Gatsby: let’s talk about sex

Scandalous: what Gatsby is still telling us about sex

You’d have to be living underground not to notice the Gatsby hype in the air at the moment. Buses beam out DiCaprio, book sales have predictably rocketed, flapper dresses fly off the shelves, Babycham glasses are back in. Tired English A-levellers roll their eyes and wish everyone would just shut up about it, ferrchrissakes. Even if you’ve not read it, or seen the new film, chances are you’ve got some opinions on it. Gatsby has trickled into mainstream culture by osmosis, infiltrating aspects of life we didn’t even realise it had entered. And Gatsby, incredibly for a 50,000 word novella, has so much to say to us. Fitzgerald had so much to say to us. Each sentence, each curving, meandering line insists we sit up and pay attention: it’s not a preachy text but it demands conversation to tease it out, revisitation, discussion. Gatsby is a discourse on sex: a mirror held up to certain strata of society in a specific time. Sex spreads long, all-encompassing, omniscient arms throughout. It’s alienating and consuming simultaneously, and propels each drifting narrative. It shifts and changes and wants to be heard. Gatsby wants us to talk about sex. It wants us to see how fundamentally powerless we all are to resist it.

Gatsby and Daisy begin their courtship when he – a young solider – wears an army uniform. Daisy cannot tell if Gatsby is bona fide because his clothes provide equivocation. He’s therefore her sexual equal. It is this sense of blurred vision – of things being not quite as they seem – that pervade the text. Fitzgerald is constantly conjuring the idea of ‘restlessness’, of ‘breathlessness’, of nobody pausing for a moment to consider what lies beneath. Gatsby’s great shell of a house welcomes the masses, transforms them through drink and dance in its many, opulent rooms before spitting them out again, like the oranges that arrive on Fridays and leave as hollowed husks after the weekend. This is what most appeals to us: in the early descriptions of his parties, Gatsby is the all-powerful enabler, providing the means to oblivion for guests who don’t know his name. We can’t tell if these guests are waving or drowning: great gusts of song crack up into sobs, and beautiful cars are overturned on the long road home. Everything in Gatsby’s house is designed to divert attention from the truth: even the furnishings – the ‘wine-coloured rug’, for example – reflect this sense of obscurity. There are too many hiding places in Gatsby’s mansion, too many cupboards in which an innocent game of sardines becomes something much more sinister. Gatsby pushes others to the brink of unconsciousness so that he can plan his route towards Daisy unimpeded. As in so many other works written around the same time, it’s the heat and swirling dust of summertime that adds to this sense of ‘violent confusion’ [A Passage to India and Streetcar spring most obviously to mind, where clothes are perpetually stuck to skin and nobody can bear to move]. We’re constantly reminded of the ‘hot struggles of the poor’, the ‘low, sweet fever’ beating through the city, Tom’s ‘hot whips of panic’.

Although nothing is black and white for Fitzgerald, the sexual dichotomy between Tom and Gatsby is painfully clear. Tom, the hulking adversary, ‘seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved’. Whilst Gatsby makes love, Tom we might imagine rutting. Gatsby can only rely on the trappings of his own materialism, using objects as a mating-call: his car is deeply sexualised whilst he himself is not, ‘bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length’. His quivering position in society shifts according to the value Daisy places on the satellites with which he’s surrounded himself. Like tectonic plates Gatsby’s sense of self – as sexual athlete or eunuch – is lifted high only to be brought crashingly back to earth, and demonstrates Fitzgerald’s understanding of humankind’s essential fragility, ‘a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing’. Sex confuses us, time and again. Daisy’s proclamation that ‘I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything’ is achingly poignant because she so clearly hasn’t, which makes her vulnerable. Tom, too, reveals a tender side after Myrtle’s death but has previously deluded himself about his attachment to her. He was absent for the birth of his own child, but refers to his marital indiscretions as ‘sprees’. And then, to cap it all, he cannot understand Daisy’s ability to love two men at the same time. Vision is constantly blurred, boundaries are lost and sex leans back with a smirk to see the havoc it has caused. It is only Jordan, Nick claims, who is ‘too wise ever to carry well-forgotten dreams from age to age’. She seems aware that to grow up means re-adapting, re-assessing, shedding old skins. Her honesty makes her a formidable and starkly realistic character, for who has not felt, as she does, that ‘I don’t give a damn about you now, but it was a new experience for me, and I felt a little dizzy for a while’? At her and Nick’s last meeting, she explains her decision to marry with a brazenness that will ring true for many of us: ‘You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I?’

