Gatsby and Butterfly: Intertextual musings.

In Gatsby, in chapter 3 Nick and Jordan explore the Gatsby mansion and meet owl eyes who exclaims : ‘the fella’s a regular Belasco’. The reference to Belasco is clear – a stage producer and designer and writer who allows us to see clearly that Gatsby is little more than an utterly meticulously designed and planned facade, which is temporary and can be cleared away, just like a stage set.

So far so good.

My musing, which came back to me today during this lesson relates to the most famous of Belasco’s stage works, his rewriting of the novel Madame Butterfly  ( John Luther Long) as a play.  This play of 1900 would probably have been lost in time had not Puccini chosen it for an opera, which has become one of the most popular and loved operas on the world stage.

Madama Butterfly.

My Butterfly moment arrives in chapter 7. In the opera, the crucial turning point arrives half way through act 2 when the child of the brash American sailor is revealed to the consul to justify Butterfly’s tragic never ending love for Pinkerton. The shock is immense and presents the audience with a physical manifestation of the relationship between the pair, which the American would rather had never existed. The child is named ‘sorrow’ and forces the consul to review all the assumptions he has made to this point in the plot.

In short, the child is a physical manifestation of the American disregard for the people over whom they have power in what is nothing other than colonial domination of a ‘weaker’ state.

It is also stunningly good music.

Fitzgerald uses this same trick in Chapter 7. Daisy’s daughter has been seen briefly in Chapter 1 but serves only to allow her to muse on the nature of the feminine in the 1920s. Here the effect is different. Just as in Belasco’s play and Puccini’s opera, the child is a reveal device. Gatsby is stunned and at a loss. Possibly he has never imagined that the child exists. Certainly Fitzgerald uses the child as a physical embodiment of the relationship between Tom and Daisy – probably the single element in the story which would prevent Gatsby being able to turn back time. The child asserts Tom’s dominance over Daisy by its mere presence and further acts to foreshadow the end of Gatsby’s dream.

Is it coincidence that the two texts include this dramatic coup de theatre? I would say not. The reference to Belasco has prepared us for this scene. In it , Gatsby has come across the single element which no amount of meticulous planning can make to go away. He is lost as soon as the child comes onto the stage.