“Who is this Gatsby, anyhow?” When Is Our Interpretation on Quicksand, and When Is It on Solid Ground?

Back in 1976 I was a first-time college classroom teacher trying to engage my students in a discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I was struggling to elicit their thoughts on the novel’s title character, whose identity is obscured beneath layers of concealment, misdirection, and outright untruths—only some of which are of his own making. Our discussion was floundering until one student in the class suddenly blurted out, “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think he’s dreamy!”

I was caught off guard by this unexpected take on the book, but I managed to respond in my best teacherly voice: “OK, but can you elaborate a bit on that? What in the text suggests that Gatsby is dreamy?”

The student seemed flustered, impatient at being asked to explain further. “Didn’t you see the movie?” she asked. “He’s Robert Redford!”

And of course he was, at least in the film version of the novel that had been released just a year or so earlier. At the time Redford was one of the surest box-office draws in the country, firmly established as a heart-throb leading man—a profile that no doubt influenced this student’s (and many others’) experience of the Gatsby character, both on screen and in the book.

(I’ll make a confession here: I know many people think Redford was woefully miscast in the role, and who regard his performance as wooden, awkward, and inauthentic. But in my humble opinion that is exactly how the character should come off. Gatsby is trying to act out an imaginary, alternative version of himself; and he is doing it just unsuccessfully enough for his public persona to come off as a rickety façade that conceals untold tragic or sinister realities.)

That student’s image of Fitzgerald’s character was obviously film-aided, but it represents the sort of mental leap we make any time we read a work of imaginative literature actively and with full engagement. It’s called “imaginative literature” not just because it’s a product of the author’s imagination, but because it engages our imaginations as readers in a profound way.

That is to say, when we are reading a novel or a poem the words before us are not just bits of information; they are cues we use to construct a complete virtual experience in our minds, almost as if we are watching a movie (in the case of a novel or short story) or looking at a photograph or a painting (in the case of an Imagist poem).

But no text, however detailed it might be, can specify everything we need in order to produce that virtual movie or painting in our minds; a literary text is necessarily suggestive and schematic, and much of our experience of the text we ourselves supply from our own stock of memories, expectations, fantasies, and previous reading encounters. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald gives us little physical description of the title character other than an occasional mention of how he is dressed. And yet in our imaginations he has a face, however fuzzy the image might be–so that face (and the body it’s attached to) might as well be Robert Redford’s.

The phenomenoligist Roman Ingarden called this process “concretization,” and he saw it operating wherever the actual language of the text left an “indeterminacy” of the sort I described above. Ingarden’s disciple Wolfgang Iser describes this process in the following way: “the structure of a text brings about expectations, which are interrupted by surprising unfulfillment, producing gaps, which require filling by the reader to create a coherent flow of the text” (298).

This explains in part why different readers sometimes have such different visualizations (and thus different interpretations) of characters and events in a short story or a novel. They are “filling in the gaps” in the text in different ways, depending on their own experiences and imaginative resources. And it is natural that they do so. When we are deeply engaged in the reading of a novel, our experience of that novel is an amalgam of the schematic cues given by the language of the text itself and our own implicit and (mainly unconscious) filling-in of the unspecified aspects of character, setting, and so forth that are necessary to complete the movie or the picture in our minds. It’s often the case, at least after a first reading, that we will have trouble separating the actual details given in the text from those we ourselves supplied to complete our imaginative experience of it.

But it’s also true that stories, novels, and poems add information as they go, so that what we might “fill in” is dynamic rather than static. We might learn later in our reading that a character we initially “concretized” as short and stout might actually be tall and thin, for instance; or a character we initially visualized as middle-aged might be younger than we thought. In such cases we have to adjust our concretization based on the new information and evolving context. This process of adjustment is as natural and necessary to our experience of the text as the initial concretization. But authors also sometimes delay giving us crucial “cues” to throw us off our “concretizing” game and make us more self-conscious about the assumptions and “default settings” we use to fill in some of these gaps. Let’s consider the following example, the opening sentences of another novel:

Helga Crane sat alone in her room, which at that hour, eight in the evening, was in soft gloom. Only a single reading lamp, dimmed by a great black and red shade, made a pool of light on the blue Chinese carpet, on the bright covers of the books which she had taken down from their long shelves, and the white pages of the opened one selected, on the shining brass bowl crowded with many-colored nasturtiums beside her on the low table, and on the oriental silk which covered the stool at her slim feet.

That’s a lot of information, and the level of detail allows us to see Helga Crane’s room with some specificity, even without “filling in” details to make the scene fully present in our imaginations. But what of Helga Crane herself? We are given no information except her name, the physical characteristic of her “slim feet,” and the implication that she is the sort of person who would occupy a room like the one described. And yet in our imaginations we “see” a woman–maybe with some features still indistinct in the shadows, but others already involuntarily filled in on our part, through the process of concretization. Do we imagine her at this hour (eight o’clock, with darkness coming on) still in her day clothes, or in a nightgown? Do we infer from her “slim feet” that the rest of her body is slender? Finally–a question that shortly will prove to be of central significance to our experience and understanding of the remainder of the novel–what race do we imagine Helga Crane to be?

If you recognize this character’s name and know the novel in which she is the main character, you know the answer to this question. But imagine you’ve pulled the book at random off the shelf and begun reading it. Imagine there is no dust jacket with a photo of the author or a blurb about the book’s place in American literary history. Or imagine you are reading the book for the first time outside of a class whose catalog description would encourage you to fill in this important blank one way rather than the other. Will you be surprised, two or three pages further into the text, to find additional information that cues you to imagine (or re-imagine) Helga Crane as Black?

