Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Emptiness at the Heart of the Twentieth Century: "The Great Gatsby" and "The Dead"

by Holly Govey


Baz Luhrman's film adaptation  of The Great Gatsby, 2013
In both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and James Joyce’s “The Dead”, parties serve a pivotal role in exposing the superficiality of the characters lives’, as well as epitomising the context within which the novels are situated. While, The Great Gatsby (published in 1925) is set in America and exemplifies the moral decline of the roaring twenties, “The Dead”, written in 1907, forms the last short story of Dubliners: a series of stories focused on Dublin, named by Joyce to: “betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city”[1]. Within Gatsby a number of social gatherings take place throughout the novel, from the ostensibly civilised dinner at the Buchanans’ in Chapter One, to the drunken brawl in New York in Chapter Two, and to Gatsby’s renowned and meretricious parties to which guests arrive uninvited, ready to take advantage of Gatsby’s wealth and generous hospitality. Parties, therefore, reveal characteristics of both hosts and guests, as well as the importance of location; as the least civilised party in Gatsby takes place in New York, the centre of corruption, while the annual dinner party in “The Dead” conveys a sense of the restrictive and repetitive society of Dublin, through the recurrence of events in the characters’ lives. While parties in the two texts may be criticized as simply manifestations of their contexts, this essay’s assessment of their role will question: In The Great Gatsby and “The Dead“, to what extent do both Fitzgerald and Joyce use parties as a means to expose the emptiness at the heart of American and Irish life in the early part of the twentieth century?

At the beginning of Chapter Four, Nick lists the scores of people who attended Gatsby's lavish parties in the summer of 1922.  The conspicuous names reflect either old or new money - the established social order of East Egg (“the Stonewall Jacksons”[2]) or the nouveau riche of West Egg (“the Poles[3]).  Regardless of social status, it is a catalogue of people who took advantage of Gatsby's hospitality and yet never knew him.  For Fitzgerald, the social gatherings are a site for a damning portrayal of the values of the Roaring Twenties.  We are told that “on Sunday morning while church bells rang in the villages alongshore, the world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn”[4].  The call to spiritual reflection is ignored in favour of an opportunity to gossip and be seen. Fitzgerald's choice of the word 'twinkled' conveys a bright and superficially striking surface, whilst simultaneously suggesting an insubstantial and fleeting quality.  In this way, the transcendental is replaced with the ephemeral and the only mystical element is the identity of the host, a figure in whom the party-goers have no faith. The scene reveals the emptiness of the culture; on the surface, both the people and the parties are attractive, but underneath, they are hollow and worthless.
Of course, Gatsby does have faith - in Daisy; she is the source of meaning for him, and the parties are designed to bring her to him. Nick is invited to one of these parties in Chapter Three.  Under the influence of champagne, Nick draws the reader in: “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun”[5], connoting the way that Gatsby’s parties attempt to overcome the limits imposed by nature. The transferred epithet, “lurch”, reveals how Nick's environment shifts as his perception alters, due to the impact of alcohol.  

As readers, we are intoxicated by the lyrical writing and the lavish, sometimes strange descriptions which reflect the glamour, allure and ultimate artificiality of the jazz age. The opulent setting of the party epitomises its seductive quality, while hinting at the extent to which consumption ruled the lives of people at the time. The extravagance creates a carnivalesque atmosphere: “By seven o’clock the orchestra had arrived, no thin piece affair, but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums.”[6] Similarly, the food takes on magical qualities in its description: “glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked ham crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold”[7], which extends the aura of majesty and mystery which surrounds Gatsby.  The focus of the characters’ lives is shown to be blurred, as the possibilities of life are influenced by and conceived of in material terms. Drink takes on a further importance, as through the cloud of alcohol, an ostensibly insignificant scene increases in meaning, as Nick states: “the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound”[8]. In this way, Fitzgerald offers harsh social criticism through his suggestions of society’s inability to find a sense of meaning without altering their sense of consciousness, which is made more critical by the context of the prohibition in America during the 1920s and the role that alcohol plays as the source of Gatsby’s wealth. Nick’ attraction to the superficial qualities of the party, reveal the emptiness behind it, as everything necessary to the construction of the party is displaced by intangible forces. He comments that: “A tray of cocktails floated at us through the twilight”[9], disregarding the servants who are vital to the success of the party. In the same way, he states that discarded fruit peels “left [Gatsby’s] back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves”[10], which serves as a criticism of the consumptive nature of society. Parties, therefore, are revealed to be illusionary, as the pretence of glamour and excitement serve to conceal the destructive nature of corruption and prodigality.


