Tuesday, 29 September 2015
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”: on the presentation of the past as a different world from the present in Ian McEwan's Atonement (2001) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925)
In Atonement and The Great Gatsby, the profound effect exerted by the past on various characters is indicative of its enduring significance, yet McEwan and Fitzgerald also present the past as intangible and painfully immutable.
Dwelling on the past is often portrayed as release from the nightmares of the present world. The character McEwan imbues with most nostalgia in Atonement is Robbie Turner, sustained through the Dunkirk retreat by his memories of lovemaking with Cecilia five years earlier. He repeats her last words to him, ‘I’ll wait for you. Come back’ (265), like a mantra, to help him survive the horrors of the present – a faith in the past so strong it replaces religion: merely to touch her words is ‘a kind of genuflection’ (226). He visualises the past world as ‘on the far side of a great divide in time, as significant as BC and AD’ (226), but nonetheless he hopes for a further relationship after the war, a continuation of those irrecoverable days. His optimism is shared by Cecilia, who writes to him, ‘You’re in my thoughts every minute...I’ll wait for you’ (213). They pin their hopes on the slenderest of past experiences, falling back on a few precious minutes and exaggerating their meaning to sweeten the present.
Fitzgerald’s dissatisfied bourgeoisie are presented as steeped in nostalgia, exemplary of the aimless ‘Lost Generation’ which had ‘grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.’ Thus denied the comfort of religion and the purpose of war, such people are gratified by the revelry of their past; memories of ‘gay, exciting hours’ (16) sustain Daisy Buchanan in the hope that such exhilaration may be ‘hovering in the next hour’ (16). Even the lower-class Myrtle Wilson still feeds off the vivid moment she first met her beloved Tom. It is a feeling shared by their author, who professed to being powerfully affected by ‘a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties’ and that those who had experienced the thrills of the decade ‘will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.’
The most powerful emblem of nostalgia in The Great Gatsby is Jay Gatsby himself, a man pursuing an impossible eternity the foundations of which were laid in a few days in 1917. The ‘colossal vitality of his illusion’ (103) galvanises him; his purpose is the conquest of relapsed time. He wants to go further than Robbie, and cross the divide by which the latter is bitterly restricted; he aims to bring the lost world of the past into the present. To Gatsby, this past becomes an enchanted ideal, a myth he has been yearning to reclaim. As Northrop Frye noted, the four phases of myth include the summer, the autumn and the winter, referred to as ‘myths of apotheosis...of fall, of the dying god...of dissolution and the return of chaos’ respectively; Gatsby is symbolically identified with all of these. He appears to have attained perfection; he has a ‘majestic’ (47) hand and rules his mansion like a monarch, while Nick Carraway tells of those who ‘came to Gatsby’s house in the summer’ (69), and calls him ‘a son of God’ (105). But this apotheosis is offset by other seasonal associations. His memories of kissing Daisy take place on ‘one autumn night’ (117); he left her in 1917 after ‘a cold fall day’ (156), and the letter in which he replies to her affections is described as ‘coming to pieces like snow’ (83). While Daisy ‘move[s]... with the season’ (157), Gatsby wishes to reach for ‘the orgastic future’ (188) by preserving her in his idealised past. But he cannot pin her down to any one time or place, because she is mortal and transient. In trying to ‘repeat the past’ (117) he is unaware of the phase of dissolution happening around him. As we see when he grapples with the mantelpiece clock, he does not recognise linear time.
The seasonal myth can also be applied to Atonement, where the events of 1935 take place in ‘that hot summer’ (369). Whilst evoking the classically British penchant for romanticizing erstwhile summer days as hotter than they were, McEwan also brings Robbie and Cecilia to the summit of the summer phase as they share their love of each other, epitomized in Robbie’s fantasy of ‘arriving in a remote and high place’ (138). This is supplanted by the chaos introduced into their lives through Marshall’s despicable act, Briony’s imagination, and the onset of war. Just as the seasons roll inexorably from summer to winter, so a halcyon past is irretrievably usurped by the trappings of modernisation and anarchy.
