The Great Gatsby: ‘They’re such beautiful shirts’

A consideration of a few of the wider themes in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with specific attention paid to Daisy’s first entry into Gatsby’s house (Chapter Five)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is ‘the true substance of an age, the dazzle and fever and the ruin’,[1] and these four components resonate in particular when Daisy first explores Gatsby’s house. Gatsby is ‘the product and manifestation’ of the American Dream.[2] His dream? Daisy, and ‘he had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end… at an inconceivable pitch of intensity’.[3] In this scene he becomes ‘consumed with the wonder of her presence’ (59), and thus reaches the climactic point of his dream: a feverish dream that dazzles and which will ultimately result in his ruin as the dream deteriorates… all-consuming… all-devouring. The intensity of the dream permeates every corner of Gatsby’s house and is, in fact, embodied by it; ‘blazing with light… lit from tower to cellar’ (52)… literally dazzling.

The ‘dazzle’ is appropriated by the prolific amount of Gatsby’s material possessions and wealth. Despite being the simplest room, the bedroom is still ‘garnished with a toilet set of pure dull gold’ (59). To garnish is to accessorise, and the grandiose extravagance and pointlessness of much of Gatsby’s possessions is wholly apparent much earlier when we are presented with a ‘machine… which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times’ (26). These material, ‘unreal values’ are those which Daisy aspires towards and, therefore, so does Gatsby.[4] It is not just the pointlessness of this unnecessary materiality, but also the extreme excess of this materiality that is of significance, and which is embodied by Gatsby’s shirts, which are ‘piled like bricks in stacks a dozen’ (59). Compared to bricks, these shirts represent the building blocks of materiality which Gatsby has built himself, and their dazzling variety of ‘coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange’ colours and patterns (59) encapsulates the essence of the diverse bodies and characters and colours that appear throughout the novel and at Gatsby’s parties. This is all for nought; all the material wealth and grandiose is meaningless at the end; all the colour, the shirts, and the partying people mean nothing at all when we are confronted with his all but empty and bland funeral.

Nick suggests in his narration that as Gatsby speaks he does so ‘hilariously’ (59), although he can barely get a word out. To consider this moment as hilarious is a gross exaggeration on Nick’s part, but for Gatsby it is symptomatic of feverish delusion in the face of an overtly dazzling, sheer world. This ‘fever’ is not merely embodied in Gatsby’s hopelessness, ‘running down like an overwound clock’ (59), but also in Daisy’s over-reaction and hysterics when confronted with his extravagant shirts as she ‘began to cry stormily’ (59). Over-emotional, this stormy reaction indicates the beginnings of failure in both Gatsby’s and America’s dream. Gatsby and America ‘sprung from its “Platonic Conception” of itself… raw power… haunted by envisioned romance’;[5] but this romantic, transcendent aspiration is beginning to crumble, purely by the very nature of its unattainability. The golden and sheer materiality might emulate these ‘greener pastures’ of a Romantic vision, but they are fakeries; machines that, like the broken clock, and like Gatsby himself, find themselves ‘running down’ (59).

Gatsby’s dream ‘run[s] down’ (59) inevitably towards death and ruin. It is not the objects that construct the pathways of this dream which are fakeries, but also the subject of the dream: Daisy. It ‘is because his dream is unworthy of him that Gatsby is a pathetic figure’.[6] Daisy’s feverish and stormy reaction is directed not at Gatsby, not with any true sentiment of love, a feeling which she holds back from even her daughter, but towards ‘such beautiful shirts’ (59); the epitome of materialism. Her vanity is demonstrated in that the first thing she approaches in the bedroom is the hairbrush ‘with delight’ (59). There are no true sentimental feelings held by Daisy towards Gatsby; her interest is in money and in herself. We are given an insight of Daisy’s true preoccupations, a hole that rots at the core of Gatsby’s dream; ‘he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass… material without being real’ (103). He learns of Daisy’s base nature, thorny, rotten, and grotesque; and of how the spectacle of his ‘scarcely created grass’ (103), a metaphor for his new wealth, is ‘raw’ (103) and not real. The shirts may be beautiful… but they are only shirts.

Great Gatsby

****

[1] John Aldridge, ‘Fitzgerald: The Horror and the Vision of Paradise’, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewoods Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), pp.32-42 (p.42)

[2] Edwin Fussell, ‘Fitzgerald’s Brave New World’, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewoods Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), pp.43-56 (p.46)

[3] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (St Ives: Wordsworth Classics, 2001), p.59 All other references to this text will be given parenthetically

[4] Fussell, p.47

[5] Lionel Trilling, ‘F. Scott Fitzgerald’, in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. by Arthur Mizener (Englewoods Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall Inc., 1963), pp.11-19 (p.17)

[6] Aldridge, p.35

About Rachel Fox

I am currently a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, having completed a BA in English Literature and an MA in Contemporary Literary Studies. My provisional thesis title is: Voicing and Visualising Identity: The Discursive Figure of ‘Woman’ in Contemporary Poetical and Polemical works of Literature arising from Western Asia
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