F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Casual Racism:
Along with a Pointed Critique of “The Great Gatsby”
“Civilization’s going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently. “I’ve gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read “The Rise of the Coloured Empires’ by this man Goddard?”
“Why no,” I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
“Well, it’s a fine book and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved.”
The KKK And Their Friends Are Overjoyed With President Trump’s First 10 Days.
Now Fast forward to 2017: see Trump’s cabinet members; Breitbart, Alex Jones; CNN, Washington Post, etc., for confirmations of poorly challenged racial nonsense and to pro-actively circumvent the normalizing arguments about the social context of this novel and Trump.
The narrator Nick Carraway quoted the advice his father had given him: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
While Nick responded to us, the reader, “In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”
The narrator Nick Carraway had actually done quite an impressive job of adhering to the tenets or basic premise of that opening quote through the novel. That adherence made the novel even better than expected for Nick merely made a host of non-judgmental observations throughout the novel. That was refreshing in that it allowed the reader to draw their own conclusions without any overdue influence. However, just like the end of the novel ended unexpectedly so too had Nick, at various times, proved unable to strictly adhere to an inclination to reserve all judgments about what he observed.
Nick was remarkably non-judgmental about what he observed until around page 31. There Nick was found judging daisy who was ranting about how “sophisticated” she was. That caused Nick to remark, “I felt the basic insecurity of what she had said.” Admittedly, that was not a strong judgment but it was part of the build up to what was to come.
So, too, being only human Nick was susceptible to the root cause of most judgmental positions: rumor and gossip. After also commenting in a judgmental way about what some smirk on Daisy’s face meant, shortly thereafter Nick confirmed his susceptibility to gossip about another character Jordan Baker, “I had heard some story about her too, a critical, unpleasant story, but what it was I had forgotten long ago.” Still one might not be able to help but wonder if even that would cloud any future considerations about Jordan. Furthermore, surely gossip distorted one’s view and opened up avenues for judgmental interpretations that might not have occurred had the gossip not occurred.
An example of that may have occurred when Nick made this observation about “the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.”
That was a rather sincere observation that ended with the glasses having helped the doctor’s practice in the stereotypical or pre-judgmental way in which glasses give some people the appearance of intelligence. That was something that Nick had learned about the intent of some oculists prior to having made his own descriptive observation about the doctor. A tainted view? Maybe, maybe not.
“Tom’s getting very profound,” said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. “He reads deep books with long words in them. What was that word we — “
“Well, these books are scientific,” insisted Tim, glancing at her impatiently. “This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these races will have control of things.”
“We’ve got to beat them down,” whispered Daisy, winking ferociously toward the fervent sun.
Today, especially on social media, White women who voted for Trump are claiming not to be Daisy. The #Women’sMarch was full of them but Black feminists and others driven by theories of social justice wasn’t buying it at all.
One might doubt Nick’s sincere observation about the doctor, but there was no doubt that Nick had judgmental observation about Mr. McKee’s wife, “His wife was shrill, languid, handsome and horrible. She told me with pride that her husband had photographed her a hundred and twenty-seven times since they had been married.” Afterward, the narrator again settled back into making a long series of non-judgmental observations.
However, in precisely 20 pages later Nick makes another series of judgments that included Jordan Baker and Nick himself. About Jordan, whom he loved and courted, Nick said, “The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something — most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning — and one day I found what it was…. She was incurably dishonest.”
Jordan’s dishonesty might very well be debated. Still Nick’s judgments bordered on hypocrisy had he really believed his own critical assessment of her dishonesty. The hypocrisy was merely true if one believed that dishonest people were also untrustworthy. Then again, maybe even that generalized conclusion was not meant for virtually everyone was dishonest except for Nick himself, “But I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires…” And should that not be evidence enough Nick continued with, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have known.”
“You ought to live in California — “began Miss Baker but Tom interrupted her by shifting heavily in his chair.
“This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am and you are and you are and — “After an infinitesimal hesitation he included Daisy with a slight nod and she winked at me again, “ — and we’ve produced all the things that go to make civilization — oh, science and art and all that. Do you see?”
Here’s Daisy, or is that Becky? February 2017 only now she’s on Twitter, being liked and retweeted:
One of the contentions here was that if one wanted to even a slight semblance of being non-judgmental avoiding rumors and gossips was essential to even coming close to achieving that elusive goal. However, a few pages later Nick rattled off an entire series of rumors that covered over four paragraphs that covered over four paragraphs of sketchy details, since rumor by definition can only be sketchy since rumor was difficult to verify.
Still when the protagonist Mr. Gatsby directly asked, “What’s your opinion of me anyhow?” Nick responded, “I began the generalized evasions which that question deserves.” Still Mr. Gatsby sought to interrupt any preconceived notions that might be based on gossip and rumor, “I don’t want you to get a wrong idea of me from all of these stories you hear.”
Daisy and Tom looked at each other for a moment in silence.