In his epilogue McEwan seems to undo this: Briony returns to the Tallis home to find that it is not entirely suffering ‘in terms of tasteless decline’ (365); indeed, the season of spring is implied, through the reference to ‘rhododendrons...growing’ (363) and the ‘Vivaldi season...burbling’ (364) in the reception area. These tiny references hint at Briony’s ‘final act of kindness’ (372): her rewrites shift the past into the phase of spring, of ‘revival and resurrection’. Yet the season of spring calls to mind the opening of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘April is the cruellest month’. Briony may place the lovers in their fictional Balham flat but it is the phase of dissolution to which they submit in reality. Fitzgerald, too, integrates the ideas of Eliot’s poem – published in the summer in which Gatsby is set – into his novel, not least in ‘the valley of ashes’ (29) but also in the references to blooming spring flowers (‘jonquils...hawthorn...plum blossoms’ (97)) which proliferate at Gatsby and Daisy’s reunion. Here, April is the cruellest month indeed; the ‘mixing [of] memory and desire’ leads Gatsby on in his impossible quest.
Both authors imply that reliving the world of the past can lead to misery in the present: for soldiers in war, the reality upon homecoming will always disenchant those dreaming of past days. Robbie’s cherished reminiscences are ‘bleached colourless through overuse’ (226) and, more painfully, ‘too often they reminded him of where he was when he last summoned them’ (226), while Tom Buchanan reaches ‘such acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax’ (12). ‘Bleached’ and ‘savours’ illustrate the authors’ attempts to lend the experiences false tangibility. Dwelling in a world of nostalgia, where their situations and possibilities were quite different to those of the present, renders these characters so dissatisfied that they convince themselves they can still taste bliss. (It’s notable that McKee, the photographer in The Great Gatsby and a man professionally able to capture the past, is a very sorry figure.)
Gatsby, too, suffers when he at last sees that his environment is not his beloved idealised past: the sky is ‘unfamiliar’ (168), the leaves ‘frightening’ (168), and a rose ‘grotesque’ (168). He is undone by the aspirations he stores up ‘in his ghostly heart’ (103), with its evocation of transience and of the ‘ashen...figure’ (168) and ‘amorphous trees’ (168). Gatsby is not content to leave the past as a pleasant memory, but determines to hunt for it. Thus he ‘find[s] the past again and find[s] it inadequate to the present’, described by the Fitzgeralds as sadder ‘than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory’.
The yearning of these characters is for the past world as a fixed notion; a better world to counteract the gloom of the present. But both novels imply that no one definition of the past can exist, and that our own perceptions of this ideal can shift depending on current circumstance. As Gertrude Stein, a novelist of Fitzgerald’s era, claimed, ‘History makes memory.’ McEwan writes in his 1992 novel Black Dogs of the impermanence of photographic subjects that ‘fifty years on we look at them with the godly knowledge of how they turned out after all’, and, as photography was coming into use in the 1920s and 1930s, it can be seen as a metaphor of this new preoccupation with the past. The Great Gatsby is read differently today, with our awareness of the Wall Street Crash, than it was in 1925, since we know that Fitzgerald’s prophesies of the orgiastic decade’s stagnation were later fulfilled. Though mostly set in 1935 and 1940, Atonement was written after a whole half-century of scientific, militaristic and social developments which inevitably colour a modern reader’s view. To us, the ‘precise ideas’ (62) held by Jack Tallis, from which Cecilia wants to escape, seem ridiculously old-fashioned, and the ubiquitous significance of class, highlighted by Emily’s description of Robbie as ‘a hobby of Jack’s’ (151), strikes us as snobbish. This latter is subverted by Briony’s embarrassing misconceptions in 1999 regarding her West Indian cab driver, and her subsequent conclusion that it is ‘safest to treat everyone you meet as a distinguished intellectual’ (362). Attitudes to class have changed in the 59-year interim and as such the presentation of class values in 1935 is thrown into sharp relief for both Briony and the readers.
