It’s the first and last rule of writing classes, but in the words of Montaigne, “What do I know?” That’s one of the problems with the rule, one of the mysteries (if I put it more properly). Writers don’t really know their own worlds, their own minds, UNTIL they write. Still, the rule is perfectly sound, even for writers like Rowling and Heinlein. They created their worlds, so when they wrote them, the created worlds felt real and full and offered us escape and even insight.
Fitzgerald certainly knew the world he created in The Great Gatsby. East and West Egg were the geography of American money, old money dragged from the hands of dying ancestors, and new money dragged from a brutal field of battle. And, boy, did Fitzgerald know money.
Once more I must say SPOILER ALERT because I am going to talk about one particular aspect of the book without being tender or respectful of the feelings of those who have not read it. I’m going to discuss a narrow area of interest for me because it has been on my mind a great deal these past six months or so. I need not discuss why.
Nick (the narrator) sells bonds in New York, the money capital of the Americas. He has access to all the forms of money which make this economy percolate with activity and innovation. Without the clear delineation of royalty or gentry that so asserts itself in other parts of the world, the brutal medium of money and acquisition casts a golden hue over everything in the novel, except (that is) the valley of ashes where the waste from this merciless pursuit is dumped. The great gulf fixed between wealth and poverty is offered in detail, and from that garbage heap emerges the pathetic woman who hopes to escape her own life. Myrtle is Daisy’s husband’s mistress. I’m not going to go through all the evidence that Daisy knew about Myrtle and that she killed her on purpose. It’s all there to be read in the book. I will say that when Daisy has Gatsby and Tom together she is showing Tom what an acceptable affair looks like. Gatsby may be ridiculous and naive, but his is not stupid and he is not vulgar, both of which are Myrtle’s trademarks. Tom enjoys these qualities in Myrtle because (obviously) she is into whatever Tom wants, things he would never even begin to suggest to his WIFE.
I won’t surmise what all it might be, but we know Tom slapped Myrtle in front of guests in their sex nest in the city. One would not be surprised to learn Tom liked some creepy and rough stuff on the side.
Here’s the thing. Daisy and Tom manage to get rid of Tom’s disgusting concubine in a violent way, and Gatsby pays for it. Now, we know that Gatsby would have taken the blame if it ever went to court. God forbid that Daisy pay for her sins. (Right now I want to slap Gatsby, and I think he’s a doll.) Nick sees Tom again near the end of the novel, and Nick has an insight (Fitzgerald teaches us something).
“(Tom) was walking ahead of me along Fifth Avenue in his alert aggressive way, his hands a little out from his body as if to fight off interference, his head moving sharply here and there, adapting itself to his restless eyes.” We have seen this walk, no? Everyone in the world has seen this walk. Nick does not like him and confronts him with what he did, the way he set Wilson up to kill Gatsby and himself. Tom has NO REMORSE, and Nick recognizes it. That’s when he writes something that has portentous echoes.
“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
He’s right, isn’t he. Fitzgerald came from both money and poverty, from an illustrious family and a failed salesman. He wrote about something Americans must eventually face–our relationship to money. The lines of power run through pots of gold here, and the problem is what Fitzgerald taught us it will always be. Entitlement breeds carelessness, a carelessness that breeds chaos and mess. The only thing that will save us is resisting the urge to worship money.