On bookcovers and Gatsby: setting expectations.

I have selected a few of the many bookcovers designed to help to sell Fitzgerald’s novel. With a text such as this, students are in an odd position: many will know of the text and some will have seen the film – DiCaprio version of course. Before we read, I like to engage them in discussion around the covers, to see if we can reach some form of consensus about the ideas and characters within.

We can do this with all of our texts – Huckleberry Finn is particularly effective – as a way of introducing the wider thought needed for A level study, after the rut of GCSE/IGCSE.

Here is my palette:


We can take them one by one and explore them.

images (2)This one is laugh out loud good. Presumably a film tie in for the 1949 film version, our students would get several useful ideas from this cover – notice the alluring ‘roaring twenties’ have become the ‘sinful’ twenties, yet the semi nakedness and homo erotic appeal of the cover possibly suggest something a good deal more explicitly salacious than the pages within. That said, in terms of queer theory alone, this cover does seem to come quite close to the tone of the novel. There’s also a bit of a spoiler in the blue collar worker holding his pistol as though ready to gun down the fine specimen of American manhood – a shame perhaps, yet at least we touch on the dirty side of the text – the world of conmen and cheats and sudden, unforeseen death.

Most of the other images present something very different:

download Possibly my favourite cover here, this is just so elegant. There is such an insouciant ease about the figure who has appropriated the letter Y as his cocktail glass, and I adore the curves of the chair, which place the action so clearly in the twenties. Yet, what is the book about? Louche ease and elegant relaxation? It is doubtful that many picking this from the shelf would note the black/white split and begin to wonder about the split personality of the protagonist, and even less likely that the yellow cover would ring bells about the possible content of a novel in which colour plays such a role – yellow, a debased gold, is so prominent, from the ‘yellow cocktail music’ via the twin ‘yellow dresses’, through Gatsby’s car and reaching the glasses of TJ Eckleberg – yellow: debased and worthless gold -a symbol of the fall and of death of dreams and death itself…. several covers use this colour – would our students recognise this?

Yellow again but very different. The first with the striking dollar sign catches the eye, and this is certainly a book about money, but money alone? I struggle to see the purpose of the highly designed ‘Gatsby’ – they aren’t playing cards (why should they be) and they aren’t coasters… design over substance? Very chic, but tells us little. Perhaps more than the all seeing nostrils of number 4. Yes it is yellow but then what is the message? All is obviously not as it seems – the pair of eyes in the left nostril and the single eye in the right are each different. Who are they? Is this some strange psychedelic novel set in the world of LSD and other mind altering drugs? Nowhere do we see a hint of love, dreams, obsession, cruelty, critique of society…. all very odd, but it should get folk talking.

We may be back on safer ground with cars. Certainly Gatsby can be said to be defined by his car and his appearance sat on it outside Nick’s house makes it an overblown addendum to his physique, yet what is the car for? A death-dealing, luxurious greenhouse of a machine, used to promote ostentatious wealth and power, to humiliate Wilson and in its manifestation in pre-war Louisville representing the machine presented by many, and by Fitzgerald, as the single cause of the collapse of morality among young women of the new century – privacy and the ability to travel away from prying eyes.

images  Well, it is elegant and is certainly to period and reflects the description of Gatsby’s car: “swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns” , but looking at the text we do not see the underlying critique either of the ‘swollen’ body, suggesting debauchery and/or disease, nor the ‘labyrinth’ of windshields, suggestive of the hiding place of an unspeakable monster. This cover is glamour, but there’s little to suggest the idea of the ‘death car’ here.

images (5)However this car has neither glamour nor danger – this near roadster is better suited to the cover of a touring guide to the mid-west. Yes there’s a flapper and Wooster-like chap in a tasteless blazer, but what is this really saying? Good luck to a student being given this and asked to discuss the possible significance of the design.

images A second cocktail – super-chic again with a neat image of Gatsby falling as though shot and making a subtle link between his profession as a bootlegger and his death ‘in the drink’ or his pool. I like this, but as a vehicle for discussion it leaves something to be desired.

So we move onto the last group – the ones which suggest that there is a sadness and which predominantly use blue as the core colour – blue in this book  – romance, sadness, illusions and shifts perhaps. The water between the Eggs is his ‘blue lawn’, he gets a new blue jacket when he becomes Jay Gatsby, his gardens are blue and so on… even Eckleberg’s eyes are blue – perhaps this God is merely an illusion too.

So, two men and two women. Ladies first.

Both women are crying. Very affecting, but strange in a novel which features such self-possessed and cruelly selfish women. We are being encouraged to think of this as a tragic novel around the heartless treatment of a woman. In both images the marks of fashion place us in the twenties – the hair and the lashes belong to flappers and in both cases the city is shown, in one version a city on fire. This is interesting – the city needs to be explored as a setting suggestive of immorality, lust and greed and far removed from the purity of rural areas. The flames clearly present a hellish vision of sin and possibly of destruction of ideas and dreams. I like this. Yet the idea that Daisy might weep over this does not work for me at all.

The men are also fun – one has a blank face, the other none at all, reflecting the stereotypical illustration of the invisible man. This is good. Gatsby is an invisible man in many ways – shy, secretive, reclusive – not recognised by Nick at the first meeting and keen to shun publicity. He is made up of layers of pretence and his real identity is lost in the mists of time. These are clever covers, but there is little else about the text here – we are none the wiser really.

images (6)  The edition we use in school places us in the twenties, but is not successful for me because it is glamour with none of the danger or the seediness of the text – the book is a critique, not a celebration of the twenties and to present it thus is frustrating. Yes the dress and the coiffure are immaculate, but once again, this is Wodehouse, not Fitzgerald.

In the last one here there is a shift from the glamour to an explicit reference to the text – images (3) We see our hero, lonely and contemplative and we see also the lure – the green light. Colour has been drained away into a monochrome and there is little sense of the hedonism which Fitzgerald is at pains to present as eating away at the very soul of America. I do like this one though. It reminds me of other texts – the intertextuality of the water and the sense of lonesomeness speak of Huck, the clothes are not distinct so the character becomes more of an everyman – a new arrival or an early pioneer looking out into a new world. This one works for me on many levels.

In short there is probably not a perfect image for a cover – this is a complex and rich text, and we have to assume that many publishers would baulk at presenting a USA rotten to the core with greed and immorality if it intended to sell copy – the fact that Gatsby did not sell in the time before Fitzgerald’s death is a clear indication of how unpopular such criticism of America was among the readers of novels in the pre-war period. So they airbrush and play up the glitz and the glamour – I left out the Di Caprio and Redford spin offs – charm and elegance with no hint of cruelty or shattered dreams, since for many Gatsby will always be misunderstood and seen as a ‘brilliant portrayal’ of an excitingly decadent period. It is not – it is a savage critique of a world inhabited by cruel and selfish individuals, on the make and on the take, which is redeemed by the immense capacity for one of the most potentially unpleasant characters in the text to feel love and to devote his life to rediscovering it -a quest tainted of course by his own moral failings and need for outright possession of the object of his desire.