anything can happen

p. 73:

‘Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,’ I thought; ‘anything at all ….’

Race plays no significant role in The Great Gatsby, unless you adopt the ludicrous assertion that Gatsby was black. Here is the only page with a meaningful composition involving black characters. Nick sees three black passengers in a limousine with a white chauffeur, and this observation is enough to inspire wonderment at the limitless possibilities beyond the border into New York City.

Fitzgerald was only three generations removed from the Civil War, so the upheaval in the social order that he saw in the roles of the limousine riders is understandable. But there’s something he considered more improbable than that: ‘Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder.’ What was so fantastic about Gatsby that we should compare his existence to the reversal of centuries of slavery?

Gatsby was a bootlegger, a scammer, a fixer, a criminal through and through. And yet he was a successful social climber, welcomed in high society and regarded as mysterious rather than despicable. But this deception isn’t enough to rate the idea of Gatsby as improbable.

What’s improbable is Gatsby’s desire, particularly his desire in juxtaposition to his contemptible reality. His dream of lost love is a desire for purity and innocence that he’ll never have – not because the time has passed, but because of the person he is. He is a criminal and no matter how wealthy or charming or famous he may become, in his actions and in his heart, he is an evildoer.

It may be that every bad man desires to have some part of his life that is unsullied by his participation – the robber who gives to the poor, the gangster that supports the neighborhood, the vigilante that protects the weak. But no action ever redeems the sinner who can’t reform his own twisted soul. Gatsby’s problem wasn’t that he couldn’t repeat the past, but that he wouldn’t have done anything differently even if he could. The idea that you can be bad and join your rotting heart to something good is the most improbable conceit of all.

5 thoughts on “anything can happen

  1. HI there! I’ve also rediscovered Gatsby recently, about 10 or so years after I first read it and was similarly moved by it’s content. In fact, I found this blog by googling one of the quotes that you commented on.

    Oddly though, I never really thought the book implied that Gatsby, despite his criminal activities, was an evil man, or even particularly remorseful of what he had done. Fitzgerald, as far as I can tell, generally has a protagonist concerned with climbing the social ladder (as far as I can tell). In ‘Tender is the Night’, Dick Diver is an academic, a psychiatrist, who marries a much richer woman essentially through his intellectual prowess and academic success.

    While I think that the criminal background of Gatsby was a very relevant part of the book, for me, it seemed to me as just the means Gatsby at hand to get where he wanted to get.

    I think that in spite of the social mobility of America at the time, Gatsby’s meteoric rise to wealth from a blue collar background was sufficiently fantastic, especially if you take into account that it was not for simply selfish motives of personal accumulation, but all for Daisy, which is one of the central themes in the book as alluded to in the epigraph.

    If anything, I think it was largely the social taboo of his criminal past that he feared, and the truth that he was not a legitimate member of the upper class. I think his desire for lost love is one of the main themes Fitzgerald writes of, not limited to Gatsby, and is just characteristic of a sentimental, or well, certain type of man. It wasn’t specifically the criminal nature of Gatsby that destroyed the possibility of rediscovering true love, or even the changed, fickle heart of Daisy, it was simply that such experiences of youth can simply not be repeated.

    This is of course, just my personal belief, biased by my opinion on the general morality of criminals and sophisticated folk, and whatnot. Also, of course my own very limited experience with women. Anyway, good blog!


  2. ‘Evil’ might be too strong a word for Gatsby, but it’s fair to say that he’s a bad man. He breaks laws without compunction. He looks like he’s killed a man, and probably has, and certainly would to get what he wants. And what he wants most of all is to possess a woman, regardless of whether it’s good for her, and without any real thought for her daughter and of course not her husband. There’s really no objective way to say that this is a good person.

    And so, does this bad nature destroy the possibility of love, or is it simply the impossibility of repeating the past that prevents his happiness? I think the former is his real obstacle. He could be with Daisy again if he truly loved her in the first place, and still did with a love that was about her rather than about his own stunted dreams.

    Now, I don’t think that Fitzgerald was telling a morality tale, he really did intend the story to be universal. But I think what he’s saying is that it is a universal truth that this yearning for the past springs from character defects that doom us all. That is, we all romanticize early love lost, we would all lie and cheat and steal to get it back, and we are all doomed to failure in our attempts to recover the past.


  3. reading at your posts is like reading a fine literature. I enjoy it as much as I enjoy reading Fitzgerald’s..


  4. I think (and it is personal because we all have our own interpretations) the Gatsby was neither good nor bad simply a metaphor for the American Dream, as in no matter how had you try you will never achieve your goal. The fact that Gatsby gained his wealth through illegal activity simply shows that the American Dream, in all its grandeur, is flawed.


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