“That’s my middle-west”: Nick Carraway’s Christmas Memories

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One of my all time favorite passages from The Great Gatsby concerns Christmas and the Midwest. The passage comes towards the end of the novel as Nick Carraway is describing the aftermath of Gatsby’s murder and preparing to leave New York. There’s something about this passage that captures that exhilaration of returning home for the holidays: the crisp winter air, the bustling pace of travel, the hurry through train stations or airports to family and friends at the journey’s end.

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Fitzgerald is, understandably, often thought of in connection with the eastern United States. His long association with New York City and surrounding areas, his years at Princeton, and the settings of many of his novels and stories reflect his time in New York and New Jersey. He is also, through his own life and the lives of his characters, associated with Europe, Hollywood, Baltimore, and various parts of the American south—his wife Zelda was an Alabama native. But Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner, born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was at his family home in St. Paul that Fitzgerald composed the novel that propelled him into the spotlight: This Side of Paradise (1920). The Midwest figures in an important symbolic sense in The Great Gatsby as a land of enduring promise, the “dark fields of the republic” that extend the promise of the new green world beheld by the Dutch sailors on the eastern Atlantic coast in the novel’s famous conclusion.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921.

The Christmas passage appears after Carraway describes the pathetic visit of Gatsby’s father and Gatsby’s funeral. Shortly after his reminiscence of returning home for Christmas, Carraway describes his breakup with Jordan Baker. As many have noted before, the passage of time and the knowledge that comes with it are central to the novel. The book is rich in physical description, and the seasons are important. Much of the novel occurs during the course of a summer, but it is in the autumn that Gatsby is killed, and the world he created on his estate, which had already begun to collapse in late summer, is gone for good. Carraway and Gatsby’s father rummaging through the house’s empty rooms underscores the theme of death and decay.

This passage about travel at Christmas time took on renewed force for me recently as I  perused a cultural history of A Christmas Carol titled The Lives & Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by a scholar named Paul Davis. At one point Davis mentions an essay Dickens wrote entitled “What Christmas Is As We Grow Older.” According to Davis’ paraphrase of part of Dickens’ essay, “To the child Christmas is immediate and complete, and for the youthful lover it is entwined with visions and hopes for the future. But for the adult at midlife, it becomes a time to remember the dead.”

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

1920s Christmas card (image credit: ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Carraway’s Christmas memories are from his own time of “the youthful lover,” which echoes the broader story here of the two youthful lovers reunited years later: Daisy and Gatsby. But Nick is transitioning towards a midlife stage, if not within the chronological parameters which define midlife today, then at least in the sense of growing into wisdom and being tempered by life’s passages. He is remembering his college days–the days before his service in World War One, which themselves carry the symbolic weight of an earlier America that will vanish forever with war, Prohibition, and Jazz Age excess–and his witnessing of the sad series of events linking his own life with that of Tom, Daisy, Jordan, Gatsby, and George and Myrtle Wilson.

When Carraway parts with Jordan, he tells her, after she mentions the accident that killed Buchanan’s mistress, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor.” This isn’t the first time in the novel Carraway mentions turning thirty, which is significant to him. He knows that time is passing. The novel’s events have impressed upon him the ugly turns life can take, and how dreams can die hard. Dickens writes that on Christmas, for the adult at midlife, “Of all the days in the year, we will turn our faces towards that City of the Dead on Christmas Day, and from its silent hosts bring those we loved, among us.”

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

Robert Redford as The Great Gatsby.

In the midst of autumn, as he prepares to return to the Midwest, Carraway calls to mind Christmas past—the time when the world seemed full of promise. Now he will return to the region of his youth, carrying with him the memories of those he knew who bore that promise as well. It seems certain that Christmas times of years to come will evoke the dead, among them Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson, as well as the dreams that have died.

The east itself has become a City of the Dead for Nick Carraway. He describes a dream shortly after his Christmas passage that symbolizes the loss and corruption of the world he has inhabited, associated for him with the eastern United States, but representing more broadly those forces in life that strangle dreams and defeat aspirations. He dreams of a group of men carrying a drunken woman’s body on a stretcher. The men are in evening dress, as they might have been at one of Gatsby’s parties. The woman’s hand dangles over the side of the stretcher. The hand “sparkles cold with jewels.” They walk up to a house and knock on a door, but it is not the woman’s house: “Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.” This is a world where any sense of human community is missing. There is no home for anyone. The implication seems to be that the men will carry the woman in vain for years, knocking at each door only to be turned away.

