Okay, the old blog is defunct, let’s get some greatest hits going while I work up new content:
Today we’re here to talk about The Great Gatsby, which of those five books is the only one about which I really have anything better to say than a wordier thumbs up or down.
I hate telling people The Great Gatsby is my favorite book, because it looks like your literary tastes ossified in high school. So I tell people my favorite book is either As I Lay Dying (if they don’t seem too snobby), Pamela: A Novel (because no one has fucking read it), or Paradise Lost, if I don’t like them.
If you’re the kind of person who says their favorite book is Ulysses, and you only really learned to appreciate it during your summer spent in Dublin, you’re getting the Paradise Lost treatment.
If you’re wearing a scarf, I’ll tell you it’s Paradise Regained.
If you’re a cute girl, I’ll tell you how I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland and reconnect with my heritage. (Not mentioning they were farmers who had to GTFO in 1847.)
But The Great Gatsby is my true literary love. It’s lean, it’s poetic, and it’s witty, and those virtues all went over my head when I read it in high school. I’m baffled a book this good, written by a popular writer, had such a lukewarm reception. Now most high schoolers in the US read it at some point. Good for Scribner, not so good for Fitzgerald.
At the end of chapter 2, the most puzzling paragraphs in the book:
…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
‘Beauty and the beast… Loneliness… Old Grocery Horse… Brook’n Bridge’
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning ‘Tribune’ and waiting for the four o’clock train.
So is Nick a homosexual? No. Did he engage in a homosexual act? Yes. There is a period of about four hours between Nick leaving the party and him waiting for the train. You can interpret this passage as him not being sexually involved with the guy, but you can’t argue that him having sex with the guy is an invalid interpretation. The passage is intentionally ambiguous.
First, some theory and some history.
I’ve been lucky enough to be familiar with Foucault through repeated indoctrination by militant, lesbian (but not militantly lesbian) professors. So for those of you not in the know, here’s his obituary. Wikipedia doesn’t do him justice. (Side note: compare that obituary with those of Derrida and Said to see examples of the New York Time’s rightward tack.)
To sum up his ideas of sexuality pertinent to The Great Gatsby, the notion of a sexual identity is an invention of our time, i.e. people used to be able to engage in sexual acts without it being a constitutive component of their identity. In the past century this has changed because of the coercive power of institutions blah blah blah…
Or as a friend of mine once said, “Labels are for cans.”
Foucault may have be correct about the history of human sexuality, I don’t know to have an educated opinion. But there were definitely gay authors operating before, during, and after Fitzgerald. Oscar Wilde, Tennessee Williams, and then Truman Capote. Maybe you could argue Oscar Wilde doesn’t fit into modern categories of human sexuality, but I think any such argument is a Sisyphean effort, considering he is a prototypical sassy, gay male (interestingly enough, he’s not listed as a gay writer on Wikipedia… he’s listed as bisexual).
If you told these people homosexuality wasn’t part of their identity, that it was a socially constructed, repressive identification thrust upon them by society, I imagine they’d either laugh at you or think you were crazy. Maybe they’d be offended.
As a rule, I take people’s word about themselves over proclamations about them from an authority figure (and Foucault is an authority figure, is that ironic?). So when someone says “I’m a homosexual. I have a sexual identity,” you need extraordinary evidence to say they’re wrong.
Similarly, people, either homosexual or heterosexual, cannot force a sexual identity on people who eschew it. (I’m not talking about closeted Republicans here, but I don’t want to get off-track and talk about them.) If Nick had sex with Mr. McKee, that does not make the character gay. It doesn’t make him bi, it makes him a character who had a homosexual experience. Nick had a girl back in the midwest, an affair with a New Jersey girl, and then his tryst with Jordan. The book makes it clear he is into the opposite sex, and claiming he has a homosexual attraction to Jay Gatsby—the book’s main character—because Nick describes him in great detail, is academic masturbation at its finest. Nick Carraway is not the anonymous narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Basil from A Picture of Dorian Gray.
Assuming authorial intention has bearing on the meaning of a work (I don’t want to get into that right now, let me just say that most people read books this way), I have a different, unPC interpretation for this passage. Nick and Mr. McKee had buttsex, and it’s an example of the decadence of the 20’s; New York City is a modern day Sodom.
If this were a paper for a class, I’d argue Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a jeremiad against the moral decay of his generation, and offer all sorts of evidence. I’m not, so let’s skip all that and say I’ve proved it’s a plausible interpretation of his conception of the book.
The setup of the scene is this: Nick, Tom, Myrtle (his mistress), her sister, and a couple (Mr. and Mrs. McKee) are having a party in an apartment in New York. They get drunk, Tom breaks Myrtle’s nose, and Nick and Mr. McKee flee the scene of the crime. Then the two of them are in the elevator, with some ambiguously sexual innuendo sub-text blah blah blah.
Then the underwear scene.
Right above the underwear scene, Myrtle is “trying to spread a copy of ‘The Town Tattle’ over the tapestry scenes of Versailles.”
The scenes, described earlier in the chapter are of “ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles.” I’ve seen the gardens—they’re opulent.
If this were a paper, here I would parse “swinging” using the OED. Unfortunately, as I am no longer a student I no longer have access to it. There’s enough imagery and attendant symbolism on this page for ten papers, and this density makes The Great Gatsby the classic it is.
Can we accept these swinging ladies in Versailles can be compared to the party in the apartment, and that the palace of Versailles may as well be a synonym for decadence? I’m not certain about the prevalence of buggery in the court of the Sun King, but we’re not trying to make a 1:1 historical analogy anyhow.
If we accept this, we can accept Nick’s experience with Mr. McKee is a bad thing, and Fitzgerald intended it as a moral condemnation of the slipshod morality he saw in the Jazz Age. And that’s all I have to say on the subject.
If you were wondering, I don’t see homosexuality as a moral issue; it’s no different for me than any other form of consensual sexual preference, i.e. judging right or wrong in sex is like judging people based on what they like to eat.