By Ralph Lombreglia
Featured Art: Man Lighting a Girl’s Cigarette by Irving Penn
[Tom Buchanan] “…Daisy loved me when she married me and she loves me now.”
“No,” said Gatsby, shaking his head.
“She does, though. The trouble is that sometimes she gets foolish ideas in her head and doesn’t know what she’s doing.” He nodded sagely. “And what’s more I love Daisy too. Once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, and in my heart I love
her all the time.”
“You’re revolting,” said Daisy. She turned to me, and her voice, dropping an octave lower, filled the room with thrilling scorn: “Do you know why we left Chicago? I’m surprised that they didn’t treat you to the story of that little spree.”
Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.
“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth—that you never loved him—and it’s all wiped out forever.”
She looked at him blindly. “Why—how could I love him—possibly?”
“You never loved him.”
She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing—and as though she had
never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.
“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.
“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly.
From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.
“Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone . . . . “Daisy?”
“Please don’t.” Her voice was cold, but the rancor was gone from it. “There, Jay,” she said—but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.
“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now—isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I
did love him once—but I loved you too.”
Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.
“You loved me too?” he repeated.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The Plaza Hotel, New York City, 1920s, three-quarters of the way through the novel. Inside this emblem of wealth and decorum, the decorous, wealthy people are having trouble holding their world together. A few hours before this moment, adulterous Tom Buchanan realizes that his wife Daisy is having a “spree” of her own. A few hours after this moment, three people will be dead, and Daisy
will have destroyed her husband’s latest mistress without even trying, without even realizing she did it, an act that leads directly (with some help from her husband, it turns out) to the destruction of Daisy’s own lover, Jay Gatsby.
The contrivances of The Great Gatsby border on the fantastic, but “border” is the operative word. Fitzgerald knew what he was doing. He walks the line pretty much the way Sophocles walked it, or Flannery O’Connor in “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” which begins with a family reading a news report about someone named The Misfit, and ends with them all murdered by The Misfit, twenty pages later. Gatsby is an enduring book because it ventures—delicately and subtly—into the unreal. It does what fiction was always supposed to do: make a wholly artificial story-tale feel more actual—and far more edifying—than actuality itself.
The best fiction doesn’t imitate life. It replaces it.
Jay Gatsby’s lifelong dream will evaporate in a few seconds, but as this scene begins, he still has Daisy Buchanan under his spell. She speaks her first words as if hypnotized. A delicious ambiguity hangs in the crazy line that Fitzgerald has her utter, as she comes out of it: “Why—how could I love him—possibly?” We have no idea what she’s saying, and neither does she, because she’s fighting
His galactic love for Daisy is entirely about him and not even slightly about the real woman. Thus he can easily demand that she “wipe out” a significant part of her personal experience and past. Of course, this will wipe out a large piece of Tom Buchanan, too, and Tom’s sudden, granular memories of Kapiolani and the Punch Bowl are like the involuntary recall of a man with a probe in his brain. Music drifts into the suite from downstairs: beneath this apocalyptic love triangle, a couple is being married. And as the scene continues, narrator Nick Carraway will realize that today is his thirtieth birthday, and thus the beginning of his own decline.
It’s almost too much, almost too contrived, almost too schematic. But not quite. Ninety years after its publication, it’s still a timeless story, a great little book.
Bad love will kill you is the message of The Great Gatsby. That’s what the drama tells us; that’s what the book acts out. But Gatsby’s obsessive fixation on Daisy, and Tom Buchanan’s grotesque infidelities are only the obvious bad love examples. Fitzgerald has a bigger bad love in mind than that. The professional golfer Jordan Baker cheats at golf. Gatsby’s closest business associate is the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. In The Great Gatsby, it’s bad love all the way down. The novel’s narrator is perceptive and articulate, yet he somnambulates his way through a life of selling bonds and dating a disturbingly dishonest woman because she’s sexy and semi-famous. Daisy Buchanan, who speaks a few of the best lines in the novel, seems the one person capable of loving selflessly and
openly, but she’s a child, a girl-woman raised as a princess in Louisville. By the end of the book, the failure to love authentically permeates Fitzgerald’s entire fictional universe.
Sometimes in The Great Gatsby, bad love is called “bad driving,” but it’s the same idea. Early on, Nick scolds Jordan (whom he met through the Buchanans, naturally), for conducting her life incorrectly, like a “bad driver.” Bad drivers, he tells her, survive only until they meet another bad driver. Later, Jordan closes the loop by telling Nick that she did finally meet another bad driver: him.
That was witty of her, but wrong. Jordan’s idea of a bad driver is any man who doesn’t rush to her side the instant she snaps her fingers. Unlike her and everyone else in the novel (except Dr. T. J. Eckleburg), Nick Carraway at least kept his eyes on the road. He saw the big wreck up ahead, America the beautiful sinkhole, in love with itself and nobody else.
Ralph Lombreglia is the author of the short story collections Men Under Water and Make Me Work, and is now working on a novel and a new story collection. Among other awards, he has received writing fellowships from the Guggenheim and Whiting foundations and from the National Endowment for the Arts.