Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Great Gatsby: The Presence of Absence

This post is going to talk about the theme of absence becoming a presence in The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It sounds confusing, so let me start by giving a concrete and relevant personal experience. 

We are currently transitioning Isaac to a new sleeping situation, and he thinks this is a bad idea.  As a result, something that is currently absent in my life is sleep, both mine and my children’s.  The absence of sleep has a powerful presence, as I’m sure many of you know.  The lack of zzzs manifests itself in easy tears, strong reactions, much fighting and yelling, crankiness, laziness, and distractedness.  (I am just hoping against all hope to write something coherent here.)  So you see, the absence of something can develop a presence of its own. 

In The Great Gatsby, the title character’s life is built around the absence of a woman he loves, Daisy.  Gatsby wants to make a life with Daisy when he first meets her, but doesn’t have the money or status to care for her and goes to war instead.  His entire life’s goal becomes making himself into “his Platonic conception of himself,” the man that could win Daisy, even as he sees her slipping away (98).  She soon marries another man, Tom, but Gatsby remains single-minded in his devotion to Daisy and his attempts at a life with her.  His life is built around a woman who is absent, and whose absence manifests itself in every decision he makes.  His shady business dealings, his building a house directly opposite hers across the bay, and his extravagant parties and “ineffable gaudiness” are all manifestations of Daisy’s absence in his life (99). 

It reminds me of this pipe. 

The Treachery of Images, by Rene Magritte

The French reads: "This is not a pipe."  

And yet it is.  The painting is one representation of a pipe, but as the artist, Magritte, says, “Could you stuff my pipe?  No, it’s just a representation, is it not?  So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe,” I’d have been lying!” (Torczyner 71).

These tricky Modernists like to play around with questions of reality and illusion.  Gatsby’s imagined version of Daisy is like this painting.  It seems real to Gatsby, but is just his representation of Daisy.

Gatsby is determined to recreate an elusive past, which remains just out of his reach.  When he finally does meet Daisy again, her real presence comes in conflict with Gatsby’s version of her imagined presence.  The “colossal vitality of his illusion” cannot be fulfilled by her real presence (95).  He asks too much of her, denies the reality of her life in his absence and her love for her husband, and so loses her. 

He also loses himself.  In his attempts to recreate the past with Daisy, he changes his name, erases his past, and does whatever is necessary to gain the status needed to gain Daisy’s attention.  His gaudy mansion is filled with the rich and famous, none of whom know anything about Gatsby.  In fact, the subject of dinner table conversation at his parties is usually the latest rumor about whether or not Gatsby has killed a man or who he allied himself with in the War.  Gatsby creates an illusion of himself worthy of his illusion of Daisy, and neither can last. 

In the end, the only person who really knows Gatsby is his neighbor, Nick.  Nick is unimpressed with Gatsby and the flashy crowd that follows him.  In contrast to the free-flowing, undefined moral code of Gatsby and his playmates and business partners, Nick “want(s) the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever” (2).  It seems that only from Nick’s perspective can the illusions be seen for what they are and any grasp of reality be had. 

In short, it’s a good read.  Through a love story, Fitzgerald explores the ambiguity of modernism and demonstrates the powerful presence of absence.  And his use of language is masterful and beautiful.  One of the first things I thought while reading this novel again was, “Damn, he really knows how to use language.”

And finally, a commentary on reading the recent reprint with my good buddies Leo and Tobey on the front, the “Now a Major Motion Picture!” version.  It was oddly distracting to have their faces staring at me when I picked up the book. 

Usually, some amorphous body with a blurred out face is what I picture when I read a character.  This time, I was picturing Leo and Tobey speaking the lines that I was reading, and it was both distracting to the story and limiting to my understanding of the character.  It was weird.  This is one area where I think the murky ambiguity of absence is better.  I guess this is the same argument for reading a book before seeing the movie version…one person’s visual interpretation of the story can limit later readings of it.  Our imaginations can fill in a lot more gaps and leave the important gaps unfilled when given the opportunity. 

So if you’re interested in reading this book, pick up an older version with a boring cover or the original version with Cugat's artistic cover art.

Next up:  A Good Hard Look by Ann Napolitano.  Can Flannery O’Connor and her love of peacocks be appropriated for a fiction book?  We shall see… 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott.  The Great Gatsby.  New York, New York: Scribner, 1925. 

Torczyner, Harry.  Magritte: Ideas and Images.  Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1979.  

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