In his analysis of the narrator of The Great Gatsby, the critic A.E. Dyson remarks,”[Nick Carraway’s] conscious moral instinct is to disapprove [of Gatsby]: but his imagination is fascinated since perhaps here, in this extraordinary man, the romantic promise is at last fulfilled” (Mizener, 116).
Here, Dyson addresses the question of what it is that the level-headed narrator sees in his friend, the shady millionaire Jay Gatsby. Carraway, who takes pride in facing realities — claiming that he is “five years too old to lie to [him]self and call it honor” — is nonetheless driven to abandon his “conscious moral instinct,” which would lead him to see through Gatsby’s thin veneer of respectability. The latter’s claims that he is the son of “some wealthy people from the Middle West,” and that he was “educated at Oxford,” are obviously fraudulent. Yet, while the narrator remarks that he “knew why Jordan Baker believed Gatsby was lying,” he cannot bring himself to hold the title character in contempt. This is because Carraway is too captivated by Gatsby’s “romantic promise,” seeing him as a secular saint, or messiah figure. Indeed, Gatsby is regarded as a “Son of God” by the narrator, who seeks deliverance from the harsh realities to which he has grown accustomed. Similar faith is placed in the romantic heroes in Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road and J.D. Salinger‘s Seymour: An Introduction. In On The Road, Sal Paradise sees his buddy, Dean Moriarty, as the “saint of the lot” by virtue of his knowing “IT.” Likewise, in Seymour, the title character is recognized as a saint, with visions of a Christ-like “Fat Lady”. As with the idea of romantic promise, IT and the Fat Lady are both abstract notions — or, to use Dean’s phrase, “imponderables” — which neither the narrators nor their romantic heroes seem capable of defining in specific terms. This is, perhaps, because the significance of these imponderables lies in the very fact that they are not of the “real world.” Rather, they seem to exist outside their respective presents, in ambiguous realms governed by “the past and the imagination”. As such, they are seen as romantic and holy truths, unfettered by realistic constraints. It follows that the “saints” who embody these truths appear as innocents: sheltered and out of touch with the “inexorably unromantic real world[s]” they inhabit.
Gatsby’s facade of innocence is supported by his lavish, yet secluded lifestyle on West Egg, Long Island. As its name suggests, West Egg resembles a protective “shell,” in which the romantic hero appears shielded from the falseness and depravity of the 1920s. Indeed, even the Jazz Age revelers who attend his parties have no contact with Gatsby himself. Because nothing is known about him, he appears remote and flawless. This is the case, at least, until he falls for Daisy Buchanan. Daisy and her husband, Tom, serve as embodiments of modernist moral decay: the former, with her tinkling, artificial laugh, and the latter, with his overt racism and brutality. Despite wishing that the world would stand “at a sort of moral attention forever”, Carraway has resigned himself to the company of these “careless people”. Nonetheless, he yearns to recapture a pre-modernist sensibility, which he perceives as morally superior to that of his own time. For this reason, he permits himself to buy into the stories that depict Gatsby as mythic figure from America’s idealized past. Perpetuated by both Gatsby and his guests — the ones he never sees — these stories are far more fantastic and, indeed, far more innocent than the man they profess to characterize.
Like Gatsby, Dean Moriarty is a man, seemingly without a past of his own, who becomes associated with the mythic constructs of an earlier age of innocence. Indeed, Sal’s depiction of him — as a displaced, fatherless cowboy from the American West — hearkens to the pre-modernist figure of Tom Outland in Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Each of these characters transcends the limits of white, mainstream society. Tom ultimately finds himself in communion with the souls of deceased Native Americans. Dean, similarly, achieves a mystical awakening, or epiphany — indeed, he “gets IT” – while “digging” a performance by a black jazz musician.
At this point, Dean speaks of having “no time now,” implying that his epiphany has taken him outside his present reality. His statement poses a direct challenge to the despair that Quentin Compson faces upon losing his grasp of time — and, in turn, his hold on reality – in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. From Quentin’s perspective, the loss of time is a case of reducto absurdum. Dean experiences it as a reduction as well for, in approaching it, he becomes increasingly inarticulate. Ultimately, he is rendered an “imbecile.” However, he is not an idiot, like Benjy in The Sound and the Fury, but, rather, a “holy fool”. Thus, the reduction Dean undergoes is not a descent into absurdity. Instead, it is a path to ultimate spiritual fulfillment. This is why, in the eyes of Sal, Dean achieves his holiest moments by becoming completely incoherent to those around him, including, even, the narrator. Like his hero, Sal desires to escape the trappings of his time, the wantonly commercial and morally static 1950s. However, as noted by the critic Arnold Krupat, he is “far behind Dean on the road to IT and holiness.” It is while on this road, of course, that Dean is “in his element,” traveling outside of time, with no final destination.
Seymour Glass also travels outside of time. He turns his back on fifties’ bourgeois society by refusing to relinquish his boyhood role as a commentator on the “It’s a Wise Child” radio show. Depicted, by his brother Buddy, as a King Arthur’s round table for the prepubescent set, this program is used to represent Seymour’s lasting sense of innocence. It is an innocence which, in Buddy’s eyes, lends Seymour the stature of a mystical sage. Unlike Dean’s brand of mysticism, which reduces him to a fool, Seymour’s raises him into the level of a high priest. He delivers verbose, “spontaneous” homilies, which translate the Christian Gospels into showbiz rhetoric — with the figure of Christ represented as “the Fat Lady” — and which combine these teachings with Zen Buddhist concepts of spiritual transcendence. Through this strange juxtaposition of religious faiths, he succeeds, according to Buddy, in exposing the limitations and hypocrisies of his age. The latter has faith, moreover, that Seymour will ultimately transcend these worldly barriers altogether and come to rest on “Holy Ground”. “Is he never wrong?” Buddy asks, seeing himself and others, by comparison, as unenlightened and sinful.
