[Spoiler alert: I discuss in some detail the plot outcome of The Great Gatsby and, for that matter, of Django Unchained]
I do not mean to suggest here that Quentin Tarantino set out in Django Unchained to revive in any sort of deliberate way the characters and themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The differences between these two projects are more substantial than their commonalities. One, after all, is a movie and the other is a novel. More importantly, Tarantino is self-consciously a genre re-configuring story-teller, whereas Fitzgerald wanted in The Great Gatsby to write something new using the form of the traditional novel. The Great Gatsby is that most brazen of beasts The Great American Novel. That being said both, in fact, are distinctively American works. Moreover, in both works the action is driven by a hero’s bid to rescue a gal. Both play games with time, though quite different ones as I will elaborate below. In both, injustices are addressed and resolved with varying degrees of success. To my mind the commonalities of revision, rescue, and redress, though these are perhaps the stuff of all great works, are so distinctively rendered in Django Unchained that one can say that Tarantino has re-authored Gatsby.
Many years ago Bono identified, for the edification of an Irish audience, the differences between Irish and American sensibilities. He was appearing on Gay Byrne’s The Late Late Show — as close as one could get in those times to addressing the Irish nation. He was asked to account for U2’s growing infatuation with the United States. As best as I can remember it now Bono reported that when a man gets wealthy in the US and he builds that large mansion on a hill his neighbors look up and say: “Some day I am going to be that guy.” However, when a man builds that house on the hill in Ireland, his neighbors point up and say: “Some day I am going to get that bastard.” This was around the time that U2 were recreating themselves in anticipation of the release of the The Joshua Tree. One supposes they hoped for mansions and accolades. The interview occurred several years after I first read The Great Gatsby as a Dublin teenager. Despite my infatuation with American literature at the time Gatsby struck me as a dud. It was not so-much that a self-made man was uninteresting to me rather I did not even recognize this sort of hero. Gatsby was Bono’s bastard on the hill.
My second reading of the novel was shortly after I got married in the late 1980s. Not only was The Great Gatsby a favorite novel of my wife’s but she grew up in Queens, NY where we were living at the time and she brought me out to see those Long Island mansions. Naturally, a smitten young man rereads in such circumstances. This second, fairly attentive reading, was more successful. The setting of the novel, and the way in which this geography reinforced the class distinctions among the characters impressed me (my wife and I were living closer to Fitzgerald’s Valley of Ashes — Flushing Meadows, Queens — than to East Egg). As a nature-oriented fellow I was also pleased to notice the scattered but quite crucial references to nature throughout the novel.
Grass, for instance, is developed as a minor character in the story (being mentioned in one way or anther over forty times in the novel). For example, we meet Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s lawn before we meet them. “The lawn”, Nick Carraway, our narrator, observed “started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sundials and brick walks and burning gardens…” Yes, the language is so pretty. Though the novel appealed to me on that reading, yet I still thought it more a gorgeous assemblage of themes yoking together a small set of yarns about inconsequential snobs, rather than a unified novel.
This Christmas break on the occasion of my younger son being compelled to read The Great Gatsby for school I took up the novel for a third time. It had been a quarter century since my last reading. That newly wed man of twenty-five years before may have been the more romantic but the middle-aged man I now am, is apparently more easily overwhelmed. It was as if I was reading another book, discovering in it depths I had gravely overlooked before. It may also have helped my recent reading of Gatsby that I have lived in the US for most of the intervening years. I share, at this point, an immigrant’s enthusiasm for the American project.
Gatsby is compelling not because he is a self-made man, a man about whom swirl rumor and innuendo, a man of gigantic wealth, a creator of fabulous entertainments, but rather he compels because of the sympathetic reasons that prompted his self-creation in the first place. You will recall that Gatsby intended with his riches to woo back Daisy Buchanan. Daisy (again with the lawn references!) is wed to the hulking and extravagantly well-positioned Tom Buchanan. How did we know that Tom is unworthy of her? Because he prattles on about a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires, claiming it to be “a fine book, and everyone ought to read it.” He goes on: “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged.” In an early scene of New York revelry Tom smacks Myrtle (yes another plant) Wilson, his ill-fated girlfriend, and breaks her nose. It’s not the worst violence of the book, but is the most boorish. James Gatz, Gatsby’s birth name, had courted Daisy in Louisville before the Great War but being penniless was an unsuccessful suitor. It was in order to be worthy of her that Gatsby recreated himself, doing so, it is hinted, by indecorous means. And it looked as if for a moment he had succeeded — when Daisy and Gatsby convene with Nick Carraway’s assistance, Daisy wept “stormily” over Gatsby’s fantastic array of shirts saying “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
Readers have puzzled over the years about how Daisy deserved such enduring devotion from Gatsby. It’s is clear though that in some ways Daisy had little to do with it. What seems important really was the metamorphosis that occurred in Gatsby’s soul when those five years earlier he decided to bestow his affections on Daisy on a moonlit night in Louisville. Fitzgerald describes the transfiguration of Gatsby in that earlier moment in ecstatic tones. Gatsby, he wrote “knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” Gatsby thus become flesh, and it is the fate of all flesh to perish and die. Five years after the God-aspiring Gatsby became mortal — this being the action of the novel — Gatsby plans the almost god-like erasure of time. He and Daisy are to be restored to that glorious moment. Daisy was to nullify her four years with Tom. She was to declare that she never loved her husband. And though she does make that declaration, and perhaps even believed it for a moment, nevertheless daisies, though feral, belong on the lawn, and thus our Daisy returns to Tom and she betrays Gatsby. The sheer impossibility of Gatsby’s aspiration (and Nick tells him that it is impossible) had doomed Gatsby and he is violently killed.
