This past fall, I taught F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in my English 213 class. The class, “The Study of Literature,” is designed as the gateway into the English major, the moment when students begin their initiation into the world of literary criticism. It can be a disorienting experience, particularly for students whose experience of literary study has been shaped more by reading comprehension questions than analysis. In literary study, we move away from comprehension questions and into analysis. In fact, I stress to my students that a literary scholar never needs to understand every aspect of a text (whatever “understand” might even mean); her or his goal instead is to find an interesting moment around which one can craft an engaging argument. Texts invite many different arguments, shaped as much by the reader and the reader’s context and interests, as by the author her or himself.

One of the ways I suggest my students go about this process of beginning to produce such arguments is by thinking about moments in a text that seem strange or gratuitous. A literary critic can then ask about such a moment: Why is it here? What purpose does it serve? If such a moment is not necessary in any obvious way, such as to advance the plot, what does it do for the text? What does it do for our interpretation of the text?

Here’s an example:

In Gatsby, there’s a famous line in which the narrator, young Nick Carraway, remarks in relation to New York City, “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge … anything at all …. Even Gatsby could happen.”

This line, out of context, can easily be read as a statement of optimism. Indeed, The Great Gatsby is often read as a novel about the American dream, about what a man like Gatsby from an obscure or humble background can achieve in the world. Indeed, the novel Gatsby seems composed around the question of whether Gatsby could happen, whether a man could transform himself from James Gatz into the rich and powerful Jay Gatsby?

There is no clear or simple answer to this question, although Gatsby’s death suggests a “no” to most readers.

To my mind, the novel is deeply pessimistic, and one that speaks to much of the doubt and even cynicism surrounding ideas of the American dream today.

A careful reading of the strange and gratuitous moment that precedes Nick’s reflection on what’s possible underscores the complexity of the issues and even the novel itself.

Just before suggesting that “anything can happen,” Nick notes in great detail some passing cars. I quote the passage at length:

A dead man passed us in a hearse heaped with blooms, followed by two carriages with drawn blinds, and by more cheerful carriages for friends. The friends look out at us with the tragic eyes and short upper lips of southeastern Europe, and I was glad to see that the sight of Gatsby’s splendid car was included in their somber holiday. As we crossed Blackwell’s Island a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.

There is nothing in this paragraph that is strictly necessary for Gatsby. These details, Nick’s description, the words here reflecting Nick’s perspective, do nothing to advance the story. The people in these cars are unimportant extras in the world of the novel.

But the passage, and its juxtaposition with Nick’s reflections on the idea that anything is possible, is crucial to our interpretation. And the weirdness of the passage only underscores its importance.

Careful reading of the passage highlights the distinct and bizarre racism of Nick’s viewpoint. The African-American men are described as “bucks,” and Nick chooses the word “yolks” to describe their eyes. This is dehumanizing, objectifying language. Moreover, the people in the mourner carriages are also described in racialist language; they have “short upper lips,” a feature that Nick associates with a particular region of Europe.

Not only does Nick draw his picture through racially-inflected language, but he underscores a power inversion. While the white European mourners follow their dead friend, and Nick imagines these people to be comforted by Gatsby’s car which somehow is “included in” and forms a part of their mourning train.

In contrast, the African-American passengers are driven by a chauffeur, and that chauffeur is white. The passengers here are “modish,” stylish or fashionable, but with a connotation of disparagement. These passengers represent in a new world order, and they take their position in that world with “haughty rivalry.” These passengers of color, unlike their European counterparts, do not take comfort from Gatsby and his companions; they represent new rivals.

The language of racialism and racial disruption is not isolated to this moment in Gatsby. The novel as a whole worries about what is happening in the modish new world of the 1920s in which African-American men can be driven by a white servant. Tom Buchanan articulates this view baldly: “. . . if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged.”

So, having analyzed this disturbing and racially-charged little passage, let us turn back to Nick’s musing about the idea that “anything can happen.” Is the prospect of radical social change, of the racial and class mobility suggested by the African-American passengers and by Jay Gatsby, a welcome possibility? And where is F. Scott Fitzgerald on this issue? Is he using his narrator’s racial anxieties to reflect the attitudes of his time, to hold these attitudes up to our scrutiny and critique? Or is he endorsing and reinforcing those attitudes and ideas?

There are no right or wrong answers here, only more questions for students of literature to chew over. Our students learn and love the fact that language is never simple, nothing is gratuitous, and context matters.

 

Audrey A. Fisch is Professor of English and Coordinator of Secondary English Education at NJCU. Her recent publications include Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text (Rowman, 2016) and Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (Rowman, 2016), written with Susan Chenelle