. Before he dropped Daisy off at home, Gatsby worked out a signal for Daisy to send if Tom “tries any brutality” (144) and she needs rescue, and Gatsby is determined to wait for the signal for as long as he has to. This was not an unreasonable measure to take; Tom Buchannan is not a nice man.
Or, more correctly, he’s not a nice man except in this scene. Here’s what Nick sees when he looks through the window: “Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite one another at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold fried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement. They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale – and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together” (144-145).
Nothing in The Great Gatsby prepares the reader for this. In some ways it’s more surprising than Myrtle Wilson’s death itself, more implausible than the coincidence that brought Nick Carraway, Daisy’s cousin, to the little rented house next door to Gatsby’s mansion. The deep dysfunction of Tom and Daisy’s marriage is established immediately in Chapter 1. Tom is characterized as “always leaning aggressively forward,” as possessing “shining arrogant eyes” and “a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved,” as speaking with “fractiousness” and “paternal contempt” (7). Daisy is characterized as ethereal and trivial, with “an absurd, charming little laugh” (8), a face that is “sad and lovely with bright things in it,” and a voice that contains “a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour” (9). This is the same voice, by the way, that Gatsby will later describe as “full of money” (120). The room in which Nick visits them has “a frosted wedding cake of a ceiling” (8), a detail that makes little sense unless you have been here. If you haven’t, imagine that you are standing under a model of a tiered wedding cake and looking up at its hollow center. The most distant part of the ceiling is the top of the cake – the tier that traditionally holds the miniature bride and groom – and with each succeeding layer the recessed ceiling gets wider. In addition to being visually accurate, this is a fantastically subtle piece of characterization. Tom and Daisy live (and are introduced to the reader from) under the constant threat of being smothered underneath a symbol of their marriage. The symbolic cake hangs over them like a guillotine – or like a snow-covered mountain on the verge of an avalanche.
Aristotle believed that literature is fundamentally social. We need poetry and theatre (Aristotle didn’t foresee the novel) not because we are prickly misanthropic loners but because we are members of a community, and we need to be guided away from unacceptable emotions and towards feelings that are healthy and benign. The word catharsis has its origin in his Poetics, where Aristotle explains that when audience members view a tragic play (in a theatre, of course, surrounded by members of the community – Aristotle would have had no use for Netflix), they are led vicariously through a series of intense but stylized emotions – usually pity and fear. At the play’s climax, the viewer – and a couple hundred of his neighbors – shed these built-up emotions, and after they return to their real lives, they will be purged of the sorts of feelings that cause people to come into conflict with their communities. For Aristotle, tragedy was a little like soma – the drug in Brave New World that induces euphoria and prevents the discontentment that totalitarian states fear.
Comedy has a social function as well. Just as a tragedy moves from order to chaos, a comedy moves from chaos to order. A comedy begins with a problem – often a trivial one. Titania and Oberon are fighting over the changeling boy. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet can’t find anyone to marry their daughters. A half dozen smarmy high school boys make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night, in spite of the fact that they don’t have girlfriends. Those sorts of things. According to Aristotle, the problem in place at the outset of a comedy should be a problem that threatens the community’s values – and it’s no accident that so many comedies begin with a problem that involves marriage. For most of human history, pregnancy, childbirth, and infancy were dangerous propositions, and every culture on earth established a set of traditions and regulations governing marriage. The purpose of these traditions wasn’t to oppress women, as some modern thinkers would tell you – the purpose of these traditions was to protect women and children during some of the most dangerous life experiences a person could undertake. So many comedies begin with a problem involving marriage because for most of human history not getting married meant almost certain social isolation, which was often coupled – for the woman, anyway – with a sort of eternal adolescence, in which one is capable of adult work but never allowed an adult’s autonomy – and for God’s sake, no one wants that. Religious institutions and armies provided alternatives to marriage, sure, but in the absence of significant independent wealth, unmarried people, especially women, could attain no real independence or security.