Now as I was immersed in this third and most engaged reading of Gatsby I went to see Django Unchained as a Christmas evening entertainment. The story follows the fate of Django Freeman from slave to bounty hunter to rescuer of his wife Broomhilda from the plantation owner Calvin Candie. Django gratifying triumphs and the denouement is explosive. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel which received mixed reviews at the time it was published, Quentin Tarantino’s movie has been almost universally hailed as a great work. It currently has an 88% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It is of course a controversial film. It is extremely violent, the N-word is deployed with what some regard as an unsavory frequency, and it has sparked debate on who gets the prerogative of making a movie on the topic of vengeance for the history of slavery. The specificity of the story, about slavery, race, vengeance may be of greatest importance, nevertheless, its themes are also universal and this is what I remark on here.
The claim that Django and Gatsby are parallel stories may still seem fanciful. Consider this though: Both Gatsby and Django had to recreate themselves to meet the challenges of their quests. Gatsby is mentored and transformed by the adventurer Dan Cody; Django by the dentist-cum-bounty hunter Dr King Schultz, who rescued him at the beginning of the film. Gatsby became fabulously wealthy mysteriously and almost overnight; Django acquired the expertise of a bounty hunter (including being the sharpest of shooters and possessing horse dressage skills) mysteriously and almost overnight. Gatsby wanted to rescue Daisy from the dastardly white supremacist Tom Buchanan; Django intended rescuing Broomhilda from the monstrous, and amplified racist, Calvin Candie. Gatsby’s legendary Saturday evening parties were merely a facade to get him close to the Buchanan’s East Egg mansion; Django’s ruse of being a Mandingo fighting expert gets him into Candyland, Candie’s plantation mansion. Nick Carraway, our first person narrator, facilitated the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, Dr King Schultz facilitated the reunion of Django and Broomhilda. Gatsby wanted to go back in time to revisit his perfect moment; Django wants to go back in time to be reunited with his wife. Both works end in the destruction of a mansion. Django flourishingly rides away with Broomhilda from the demolished Candyland, and figuratively so does Carraway our narrator (in lieu of Gatsby). As Carraway describes it: “And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world.”
Images of nature play a similar role in both works, though I hold off an a fuller inspection for now. Let me merely note that there is a vegetational sequence in The Great Gatsby that starts in the west (whence came Gatsby and Carraway) that then runs from the trimmed to the unkempt grass lawns of Long Island and ends in a vision of the indigenous pre-settlement state. In Django Unchained it also starts in the ecosystems of the wilder west, to the violent and parkland pastoral of the south. More rugged nature still plays a role here: Schultz and Django pick off the KKK posse from their perch in the wilder vegetation above the scence; the runaway slave d’Artagnan hides up a tree before descending only to be torn apart by dogs.
There is besides a close matching of characters in both stories. Django/Gatsby, Broomhilda/Daisy (both meagerly developed as characters), Calvin Candie/Tom Buchanan, King Schultz/Dan Cody and Nick Carraway. Perhaps one can pair the incompetently hooded KKK with the Gatsby’s sodden revelers. The pairings are not perfect, of course. For instance, in the economy of Tarantino’s film-making Dr Schultz plays a dual role. And though there is no Stephen, Calvin Candie’s house slave, nevertheless Wilson, Myrtle’s husband, plays a role which though not precisely comparable, nonetheless, performs the similar task of triggering the endgame.
For all of this Daisy stays with Tom, whereas Broomhilda rides off with Django. Gatsby dies, Django lives. Since this is the most consequential difference between the two works, why this has to be so bears a little scrutiny. Here is my thumbnail sketch:
Gatsby in the process of materially transforming himself destroys himself — all those shirts are not just for show. Django, however, is magnified and empowered by his transformation (assuming, that is, one approves of the havoc he created). Gatsby chooses mortality, whereas Django is bestowed a god’s capacity for vengeance. Ultimately The Great Gatsby explores the nightmare lurking behind the American dream. Django Unchained starts with that nightmare and responds with a fantasy. Death stalks nightmares, fantasies spawn invulnerability. Fitzgerald sets for himself the task of describing what happens when the goal is full restoration of time, pretending, in other words, that the past never even occurred. Tarantino’s task is the equally complex but seemingly more achievable one of responding when the past is unspeakable.
Both works deal, in a sense, with men — Gatsby, Buchanan and Candie — who builds mansions on the hill. In this sense Bono’s account of the American story might be right. But no one, apparently, likes that guy. Even in the American story we like get those basterds. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s Great American Movie. Perhaps there is only one great American story. If this is so then it was inevitable that Tarantino rewrote The Great Gatsby.
Many thanks to Oisín and Fiacha Heneghan and Vassia Pavlogianis for comments on earlier drafts – and even if they remain unconvinced, some of their insights have been incorporated into this version. I found Adam Kotsko's review of Django Unchained interesting and helpful, especially his analysis of Django's automatic knowledge (see that here).