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

F. Scott Fitzgerald with his wife Zelda and their daughter Scottie in Paris: Christmas, 1925. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the end of his Christmas reflection, Carraway says “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” This is essentially a roll call of the dead—Gatsby literally so, but the others, with the exception of Nick, spiritually dead, blighted by the world in which they live and the choices they have made. But I find myself wondering what lessons might be in store for Nick Carraway. He is a fictional character, but when a great book like Gatsby gets into our blood and bones we find these people about as alive as any standing next to us in the grocery store check-out line. Carraway is often held up as a classic example of the unreliable narrator, and I find myself wondering if his deepest lessons are yet to come–that this is only the beginning of his wisdom. Gatsby’s corruption began years ago, deep in Carraway’s beloved middle west along the shores of Lake Superior as Gatsby drifted from one woman and one job to another. When Gatsby rows out to Dan Cody’s yacht, he begins his journey on the route that will take him to his lonely death in a swimming pool far from midwestern waters.

Scott Fitzgerald

Scott Fitzgerald

Here is the passage from The Great Gatsby:

“One of my most vivid memories is of coming back west from prep school and later from college at Christmas time. Those who went farther than Chicago would gather in the old dim Union Station at six o’clock of a December evening with a few Chicago friends already caught up into their own holiday gayeties to bid them a hasty goodbye. I remember the fur coats of the girls returning from Miss This or That’s and the chatter of frozen breath and the hands waving overhead as we caught sight of old acquaintances and the matchings of invitations: “Are you going to the Ordways’? the Hersheys’? the Schultzes’?” and the long green tickets clasped tight in our gloved hands. And last the murky yellow cars of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad looking cheerful as Christmas itself on the tracks beside the gate.

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

Christmas issue of the old Life Magazine (Image credit: Pinterest)

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name.”

 

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Great Gatsby (The Authorized Text). With notes and preface by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Scribner Paperback Edition, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1925, 1995.

The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis. Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1990.

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Daunted by NaNoWriMo? Try “NaNovellaWriMo” instead

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(photo courtesy of Hannes Grobe through Wikipedia Commons).

(photo courtesy of Hannes Grobe through Wikipedia Commons).

The month-long frenzy of novel writing called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is soon to begin. This has become a phenomenon in recent years, an event complete with not only the requisite website, but also support systems, group writing sessions, merchandise, and so on. The goal is to produce, if not a finished first draft of at least 50,000 words or more, at least 50,000 words towards a first draft.

I am of mixed feelings about such a thing. A novel is a difficult creation to pull off, especially for those who haven’t written shorter fiction or much of anything at all. Good published novels are usually the result of years of work, careful and repeated rewriting, and then the process of editing, which may in turn beget more rewriting. Some novels take shape only after any number of possible preceding actions. These might include multiple false starts, long hours of research, or drafting long, detailed outlines or voluminous notes on characters, setting, and plot (the working methods of authors often range widely).

Hem hard at work on "For Whom the Bell Tolls"---definitely not a novella, although "The Old Man and The Sea" fits the bill.

Hem hard at work on “For Whom the Bell Tolls”—definitely not a novella, although “The Old Man and The Sea” fits the bill.

On the other hand, I can appreciate a fun effort to encourage people to sit down and write each day and really make it happen. The overall driving purpose seems to be to get it out on paper. Then the deeper work of rewriting can begin now that the first draft is done. The NaNoWriMo program also has a sense of humor, something I appreciate. Just take a look at their logo on their website, or some of their merchandise.

Having said that, I still propose an alternative to NaNoWriMo–“NaNovellaWriMo”– that may be less daunting for some writers who are staring down 50,000 words. That word count makes me wonder how much of this process is frustrating for many participants. How many find themselves going down false trails or wandering into dead ends? How many give up trying to create a work of this length? How many thrash about with their work, trying to figure out what to do next, getting mired with subplots, minor characters, questions of point of view, and so on?

Some works of Joseph Conrad, such as "Heart of Darkness," "Youth," and "Typhoon" might be considered novellas.

Some works of Joseph Conrad, such as “Heart of Darkness,” “Youth,” and “Typhoon” might be considered novellas.

