Medium of Exchange: The Blue Coupe Dialogue in 'The Great Gatsby.' (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
O'Meara, Lauraleigh, Papers on Language & Literature
A week after I left Santa Barbara Tom ran into a wagon on the
Ventura road one night and ripped a front wheel off his car. (61)
Upstairs in the solemn echoing drive she [Myrtle] let four taxi cabs
drive away before she selected a new one, lavender-colored with grey
upholstery ... (24)
These two passages illustrate a general truth about automobiles in The Great Gatsby, that they operate both as technology and as commodities. And while these categories are not mutually exclusive, Fitzgerald generally emphasizes one function over the other. For example, when a car moves characters to other destinations, or is involved in an accident, the focus is on its machinery, as opposed to those qualities that make it unique as a marketplace commodity. In Jordan's account of Tom's honey, moon crash, she does not give us any details about the automobile involved. Was it large or small, conservative or luxuriously appointed? What color was it? Did it have two seats or four, was it closed or open? This absence of detail is also evident in both the Owl-Eyes and Snell incidents, and Jordan's near-miss of the workman while at the Warwick house party. These cars are hardware, plain and simple. They aren't yellow or blue or upholstered in green leather; they just go fast and crack up. Even the novel's most thoroughly described automobile--Gatsby's open car--comes to the reader almost exclusively in terms of speed and motion when on the road between the Eggs and New York.
When Myrtle Wilson chooses a taxi at the train station, the new lavender cab is just one among many waiting for passengers. Here, the selection of this particular vehicle over four others makes the point that she is not really interested in transportation. Myrtle is, in effect, "buying" a commodity: new as opposed to used; a super-feminine lavender versus an ordinary blue or black.(1) Similarly, Nick's first impressions of Gatsby's "splendid car" delineate an expensive and unique commodity, not an efficient means for travel. The "rich cream color" and bright nickel trim, the "triumphant" storage boxes and the "labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns" (51)--these are extravagant descriptions which bear a striking resemblance to the language of advertising copy of the period. A sampling of layouts from the summer issues of Vanity Fair in 1922 illustrates that the beauty or attractiveness of a car is generally more important than its functional qualities, particularly in the higher price ranges, and superlatives are common: the Paige is "The Most Beautiful Car in America" ("Paige" 9); the Packard is possessed of "incomparable charm and brilliant, dashing performance" ("Packard" 95); and the Oldsmobile's "sheer beauty and ultra-distinctiveness is unrivaled" ("Olds" 5).
What we have in The Great Gatsby is a creative manipulation of the automobile as symbol and image to accomplish a variety of ends. When Fitzgerald accentuates mechanism and minimizes aesthetics, he depersonalizes vehicles and underscores the behavior of their drivers. Early in the novel, Nick describes Gatsby's automobile in detail; but at the book's end, this same vehicle becomes an almost unidentifiable machine hurtling into the night. Stripped of phrasing that extolls its lush upholstery and elegant appointments, the "death car" is simply hardware, the impersonal instrument of its driver. In contrast, Fitzgerald communicates the difference between "Old Money" and "New Money" through the "look" of the automobiles, through their value as commodities, not with a count of the cylinders beneath the hood.
The existing criticism on automobiles in The Great Gatsby usually centers on one or the other of these two functions. Kenneth Knodt and Irving Saposnik discuss the automobile imagery from a technological standpoint. Knodt asserts that all of the novel's symbols of technology--automobiles, trains, and telephones prominent among them--"are connected with destruction and evil" (131). …