Facades in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) challenges the mythology of the American Dream through its multiple layers of the facade that appear throughout the novel. These facades do not merely occur with Gatsby’s house or the rumors surrounding his life. Rather, they appear elsewhere, some even on a meta-level within the text. Today,  I want to briefly discuss a few of these instances. I will mention some of the facades that we see in relation to Gatsby, but for the most part, I want to focus on other instances throughout the novel.

One of the major themes of the novel revolves around the past and our constructions of it. At one point, Nick tells Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby simply responds, “Why of course you can.” Writing in his journal in 1924, Fitzgerald summarized the tension within the novel: “That’s the whole burden of this novel—the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.” Gatsby exists within an illusion, both an illusion of the past and an illusion of the present. At their core, these illusions comment on the myth of the American Dream. They highlight that, as Nick’s father tells him, “all people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” 

Before we even begin the narrative, Fitzgerald provides us with an epigraph from Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. The epigraph basically lays out Gatsby’s aspirations and his attempts to get Daisy back, the main narrative thrust of the novel. In this context, the epigraph is nothing really out of the ordinary or unexpected. Yet, it serves a crucial purpose in preparing readers not just for the narrative but also for the ways that the novels illuminates the facades of everyday life and social aspiration. You see, D’Inviliers is not real. He is a semi-autobiographical character from Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise. In this manner, he is nothing more than a facade for Fitzgerald himself. 

As we read the novel, we discover it exists as Nick Carraway’s construction of the events surrounding his encounters with Gatsby and the Buchanans. We know this due to the fact that it is a first-person narrative, but we also see it when he references, at a couple of points in the novel, that he is writing the events in retrospect. These acknowledgments point to the fact that the novel, itself, exists as a constructed facade to pay respect, to a certain extent, to Gatsby and to show that for all of Gatsby’s attempts to become part of East Egg society he fails. This failure, and Gatsby’s naive outlook, causes Nick to feel sorry for him.

Even Nick himself recognizes that his family history exists as nothing more than a construction. Discussing his family, he presents the accepted story of the Carraway’s history and the true story.

My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. The Carraways are something of a clan and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Dukes of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today.

The constructed history traces the Carraways to the Dukes of Buccleuch in Scotland; however, Nick knows that the real history is something altogether different. His great uncle arrived in America in 1851. We do not know, of course, whether or not the man had a fortune upon arrival, but we can assume he did not because we know that he started a hardware business. As well, we know that he climbed the social ladder because he had the financial ability to send a substitute to the Civil War. All of this allowed Nick’s father to go to Yale and for Nick to follow in his father’s footsteps years later.

Duke of Buccleuch Coat of Arms

The history of the Carraways seems to reinforce the idea that the American Dream is accessible to everyone. Yet, Nick’s father, at the start of the novel, counters this myth. We see that Gatsby, as much as he tries, cannot break into upper-class society, and we see that even though it appears that he does because of the wealth he accumulates no one appears to accept him. No one knows much about him. No one comes to his funeral, even though they all populated his mansion each and every night during the summer.

Gatsby exists within an illusion, both an illusion of the past and an illusion of the present.

Myrtle Wilson provides another example of the inaccessibility of the American Dream for everyone. When Tom takes her to their apartment in New York, she tries, again and again, to look the part of an upper-class woman. She tries on three different outfits. She read Town Tattle. She looks to Tom to purchase her anything her heart desires.  All of this, however, does not grant her access to East Egg society, and Tom still views her as inferior to himself, mainly based on her social position.

When Myrtle says Daisy’s name, Tom breaks her nose. In the confusion that follows, Mr. Mckee (himself looking to break into East Egg society) awakens as McKee’s wife and Catherine works to help Myrtle.

Mr. McKee awoke from his doze and started in a daze toward the door. When he had gone halfway he turned and started at the scene- his wife and Catherine scolding and consoling as they stumbled here and there among the crowded furniture with articles of aid, and the despairing figure on the couch, bleeding fluently, and trying to spread a copy of Town Tattle over the tapestry scenes of Versailles.

Myrtle decorated the furniture in the apartment with “scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles,” and now the women attempt to keep the blood dripping from Myrtle’s nose from falling onto these scenes by using Town Tattle to catch the blood. This is important for a couple of reasons. The gardens of Versailles are decadent and extravagant, a sign of wealth and power. Town Tattle is a gossip magazine detailing the lives and exploits of the wealthy. The women use a facade (magazine) to keep Versailles pristine, staining the constructed image while trying to keep the images of the garden untouched. However, we do not know if the magazine succeeds.

Jardins de Versaille Promenade in Garden Large Tapestry

It can be assumed that the blood, flowing “fluently,” made its way onto the tapestry scenes. If this is the case, then that means that Myrtle’s “blood” symbolically becomes part of the images. In this manner, then, Myrtle becomes part of the society she strives to enter. As well, the symbolic use of blood counters Tom’s assertions that individuals with Nordic blood are superior to others. Myrtle’s blood seeps its way into the upper-crust of society. The only thing that keeps her from actually reaching into the society is the fact that she did not have the privileges available to Tom and that Tom refuses to completely accept her into his social circle.

What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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One thought on “Facades in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”

  1. Pingback: The Great Gatsby Lecture Part II | Interminable Rambling

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