“Is she from New York?” I asked quickly.
“From Louisville. Our white girlhood was passed together there. Our beautiful white — “
“Did you give Nick a little heart-to-hear talk on the veranda?” demanded Tom suddenly.
“Did I?” She looked at me. “I can’t seem to remember, but I think we talked about the Nordic race. Yes, I’m sure we did. It sort of crept up on us and first thing you know — “
Surely, this next statement (should this not have already be considered the case) emphatically exploded the notion that Nick was just the non-judgmental observer that he sought to be at the outset, in any case, when it came to Mr. Gatsby, “I had reached the point of believing everything and nothing about him.”
However, take note of how many pages of mostly nonjudgmental observations had been passed until that point about Mr. Gatsby had been made. So it could also be argued that Nick had done better than most at being nonjudgmental and that, in fact, his judgments were merely critical observations. After all, critical observation has long been within the literary domain of the narrator.
Moreover, Nick spent a great deal of his time listening to other’s judgments about people: rumors gossip, and all. Often Nick seemed to listen without comment and definitely by not adding anything to the numerous assumptions presented to him, (even when directly asked his judgmental based opinion as Mr. Gatsby had earlier presented), elsewhere throughout the novel.
“You McKees have something to drink,” he said. “Get some more ice and mineral water, Myrtle, before everybody goes to sleep.”
“I told that boy about the ice.” Myrtle raised her eyebrows in despair at the shiftlessness of the lower orders. “These people! You have to keep after them all the time.”
She looked at me and laughed pointlessly. Then she flounced over to the dog, kissed it with ecstasy and swept into the kitchen, implying that a dozen chefs awaited her orders there.
Speaking of George Wilson, “He was his wife’s man and not his own.” Was that judgmental, critical observation, or both? Often with Nick the two overlapped. Except for when the book comes to a climatic and unexpected close. In that close, which had been setup by various other scenes, explanations of certain eccentric behaviors, and seemingly innocent or naturally random encounters. In that close, not only was Mr. Gatsby treated both unjustly and justly, most of the people who partied with him, ate his food, and was otherwise treated exceptionally well by him throughout the novel abandoned Mr. Gatsby in his time of need.
To recap, there was a hit and run accident that resulted in a death. Mr. Gatsby was accused by many of driving the car when in fact it was Daisy. That fact was mentioned for Daisy was also among the people who had abandoned Mr. Gastby although he was most honorable in his protection of her. However, it was still not that simple.
Although Daisy and Mr. Gatsby had a lot of meaningful history between them and had professed love for one another, Daisy was married to Tom. Tom had publicly denounced Mr. Gatsby as a fraud and imposter of all sorts, especially Mr. Gatsby claim to being an Oxford man. And although the novel makes no mention of it, Tom likely influenced Daisy’s abandonment in the end.
That end was made in order to segue into what may be considered a contradictory judgment or amended observation by Nick regarding Mr. Gatsby’s abandonment: “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re work the whole damn bunch put together. I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”
As a sort of story within the story, Nick recalled that daisy had not even sent a flower to Mr. Gatsby’s eventual funeral. The funeral itself was near empty which was in stark contrast to the virtually daily parties that were overflowing with people who probably “disapproved of him from beginning to end” for much if not all of the novel.
“I almost made a mistake too,” she declared vigorously. “I almost married a little kyke who’d been after me for years. I knew he was below me. Everybody kept saying to me, ‘Lucille, that man’s way below you!’ But if I hadn’t met Chester he’d of got me sure.”
What is the origin of the racial slur “kyke”? I’m not starting a racial …
Mar 12, 2016 — it on a movie and didn’t know where it came from … That it began as a form of Jewish differentiation before being universalized as a slur.
It was all complicated yet simple. People made it so. Still further evidence of Nick being as much a nonjudgmental observer as a judgmental one came even nearer the end of the novel. Someone, like many of those who had abandoned him, spoke of Mr. Gatsby as so, “He ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car” To which responded in silence, “There was nothing I could say, except the one unutterable fact that it wasn’t true.”
So was Nick an adherent of non-adherent about the tenets of judging others in the opening quote? Well, actually Nick’s own words on the same page as that quote proved rather prophetic and was verifiable throughout the novel, “Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope…. And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.”
As mentioned, it was the people, the characters which Nick observed that made this novel interestingly complicated and simultaneously a simple observation of the various displays character. In the end, those characters ultimately judged themselves.
“Self control!” repeated Tom incredulously. “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out…. 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.”
Flushed with his impassioned gibberish he saw himself standing alone the last barrier of civilization.
“We’re all white here,” murmured Jordan.
“I loved it when I was a kid and read it for the first time. … But subsequent readings, I felt like I’m seeing other things. I’m seeing all of these black characters — never thought about them before. I’m seeing the women and the tiny, tiny roles that they have in the book, and I want them to speak. I want to hear what they have to say.” author Stephanie Powell Watts
Bob Watts/PhotoCourtesy of Ecco