universal skepticism

p 84:

Suddenly I wasn’t thinking of Daisy and Gatsby any more but of this clean, hard, limited person who dealt in universal skepticism and who leaned back jauntily just within the circle of my arm.

That everyone’s life is a story is a comforting thought, even if that comes with the unavoidable truth that not every story is interesting and few stories end in triumph. Less obvious but equally unavoidable is that everyone’s life is part of someone else’s story, if that story is told broadly enough.

What is it like to know that in the great story of your lifetime, you are only the narrator to someone else’s story? Nick and Jordan live their story in the shadow of the towering romance of Daisy and Gatsby. But the smaller story is more universal, and therefore a more relevant cautionary tale of hard love and missed connections. I really enjoy the few passages when Nick pulls out of his absorption with Gatsby to focus on Jordan – their moments are all the more memorable for being small diversions in the taller tale.

every young girl

p. 80:

The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since.

This is a clever work of sentence construction – if Fitzgerald had tried to describe what Gatsby looked like as he gazed at Daisy, the description might have worked for some readers but fallen flat for others. So instead the author describes the look as a fulfillment of universal fantasy. This breaks the hackneyed writing rule of “show, don’t tell” – but that rule was always more of a Hemingway thing than Fitzgerald.

Romance is better described by its effect than its actions, because romance is ultimately so personal that the actions that seem romantic to one person can seem ridiculous to everyone else. What is the way that every young girl wants to be looked at? Try to describe any one way, and a thousand young girls will say, “Eeeew.” But it’s close enough to the truth to say that every young girl imagines that there is a special way that no one has ever looked at her before. She herself couldn’t put it into words, other than the words for how that look should make her feel. Jordan remembers the incident not for the way that Gatsby looked at Daisy, but for the effect upon Daisy.

shoes from England

p. 79:

I was happier on the lawns because I had on shoes from England with rubber nobs on the soles that bit into the soft ground.

A minor detail can conceal a wealth of wisdom when the subject is happiness. Jordan is just explaining why, as a young girl, she liked to walk on the grass instead of the sidewalk. It’s easy to miss the detail of associating happiness with her shoes.

Can money buy happiness? Of course not. Money can eliminate many of the conditions of misery: hunger, exposure to the elements, sheer material deprivation. In contrast, happiness bought with money is at best fleeting, and more typically a profane insult to the values being purchased: friendship, love, knowledge, self-worth. But it’s too simplistic to say that money can’t buy happiness and leave it at that.

Jordan had on shoes from England, a detail connoting quality and the expense of foreign luxury. Would cheap sandals from the five-and-dime have made her as happy, even with similar tactile nobs that conveyed the texture of the earth? Possibly she acquired her shoes while on a trip to England, imprinting the happy memories of travel into the spring of her footfalls. Perhaps instead the shoes were special-ordered by her mother, a symbol of a loving bond. Years later, Jordan remembered that a particular pair of shoes brought her happiness that day, but it almost certainly wasn’t just about the shoes.

A simple rule of thumb about money and happiness is to spend money on experiences, not things – money is well spent on dinners with friends, vacations and adventures, rather than jewelry and boats and other bling. This simplicity loses nuance, for sometimes things allow you to experience adventures, sometimes souvenirs provide memories that outlast adventures. Money buys happiness when it is meaningfully spent, when the thing acquired also acquires meaning from the heart of the purchaser. A wedding ring is a classic example where a thin tin band could hold more value than a ten carat diamond – the object matters for what it means, and what really matters is what would remain if the object is destroyed.

a great sportswoman

p. 76:

‘Miss Baker’s a great sportswoman, you know, and she’d never do anything that wasn’t all right.’

Of the six romantically involved characters – Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, Nick and Jordan – I’ve always found Jordan the most attractive. Not the most alluring, that would be Daisy. Gatsby, Tom and Nick were too dangerous, stupid and boring in turn. Myrtle had earthy sensuality, but that was about all.

All of these characters are living a lie, each of a different sort, and a couple of those lies will be fatal. But Jordan will emerge almost completely unscathed from this story of betrayal and death. She wears her dishonesty lightly and openly, a casually careless driver in a world of cautious motorists. In a sense, she’s more authentic than her summer friends – she knows who she is, she knows she’s a liar, she doesn’t get lost in the mazes of self-deception that surround the others. She’d never do anything that wasn’t all right … for her.

it takes two

p. 63:

‘It takes two to make an accident.’