Banquet scene from John Huston's film adaptation of The Dead (1987)

Similarly, the party in “The Dead” provides a site at which to reveal Joyce’s reflections on the “moral paralysis” within Dublin, particularly among the upper-middle class. Contrary to Jay McInerny’s opinion that: “he was more interested in capturing time and freezing it”[11], Joyce implicitly considers wider social issues. He writes of the repetitive cycle of the “annual dinner party” in order to convey his criticisms of Irish nostalgia and society’s inability to escape the claustrophobia of social and cultural poverty, which he associated with various forms of nationalism[12]. Under the pretext of calm, assured stability, lies an undercurrent of unease. Characters converse openly but formally, however, Gabriel is unnerved by the hints of accusation from two encounters with women who challenge his authority. While Lily, a maid, defensively states: “The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you”[13], causing Gabriel to give her a holiday tip; suggesting his inability to relate to lower classes, after speaking to Miss Ivors, Gabriel loses his self-control: “he didn’t know how to meet her charge”[14], causing him to blurt out an unmeasured response. These incidents indicate Gabriel’s agitation, as well as portraying the lack of intimacy between the characters at the party. Furthermore, the progress of events is presented as a struggle, as each scene has to be repeated: “the piano had twice begun the prelude”[15], alluding to the arduous way that the characters attempt to overcome time and move forward in their lives. In this way, Joyce presents parties as an outlet for societal frustration and a means to preoccupy the lives of people who lack purpose or direction.

The sense of unease which is relatively submerged at the party in “The Dead”, is more explicitly expressed at the Buchanans’ dinner party in Chapter One of Gatsby, in which distances between the characters are revealed through a lack of meaningful communication. During the course of the evening, Jordan and Daisy talk with “a bantering inconsequence”[16], while Tom pedantically judges society: “Civilisation’s going to pieces”[17], before receiving a call from his mistress. Similarly, at the party in New York in Chapter Two, conversations are disjointed: “most of these fellas will cheat you every time. All they think of is money. I had a woman up here last week to look at my feet”[18], where these juxtaposing subjects break up the flow of discussion, creating a sense of carelessness. This idea is compounded by the lies which are told, as everyone tries to impress one another by hyperbolising their stories, highlighting the lack of trust or intimate relationships between the characters.

The lack of solidity or tangible relationships between guests is also paralleled by the continual movement of characters, which conveys a sense of their restlessness. In Gatsby this notion is epitomised by the descriptions of groups at Gatsby’s party which: “change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath”[19], where the tidal imagery is symbolic of the ephemeral nature of their relationships. In addition, the allusion to cycles, can be linked to the end of the novel in which Nick criticizes the recurring nature of society, through his description of the actions of humans who “beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”[20]. In contrast, in “The Dead” the movement of the characters is more formalised and unnatural, as guests are given military orders to dance systematically, “Mary Jane led her recruits quickly from the room”[21], where these forced proceedings are an allegory for the prescribed reality of Irish society.

