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‘Brakes upon my desires’: Mobility in The Great Gatsby

In The Great Gatsby Tom and Nick Carraway move from the prosperous Midwest to Long Island. Gatsby does the same, albeit from the poorer state of North Dakota. Only the minor, working-class characters, the Wilsons, are actually from Long Island. Here, I want to turn specifically to the use of boats, horses and cars to consider physical movement as a dynamic emblem for social mobility.

Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film: some of the spirit of the book, without the complexities of Fitzgerald’s novel

Motorboats & hydroplanes: When Nick first moves to Long Island, he visits his cousin Daisy and her husband, Tom Buchanan. Immediately after Tom is introduced, Nick describes the palatial Buchanan home including ‘a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore’ (p. 13). The boat singles Tom out as a member of a class defined by power and leisure. Careful readers may have observed that Gatsby also owns at least one motorboat himself. Chapter 3 opens with an introduction to his parties:

‘At high-tide I watched […] while his two boats slit the waters of the Sound’

The Great Gatsby (p. 41)

Gatsby wishes to establish himself as a member of the leisured class, like his rival Tom. Later, on seeing a sailing boat when Gatsby shows Tom his own place across the bay, Tom comments,

”There’s sport for you […] I’d like to be out there with him for about an hour’

(p. 113)

Leisure reinforces Tom’s moneyed status, yet Gatsby owns two motorboats and a seaplane himself. He clearly aspires to the lifestyle of the super-rich, but tellingly, when he wishes to show Daisy his ‘hydroplane’ in Chapter 5, Fitzgerald ensures that he is prevented by the rain (p. 90), prefiguring his tragic failure to come.

Rowboats & Yachts: Later in the novel, Nick chooses a moment when Gatsby has rekindled his affair with Daisy to reveal the backstory of Gatsby’s true identity. Interestingly, Gatsby’s rise is narrated in terms of travel and movement. Gatsby’s social mobility can be seen in Chapter 6, not only through his transformative change of name, but also in exchanging the ‘borrowed’ rowboat for the yacht he boards, carrying connotations of privilege and leisure. Nick tells us:

‘It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon […] but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat […] and informed Cody that a wind might break him up in half an hour’

(pp. 94-5)

Cody’s yacht allows Gatsby freedom from the traditional American class structure, a space where he can complete his self-reinvention. If the rowing boat shows Gatsby’s sheer determination, the yacht signifies his social aspirations.

Horses & Ponies: Gatsby is able to imitate the upper classes, yet there are tell-tale signs that he does not belong. In chapter 1, Nick narrates that Tom is wealthy enough to transport ‘a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest [Chicago]’; ‘It was hard to realize that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that’ (p. 11). Later, in Chapter 6, he relates an incident in which Tom Buchanan and two friends arrive unannounced at Gatsby’s on horseback. In an echo of Tom’s polo ponies, the equestrian imagery shows that Gatsby is an outsider in upper-class society. After misreading an invitation to dinner, Gatsby says:

‘I haven’t got a horse […] I used to ride in the army, but I’ve never bought a horse. I’ll have to follow you in my car. Excuse me for just a moment’

(p. 99)

A reminder to the reader of his new money. Later, before the confrontation at the Plaza hotel, Tom tells Gatsby arrogantly, ‘I’m the first man who ever made a stable out of a garage’ (p. 113), again reminding Gatsby of his old money status. Tom associates his stables with privilege, just as he associates Gatsby’s drug stores with corruption.

Motorcars: Gatsby wants to emulate the upper-class Buchanans in part to win Daisy back, to repeat his past with her. Gatsby’s rise to the newly-rich is shown through the emblem of his ‘gorgeous car’ (p. 63). It is no coincidence that the car is introduced in detail when he takes Nick out for a ride in order to tell him his dubious backstory. Vehicles map Gatsby’s rise and fall in the novel. In Chapter 7, his car will be transformed tragically from ‘gorgeous’ to a ‘circus wagon’ and finally to the ‘death car’ – echoing the tabloid journalese of the 1920s. Fitzgerald uses the two motorcars to show Gatsby’s loss of power, as Daisy is the driver of the ‘death car’. The tragic velocity of the climax then comes in the form of movement. Myrtle, who has been immobile (imprisoned by her husband Wilson), escapes and runs into the road to be struck fatally by Gatsby’s car. If boats provide Gatsby with social mobility, it is the motorcar that undoes him in the fatal collision. In her excellent study of the novel, Careless People, Sarah Churchwell points out that socially aspirational characters are cut down by the privileged, stating that only the Buchanans as a couple survive, whereas Gatsby

is put in Tom’s place, taking the fall for both Buchanans’ crimes, Daisy’s careless driving and Tom’s affair with Myrtle

(Churchwell, 2015: 264; 280-81)

Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s ‘gorgeous’ car and his motorboats to show his aspirations to join the upper classes. It is the use of horses and ponies though (a pre-modern symbol of upper-class privilege) that indicates Gatsby does not have membership of this most exclusive social club in 1920s America. Tom’s greatest put-down is that Gatsby is no better than a delivery boy. Nevertheless, Gatsby and Myrtle Wilson are both defined by their tremendous energy and movement. Gatsby is constantly restless:

He was never quite still; there was always a tapping foot somewhere or the impatient opening and closing of a hand.

(p. 62-3)

As Gatsby drives him through the Valley of Ashes, Nick glimpses Myrtle ‘panting at the gas pump with straining vitality’ (p.66). By contrast, her husband Wilson is immobile, stuck in the Valley of Ashes. He even seeks his revenge on foot signifying his low status, whereas both Gatsby and Myrtle show the emerging energy of the upwardly mobile that will come to define post-World War Two America. Even in death neither character is quite still, as if to protest the injustice of American class snobbery:

the mouth was wide open […] as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.

(p. 131)

Gatsby, too, is described in death in terms of movement, drifting on his pneumatic mattress, a parody of the leisured class he has tried so desperately to join. Ultimately, it is Gatsby’s car that finally unmakes him.

References in the article:

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1990; 2000, The Great Gatsby, with an introduction and notes by Tony Tanner, London: Penguin. (The novel was first published by Scribners, New York, in 1925)

Sarah Churchwell, 2013; 2015, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of the Great Gatsby (New York & London: Penguin) 

An earlier version of this article first appeared in emagazine 76, April 2017. I’m grateful to the editors for permission to reproduce it here.

Forthcoming in E-Magazine: Seamus Heaney’s poetic voice… Autumn 2020…

Note: In keeping with publishing guidelines, I will post this article in September 2021, a year after publication.

Blog content: © Benedict Gilbert 2020