I have been thinking a great deal about Gatsby recently – specifically why I find the text so distasteful. I think one reason is the ‘Othering’ which is such an important part of the narrative and is found in the colonial attitudes of Carraway as well as of Buchanan. Presumably also of Fitzgerald, though that is a much thornier question.
If we accept that a Colonial attitude is one in which any group of self elected ‘masters’ who wish to establish their right to rule subjugate a lower group of the populace of their world, then we can see this subgroup not only in the true colonised Native Americans who were driven from their lands and their livelihoods by the colonising forces of the post -pioneer period of expansion, but also in the groups of people in a text held in thrall by the masters. In this case, in Gatsby, the WASP community of Ivy League Plutocrats who dominate the tale and who seek to justify their right to rule by systematically undermining the outliers in society as presented in the text.
Colonisation requires both the physical and mental subjugation of the lesser in order to create in the ruler a state of mind which not only accepts their role as master but also ensures that it is reinforced at every turn. In short, the colonisers show:
- A sense of entitlement to their position
- A wish to establish cultural pre-eminence
- A wish to establish financial control of the subgroup.
As we consider Gatsby, it is easy to see Tom in this light and i will return to him later. More interesting is Nick; since the story is his, then his position in terms of coloniser, whether intended or accidental, colours the whole narrative.
When we first meet Nick, we meet a man who is, by his own terms, tolerant and understanding -he is ‘inclined to reserve judgement’ and in terms of his social group, this seems relatively true. Possibly because he needs to establish a foothold in the higher echelons of the society he now inhabits he seems to tolerate significant moral weakness in his peers, even if he can see the selfishness by the end. Of course Nick is himself a WASP from an old family from the mid West (don’t start me on their moral position…). He belongs and has to be seen in this context.
What he seems to have a need to do in his narrative is to establish his right to belong and he does this in part by actively beginning to ‘other’ the rest of the subgroup with whom he comes in contact. It is by foregrounding their ethnicity that he does this. At his new house he has a serving maid – ‘my Finn’. The woman is not mentioned without the her ethnicity being established – ‘her Finnish tread, the Finn…’ and so on. Likewise, when he visits Wolfshiem’s office he finds his secretary to be a ‘lovely Jewess’. Consequently he is comfortable knowing her to be beneath him. Other similar ethnic otherings exist: the ‘scrawny Italian child’ or the people with the ‘tragic eyes and short lips of Southern Europe’ are further examples. Nick sees ethnicity before he sees people.
In Wolfshiem this is further heightened: he notes the Jewish Capo and reduces him to his stereotypically Jewish characteristic -his nose. In description equally suited to Goebbels’ pamphleteering in Nazi Germany we read of the ‘small flat-nosed Jew’ who looks at him and Nick notices the look from ‘two fine growths of hair which luxuriated in his nostrils’. He ‘covered Gatsby with his expressive nose’, a nose which shows emotion when ‘his nose flashed … indignantly’ and his nose ‘turned to me as though replacing his entire being. And this is a ‘flat nose’. Perhaps the racial stereotype of the hook nose was too far even for Fitzgerald. In essence, Wolfshiem has been utterly dehumanised by Nick and reduced to his nose – and the threat of the cuff buttons made form ‘human molars’. He has become a representation of the Jew-as-criminal in as certain a manner as any ‘Jud Suss’ conceived by Goebbels.
He achieves the same effect with his treatment of African Americans. I have written more on the ‘whitewashing’ of this text here. The dehumanised black ‘bucks’ who roll their eyes in the limousine on the way into New York are obviously there to act as a mirror for Gatsby. Both are upstarts in this world, but he has the advantage of the white man – he can cover his tracks. Though he is not good at it. They are seen as part of a racial and societal subgroup bearing the hallmarks of stereotypical depiction of African Americans – focus on colour rather than person, childish, overdramatic and ultimately seen as figures of fun. Nick immediately takes this position, one that allows him to regard the overblown fantasist in the car with him as one of the same group of masters as himself.
