Daisy went upstairs to wash her face – too late I thought with humiliation of my towels – while Gatsby and I waited on the lawn.
This is a beautiful bit of technique, I just want to deconstruct it very carefully. We’ve just come out of one of the most emotionally intense moments in the book, the reunion of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the goal of Gatbsy’s years-long quest finally realized. This scene has taken place off-stage, from narrator Nick’s perspective, as he departed his own house in order to give the couple privacy. So Nick has been standing in the rain on his modest little lawn for half an hour, the lawn that Nick had allowed to grow shaggy and unkempt until that morning, when Gatsby had sent his landscaper around for a proper mowing.
Now Nick re-enters his house to see Daisy’s face shining with happy tears, Gatsby relaxed and composed where before the meeting he’d been a nervous wreck. Whatever happened in that half hour had been full of painful joy. Daisy goes to clean up, the men wait. Such a simple action, it could have passed by without any further flourish. But Fitzgerald takes this opportunity to show us the reflexive thought that enters Nick’s head, a simple and true statement that he’s embarrassed that he forgot to do something about his dingy towels in the upstairs bath. It reveals the kind of person Nick is, his class concerns, the ever-present impulse of self-judgment that resides within him as surely as his heartbeat.
The narrative of this novel is about Gatsby and Daisy, but the genius of it is that the story is about Nick. We learn nearly nothing about the interior lives of the purported main couple. But we learn everything about Nick in these stealthily delivered injections of perspective.
I realize now that under different circumstances that conversation might have been one of the crises of my life.
Nick has a curiously compartmentalized sense of morality. He is in the midst of setting up his neighbor for an affair with his cousin, a married woman. The marriage is merely a solemn vow of a committed pair, one of whom is his blood relation, a bond promised to hearts, to society, presumably to some god. These things don’t concern Nick. He also hasn’t much concern for whether his newfound friend is even pursuing something that is attainable or even worth attaining – is this chase going to lead to sustainable love, or only to heartbreaking ruin?
But when Gatsby suggests some means of making money to Nick, who is vaguely aware that Gatsby’s ways of making money aren’t held in high regard by polite society – well then, here is some moral crisis. The morality that Nick has already ignored at this point merely involves matters of love, marriage and friendship. The morality of money, the right and wrong ways to make it, is somehow less easy to ignore. Nick thinks that ‘because the offer was obviously and tactlessly for a service to be rendered, I had no choice except to cut him off there.’
Nick’s sense of morality here seems less thoughtful than habitual, something deeply bred but not deeply considered. He could only realize afterwards that he might have been facing a moral crisis; in the moment he was acting because he had ‘no choice,’ his refusal was a reflexive reaction rather than a decision point. But what precisely is so bad about being offered money to do something that perhaps you might have done anyway? Is the problem that an offer of money forces you to consider whether you really should be doing the thing for free, or doing it all?
Does Nick have any sense of morality that isn’t grounded only in politeness? He already knows at this point that this setup isn’t an innocent tea time. The irony here is that Nick did in fact face a moment of moral crisis, and he never even realized it, even after the fact. He chose to assist someone else’s adulterous, ruinous fantasy. He chose to ignore bonds of family and friendship. He can continue to sell his bonds from the moral high ground of having refused a little extra money from some shady connections, and continue to fail to think about whether his morality is grounded in truth or merely in custom.
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.
Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
There are so many reasons why Nick’s ‘suspicion’ here is probably false, even though it is an assertion about himself. He’s an unreliable narrator: self-admittedly distracted, occasionally drunk, absorbed in his own career and love life and ego. His statement is boastful no matter how mild the language, and immodest claims of high character are usually false.
But of all the reasons to doubt Nick’s self-assessment, I’ll highlight this one: He’s only a few days shy of his 30th birthday. That’s too small a percentage of an expected lifespan to judge one’s own possession of a cardinal virtue. Think about the changes that people make in the years after 30: wild partiers become sedate homemakers, stable careerists become out-of-control addicts, atheists find a higher power while the devout renounce their gods.
We can’t know yet whether Nick deserves to stand with the few honest people in the world. We don’t have any reason to believe that he’s ever been tested, and we have every reason to believe that the final judgment of his character will take many more years to make.
Finally (and pedantically), honesty isn’t even one of the cardinal virtues . . . which I suppose should have been the first thing to tip us off to Nick’s (self-)deception.
I am not even faintly like a rose.
This phrase is not lyrical, it’s not magical, it’s not the typical language love case for me. It’s just that this is the most deliberate attempt at humor in the whole novel, a dry sardonic humor very much like the fashionable postmodern irony of today. I just like the way it sounds in Nick’s narration, and it sticks in my head.
The other phrase I like on this page comes when Nick and Jordan “exchanged a short glance consciously devoid of meaning” when Daisy ran into the house to argue quietly with Tom over the dinnertime phone calls from his girl. I know just what it feels like to get and to give such a glance, and you’ll recognize it in this phrase.