Love in the House of Gatsby: Part 2
In our last post, we began to discover the hidden connections between Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. What on Earth could these two novels have to do with one another, you wondered?
The House of the Seven Gables is set in an unspecified decaying New England town, probably Salem, in the 1820s - a place of darkness, decay, and sin. The Great Gatsby takes place a hundred years later, in Roaring 1920s’ New York - a land of jazz music, dazzling lights, and shiny automobiles. Hawthorne’s novel was published in 1851, Fitzgerald's in 1925. “Huh,” you thought, “these books must be really different from each other.”
But as I began to show you last month, they are not as disparate as you might think. The connection between these two novels lies, despite their superficial dissimilarities, in the houses. Hawthorne describes the seven-gabled Pyncheon house as “crumbling,” “ruinous,” and “oozing.” Gatsby’s mansion is by contrast “spanking new,” and filled with the brightest and newest people and appliances. But Gatsby’s mansion is in its own way just as doomed as the Pyncheon house.
Indeed, Nick Carraway, The Great Gatsby’s narrator, describes Gatsby’s mansion as a “huge incoherent failure of a house.” Elsewhere, he derides it as a “factual imitation” of a “feudal palace” or “some Hotel de Ville in Normandy.” In his references to castles and palaces, Carraway sees Gatsby’s house as an attempt to transport a European aristocracy to America. Perhaps Gatsby hopes to make himself a Duke or Baron in his failed attempt to win the heart of Daisy Buchanan, a woman whose voice, Carraway tells us, is “full of money.”
As you may be beginning to suspect, the links between these novels run deeper than the houses. At least as I have come to see them, these novels are connected through the houses, the protagonists, and even their plots.
In The House of the Seven Gables, Colonel Pyncheon built a Gothic mansion on land that he obtained by lies and corruption during the Salem Witch Trials. I helped you remember this novel, and briefly explored how Hawthorne’s book still matters, in our first blog post. But to summarize briefly, Pyncheon produced a deed that disputed Matthew Maule’s land title, accused him of witchcraft, used his political power to see Maule hanged, used his political power to seize the land, then built The House of the Seven Gables upon it. Pyncheon didn’t just want to build a house. He wanted Maule’s property as a means to firmly establish his family as one of landed wealth in the Massachusetts colony that would become one of these United States.
I see Pyncheon’s counterpart in The Great Gatsby as, of course, Jay - although his real name is Jimmy Gatz. His parents were dirt farmers in Minnesota. But Jimmy wanted more. So he invented an aristocratic past, including a wealthy family line in which everyone attended Oxford. Inspired by his love for a woman named Daisy, Gatsby sought to become that past. The only problem is that the idealist Gatsby proved incapable of seeing that his methods for realizing his past were corrupt.
Gatsby soon learned that it is impossible to achieve dreams founded on a past that never existed. In the novel, Gatsby’s pure love for Daisy drives him to gain wealth, no matter how illegally. That includes bootlegging liquor, and probably committing stock fraud. And possibly even murder. Carraway remarks at one point that Gatsby looks “like he killed a man.” Gatsby’s love functions like the original Pyncheon family sin, casting a web Gatsby can never escape, inspiring all his future misdeeds.
When we start to connect the dots, we begin to see how Gatsby’s house can be brand new, and aesthetically and structurally perfect, yet at the same time be “a huge incoherent failure.” Gatsby’s imagined past has as much structural integrity as Colonel Pyncheon’s claim to have founded a civilized aristocracy in colonial America - for how could Pyncheon’s aristocracy have merit when built on accusations of witchcraft?
Gatsby’s imagined past is as true as that of Colonel Pyncheon’s descendant Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, who built a political career after killing his uncle and forging his will to make himself the inheritor of the Pyncheon fortune.
Even as it verges on the borderland between imagination and reality, Gatsby’s house is a facade. It will never be what it purports to be. That would be impossible.
As a vessel for the nation, the Gatsby house symbolizes the aspirations and limits of Fitzgerald’s America. At the risk of sounding political, one could point out that with our massive inequalities of wealth, our own excess and debauchery among an aristocracy that profits from the labor of men and women living in poverty, we are not so far from Fitzgerald’s Roaring 20s’ Long Island bordered by the wasteland that is the Valley of the Ashes.
What exactly does the novel have to say about the limits of the American dream? Of our ability to be whatever we imagine ourselves to be, if only we work hard enough? Can we have everything? More importantly, can we have everything ethically?
Probably not. Gatsby is driven by a supposedly pure love for Daisy. He is an idealist and a romanticist. But Fitzgerald’s titular character is not just this: he is everyone who ever wanted to achieve the American Dream. Maybe he is even another version of Colonel Pyncheon. Maybe of even the first Europeans. the original settler-invaders to steal land in America.
This is because Fitzgerald links Gatsby’s quest for Daisy to the specific conquest perpetrated by the seventeenth-century Dutch who invaded we now call New York. At the novel’s conclusion, Carraway becomes “aware of the old island here that once flowered for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh green breast of the new world.” In the next paragraph, Carraway compares these sailors’ eyes to Gatsby’s eyes as they gaze longingly across the bay at the green light of Daisy’s dock (yes, I know, it’s pretty sexy).
Through this analogy, Gatsby’s eyes become the Dutch Sailor’s, Daisy’s breast the green breast of the new world. Fitzgerald thereby reveals that however idealistic, Gatsby’s love for Daisy is grounded in hunger and lust and conquest and greed. Gatsby did not accuse anyone of witchcraft, like Colonel Pyncheon. Perhaps, though, he “killed a man” like Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon. Despite their disparate exteriors, Pyncheon and Gatsby alike never hesitate to harm others in their lust for conquest.
On what soil, on what foundation are our own houses built? Is it love, or is it desire, or greed? Are we, like Jimmy Gatz, incapable of seeing the difference between all of these? Is this our original sin?
On what basis will your own House decay? Fitzgerald and Hawthorne beg us to ask ourselves. While there is still time. Before it is too late. Before our house falls.