As Gatsby prepares to reveal to Tom his love for Daisy, Tom seems to undergo a complete sea-change. Sex has thrown him: ‘Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white’, he cries despairingly. The only way Tom can see through the fog of this most undesirable sexual triangle is through moral puritanism: ‘flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization…The transition from libertine to prig was so complete.’ His attitude to sex and sexuality has found a ‘safe’ resting place, mired in confusion as he is.

The novella also has much to say to us about sexual pigeon-holing, of conjecture, scandal and gossip. Nick claims ‘I had no intention of being rumoured into marriage’, and says that ‘gossip had published the banns’ of his own [false] engagement. Tabletops and shops are littered with issues of the Town Tattle and the ‘small scandal magazines of Broadway’. Nothing is privatised in this most public domain: marriages and love affairs break down in the full sight of others; comedy is constantly overlain with tragedy. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the woman flitting round her husband and hissing ‘You promised!’ into his ear at one of Gatsby’s parties, as he parades his mistress round the room. Gatsby worries about the ‘bizarre accusations that flavoured conversation in his halls’; Chapter IV opens with names – so many endless names of those who attended his parties. There are stories within stories; newspapers exaggerate or downplay events depending on their own interests. Conjecture can lead to panic and worse, as Mr Wilson demonstrates, loading up his rifle.

And so it is with us. Our conversations and opinions surrounding sex shift markedly, not only as we ourselves grow older but as the climate changes. Daisy and Tom, young and virile and beautiful in 1922, might have produced children who’d enter their twenties in the aftermath of the Second World War. The atmosphere is almost indistinguishable in broken, battered 1945 from what it had been twenty years previously. Nobody wanted to swing from chandeliers or croon to old lovers in well-kept gardens. People wanted to rest. What must Daisy and Tom have thought of their children’s attitudes to sex in this exhausted era, or of the full-circle attitudes of their grandchildren, pulling off their clothes as the ‘60s tumbled down. Gatsby is a novel about maturity: about trying to gain it and failing. Our sexual discourse is ever-changing. For young people old enough to read and take in the last year’s top stories, sex may well seem a dark and frightening thing. It is certainly portrayed, at this point in time, as something that beckons police sirens, deaths, incarcerations. We are as obsessed with scandal, libel and moral outrage as Fitzgerald’s readers would have been.

Nick cites his ‘younger and more vulnerable years’ at the beginning of the novella. This is ironic, in that the story finishes around his thirtieth birthday. He is still vulnerable, perhaps more so than ever before. When I first read Gatsby at 13, Nick appeared incalculably old; now, at 22, I read him as a near-contemporary, and when I pick up Gatsby in my forties and fifties he will most likely seem a child. Perceptions about the characters themselves change as easily as do their own sense of selves. Dialogue about the text has changed markedly: now, we’re discussing it endlessly, we talk about the films, we debate Robert Redford, we dress up for Gatsby parties and cover ourselves in plastic pearls. But in Fitzgerald’s lifetime no one talked about it. It sold a notoriously few copies; symbolic ‘attendance’ was as low as the three, tragic cars which brave the rain at Gatsby’s funeral. What’s so fascinating about the current resurgence in interest is that it exactly mirrors the fluctuations of the story. Again, quite near the beginning, Nick remarks that ‘life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all’ – and Gatsby’s house, we’re often told, has rows of ‘long, many-windowed rooms’. What makes Gatsby great is the myriad stories, intrigues, the faces pressed up against the panes, each staring through a different set of eyes and therefore a different lens. Sex is the party to which everyone – Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Jordan, Nick, Myrtle – is invited, regardless of class. Gatsby’s parties are a metaphor for life itself: as it lights up, the band starts playing, people pair off and eventually keel over on the lawn.

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