In Chapter Eight, Nick makes a judgement call at last. Maybe it was the shock of seeing Tom's malicious hypocrisy and Myrtle's unforgettably violent death on his 30th birthday.
(Hold the phone...Nick's 30??? The clucking Aunts and Uncles who sent him East to chase his fortune, the internship-level job on Wall Street. I thought he was just out of college this whole time.)
Or maybe it was the slightly-intoxicated, smoke-wreathed all-nighter he pulled with Gatsby, reminiscing about the past. This is when Nick gets Gatsby's true history. The one that interrupts the narrative in Chapter Six. It's almost as if Gatsby knows he's going to die.
Whatever the reason, Nick is ready to take that leap. To decide what he thinks about the whole summer. About Gatsby, yes. But also about Tom, Daisy, and Jordan. They're a rotten crowd, he says. Gatsby is worth all of them put together.
I think this is another reason Fitzgerald chose Nick as his narrator. If the events of the summer can make this consummate observer...this inside-outside spectator....this sideline-sitter willing to put himself back inside the story. To have an opinion. It should put us back inside the story, too.
Which brings me to my question — which is really a continuation of the questions I posed yesterday. Does it? Do you care that Gatsby dies? Do you agree that he is Great? Does the unfairness of the ending sting at all?
I ask this because a lot of people read both Nick's proclamation and the title of this book as ironic. Nick misreading. Getting it wrong. Again. Gatsby isn't great or any better than any of the rest of them. He is a crook. Worse, he is foolish. He chased a foolish, shallow dream. He chased a dream that didn't really even exist.
Maybe. Maybe so. But is the punishment for that death? Or did he pay "too high a price" for his foolishness?
I think people who read this final exchange between Nick and Gatsby as ironic are making the mistake of transmuting symbols into signs until the book becomes a math formula. Daisy = The American Dream. Gatsby = The Modern Man. The Green Light = Ambition. The Eyes of Eckleberg = A Fading Moral Code. Or God, if you prefer. Chasing the American Dream with ambition outside of a moral code = foolishness.
But the difference between symbols and signs is profound. A sign is flat. A sign means one thing and one thing only...and is created to mean that one thing. A stop sign for instance. It makes no sense in any other context. A symbol, on the other hand, is multi-layered and complex. A symbol has a life and a purpose beyond its symbolic meaning. A symbol is something before it comes to mean something.
Perhaps high school English teachers have focused so heavily on the symbolism in this novel that they've sucked out all the humanity. It wouldn't be the first time it's happened. But if you read these characters as signs and not symbols — if you read them only as what they stand for and not for who they are — of course you would feel detached by this point.
Daisy is Daisy before she comes to symbolize the American Dream. The green light is there to light the dock before it becomes Gatsby's beacon. The Eyes Of Dr. Eckleberg...well, that's a billboard long before George Wilson looks up at it and decides what he has to do.
Which brings me to another point that I've never seen discussed anywhere. Chris mentioned the concept of diagetic music a few days ago...music that comes from within a film (And, therefore, unlike a score which is imposed from the outside, serves a purpose within the film. The characters may be dancing to the music, for instance.) While many feel distanced by the heavy-handed symbolism in Gatsby, I would like to propose that it is all diagetic symbolism.
That is, the characters decide what things mean. Gatsby decides that the green light means something, that Daisy means something, that her voice sounds like money. Wilson decides that the eyes hovering above his shop mean something. Myrtle decides that her little, muddled mutt means something. And that you can put a fancy, braided silver leash on a mutt if you want to. No matter what Tom says.
And, in the end. I remember what Jordan said in the Key Scene. That she counts on the careful people of the world to protect her in her carelessness. That it takes two to make an accident. She may be right...but who gets hurt?
It is only the careful people, only the people "panting with vitality" and capable of feeling, only the people who are capable of attaching meaning and purpose to things, of creating symbols, who lie dead. In the road. In the pool. In the bushes.
What do you think about that?