F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

1925

Set in the summer of 1922, The Great Gatsby is the quintessential, and perhaps original, text in which the surface is the substance, especially of the main character, but also the novel itself. Its New Franklinian concern with capitalism as a virtue finds a home in narrator Nick, who believes himself outside the system, but is simply passively partaking in it. In this way, Tom’s landed inheritance of the system is situated somewhere between Gatsby’s aggressive pursuit in the system and Nick’s total avoidance of it.

In keeping with the thought of surface as content in Gatsby, it’s worth considering the characters’ names: Jordan’s androgyny, Daisy’s false freshness, Gatsby’s name change to something invented and artificial. Nick Carraway’s last name suggests an ungrown seed or sprout, as well as “carried away,” which he is most of the time as he solipsizes Gatsby’s story and adds impossible-to-know details to it. Indeed, the narrative often reaches results passively, so that we don’t know how we got there (the biscuit in the dog’s water or the walk with Daisy told later).

The famous “disembodied face” passage about Daisy signals her as a creature not of the body, but of fancy, which is also how Gatsby himself is imagined. Like a beautiful Kurtz, she is reduced to the power of her voice, which “sounds like money.” The myth of Gatsby compels keeping it up, even despite better evidence. In contrast, both Tom and Myrtle are solidly bodily – Gatsby’s death is to float, while Myrtle’s is to be ripped apart by a car that leaves her breast flapping open.

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