Inevitable and indomitable, death is the ultimate expression of human frailty. We cannot escape its judgment, and we cannot share its experience. Death leaves us naked and alone against the universe. Modern writers believe that, because of its limitations, language, the written and spoken word, ultimately does the same. In other words, they mean to expose the mortality of language.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for example, the connection between death and solitude is used as a metaphor for modernists’ elucidation of the existential confinement in which language leaves us. Narrated by World War I vet Nick Carraway, who never quite figures out our title character, the novel tells of an enigmatic millionaire throwing lavish parties to woo his long lost love, Daisy, and drowning himself in the shallow apathy of his peers. The plot, doesn’t amount to much, I realise, but then it’s not the point, so I’ll freely spoil the end, making this less of a review than a deliberately depressing essay (on what of the greatest American works of literature, no less): Gatsby dies, and his scarcely attended funeral serves as a final testimony to his solitary existence.
It is arguably the most pathetic scene in The Great Gatsby: “The minister glanced several times at his watch, so I took him aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn’t any use. Nobody came”. Despite Nick’s best efforts to “get somebody for him”, no one cares enough about Gatsby to mourn his death: “as he lay in his house and didn’t move or breathe or speak, hour upon hour, it grew upon me that I was responsible because no one else was interested–interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right at the end”.
Even when he’s alive, Gatsby’s acquaintances are quick to forget him. To them, he is merely a host: “He’s just a man named Gatsby.” Though they “go there by the hundreds”, not one of his guests cares where Gatsby is: “People of whom I asked his whereabouts stared at me in such an amazed way and denied vehemently any knowledge of his movements.” The name Gatsby means no more to them than that of a pub or prestigious club where they spend their nights.
When Gatsby dies, the club shuts down. That is the extent of their commitment to him. At the news of Gatsby’s demise, Klipspringer declines attending the funeral for “a sort of picnic or something”: “I’m staying with some couple up here in Greenwich, and they rather expect me to be with them […] What I called up about was a pair of shoes I left there. I wonder if it’d be too much trouble to have the butler send them on.” Even Daisy, a woman who claims to love him, “hadn’t sent a message or a flower”.
Wolfshiem states that we should “learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead”. With the exception of Nick’s, Gatsby was shown empathy at neither time. He died the way he lived: drowning in a luxurious pool, half-naked and alone. The luxurious pool is an emblem of the lifestyle he tried to acquire but never successfully embodied: “I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck […] whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” His skimpy attire represents his seldom apparent vulnerability: “You [Gatsby] are acting like a little boy […] Not only that, but you’re rude. Daisy’s sitting in there all alone.” Finally, his solitude is a representation of the true nature of his existence. All delusions of grandeur stripped away in a single, final moment, the great Gatsby dies humiliated.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald also demonstrates the restrictions of a single perspective. In his narration, Nick must frequently piece together what happened. He admits to his uncertainty: “I guessed right about those missing hours.” Furthermore, through the mysterious owl-eyed man at one of Gatsby’s parties, Fitzgerald explains the deceptive nature of his craft:
“The books? […] Absolutely real–have pages and everything. I thought they’d be nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real […] It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too–didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What can you expect?”
For all intents and purposes, the books are real: they have pages with printed material on them. Yet the owl-eyed man treats them as fakes. That is because books are, by nature, forgeries. They claim to represent a certain reality but cannot do so without reinventing it, and that’s not reality at all. The words chosen, the point of view selected, and the gaps filled in order to tell a complete story make the content of a book more imagination than truth. Language is simply not equipped to fully express our experiences in all their depths and complexity.
This constitutes my favourite scene The Great Gatsby, and perhaps the main reason why I love the book despite having had to read it a half dozen times before remotely appreciating it. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel isn’t about lavish parties and unrequited love. It’s a metaphor for the link between the imperfections of the written word, as perceived by modern writers, and our inability to successfully articulate our thoughts and experiences. Hopefully, instead of driving us to suicide as it did Gatsby, the knowledge of our unavoidable solitude will eventually make us “too old to lie to [ourselves] and call it an honor”.