Driving with Jordan

I think that most of the Criticism about The Great Gatsby focuses on Carraway’s distinctively poetic narration, and more generally, Gatsby himself. The landscape assumes a lyrical and metaphorical significance rarely seen in literature. A number of studies I’ve read effectively treat the novel as a poem rendered into prose form. But I think that the key scenes which affected me were the exchanges between Nick and Jordan, and it is in this dialogue that the key to the whole novel lies.

The dialogue is generally clipped and sparse, more the suggestion of a conversation than a report of one. This is partially a result of Fitzgerald’s style of writing, but luckily it is also thematically significant in the novel. His characters are all insular and isolated, and all wishing for a better stronger connection, wishing for love, and all fail spectacularly. The dissolute dialogue illustrates this inability to connect perfectly.

The more intimate the conversation, the more the characters struggle to articulate their feelings and situations, and of these, the most striking conversations are between Nick and Jordan about driving.

Jordan admits that she is a careless driver, but she reasons that as long as everyone else on the road is careful and sane, they will cope with her swerves and ricochets. Her parting words to Nick are that she had mis-read him entirely: she thought he was a careful driver, but it turned out he was just as reckless as she was. These two short conversations contain all of the material that constitutes the tragedy of Gatsby as a whole.

Aside from the obvious plot point, that the climax of the action is a car accident, it is also a very interesting metaphor for love, and an explanation of how the problems arise. Driving, for all that we interact in the communal road space, is often a peculiarly personal activity. Mostly though, I think driving is an interesting metaphor for love precisely because of the difficulties that the characters have in directly expressing their relationships with each other.

On the road, there are only a few ways that a driver can communicate. Primarily we rely on indicators/turn signals, but we also take cues from road position and sometimes if we’re lucky the body language of the other driver. We can never really be certain though, where a car will go or at what speed until it does it – you’ve experienced this yourself, I’m sure. So most of what happens on the road is educated guesswork based on generally accepted behaviour and a limited amount of information which is more symbolic than informative usually.

Taken as a metaphor for love, we can hardly be surprised that it does not work out for any of the characters, because not only is love more complex than driving, there are fewer common or established rules; even the potential start and end points of this metaphorical car ride are probably not clear – certainly in Nick’s case, where he has not quite resolved his last relationship in the mid-west. Even the careful drivers, Gatsby and Wilson, are eventually caught in the wreckage of the careless.

I think that when you start to look at the novel this way, you can see that the real tragedy of Gatsby is not his pretensions or his desires, nor is it even his self-sacrifice: it is his reliance on inference and circumstance, on reliance on reading the situation rather than on communicating directly.

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2 Responses to Driving with Jordan

  1. mr_orgue says:

    dammit now i desperately want to read gatsby again. as if i didn’t have enough to do. THANKS MASH.


    I will refrain from commenting because I haven’t read it in almost two decades, even though I absolutely loved it back then. Your argument feels right alongside the memories I retain…

    • mashugenah says:

      Fortunately, it’s a pretty quick read. I mean, it’s not Tolstoy or anything. 🙂

      Gatsby has certainly grown in my estimation as time goes on. When I read it first as a 20-year-old I really didn’t understand it at all, couldn’t really relate to it. Enjoyed the language, but that was about it. As I’ve gotten older, I appreciate it more and more.

      I think that the key change in perception has been around the dialogue. When you’re 20, it always seems like you should be able to reason your way out of problems, and tell people what you really feel. At 31, I realize that you can’t usually really do either of those things very often or very well.

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