Here is the page where we really get to know Jordan Baker, the other woman at the center of the novel.  Daisy is the one who has become legend, the unforgettable golden girl for whom all was dreamt and all was lost.  But I always liked Jordan better, not least because she is revealed here to be an incurable liar.

When Nick scolds her for being a careless driver, she first lies that she is careful, then lightly insists that she doesn’t have to be careful since other people are.  Nick points out that she’ll be in trouble if she meets someone as careless as herself, and she deftly turns the conversation to their relationship, declaring her affection for solid, careful Nick.

Nick knows this lovely girl is a liar, but ‘Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply – I was casually sorry, and then I forgot.’ Is a thing truly forgotten if it’s remembered well enough to write down later?  Jordan’s not the only one with a loose concept of the truth.  It takes two.

most affectations

p. 62:

most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning

Here’s another casually sharp insight into human nature.  From time to time, everyone pretends to be something they’re not.  And sometimes this pretense is just a costume, worn as if for a holiday party, to be discarded and forgotten after the festivities of the moment expire.  But sometimes the pretense is aspiration in disguise; the costume turns out to be not a drapery over skin, but a layer emerging from underneath.

simply amazing

p. 57:

‘It was – simply amazing,’ she repeated abstractedly.

What’s amazing to me is that every time I’ve read that sentence before today, I read ‘abstractedly‘ as ‘distractedly‘ – thinking that Jordan was distracted by the hour-long conversation she’s just had with Gatsby.

And what’s really amazing is that Fitzgerald never has an imprecise paragraph or sentence or phrase or even a single slightly improper word choice. He used ‘abstractedly’ because that’s precisely what he meant.  Jordan wasn’t distracted by some diversion or emotion; she was abstracted, lost in thought. I’ve read the word wrong every time and never noticed until I took the time to find the artistry on every line.

A mild note of interest on this page is Jordan’s reference to her aunt, Sigourney. The actress Sigourney Weaver, star of the Alien movies, was born Susan and changed her name after this character, who is only mentioned this once in passing.

a jauntiness about her movements

p. 55:

I noticed that she wore her evening dress, all her dresses, like sports clothes – there was a jauntiness about her movements as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings.

A great way to enjoy this sentence is to think of all the worse ways to describe just such a woman.  It wouldn’t be enough to just say that she has natural athletic grace.  It would be pale cliché to call her a swan, a ballerina, a long tall drink of water.  It’s not just that she’s sporty, that she grew up with money, that her cool physicality glows through an evening dress.

She moves “as if she had first learned to walk upon golf courses on clean, crisp mornings.” The magic of this phrase is that it also captures the observer’s social standing, as a man who regards the patrician pastime of golf as a subject of aspiration if not envy.  He knows that the only girls who grow up on golf courses are those who have their cares in the world filtered through a fine inheritance.

urban distaste for the concrete

p. 54:

‘Anyhow he gives large parties,’ said Jordan, changing the subject with an urban distaste for the concrete.

Among the class distinctions that haunt Fitzgerald, and therefore this novel, is the divide between the straightforward mien of the Midwest and the slick sophistication of the Eastern cities.  Saying exactly what you mean is looked down upon by the city elite, precisely because it is a sign of naivete.  They’d like to think that those with fast minds and agile imaginations prefer to deal in subtleties, inferences and innuendo.  By their logic, only a simpleton prefers the simple truth.

But beneath the distaste for truth is the fear that an honest opinion is unpopular, or that plain words would reveal their own ignorance.  For they were all newcomers to the city once, and they escaped the mark of the rube by hiding in obfuscations, hedging their way through false sophistication.  Urbanity is just a mask to hide your true face.

A rarity here, possibly unintentional, is the wordplay in “an urban distaste for the concrete.” Cities are made from concrete, couldn’t be built without it – just as society couldn’t survive without the hard facts, however unfashionable they may be.

All that said, the generalization that Jordan proceeds into is a classic:  ‘And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.’

violent innuendo

p. 49:

a persistent undergraduate given to violent innuendo and obviously under the impression that sooner or later Jordan was going to yield him up her person to a greater or lesser degree.

Something about this description assures us that the violence is ultimately impotent, befitting of the stunted ambition sure to envelop the undegrad later that night.