Guests at Gatsby’s parties come blindly and instinctively, and they are described by Marius Bewley as: “illusions in pursuit of a reality from which they have become historically separated”[22], which alludes to their unconscious search for tangible meaning within their empty lives, as well as the lack of engagement they have with Gatsby himself. Guests come to his house for the parties and they attempt to elevate their own status by associating themselves with those from the upper classes. This is linked to the implications of participation which are associated with the word “party”, alluding to the idea of inclusion within a societal formation. However, this notion is juxtaposed by the alienation of central characters that stand separated from the party and are in this way excluded. Gatsby is detached due to the fact that most of his guests arrive uninvited: “sometimes they came and went without having met Gatsby at all”[23]. He is both literally excluded as he is described as “standing alone”[24] but also metaphorically he is untouched by the corruption which infects his guests, who are described as “moths”[25], attracted by the bright lights and activity but simultaneously as fragile and as impermanent as their relationships to one another. For Gatsby, his parties epitomise his disillusion with his position in society, as he attempts to present himself as part of the elite upper class, despite the fact that he will never be part of the society of “old wealth” due to his relatively impoverished origin. This notion is conveyed particularly through the way that Gatsby assembles his library with books to create the impression of someone wealthy and well read, which Owl Eyes sees straight through: “This fellow’s a regular Belasco”[26] epitomising the realistic theatricality of Gatsby’s life. Gatsby’s house, therefore, is the set in which Gatsby is encouraged to play a part, and is as unreal as the entertainment industry that promotes false dreams. There is a contradiction between Gatsby’s internal identity and the way in which he presents himself to others, which is part of the illusion which he attempts to create through his parties.

Disillusion in “The Dead” carries wider implications as Joyce writes in a letter to Grant Richards on 23rd June 1906 that: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking glass.”[27]

In this way, Joyce believed that all Irish people were living under an illusion and that to perceive themselves clearly it was necessary for his work to be published as it was written, so that people could recognise his criticisms of society and so that the moral vacuum at the heart of Irish culture could be exposed. At the party, Gabriel is characterised as vain and self-obsessed, as he agonises fixatedly that “his whole speech was a mistake from first to last, an utter failure”[28]. However, the subsequent events of the party instigate his change from a state of relative self-deception to a recognition that he is not as central to his wife’s emotional experience as had previously imagined: “A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him.”[29] Therefore, parties serve differing roles for Gatsby and Gabriel; as they reinforce Gatsby’s false sense of identity, whilst enabling Gabriel to recognise his life for its superficiality.

In both novels there is a need to belong and yet to remain distant, which is epitomized through the symbolism of windows. In “The Dead”, after his encounter with Miss Ivors in which he is accused of being a “Western Briton”, Gabriel moves to the “embrasure of the window”[30] for protection and in his longing to be outside and separate from the party. He dreams of being alone and in touch with nature: “How pleasant it would be to walk out alone, first along by the river and then through the park!”[31] , suggesting a sense of claustrophobia in his environment, which parallels the idea of the constrictiveness of his society.  This notion is particularly emphasised through the juxtaposition between the warmth of the living and the deathly cold of the snow outside, depicted by the heat of Gabriel’s hand on the cold pane. To Gabriel, this close human interaction is stuffy and confining, while the cold outside is repeatedly connected with the idea of simplicity and freshness.

 Similarly, in Gatsby, Nick’s position as a partially involved narrator is epitomized by the image of a window, as he stands in Myrtle’s apartment in Chapter Two, describing himself as: “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life”[32]. Furthermore, his character parallels Gabriel in his wish to: “get out and walk eastward towards the park through the soft twilight”[33], again suggestive of a wish to return to the simplicity of nature and away from the involvement in others’ lives which is mandatory while part of the party. The image of the “yellow windows” contributing “their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher”[34] also creates a sense of the spread of corruption and the bidirectional relationship between the outside world and that of the party. Nick ultimately concludes that: “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window after all”[35] as he comments on how his perspective is limited by personal experiences. However, he also suggests here that his involvements in the East have taught him this and that the superficial views which initially appeared exciting and intriguing to him soured with time, allowing Nick to reiterate his straightforward and simple characteristics of honesty and integrity. This sense of simplifying the world and returning to the solidity of reality, reflects the human need for occasional solitude and a chance to escape the continuous pressure and confinement of social gatherings. In “The Dead”, this idea is mirrored by Gabriel’s sense that: “his own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world”[36], as he looks out of the window onto the snow which was “falling faintly through the universe”[37], which parallels the idea of covering up the corruption of society in order to return to a state of purity.

