‘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.