Hindsight, in which our perception of the past alters itself due to subsequent developments, forms the basis for the narrative structures of both novels. In recounting events which occurred at earlier points in their lives, Nick and Briony present the past not as a complete picture but as a string of salient recollections. Nick looks over his account and observes ‘I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me’ (62) but that it is not ‘until much later’ (62) that he grasped their preeminent significance. Briony, an aspiring writer, sees the past as something to be reshaped and moulded in a new design; straight after witnessing the charged scene at the fountain, she notes that ‘the truth had become as ghostly as invention’ (41). Particularly for a modernist writer capturing the ‘flickerings of that innermost flame’, former events are open to interpretation, a point Briony raises to justify the mistake in her childish mind: the nebulosity of what has occurred means she acts ‘innocently’ (168). In this way the narrators’ presentations of the past are only ever fictionalised accounts, however authentic, rendering their histories incomplete – a concept summarised by Patricia Waugh as ‘a series of constructions, artifices, [and] impermanent structures’. The languorous prose used to describe the lovers in the library becomes a hazy memory lost in the short sentences describing the Dunkirk retreat; the past has become a vague world, with nothing like the concrete experience of the present.
However romantic the past, the painful reality of the present wins out in the end. Wilson, languishing in the all-too-real ‘valley of ashes’ (29), topples the great Gatsby, a man who convinced himself that ‘the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing’ (106). Even Nick, who recognises the susceptibility to ‘foul dust’ (8) of a devotion to the world as it once was, is seduced by it: he finds ‘eternal reassurance’ (54) in Gatsby’s smile, and the revelry becomes ‘something significant, elemental and profound’ (53). The future that ‘year by year recedes before us’ (188) echoes Nick’s ‘thinning hair’ (142) and the middle-aged narrator of another Eliot poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Eventually, Nick may recognise that we are ‘borne back ceaselessly into the past’ (188) but he still includes himself in that number: what is his narration, if not an attempt to delineate past events? Here McEwan deviates crucially from Fitzgerald, for he has his narrator claim that, however great her desire and skilful her fiction, she is fully aware she cannot alter reality. Briony is not idealistic about her rewrite: ‘it was always an impossible task, and that was precisely the point. The attempt was all’ (371). Although she has a framed photograph of her husband Thierry, its concrete significance is undone by the fact that, as she says, ‘one day [she] would be asking who he was’ (360). She knows that, though she has had real experiences, one day she ‘will be as much of a fantasy as the lovers who shared a bed in Balham’ (371) – and in McEwan’s postmodernist epilogue we of course recognise Briony as just that: a fantasy.
In Atonement the past is a crafted world, a highly fictionalised, stylistic place where motifs and thematic intricacies abound. One such motif is Uncle Clem’s WW1-era vase: when it splits, the past world is fractured. Though repaired, it later breaks again, reflecting Briony’s attempts to rewrite the past only for the ‘blemishes and hairline cracks’ (168) to show through. Hers is a fiction mixed with truths, and the present reality is largely left to the readers’ imagination – but the sheer possibility of Robbie and Cecilia’s untimely deaths hints at the great disparity between the two as Briony presents them.
In The Great Gatsby, characters surround themselves with all kinds of pathetic memorabilia – photographs, possessions, company – with which to call to mind those lost hours. But despite Gatsby’s optimism, material things belong to a linear world and the present world shuns these petty attempts to turn back the clock. Once something has been forgotten or left behind it is ‘incommunicable forever’ (118): the divide is too great. It is an Eden we can never reclaim.
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16. Woolf, Virginia, Modern Novels, from the Times Literary Supplement, 1919.
 Fitzgerald, Francis Scott, This Side of Paradise, Plain Label Books, 1948, p421.
 Fitzgerald, Francis Scott, “Echoes of the Jazz Age”, Scribner’s Magazine 90, 1931.
 Frye, Northrop, ‘The Archetypes of Literature’ from Fables of Identity, Harcourt Brace, 1963, p429.
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 McEwan, Ian, Black Dogs, Jonathan Cape, 1992.
 Woolf, Virginia, Modern Novels, from the Times Literary Supplement, 1919.
 Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, Methuen, 1984, p7.