 Windows, therefore, serve a dual purpose to allow characters to gain a wider perspective away from the parties, enabling them to escape the emptiness of their lives but also to allow others to glimpse into their society, reminding characters that they are constantly judged by those around them. This notion is highlighted by Caso Nicole who suggests that windows “maintain an ambivalent semantic charge, at times signifying the possibility of exits and escapes to alternative spaces, at times indicating deception and exposure to false images”[38]. This quotation highlights the problems of perception, as identical scenes can often be interpreted from many differing perspectives, which serves as a pertinent metaphor for people’s narrow views and the self-absorbed nature of society.

Parties in the two novels also function as epitomisations of the contexts within which they are written. Gatsby stands as a tribute to the life of post war New York City, identified by H.L Mencken in 1924 as: “monied, vulgar, noisy, chaotic and immoral”[39], while “The Dead” is presented by Laurie Lanzen Harris as a short story “noted for its revelation of the harsh restricted world of Ireland”[40]. Joyce’s imagery reflects the rigid formality of the Irish society, exemplified by the descriptions of the food, as the beef and the goose lay at “rival ends”, while the “squat old-fashioned decanters” stood as “sentries to a fruit stand”[41]. The use of military language converts a table of life-giving substances into a battlefield, full of connotations of danger and death. Furthermore, the juxtaposition between the laden table and impoverished ghost of Michael Furey alludes obliquely to Ireland’s traumatic history in terms of famine and social poverty[42]. Music is given similarly militaristic and aggressive qualities, as Aunt Julia’s singing “strong and clear in tone, attacked with great spirit”[43] , where the movement and force of  her voice juxtaposes the sense of quiet unease and restrictive social decorum. In general, both novels extend on the idea of moral depravity within their contexts and it could be argued that one of the parties’ main roles is to portray an accurate picture of the Roaring 20s and the state of Ireland from Joyce’s childhood.

In addition, the importance of location and geographical origin are highlighted through parties, which function as outlets for both separation and union. “The West” takes on a parallel significance in The Great Gatsby and “The Dead”, as all central characters originated in the west but have since relocated to the East and become involved in the corrupted lives of those living there. Western Ireland is symbolic of Irish nationalism, where the “Aran Islands”[44], which Gabriel refuses to visit with Miss Ivors, represent the heart of Gaelic. In this way, Gabriel turns away from his Irish roots, maintaining that he is: “sick of [his] own country”[45]. This alludes to the notion of “paralysis”, defined by Brewster Ghiselin as a: “weakening of impulse and ability to move forcefully, effectually, far, or in the right direction, especially by a frustration in ranging eastward”[46], which suggests that Joyce’s criticisms culminate with the idea of a need to escape the claustrophobic community of Dublin. However, at the end of the story Gabriel states that: “the time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”[47], suggesting a change of heart which parallels his earlier renewed understanding of his wife’s emotions. This journey west may be representative of death, as symbolically it follows the setting of the sun, however the idea of returning to the location of the life force of Irish, may instead be representative of regeneration. Similarly, we are also presented with a transition in Nick’s character, who compares the East favourably to the West whilst at the Buchanan’s party in Chapter One, however, while he seems presently in awe of the sophistication of those in the East, by the end of the novel, the same people disgust him as he recognises them as the “foul dust”[48] which contribute to the corruption of the world. Like Gabriel, he moves away from the East, which had become “distorted beyond [his] eyes’ power of correction”[49] and with the wish for: “the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention for ever”[50].  

