"Broken Up Like Glass"
We express our goals in lists, numbering our aspirations, checking off blank boxes once satisfied with the outcomes of our efforts. Yet we rarely bullet-point dreams, and almost never cross them off, pronouncing them achieved. Generally, we perceive dreams as distant and unquantifiable, unreachable through the simplistic plans of action used to reach our goals.
Nevertheless, ambition sometimes overtakes the patient acceptance of a dream’s intangibility. Dreams become palpable, step-by-step processes, with timetables attached to the attainment of lifelong happiness. In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby’s love of the wealthy Daisy Buchanan – a now-married woman from an old romance of his youth – becomes his idealized dream, and finding a perfect future with Daisy dominates every aspect of his life for five years. He decorates his house, throws parties, and reshapes his identity in hopes of finding and keeping her, as if winning her solidifies his success and contentment. The strength of Gatsby’s desire blinds him to time, as it passes and crumbles the possibility of his dream’s realization.
Time erodes the image of perfection that has permeated the purpose of his existence, eroding the meaning of Gatsby’s life as well. For five years, he envisioned Daisy’s presence as the final box to check off on his journey to complete happiness. When Daisy Buchanan finally enters his home, however, she transforms from an idea across the harbor into a harbinger of truth, exposing him to the insuperable obstacles that reality entails. Her lack of immunity to time propels him into the present, where he inevitably sees his dream shattered, and with it, his life’s purpose. F. Scott Fitzgerald chooses to couple Gatsby’s emotional demise with an untimely death, murdering the character physically to represent his internal tragedy.
More than ten years after the publication of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald explores an alternative path for Gatsby’s life in an essay called “The Crack-Up”, in which a narrator with vaguer, yet similarly ambitious dreams sees his hope crushed at a young age. In the essay, the narrator describes his long-lasting dejection and progressive decay, foiling Gatsby’s death immediately after he meets despair. In his essay “The Crack-Up”, F. Scott Fitzgerald crafts a character whose story parallels Jay Gatsby’s premature fall from the greatness and the hope of youth, yet the essay’s gradually deteriorating narrator provides a contrast to the sudden shattering of purpose, identity, and life that The Great Gatsby’s eponymous character experiences. The similarities between Jay Gatsby and the anonymous narrator’s inner destruction stem from the qualities they share before their losses of pride.
The narrator of “The Crack-Up” praises a man who can “see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise” (1). He describes his personal successes as a young adult despite unfavorable circumstances, which uphold his belief in hope. Like the narrator, Gatsby ignores the boundaries of probability, reconstructing his life to pursue his wishes rather than accepting his limitations. When he meets Daisy Buchanan, immediately infatuated, he recognizes his flaws that reduce their chances at a permanent relationship. Gatsby understands, “However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past,” but instead of surrendering to his status and relinquishing his desires, Gatsby changes himself (Gatsby 149). Each alteration to his character for the next five years advances him forward on the road to a blissful life, a path, not subject to the weathering of time, with Daisy standing at a clearing towards the end.
With unfaltering beliefs in their power to transcend impediments to success, Gatsby and the narrator of “The Crack-Up” exemplify the youthful definition of greatness as the capacity to conquer obstacles simply by overlooking them. Young and invigorated with determination, Gatsby disregards the possibility of failure and wholeheartedly commits himself to winning Daisy’s love and the ultimate success she represents. The Great Gatsby’s epigraph, a quote credited to the fictional Thomas Parke D’invilliers1, eloquently expresses Gatsby’s guiding philosophy during his five-year quest for Daisy: “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; / If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, / Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, / I must have you!” Fitzgerald’s striking choice to construct his own epigraph, rather than adhering to custom and quoting a well-known author, indicates the significance and profundity of the themes Fitzgerald emphasizes in the verses. Gatsby puts on the “gold hat” and aims to climb higher, in the hopes that Daisy will find him if he looms grandly in the sky. He ignores laws and morality to become wealthy, moves to the East Coast, and adopts the upper-class persona of a lavish party host, convinced that eventually, his efforts will draw Daisy through his doorway. Fitzgerald revisits the core ideas embodied in the epigraph through his overview of the narrator’s life in “The Crack-Up.
” The narrator recounts his youth with the benefit of retrospect, now recognizing the futility of his pursuits of success. He admits to once believing, “The ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it down to earth at last” (“The Crack-Up”, 2). Acknowledging his endeavors as “nothingness” portrays the narrator as more sensible than Gatsby, yet the narrator reflects on the past ten years with the power of hindsight, a power that the structural setup of Gatsby eliminates. Just as Gatsby confidently remodels himself, certain that he will soon fulfill his dreams, the narrator initially views himself as limitless, easily navigating through struggles and unceasingly reaching his targets. Only ten years later does he notice the forces stronger than himself that render his efforts worthless. At the end of the essay, the narrator confesses that the greatness for which he resolutely strived cannot be gained regardless of his attempts, nor if he patiently “wait[s] around for a thousand years with the tin cup of self-pity” (“The Crack-Up”, 4).
Acceptance quietly engulfs the narrator, but Gatsby remains unconscious of his inevitable future until he suddenly, devastatingly collides with reality. In Gatsby’s fantasies, his actions build up to Daisy’s arrival, which inherently entails a rekindling of their love. The green light on the Buchanans’ dock embodies his impending success, a success that will be solidified when Daisy crosses the harbor, allowing Gatsby to cross off physical proximity on his mental list of steps towards fulfilling his dreams. Yet when Gatsby finally reunites with Daisy, he discovers that “the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever […
] his count of enchanted objects had diminished by one” (Gatsby, 93). In Gatsby’s controlled, meticulously organized plan to win Daisy’s love, the green light embodies Daisy as an object, something easily found and controllable. Yet unlike the light, the real Daisy does not remain in a fixed position throughout time. The magical stigma attached to Daisy’s physical presence stems from Gatsby’s belief that she will automatically abandon her present life to return to their past together. Losing the light’s significance corresponds to Gatsby’s ultimate disillusionment when he loses control of his plan, a plan that now depends on Daisy’s real emotions rather than Gatsby’s assumptions.
