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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.