I’ll admit this is something of an artificial test (as most experiments are), as we normally don’t begin reading a book without some external context to guide our process of concretization. Most of us will begin the book (Nella Larsen’s Quicksand) knowing that it is a key text in the African American literary tradition, and that it is considered one of the great works of the Harlem Renaissance. Or we might derive similar inferences from an author photo or blurb on a rear cover or dust jacket. So even without being told so specifically by the opening paragraphs of the text, we will probably “fill in” the unspecified detail of Helga Crane’s racial identity by visualizing her as Black.

But I have run this experiment on quite a few people not familiar with the novel, and in those cases readers almost invariably default to an initial concretization of Helga Crane as “white.” Or, as one reader typically responded after reading a little further, “Oh, I never imagined her as Black!” (Or as Asian, despite the mention of the “blue Chinese carpet” and the “oriental” upholstery of her footstool.) In a couple of cases, however, readers reported a difficulty in bringing the character into focus because they weren’t sure how to identify her, racially speaking.

There is an important political and cultural issue here that I will save for another time (it is most clearly exemplified in the outrage, even anger, with which some people greeted the casting of an African American actress as Rue in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games–despite the fact that the book describes her in such a way as to allow for, but not specify, such a casting decision). In the case of Quicksand, Larsen is very clever in allowing us–for a time at least–to concretize her heroine as something other than Black, since in fact that initial ambiguity is central to the novel’s main concerns about the puzzle of racial identity.

Helga is in fact half African American and half Danish, and throughout the novel she ping-pongs violently between a desire to identify fully with other Black people and her thirst to transcend racial categories altogether. In her novel Nella Larsen is interested specifically in the difficulty of “concretizing” race–a difficulty that extends to the novel’s heroine herself. For her part Helga is ambivalent and uncertain about what her own imputed “Blackness” means, and resentful of how that “Blackness” is read by others.

For my purposes here I am focusing on the racial ambiguities of Larsen’s Quicksand mainly to emphasize the power and the consequences of the process of concretization as discussed by Ingarden and others. As I have suggested, there are specifically political implications to this process when one is dealing with the way in which matters such as race and gender are constructed in our imaginations and in literary texts. That’s one reason it is important to read (and to re-read) texts closely–to become more aware of the distinction between what the the text specifies or strongly implies and what we use to fill its inderminacies or gaps. With that idea in mind, let me return for a moment to the text we began with, The Great Gatsby.

From time to time I’ve encountered readers and critics who float the idea that Gatsby is Black. The first time I heard this idea I was a bit incredulous–a Robert Redford Gatsby was easy enough to fit into my own concretizations of the text, but a Denzel Washington Gatsby? I really wasn’t so sure. But let’s consider the case and the possibilities. Nowhere does Fitzgerald specify that Gatsby is white, although we are encouraged to infer that from the fact that his parents back in Minnesota are of European descent; and despite the fact that he is treated as a suspect outsider by WASPish snobs like Tom Buchanan, race doesn’t seem to play an explicit role in the prejudices arrayed against him. In other words, little in the novel appears to encourage me to question my “racial default” concretization of Gatsby as Caucasian.

But, keeping in mind the portrayal of Helga Crane in Quicksand (who is first introduced to us in racially ambiguous terms and who might pass for white if she chose), I find myself now asking the question: what makes me so sure Gatsby is not (or could not be) a Black man? We know he has trouble accepting his parents back in Minnesota as his “real” parents; we know, historically speaking, that the bootlegging underworld of which he is a part was a racially polyglot subculture, populated by a variety of marginalized ethnic groups (some of whom have specific contacts with Gatsby in the story); and the novel is full of racially charged conversations and encounters, beginning with Tom Buchanan’s hysterical white-supremacist rantings about the rise of the “colored” races.

In other words I find some textual evidence supporting the notion, even if I can’t fully commit to the idea. I am forced to ask myself: to what extent do these details, either specified in the text or known with respect to its historical context, invite me to reconsider my own “racial default” concretization of Gatsby as white? What if Gatsby, like the heroine from Passing (another novel by Nella Larsen) is a Black person passing for or taken for a white one? Is it possible for me to accept or incorporate this possibility into my own experience of the text? Is this simply a matter of anything not specifically eliminated being allowed, or does it actually illuminate some genuine interpretive possibilities of Fitzgerald’s novel that might not otherwise be accessible?

I won’t answer this one way or the other, but I will say that any answer will lie in a close re-reading of the book–one that would examine the patterns of implication in the text as a whole to see if such a reading is encouraged. In other words, we would need to determine whether some readers’ experience of Gatsby’s Blackness is one of three things: (1) a reading error (that is, an interpretation specifically contradicted by information in the text); (2) a filling-in of a “gap” in the text that is incidental to our understanding of the story, or (3) an interpretive possibility that is actually cued by information or patterns of inference in Fitzgerald’s text.

Much of what we call “literary interpretation” involves this sort of close attention both to the text and to our own response to it. Our experience of a text is always a synthetic thing, structured by the words of the text itself but completed by our own expectations, anticipation, and imagination. Our interpretation or analysis of a text involves close attention to the often-blurry but important difference between the “facts” of the text and own imaginative contribution as readers to the “movie in our minds.”

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner’s, 1925.

Ingarden, Roman. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Trans. Ruth Ann Crowley and Kenneth R. Olson. Evanston, IL: Northwest UP, 1973.

Iser, Wolfgang. “The Reading Process: a Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Winter, 1972): 279-99.

Larsen, Nella. Quicksand. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1928.