In fact, Seymour and the other romantic heroes are not as sinless and innocent as they appear. Rather, each shows himself to be susceptible to worldly corruption. This presents problems for the one who has, in effect, canonized him. Faced with the prospect of disowning his hero, each narrator instead chooses to remain faithful to him. In attempting to shield him against detractors, the narrator infuses his religious fervor into the Judeo-Christian role of a “brother’s keeper.” This response is in keeping with what Krupat calls “the great principle of Beat faith…that life is a constant religious experience.”
When confronted with the knowledge that Gatsby has not spent his entire life locked away in his gaudy shrine on West Egg — that he has instead made his wealth through illicit dealings with the most notorious racketeer of the time, “the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919” — Carraway shows his loyalty by not betraying this secret to Tom Buchanan. The narrator’s silence stands in contrast to the later accusations, which he directs at Tom, concerning the death of Myrtle Wilson. By this point in the novel, To
m has discovered Gatsby’s secret for himself and has exposed the romantic hero in front of Daisy, causing her interest in him to vanish forever. Significantly, Carraway sees the contemptuous reactions of Daisy and Tom as more reprehensible than the deeds which provoke them. In this way, Carraway shows a marked prejudice towards Gatsby, whose flaws he wishes to cover up, versus the Buchanans, whom he desires to see exposed. Carraway, then, is not an objective, detached narrator — “one of the few honest people he has ever met” — who sees things entirely as they are. Rather, as noted by Jordan Baker, he is a “bad driver”. This means that his vision is as blurred as that of the other characters in the novel. Carraway’s “misseeing” leads him to chase after Gatsby’s green light as though its brilliance were not, in fact, worldly and orgiastic in nature, but, rather, sublime.
Sal, likewise, chooses to remain silent when his beloved Dean is derided by their friends in Denver as more deadbeat than beatific. Dean’s loss of holiness is linked to his having left the road and entered the real world, in which he is expected to assume mainstream responsibilities as a husband and father. Unlike the characters in The Great Gatsby, Dean is seen as an excellent driver. Indeed, as previously noted, the road is where Dean reigns supreme — where he, in effect, gets IT, and is understood as holy. By contrast, in the real world, he is labeled a shiftless “goof”: the worst thing he can possibly be, according to Norman Mailer in his essay, “The White Negro.” In his narration, however, Sal tempers this accusation with the adjective “holy,” thereby showing his ongoing faith in Dean, despite the latter’s obvious flaws.
Seymour’s flaws, like Dean’s, manifest themselves with regard to women. He momentarily abandons his childlike lifestyle by marrying a worldly young lady, well-versed in Freudian theories “and all that crap.” According to Buddy, she and her mother “misinterpret” Seymour’s spiritual sagacity as psychobabble, and force him to be analyzed. It is the analyst, Buddy defensively maintains, who drives Seymour to the ultimate form of transcendence: suicide. Seymour’s wife and his analyst, conversely, maintain that his final act is only further evidence of his already disturbed nature. Regardless of his motivations, however, Seymour ends his life far afield from the “Holy Ground” that Buddy hoped he would one day reach.
Each of the other romantic heroes likewise fails to sustain and fulfill the spiritual promise which his narrator perceives in him. Ultimately, however, this failure is blamed not on the hero himself, but on his society. Faithful to the end, each narrator depicts his hero as a victim of external, worldly forces, which far exceed his own demonstrated capacity for corruption.
In his book, The Great Gatsby: The Limits of Wonder, Richard Lehan writes that Gatsby’s death is blamed on “the careless people,” specifically Daisy and Tom, who exist on a plane of “moral abandonment,” reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. In line 134 of this epic poem, faceless, paralyzed figures cry out despairingly, “Whatever shall we do?” Similarly, the characters in Gatsby, excluding the romantic hero, have no sense of what to do with themselves, either physically or spiritually. Indeed, they have no sense of direction; this is what makes them such bad drivers, on a physical level, as well as bad people, devoid of conscience.
A lack of direction, or vision, can also be blamed for what happens to Dean at the end of On The Road. He gets abandoned on a New York street corner because of the spiritual short-sightedness of Remi Boncoeur, Sal’s French-American friend. Like Louie Marsellus in The Professor’s House, Remi is a figure of cosmopolitan worldliness, seemingly at odds with the all-American innocence embodied by Tom Outland and, of course, by Dean. Failing to see Dean as a saint — a holy fool — Remi instead dismisses him as just another of Sal’s “idiot friends.”
If Dean, Gatsby, and Seymour are presented as victims, however, they are not seen as having suffered in vain. Rather, they are treated as martyrs by their respective narrators. At the end of each narrative, the hero’s name is evoked and repeated, presumably as a means of keeping his vision alive, in the hope that it will one day bring enlightenment to the world.
For the time being, however — in the harsh light of reality — such vision may seem no more enlightening and beatific than that emerging from “the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg.” It may, in fact, appear false, and those who champion it may seem guilty of blind faith. If this is the case, then “Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found” is not God, as Krupat indicates. Instead, he is merely a bum: one of the many casualties of the “road,” which does not point the way towards enlightenment. At least, this is what Amiri Baraka, and other critics of 20th century romanticism, would probably have us believe. Nonetheless, it can be expected that the appeal of romantic visionaries — the Deans, Gatsbys, and Seymours — will remain alive and potent so long as there are those, like the narrators, who accept realities, but who are always on the look-out for salvation from them.