A curious conversation about driving a car
Cars and chauffeurs pervade Fitzgerald’s novel, first published in 1925 at a time when the automotive industry was coming to define the American way of life. This was mainly because in the decade after the First World War prices of mass-produced cars dropped sufficiently to make them widely available to people outside the elite of American society. The Great Gatsby, however, was written before the era of Route 101 and open highways, and 28 years before Kerouac published On The Road and the Beat Generation took off. Clearly, Fitzgerald’s car is no vehicle of emancipation, but instead represents the false hope and delusion that lies at the heart of the novel.
On one level, cars in Gatsby do live up to their early 20th century billing as the ultimate tools by which the American dream could be won: they ferry the great and good to Gatsby’s champagne-drenched parties, and presumably underpin his bootlegging operations across the country, thanks to which he enjoys a certain prominence and notoriety in New York society. However, Fitzgerald hints at the more destructive side of the automobile at an early stage of the book. Wilson, the second-hand car salesman, provides the services that allow Tom Buchanan to have such a carefree affair with his wife, and it is Wilson who will later be one of the key figures in the book’s tragic denouement.
“But the wheel’s off!”
The real portend of things to come occurs midway through the third chapter with, firstly, the car crash outside Gatsby’s house as the guests are leaving one of his parties. This is a highly surreal episode in which the reader glimpses the potentially disastrous consequences of modern technology through an absurdly comic lens. We are initially led to believe that Owl Eyes, the library-dwelling drunk, is responsible for the accident, until he eventually clarifies that he was merely a passenger at the time. In seeking to prove his innocence Owl Eyes protests that he knows “nothing whatever about mechanics”, as if to say “how could I possibly drive a car without understanding the basics of how it works?” Of course, this gets him nowhere, mainly because none of the other onlooking drivers knows anything about cars, and, as with most drivers since then, this hasn’t stopped them from getting behind the wheel.
The point of this becomes clearer a few pages later during a conversation between the narrator, Nick, and Jordan Baker. The exchange arises out of a near-miss they have in the car, when Jordan almost runs over a group of workmen. Nick advises Jordan to be more careful or avoid driving altogether, to which Jordan responds that she trusts that others will be careful for her, and keep out of her way. It is with this off-hand talk that Fitzgerald explicitly brings together the themes of cars and carelessness, the latter being a trait we can ascribe in varying degrees to all the major characters of the novel, except for Gatsby, of course, who rises above the rest in the single-mindedness of his ambition. It is driving, however, that turns carelessness in Gatsby from a facet of personality into a destructive force. After all, carelessness without cars, without mechanics, cannot go far beyond emotional consequences, brutal though these may be. In fact, Jordan tells Nick as much at the end of the novel when the two characters part ways: “I met another bad driver didn’t I?” The reader may agree with her assessment, but in light of the literal car crash that is Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy Buchanan, Jordan has come off lightly.
Fitzgerald must have been wary of the hope and expectation that flowed from the growing availability of cars in 1920s America. In the hands of a careless driver, after all, a car is a dangerous thing. And if Fitzgerald saw a city of careless drivers in 1925, his intuition wasn’t far wrong. Only four years later Wall Street imploded in another crash, this time exacerbated by the novelty of being able to buy and sell shares as a layperson with no knowledge of the New York stock exchange. Indeed, this was clearly an episode of American history that affected Fitzgerald profoundly, despite the fact that he lost no money in the financial collapse. Apparently he later came to see 1929 as the end of the “jazz age” (see, for example, his short story Babylon Revisited, set in the aftermath of the crash). In any event, carelessness is something that is often overlooked, particularly in the context of rapidly evolving technology. For Fitzgerald, it was a defining feature of humanity.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clear up the mess they had made…”