Friday, March 26, 2010
It’s staggeringly easy, this writing game. ‘Nobody came.’ Two words, and yet they engender such a sense of pity in the reader that nothing else is required. No grand descriptions or high emotion could match those two words for the way they draw the reader into the unutterable sadness of the situation. Nobody came to the funeral of Jay Gatsby. The enigma reaches his nadir. You could almost cry.
This is extraordinary, of course, because Gatsby is not an especially likeable character. He is vane, self-obsessed, he uses people. He is involved in underground, probably criminal activity. When he dies it is hard to escape the initial thought that – well, probably he wouldn’t be that great a loss. In lesser hands than Fitzgerald, that is how it might have stayed, and The Great Gatsby wouldn’t be the classic it is. But then we get “Nobody came.” And a character on a page becomes a man at the end of it all. This is true pathos.
In some respects, Jay Gatsby is an odd character. We are told how enigmatic he is, but if you analyse his words and his actions, to be honest he does not come across as especially engimatic. Carraway, the narrator, even says as much when he notes: ‘I had talked with hm perhaps half a dozen times in the past month and found, to my disappointment, that he had little to say.’ So how does he become one of the great characters of twentieth century literature?
The answer, I think, is precisely because Fitzgerald does not try to make him enigmatic. A lesser writer would have felt compelled to continually tell the reader what sort of man we are dealing with. He would be described as “smiling enigmatically”, or “drawing the audience in with the force of his personality” or “holding sway in his typical fashion” or some such telly nonsense. Fitzgerald doesn’t bother with this. There is one description, when Carraway first meets him and records how he had ‘one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it.’ Other than that, Fitzgerald sees no reason to describe in detail Gatsby’s character or the hold he has over people. His parties are huge events and he is the talk of the town. That is enough.
And this, of course, makes the ending, that “Nobody came” moment, even more poignant. The other characters, those hangers-on and shallow party-goers, may have been seduced by the man’s mysteries, but we, the readers, have not been. They have lost nothing more important than the source of their weekend fun. We, however, have been intimate witnesses to the death of a man and his hopes and his dreams. And how sad is that?