Nick is in this position largely because he needs to establish is own right to membership of the top table. Yes he is a WASP, but he is not of great wealth. He has earned the right by dint of his colour, longevity of his family -3 generations – and his Yale education. But he has no independent wealth, is supported by his father at the age of 30, lives in a small house on the unfashionable West Egg and sees himself as having ‘a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning briefcase of enthusiasm and thinning hair’. He is no doubt using his perceived racial superiority as a cover to hide his relative lack of wealth and/or true blue blood in an East Coast sense.
His companion in the car is surely more subject than master despite the outward display.The white mid-westerner misses the key criterion: good birth. In order to claw his way to the top table he has had to work and cheat and reinvent himself, yet the evidence is clear that he does not really know the code:
- He offers Nick the chance to sell false bonds – an offer no Yale man could possibly accept
- He does not read the signal around the invitation to dinner with the Sloanes
- He introduces Nick to Wolfshiem’s world
- He lives in the unfashionable West Egg
- He invents a ludicrous back story – living ‘like a rajah’
- He is a criminal
- He courts the ‘king’s daughter’, Daisy, as a means of attaining social recognition. So strong is this need that he cannot cope with the idea of sharing her with Tom in any way.
Indeed he shows again and again the quintessential behaviour of the subject seeking to be advanced – mimicry. His house is a facsimile, not of a palace, but of an hotel de ville. He is pretending and copying the mansions of the East Eggs, but it is not quite right. His speech is borrowed from a version of an upper class English fantasy, his clothes are not even worn, they just mimic those of the aristocrats. Indeed so far removed from his dwelling is he in his mind that he does not even notice the presence of Klipspringer or of the dirt accumulating under his eyes in the second half of the novel.
He is therefore ripe to be put down by the arch colonial figure: Tom. Tom has little refinement and little intellect – his place at Yale is presumably earned by his football prowess, yet he has the mark of the master: extreme wealth and good breeding. His ridiculous expenditure on a necklace and his polo ponies are outward symbols of his position – the master of all he surveys, who has bought a wife of good status in order to boost his own position in society. Despite this he needs to constantly barricade his position against those who might threaten his power.
We see this in what is best described as his Classist response to those around him. He takes every chance to suggest his superiority over Gatsby. His parties are ‘menageries’, his car a ‘circus wagon’. Not only is this a clear attack on Gatsby, but also on those around him – the milieu of his parties is that of animals, his car linked immediately to what Nick has noted already; the morals of the ‘amusement park’ which pervade the party evenings. Nick and Tom share some of the same cloth. More concerning is Tom’s use of power to degrade women by sexual conquest.
Tom’s affairs are all with lower class women. Nick may be repulsed by Myrtle, but it is Tom who is treating her as a sexual plaything on whom to prove the virility of the master race. Indeed the one time we see Myrtle challenge this by repeating Daisy’s name, as though an equal, Tom breaks her nose. Tom has cheated with hotel maids, even on his honeymoon, yet although this may not be to Daisy’s liking, she will not voluntarily separate herself from colonial empowerment despite the clear moral vacuum at its heart.
Yet Daisy belongs, for Myrtle there is little apart form her attempts to mimic her target. At the appartment, her behaviour changes as soon as she arrives – she puts on airs and her ‘laughter, gestures… became more violently affected moment by moment’ as Nick notes. She is heard referring to the locals as ‘these people’ dripping with disdain as for a moment she revels in her tawdry triumph, yet all is a charade and she will have to return to the reality of the Valley of Ashes, where Tom will taunt her husband by cuckolding him in a sort of droite de seigneur whilst holding out the ever unattainable offer of the sale of the car. Indeed so scared is Tom of the rise of the coloured classes – and of all subjects – he even finds time to be hostile to the lowest of the low -the dog seller – feeling the need to let him know that Tom sees through his money making scheme.
So why is he so insecure?
He is a Mid-Westerner and in the carefully graded hierarchy of the master race, he will never be a pure, blue-blooded East coaster, let alone an original settler family. He feels this loss. His home is Georgian and dates form the founding of the USA therefore, but somehow that is not enough, for whilst he is the master of his world, there is another world – unseen in the book – of even purer and older money. We notice that Tom is found in Wolfshiem’s lair at one point – why is he there? Surely so we can note that despite all his pretension to grandeur, he is still just under the top tier. It is his need to justify and maintain his position that has created the money-flaunting bully who needs to rely on outward show just as much as does Gatsby.