The transition from harmony to dissonance during the course of the parties, therefore, reflect Nick’s growing confusion and disorientation with his life in the East. This notion of changing perception is paralleled by Nick’s shifting reactions to Gatsby’s parties in Chapters Three and Four; which alter from awed amazement and appreciation for Gatsby’s hospitality to “an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness”[51] which is undoubtedly caused by the presence of Tom, whom he states: “gave the evening its peculiar quality of oppressiveness”.[52] In this way, the intrusion of the East impacted on the dynamic of the party, shifting relations and allegiances and highlighting the notion of class differences. Parties, therefore, bring people together but also act as a means for separation. Guests are categorized and judged depending on their background: “young Englishmen dotted about, all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low voices to solid and prosperous Americans”, which reveals a further criticism of society, as Fitzgerald emphasises the superficiality and condemnatory nature of Americans in the 1920s. Nick initially partakes in these prejudiced opinions, recognising those at Gatsby’s parties from East Egg as “representing the staid nobility of the countryside”[53], in contrast to the “spectroscopic gaiety”[54] of the West. In this way, in conjuring an image of a prism and the notion of dispersing light, energy and colour, Nick perceives those from the west as kaleidoscopic and exciting, in direct contrast to the gentile sedateness of the East Eggers. However, both these pretences are ultimately revealed to be false, as Nick uncovers the true nature of the inhabitants of East and West Egg in the sobering and harsh reality of daylight.

Ultimately, both The Great Gatsby and “The Dead”, illustrate the seductive nature of parties, as well as the ways in which their shallow attractiveness can be exposed to reveal the emptiness behind them. Fitzgerald hyperbolises an ostensibly entertaining chapter in American history and shrouds it with explicitly negative events to criticize the superficiality of people’s lives in the 1920s. Furthermore, the language used to describe characters in the text is sensed through terms of lethargy, inertia and withdrawal, which alludes to the unconsciousness way that people drifted through their lives without resolution or purpose. Meanwhile, Joyce writes realistically in believable dialogue of Irish society, endeavouring to force the Irish people to consider their own lack of purpose or “paralysis”. The parties in the two texts also differ in significance due to the diverse seasons; as the intense heat and restlessness of the summer in Gatsby directly contrasts with “The Dead”, which describes the solidarity and numbness of winter. For Joyce, parties did not serve an entirely critical purpose, as he wrote to his brother, indicating his feelings that some elements of Dublin had been left out of his stories: “I have not reproduced its ingenuous insularity and its hospitality”[55], therefore the role of the party in “The Dead” can also be seen as a means to offset the negative impression of his homeland presented in his other stories by acknowledging the Irish for some of their more positive virtues. In conclusion, in response to the research question: In The Great Gatsby and “The Dead“, to what extent do both Fitzgerald and Joyce use parties as a means to expose the emptiness at the heart of American and Irish life in the early part of the twentieth century? This essay concludes that parties in the two novels serve as a means for presenting general social criticism, as well as acting as focal points for epitomising their contexts and for highlighting wider issues such as the juxtaposition between inclusion and exclusion in society. Through their illusionary qualities, parties conceal the faults of society. They ultimately function to create a site in which the morality of the characters is revealed. In Gatsby, they sustain the notion of the intangible relationships between guests, as well as the hollowness of their lives, while in “The Dead”, the idea of a “moral paralysis” manifests itself through the highly restrictive nature of the party.

This essay was shortlisted for the 2015 Ithaka Prize

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[1] Gilbert, S., Letters of James Joyce, vol. i. Faber and Faber Limited, (1957). Print. p55
[2] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. P40
[3] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. P40
[4] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. P39
[5] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. p27
[6] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. p26
[7] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. p26
[8] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. p31
[9] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. P28
[10] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. P26
[11] McInerney, J., F.Scott Fitzgerald 1896-1940. The Guardian (1955). Printed (01/06/1996) cited in: Peter, K., The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Quotations. Oxford University Press, (1997). P298
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[37] Joyce, J. and Johnson, J., Dubliners. Oxford University Press (2000). Print. p 176
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[52] Fitzgerald, F.S. and Reynolds, G., The Great Gatsby. Wordsworth Editions Limited (1993). Print. p67
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