I’m wondering if maybe the novella might be a more desirable goal to pursue in a thirty-day month, especially if you’re one of those people who has a full-time job, is raising kids, or is in charge of cooking the Thanksgiving dinner—you might fall into one or all of those categories. But here we run into the tricky business of defining the novella. One common definition is that it’s longer than a short story, but shorter than a full-length novel. But what is a full-length novel? And what do we make of the notion that the novella might also be considered a short novel? Finally, some sources might identify a novelette as essentially the same as a novella. Sigh.

One helpful guide to word lengths of different works is one used by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for their Nebula Awards. They define a novel as a work of fiction of more than 40,000 words. A novella is between 17,500 and 40,000 words. A novelette would be a short fiction piece breaking out of the short story form in the range of 7,500 to 17,500 words. And a short story is 7,500 words or under. Some may quibble with those numbers, but I applaud the organization for placing some boundaries and form on these categories, even if only for the purpose of awards in these genres.

A look to consider for your book jacket photo? The great Italian writer Boccaccio, famous for his "Decameron."

A look to consider for your jacket photo? The great Italian writer Boccaccio, famous for his “Decameron.”

It is also helpful to consider the origins of the novella, as we can see how it has been transformed through time, and how it differs from the full-length novel in ways beyond word counts. According to The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, the word novella is Italian for “tale” or “piece of news.” It was “a kind of short story, a narrative in prose of the genre of Boccaccio,” his Decameron being a notable example of a collection of old-style novellas. But this form underwent a metamorphosis later on in Germany: “It was not until late in the 18th and early in the 19th century that the novella was fashioned into a particular form according to certain precepts and rules. Then the Germans became the most active practitioners, and the Novelle has since flourished in Germany more than anywhere else.”

The great German writer Goethe was known as a practitioner of the novelle.

The great German writer Goethe was known as a practitioner of the novelle.

Furthermore, the German Novelle could range from “a few pages to two or three hundred, restricted to a single event, situation or conflict, which produces an element of suspense and leads to an unexpected turning point (Wendepunkt), so that the conclusion surprises even while it is a logical outcome.”

What I find interesting about this description is that we see an echo of it in a modern definition of the novella that provides not only word length, but a very helpful explanation of structural elements defining a novella. This may be useful for those who want to make NaNoWriMo into NaNovellaWriMo, and maybe find their efforts more successful, and the writing (possibly) more manageable.

Henry James had a great deal of affection for "the beautiful and blest novelle," and wrote a few himself, including the classic ghost story "The Turn of the Screw."

Henry James had a great deal of affection for “the beautiful and blest nouvelle,” and wrote a few himself, including the classic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw.”

Laurie Henry’s The Fiction Dictionary provides this useful definition. At word length she puts the form at 30,000 to 50,000 words, but more importantly she writes this:

“A novella is longer than a short story, contains more episodes, and unlike a short story, usually builds to several crises before reaching a climax. The final climax of a novella is usually much more conclusive than that of a contemporary short story. A novella generally differs from a novel, however, in the sparseness of its language and in the fact that it contains only a single plot line, into which there is little room for digression.”

Laurie Henry then cites Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as an example, and then gives a short overview of the plot, noting also that it is a robust example of a novella as it is “very linear, taking place over a short time, and following few characters in a limited number of actions.”

John Steinbeck--some of his works fit into the novella category. You would be in good company if you took this form on. (photo by Hulton Archive/Getty).

John Steinbeck–some of his works fit into the novella category. You would be in good company if you took this form on. (photo by Hulton Archive/Getty).

You may very well have read some of these books that generally fit the novella form. They include Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor; Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Pearl; and Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Henry James had a special fondness for “the beautiful and blest nouvelle.” Two of his novellas are The Aspern Papers and one of his best known works—the ghost story titled The Turn of the Screw.

Stephen King has also written novellas. Two of his novellas have proven suitable for the screen: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body, which was adapted as Stand By Me.

Stephen King has written a number of novellas, two of which have been made into films (photo courtesy of Pinguino via Wikipedia Commons and Flickr.

Stephen King has written a number of novellas, two of which have been made into films (photo courtesy of Pinguino via Wikipedia Commons and Flickr).

Is this possibly a better use of your time and a more do-able undertaking than the full-on 50,000 word project that is NaNoWriMo?

Patrick Kerin

Sources:

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Third Edition. The Penguin Group, London, 1992. Third edition published in the U.S. and England by Basil Blackwood.

The Fiction Dictionary by Laurie Henry. Story Press, Cincinnati, Ohio. 1995.

NaNoWriMo official website.

Wikipedia article on NaNoWriMo.

Wikipedia article on the novella.

Wikipedia: “List of Novellas.”