This essay examines relationships between men and the role patriarchal capitalism plays in the construction of sexuality in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), a novel written during a critical period in the history of sexuality, as well as of gay and lesbian history. The ambivalence about male bonds—in particular the simultaneously loving and abusive dynamics of mentoring—depicted in this canonical work of American literature reveals the author's unease about his relationship with Catholic priest and teacher Sigourney Fay and provides insight into the author's well-known lifelong anxiety about his gender and sexuality.
This essay centers around one of the most important yet least examined scenes in The Great Gatsby: the moment late in the novel when Nick Carraway, wandering past Gatsby's house, catches sigh of—and then erases—an obscene word scrawled on Gatsby's steps. This scene then gives way to the last four paragraphs of the novel, which stage Gatsby's final redemption and apotheosis as an American icon. Through foregrounding Nick's act of erasure, Fitzgerald emphasizes the process through which the "whitewashing" of Gatsby's reputation must occure in order for Gatsby's story to become the story of America itself. And by emphasizing this process, Fitzgerald reveals a central uncertainty, or void, that lies within the text's final, transcendent vision. This uncertainty is linked to the historical context of the novel, and to Fitzgerald's own suspicions at the time of those who threatened the group to which he felt he belonged, "the old American aristocracy."
In 1919, The New York Timesran an editorial lamenting the end of an era: "L. Frank Baum is dead, [...] and the children have suffered a loss they do not know" ("Fairy Tales" 140). While this article is ostensibly an obituary, it mourns the death of the fairy tale genre as much as it does one of its artists. But the announcement of the fairy tale's demise is a bit late, the article implies, because "a fairy story has to be written by one who believes in fairies," and Baum did not. Observing that "behind the scenes you could see the smile of the showman" (140, 141), the writer describes Baum as a wizard of sorts, projecting images on a screen to entertain his audience, an audience who feigns belief just as much as the author does. "Is the age of fairy-tale writing [dead] ?" the writer asks. "Not so long as men like Baum can counterfeit it. But the real note of sincerity can never come back in this age. We cannot write about fairies with honesty any more than we can write about Greek gods" (142). The editorialist describes another collection of tales as "a perfectly good book of fairy stories for children [...], but no sort of fairy story for people who know what the real thing is" (140). While "real" seems to be a questionable adjective for a genre defined by fantasy, by its subversion of reality, it does raise some important issues about the place of the fairy tale in American culture.
F. Scott Fitzgerald likely gleaned the title for his magnum opus The Great Gatsby from an enigmatic passage in Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim , in which the eponymous character is said to be “of great gabasidy” — a polyglot's pronunciation of great capacity. But the parallels between Conrad and Fitzgerald's novels go well beyond the title, most notably in the way that Fitzgerald fashions Gatsby in the image of Jim. Moreover, both Conrad and Fitzgerald meditate on Jim's and Gatsby's “capacity,” which they imbue with a romantic optimism that forestalls the traumas of the past. Fitzgerald utilizes Conrad and his protagonist as a model for how to place a conventionally romantic character within a text that is otherwise preoccupied with modernist forms and themes.
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