Aristotle wrote that the problem in place at the outset of a comedy should be one that makes us anxious. The audience of a comedy should have reason to suspect that the entire foundation of their society might be about to come crashing down in some terrible fiery spectacle. The audience is not necessarily aware of this anxiety – no more than the audience of a tragedy is aware that they are experiencing pity and fear – but the anxiety impacts us just the same. We worry that Elizabeth Bennet will never find a husband (because God knows she would make a terrible nun), that Titania is really going to abandon Oberon in favor of Bottom with the donkey head, that Robert DeNiro is going to terrorize what’s-his-face – Focker – so badly that Focker will leave, and the clearly-right marriage between him and DeNiro’s daughter will never happen. The laughter we associate with comedy is often a side effect of this anxiety. We laugh because so far the world hasn’t fallen around us in a cloud of dust – but there’s a little fear in the laughter too, because we all know that being human means that disaster is always imminent.
The ending of a comedy (again from Aristotle) is one that upholds society’s values. Bad guys should be punished; good guys should be rewarded. So often these punishments and rewards take the form of marriages – but a modern reader can detect hints of the prejudices and institutionalized cruelties of past generations by examining how comedies end – just as, no doubt, future generations will use our comedies to learn the subtleties of our value system. This is why Shylock can lose his daughter and his money at the end of The Merchant of Venice in spite of the fact that – to a modern reader – he is more victim than aggressor in the play.
Nowadays we still value marriage – and many modern comedies do end at the altar – but we value other things too. A modern comedy could end with one partner calling off a wedding in order to pursue an individual dream or evade a lifelong commitment to a spouse the audience has learned to hate. Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the mid-1920’s, during a period of brief postwar social experimentation that would fizzle out only four years after the book was published when first the Depression and then the Second World War would make the world serious again, aware of the fact that, even in the 20th century, to be alone was to be in danger. Tom and Daisy’s marriage is hardly the “protagonist” of the novel, but if one were to read Chapter 1 in isolation, it would not be unreasonable to guess that the Buchannans’ broken marriage was the central problem that the plot of the novel needed to fix (especially if one skims over Nick’s opening monologue about “the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams”  and whatever-the-hell else).
If we do identify the dysfunctionality in Tom and Daisy’s marriage as the initial problem in a comic plot, those mystery paragraphs at the end of chapter 7 start to make more sense. In between chapter 1 and the hand-holding in the Buchannan kitchen, Tom displays his mistress to his friends one moment, then bloodies her nose the next for daring to say Daisy’s name. Daisy stumbles along like a drugged ingénue for a few chapters, until her former paramour, Gatsby, arrives to sweep her off her feet, only to find out – painfully slowly – that she doesn’t really want to be swept off her feet, not really. She wants to be swept off her feet by Gatsby about as much as Tom wants to allow Myrtle Wilson to say Daisy’s name.
The plot of the novel effectively removes the obstacles that prevented Tom and Daisy’s marriage from being a happy one. Daisy mows down Myrtle Wilson when Myrtle runs out of her husband’s gas station, believing she saw Tom’s car (it’s Gatsby’s car, but Myrtle saw Tom in it earlier) and deluded enough to think he would run away with her. Later, Tom tells George Wilson how to find Gatsby, whom Wilson believes was driving the car that killed Myrtle. (Tom may believe this too – we’re never told – but I doubt it. I think he knows Daisy for who she is.) When he tells George how to find Gatsby, Tom initiates the series of events that leads to Gatsby’s death; in a way, George is the murder weapon with which Tom kills Daisy’s lover. Soon afterward, we read the two paragraphs that I quoted at the beginning of this essay – paragraphs that depict Tom and Daisy as a prototypical married couple at the end of a terrible day – even (is it possible?) a fairly healthily married couple at the end of a terrible day.
I have never known exactly what to feel at the end of The Great Gatsby. I don’t really want Gatsby to die – but at the same time, his death doesn’t sadden me. I don’t have any questions about why no one goes to Gatsby’s funeral – I probably wouldn’t have gone to it either. If this novel is a comedy (and it’s not, of course – not really, though it’s fun considering the possibility just the same), and comedies are supposed to end in a way that upholds the values of the society from which they come, then this novel comes from a society that felt a deep confusion about what its central values were – and, of course, the milieu in which Fitzgerald lived when he was writing this novel – among the Paris expats, deeply invested in his own dysfunctional marriage – had absolutely no idea what its central values were. If anything, what they valued was the freedom to avoid having values at all. The tension at the heart of Fitzgerald’s generation is what makes this novel so conflicted about exactly what story it is telling. But the shadow of a comic plot is present in the novel, though not fully realized at all – and the shadow is good enough for me.