The Great Gatsby/Super Notes Automatic A+
Have you ever felt that there were two of you battling for control of the person you call yourself? Have you ever felt that you weren’t quite sure which one you wanted to be in charge? All of us have at least two selves: one who wants to work hard, get good grades, and be successful; and one who would rather lie in the sun and listen to music and daydream. To understand F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man and the writer, you must begin with the idea of doubleness, or twoness.
Fitzgerald himself said in a famous series of essays called The Crack Up, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. Everything about Fitzgerald is touched by this idea. For example, he both loved and hated money. He was attracted to the life of the very rich as an outsider who had very little, and at the same time he hated the falseness and hypocrisy and cruelty of their lives. He was disciplined, knowing that he had to have great mental and physical self-control to succeed as a writer, but he was often unable to exercise those very qualities he knew he would need in order to succeed. He loved his wife Zelda more than anything in his life, and yet he hated her for destroying his talent. Part of him lived a dazzling life full of parties, gaiety, and show; and part of him knew that this sort of life was a complete sham.
All of this doubleness Fitzgerald puts into the novel you are about to read: The Great Gatsby. As you begin reading think about Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, and Jay Gatsby, the hero of the novel, as the two sides of Fitzgerald. Think of Fitzgerald as putting into his two main characters both of the people that he knew he had within him. As you read, ask yourself whether or not you have these two people within you: Nick, the intelligent and disciplined observer; and Gatsby, the passionate and idealistic dreamer who wants his dream so much that he will sacrifice everything for it.
Fitzgerald himself seemed genetically destined for doubleness. His mother’s father, P. F. McQuillan, went to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1857, at the age of twenty-three. In twenty years he built up–literally from nothing–an enormously successful wholesale business. He was a totally self-made man, and from him Scott inherited a sense of self-reliance and a belief in hard work. The Fitzgeralds, on the other hand, were an old Maryland family. Scott himself–Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was his full name–was named for his great, great, great grandfather’s brother, the man who wrote The Star Spangled Banner. And Edward Fitzgerald, Scott’s father, was a handsome, charming man, but one who seemed more interested in the family name than in hard work.
The McQuillan and the Fitzgerald in Scott vied for control throughout his childhood. He was a precocious child, full of energy and imagination, but he liked to take short cuts, substituting flights of fantasy for hard work. On his seventh birthday in 1903 he told a number of the older guests that he was the owner of a yacht (perhaps the seeds of Gatsby’s admiration for Dan Cody’s yacht in the novel). As an adolescent he loved to play theatrical games–pretending to be drunk on a streetcar or telephoning an artificial limb company to discuss being fitted for a false limb. He was an excellent writer and a vivid satirist of his classmates, but his marks were not good; so, like so many Midwestern boys, he was shipped East to boarding school, where he would be taught discipline and hard work.
In September of 1911, with the words and music of Irving Berlin’s new song Alexander’s Ragtime Band uppermost on his mind, he enrolled at the Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, a popular Roman Catholic school among Midwestern families. Here he was to have two years to ready himself for a good Ivy League College, preferably Princeton or Yale. Scott chose Princeton, but Princeton very nearly didn’t choose him.