Hays Views on Gatsby

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Hays, Peter L. "Oxymoron in The Great Gatsby." Papers on Language & Literature 47.3 (2011): 318+. General OneFile. Web. 19 Oct. 2012. There are significant paradoxes throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald's (life and) work frequently represented by oxymorons, of which Wolfsheim's eating with "ferocious delicacy" (75) is only one of the most apparent and, as such, very possibly a clue to the paradoxes in the novel. Kirk Curnutt in a review of Fitzgerald's short stories remarks that the titles Flappers and Philosophers and Taps at Reveille "are clever conceits whose effectiveness depends upon one's fondness for oxymoron" (157). Keith Gandal, in a recent book, writes of "Gatsby's famous doubleness ... as chivalrous lover and cold-blooded killer." Gandal continues, though I am using his words for a different purpose than his: "His doubleness may have a mainstream enough historical correlative" (119).(1) One prominent instance of doubleness is evident in his approach to Daisy in the novel. Could a man who "knew women early"--I presume knew them in the Biblical sense--"and since they spoiled him he became contemptuous of them" (104), be so intimidated by Daisy, especially since he's already slept with her (156)? Could someone so ruthless in both the army and business be so timid in dating? Gatsby is plainly not a sexual innocent afraid of sex, another nearly 40-year-old virgin. Far from it. He has had five years of tutelage under Dan Cody, sailing three times around the continent, having women rub champagne in his hair, and visiting the Barbary Coast (106-07), which Matthew J. Bruccoli glosses in his notes to the novel as San Francisco's "honky tonk district" (213), plainly a euphemism. We don't know what Gatsby did for the next five years (from Cody's death in 1912 until America's entrance into the war in 1917 [106]), but thereafter he rose through officer ranks to become a major in the army during World War I and then briefly attended Oxford. Are we to expect that he led a celibate life all those years except for his one brief affair with Daisy? There is, of course, a social gap between him and Daisy, and this causes him insecurity in approaching her and proposing that they start their life over. But he did date her before and successfully seduced her. And at Oxford he must have met women of a social status comparable to Daisy's. In addition, he now foolishly believes that the money he has earned erases much of that social gap so that no one will think, as he tells Nick, that "I was just some nobody" (71), "some kind of cheap sharper" (145). He also believes, erroneously, that in social situations, as opposed to business ones, he must not do "anything out of the way" (84). That being the case, one has to wonder what he and Daisy do on their afternoons together at his house. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald has established him both as "a regular tough" (84), someone who looked like he had killed a man, and a very proper and timid individual on social and sexual matters, or as Fitzgerald himself phrases it, "an elegant ... roughneck" (53), another oxymoron. What constrains Gatsby is his extreme romanticism, his belief in the American myth that one, through hard work, can achieve anything, whether reliving the past or marrying Daisy in proper social splendor in Louisville so as to confirm his rise in American society (see the paraphrase of Poor Richard's Almanac and Horatio Alger at the end of the novel). He wants nothing to tarnish his ideal of marrying Daisy in society, the perfect couple on top of the wedding cake, and he wants the social acceptance and respect denied him at St. Olaf College (105) and by the Sloanes and Buchanans of the world. What has happened, of course, is that following his seduction of Daisy and one special kiss, he "wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath ... and the incarnation was complete (117). The religious language, particularly for one raised as a Catholic, as Fitzgerald was, is telling. Daisy...
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