Gatsby suppresses his disappointing realization for as long as possible, but the complications of the present soon surround him with the truth, ultimately forcing him to acknowledge it. During his first conversation with Daisy, Fitzgerald conveys heightened drama when Gatsby overreacts to leaning against a clock on a mantelpiece. Fitzgerald creates an uncomfortable situation in which the characters “believed for a moment that [the clock] had smashed in pieces on the floor” (87). As Gatsby spends more time with Daisy, the motif of clocks and time recurs, embodying the unforeseen obstacles that complicate Gatsby’s dream. Most notably, he meets the Buchanan’s daughter, and as he “look[s] at the child with surprise,” he feels shocked and betrayed by her existence. (117).
As Gatsby gets more glimpses into Daisy’s established married life, he soon accepts his unbearable pain. He fires his servants and no longer hosts elaborate festivities, essentially killing the vibrant character that he created to win Daisy’s love. When he recognizes that Daisy occupies a reality incompatible with his desires, Fitzgerald writes that “‘Jay Gatsby’ had broken up like glass” (148). Although Gatsby hopes that a reunion with Daisy transcends the destructive power of time, he soon sees that his love did not overpower the ticking clock. Rather, the force of time crumbled his dreams, and with them, all meaning in his life. “The Crack-Up”‘s narrator experiences the same dejection and loss of purpose, but in his case, “The realization of having cracked was not simultaneous with a blow, but with a reprieve” (“The Crack-Up”, 2).
The fundamental difference between the essay’s narrator and Gatsby lies at the crux of this statement. Gatsby shatters suddenly when unblinded to the impact of time, while the narrator gradually notices the lack of invincibility that he could not perceive during youth. In his submission to reality, he feels the same piercing brokenness as Gatsby, describing it as “another sort of blow that comes from within – that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again,” (1). Youth covers the harsh truth of imperfection and unbeatable circumstances. In “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald chooses to slowly unmask his narrator to his deficiencies, while he suddenly tears Gatsby’s illusion into pieces, leaving both men in states of worthlessness.
When Gatsby confronts his powerlessness to attain his dream, he abandons his sense of purpose, a loss that Fitzgerald couples with a tragic physical death, dramatizing Gatsby’s fall from greatness. A day after Gatsby abandons his pursuit of Daisy, Fitzgerald writes, “Gatsby must have felt that he had lost the old warm word, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about . . .
like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees” (Gatsby 161). The imagery of Gatsby’s dejection in a world stripped of meaning conveys his internal brokenness. Daisy dominated his perception of the universe, distorting the lens through which Gatsby viewed every aspect of the world. Even the most basic elements of life seem foreign and harsh, indicating the intensity of his commitment to Daisy for the past five years. His sole and undying devotion to one grand achievement leads to his destruction.
Fitzgerald concludes Gatsby’s inner disintegration with his murder, magnifying the connection between excessive resoluteness and personal demise. Gatsby’s acknowledgement of a world without an objective to pursue subtly transitions into the approach of his killer. Fitzgerald’s thrilling and seamless tie between emotional and physical death amplifies the devastation caused by Gatsby’s confidence in his capacity to overcome time. Fitzgerald revisits internal despair as a consequence of unrealistic aspirations in “The Crack-Up,” but the essay’s narrator continues to physically live long after his hope shatters. By writing “The Crack-Up,” Fitzgerald explores the emotions that Gatsby would have endured in the future if he continued his aimless life.
The essay’s narrator explains, “Now a man can crack in many ways – can crack in the head, in which case the power of decision is taken […] by others; or in the body, when one can but submit to the white hospital world; or in the nerves,” (“The Crack-Up, 2). In Gatsby, Fitzgerald cracks his character in the first way, leading to a sudden and total downfall. Gatsby does not choose to physically end his life, yet the alternative path examined in “The Crack-Up” shows that people like Gatsby – men who recognize the futility of their youthful ambitions – will have lives devoid of meaning, regardless of their lengths.
“The Crack-Up” concludes with a Bible quote that embodies the worthlessness Gatsby experiences immediately before his death, the same worthlessness that the essay’s narrator withstands for the rest of his life: “Ye are the salt of the earth. But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” (Matthew 5:13) When Gatsby and “The Crack-Up”‘s narrator lose the dreams that propel them through each day, all substance in their lives disappears. Gatsby only briefly experiences a purposeless world, simultaneously losing hope and life, yet Fitzgerald later develops a protagonist who long endures the same disillusionment, waiting for his body to perish with his ambition. In an instant, Gatsby plunges into emptiness, while “The Crack-Up”‘s narrator slowly stumbles from his youthful hope and determination into lifelong disappointment. In his essay, Fitzgerald reevaluates the fall from greatness that he established in Gatsby ten years prior.
He explores the life that Gatsby would experience if a bullet did not physically destroy him, but rather, reality continued to internally crush him for years. Fitzgerald associates the severity of the characters’ descents into meaninglessness with the extremity of their perceived invincibilities during their youths. Exclusively pursuing one dream and ignoring the obstacles to its achievement leads to disillusion, as the end of youth will inevitably uncover a reality that conflicts with the dreams’ attainment. When time unmasks the truth, whether gradually or suddenly, it shatters lives rooted in solitary and impossible goals, pulling down the ambitious and hopeful who construct their lives around the fulfillment of such dreams.