The Gatsby Mythos

While reading The Great Gatsby, I was struck by the end of the first chapter. This is how F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to introduce the title character:

 I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and faraway, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

A brooding figure in early Twentieth Century New England, gesturing over the ocean? Everything about that quote screams “H. P. Lovecraft” to me. It’s mysterious and moody, and both that paragraph and the preceding one (in which Gatsby “regards” the stars) could easily describe someone attempting to wake Cthulhu from his slumber.

Unlike Lovecraft, who spelled out every detail in the end of his stories, the narrator of Gatsby never admits to anything supernatural. I couldn’t help watching for hints of this, though, and there were enough to keep me interested. Here is what I found.

(From here on, there are major spoilers for The Great Gatsby.)

In a way, if you can accept the presence of the supernatural, it makes a lot of the story easier to swallow. It’s very rare for a poor man, even if he is motivated and willing to make shady deals, to become successful enough to impress people with Old Money. But if those “shady deals” involve spells or some Faustian bargain, it makes perfect sense. (Especially since Gatsby’s story ends badly for him.) Most people had no idea about this, of course, and were left to make up stories about bootlegging or mob connections, but he was sure to attract some unwanted attention. For example, that man with “enormous owl-eyed spectacles” who was found in Gatsby’s library during a party acted drunk and gave nonsensical reasons about why he was hanging out alone there. After being caught, though, he didn’t dare return until Gatsby was dead.

There is another hidden plot in there, as well. Just as the first chapter ends with one of Lovecraft’s standard clichés, the second chapter opens with another. Witness the horrific rural backwaters of New England:

This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

Even the road curves to avoid this “desolate area of land”, but the characters go out of their way to enter it and meet George and Myrtle Wilson. George is listless, dull, and obviously a faded version of the young man that Myrtle once fell in love with. Has someone been sapping his strength without his knowledge, or did he burn himself out with his own experiments in the dark arts? Part of me leans towards the latter, as George apparently had enough arcane knowledge to track Gatsby down, on foot, when motivated to perform a murder-suicide ritual. The book gives a partial rational explanation for this, but a little supernatural help would definitely make sense.

But maybe Myrtle was secretly draining his life essence all along, and tried to move on to a new, more vital man. She made a big deal about getting a dog with Tom, but it was never seen again. When the collar turned up later, she stammered out excuses and made George suspicious. Not long after, she died in a way that seems difficult to accept. Obviously the dog was sacrificed as part of some off-screen ritual, but was her death George’s revenge, or a spell of her own gone wrong (since she was mistaken about the identities of the targets in that car she was facing down)? There is a lot of room for interpretation in the story, but it’s clear that something was going on.

As far as I can tell, Tom Buchanan was an innocent dupe in this. Myrtle used him, but needed mundane excuses to get him to buy her the dog and other items. Daisy, Jordan, and the rest are probably also part of the mundane, oblivious culture that this book lampoons. I wonder if the narrator knew more than he was letting on, though, as he left in a hurry at the end of the book.

If there are any pieces of the puzzle that I’m missing, please let me know.

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