“The Great Gatsby” and Aristotle’s Four Causes

The Penguin Critical Studies Guide to The Great Gatsby has an interesting analysis of locations in Fitzgerald’s masterpiece —probably the standard interpretation of the symbolism of West Egg, East Egg, the valley of ashes, and New York City.  Since this is, no doubt, well understood, I leave it to the interested reader to look into said interpretation.  The purpose of this blog post is to explore a different interpretation, an Aristotelian interpretation of the feature locations in the book.  Admittedly, I am not particularly familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s extended biography, and especially not his intellectual influences.  Yet, having done some research, I have not found an Aristotelian interpretation of any kind pertaining to Fitzgerald’s writings.  This is intriguing, because, as will be seen, imposing Aristotelian causes, as symbolism, onto the book makes for a consistent reading, and I would not be surprised to find that Fitzgerald did have some such symbolism in mind. 

In much that has been written on the book, the valley of ashes is understood as being representative of materiality, wherein Gatsby conjures images of blood, dust, and the grime of everyday vulgarity in its rawest form.  Even its proximity to the City, lying between the City and the Eggs, is indicative of nighness that the Eggs are not privileged with.  The valley of ashes is well suited to symbolize the material cause that will go into the creation of the world, or, within the context of the story, New York City.  When examined further, much of what is traditionally considered “base” stems from the valley of ashes, for instance, Myrtle, the object of Tom Buchanan’s lust.  Of course, the lust manifests itself in the world, the City itself.

East Egg represents formal cause, which, if Fitzgerald had intended this kind of symbolism, would be a bit ironic and a bit of a gibe: the lack of “filling” and “innards” of form make for a hollow structure of pure form, not too far off from the hollow and merely superficial adherence to “traditional values” seen I the Buchanan home.  Carousing with Myrtle in City, Buchanan, of course, espouses the importance of family and family values while in East Egg.  This Aristotelian symbolism of Fitzgerald’s East Egg cannot garner the location much more than mockery, and even an ontological status as “phantasmagorical,” the forms only existing in the mind, and purely a synthesized construct thereof.  Daisy’s facile idealism and Buchanan’s discussions of race and science might be viewed as emblematic of an association of artificiality, hollowness, and superfice.  Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this reading is that Buchanan alters his statements on scientific matters of fact, perhaps casting a shadow of doubt on science as universal, necessary, and certain truth (i.e., timeless form): ‘“I read somewhere that the sun’s getting hotter every year,” said Tom genially. “It seems that pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun–or wait a minute–it’s just the opposite–the sun’s getting colder every year.”’

In the progression of this reading, West Egg would represent Aristotle’s efficient cause.  No location gives quite the sense of the jittering Jazz Age as West Egg.  The moving and shaking exists in West Egg.  Its new money is active, recently accrued, and spends in a way that East Egg disdains, whereas the timeless land of forms, East Egg is pervaded by old —might one say timeless?— money.  Even the placement of Nick, though a small-time economic climber, suggests actively reaching toward newfound status through activity.  The parties, filled with frivolity and the formless dancing associated with the freedom of jazz, exhibit the absolute effete of activity, in that this activity and energy/resource expenditure produce nothing, having neither material upon which to act nor form to guide it.

An interesting question comes up after taking stock of the scenes in The Great Gatsby.  In chapter seven, one sees all three locations fused into the City, but there is no teleological cause to be found.  Rather intriguingly, one could ponder this for quite a while, searching between the lines for hints as to where in the book such a cause might be seen; but, like anything sought after and not existing, this final cause is sought after in vain.  This is what, to my mind, makes this particular reading such a consistent reading of the text.  The tatter advertisement of T.J. Eckleburg (and the discussion involving Wilson, at the end of the text) make quite clear where Fitzgerald sees (or doesn’t see) the final cause in the goings-on.

The final observation in this reading that I should like to make is to point out that, if East Egg were truly intended to be a caricature of formal causes, what one is left with is the careening activity of atoms of Boltzmann, something like Gustav Klimt’s 1899 piece, called “Philosophie.”  That is, New York City, the world, a product of the proverbial winds of East Egg swirling about the valley of ashes, and nothing more.  The book certainly never struck me (or probably anyone) as a work of optimism, but this reading is much more sardonic and dark than typical interpretations permit, the surface of the text still painted with the impromptu jazz, outlandish euphoria-inducing dance, and the good time, no matter how ephemeral, of imbibed alcohol.

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