Biological undercurrents in Fitzgerald's Gatsby and other works

A reader sent a copy of a paper mentioned in my earlier post on Fitzgerald. Here are some excerpts (continue reading):

Journal of American Studies (1998), 32:399-420 Cambridge University Press

“His Mind Aglow”: The Biological Undercurrent in Fitzgerald's Gatsby and Other Works

BERT BENDER Professor a1
a1 Department of English, Arizona State University, PO Box 870302, Tempe, Arizona 85287-0302, USA


They talked until three, from biology to organized religion, and when Amory crept shivering into bed it was with his mind aglow…

(Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise)

Readers familiar with F. Scott Fitzgerald's early work might recall that in those years just before the Scopes trial he wrote of Victorians who “shuddered when they found what Mr. Darwin was about”; or that he joined in the fashionable comic attacks on people who could not accept their “most animal existence,” describing one such character as “a hairless ape with two dozen tricks.” But few would guess the extent to which his interest in evolutionary biology shaped his work. He was particularly concerned with three interrelated biological problems: (1) the question of eugenics as a possible solution to civilization's many ills, (2) the linked principles of accident and heredity (as he understood these through the lens of Ernst Haeckel's biogenetic law), and (3) the revolutionary theory of sexual selection that Darwin had presented in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). As I hope to show in the following pages, his concern with these issues underlies such well-known features in the Fitzgerald landscape as his insecurity in the “social hierarchy” (his sense of its “terrifying fluidity”), his emphasis on the element of time, his interest in “the musk of money,” his interest in Spengler and the naturalists, and his negative portraiture of male violence. The principles of eugenics, accidental heredity, and sexual selection flow together as the prevailing undercurrent in most of Fitzgerald's work before and after The Great Gatsby, producing more anxiety than love from the tangled courtships of characters he deemed both beautiful and damned.

[. . .]

By his second year at Princeton (in 1914), before he began to read the naturalists, Fitzgerald had taken in enough of the evolutionary view of life to see its relevance to the most fascinating subject for any youth of eighteen ± sex. In ``Love or Eugenics'' he playfully wondered whether young men are most attracted by women of vigorous stock, with ``plenty of muscle, } And Avoirdupois to spare, '' or by modern flappers who know the value of ``good cosmetics.'' But Fitzgerald grew a good deal more serious about the biology of sex before he left Princeton in 1917. In the scene from This Side of Paradise in which Amory and his friend Burne Holiday talked about biology until Amory's mind was ``aglow,'' the two came naturally to the question that gave eugenics its pressing relevance, the idea that ``The light-haired man is a higher type, '' as Burne puts it (128). [. . .]

Since Fitzgerald referred to Haeckel's ``biogenetic law'' and, as a reviewer, complained of another writer's ``undigested Haeckel,'' it will be worth considering what he seems to have gathered from his own copy of Haeckel's The Riddle of the Universe at the Close of the Nineteenth Century (1900).) Although Fitzgerald's critics have never discussed it, The Riddle of the Universe is much more reliable in suggesting the outlines of Fitzgerald's thought than is the text most frequently cited in this regard, Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (even though it did not appear in English until 1926). In a way, the books are similar in providing different but sweeping senses of destiny : Spengler's in his advocacy of ``Goethe's form-fulfillment'' as destiny (rather than Darwin's causality), and Haeckel's in his closing with Goethe's lines : ``By eternal laws / Of iron ruled, / Must all fulfil / The cycle of / Their destiny. ''*

But, in general, Haeckel's book does much more to bring together the two subjects about which Amory and Burne talked until their minds glowed in This Side of Paradise ± ``biology'' and ``organized religion. '' The Riddle of the Universe deals with many of the key biological terms that figure in Fitzgerald's work before, in, and after Gatsby ± like accident, egg, descended, specimen, instinct, struggle, adaptation, selection, extinction, and the name of Darwin, himself, whom Haeckel praises as `` the Copernicus of the organic world. ''"! But Haeckel's particular attraction for Fitzgerald lay in his solution to the `` riddle '' of man's `` place in nature'' by explaining the related principles of accident, heredity, and selection (62).

Of these three, Haeckel emphasizes the role of heredity, advancing it in a larger context that dispenses with the `` superstition '' or ``primitive '' religion of revelation. Yet he explains ``the embryology of the soul '' and calls for a ``new monistic religion, '' `` scientific '' and `` realistic, '' that will be revealed in ``the wonderful temple of nature'' (chs. 8 and 19; p. 382). None of this pertaining to the soul or the ``new monistic religion '' resembles anything that I know of in Fitzgerald, but Fitzgerald certainly seems attuned to Haeckel's criticism of primitive Christianity (which he would have especially appreciated after reading Harold Frederic's examination of it in The Damnation of Theron Ware, one of his favorite books); and in Gatsby, especially, he emphasizes the role of accident in ways that suggest that he was quite familiar with Haeckel's (and, ultimately, Darwin's) discussion of it. Haeckel, going well beyond Darwin's point about chance or accidental variation, insists that `` all individual forms of existence are but special transitory forms ± accidents or modes ± of substance'' : ``nowhere in the evolution of animals and plants do we find any trace of design, but merely the inevitable outcome of the struggle for existence, the blind controller, instead of the provident God, that effects the changes of organic forms by a mutual action of the laws of heredity and adaptation '' (216, 268±69). [. . .]

As a story of modern love, Gatsby is squarely within the tradition of American fiction that began to appropriate Darwin's theory of sexual selection immediately after The Descent of Man, beginning with W. D. Howells's A Chance Acquaintance (1873)." This is not to suggest that Fitzgerald had Howells particularly in mind, but he depicted Gatsby and Daisy in this way as they leave together after the confrontation between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan: ``They were gone, without a word, snapped out, made accidental, isolated like ghosts even from our pity '' (142). Rather than Howells, the American writers most on Fitzgerald's mind during these years were Frederic, Dreiser, Frank and Charles Norris, and Wharton ± to name only a few who were quite self-consciously engaged in critiquing ``love'' from their various biological points of view. But, again, it would seem that the most immediate theoretical support for Fitzgerald's own critique of love was The Riddle of the Universe, where Haeckel refers to Darwin's theory of sexual selection. Here, writing of the ``eros '' or ``powerful impulse that leads to nuptial union,'' Haeckel emphasizes: ``the essential point in this physiological process is not the `embrace,' as was formerly supposed, or the amorousness connected therewith; it is simply the introduction of the spermatozoa into the vagina'' (138-39).

Such remarks provide the kind of biological insight into modern love that caused many characters in American fiction at around the turn of the century to question ``love'' and motherhood as Edna Pontellier did in The Awakening. [. . .] In This Side of Paradise similar insights provoke Amory's agonizing questions, ``How'll I fit in? What am I for ? To propagate the race ? '' (215). And they lead his friend Eleanor to complain of the `` rotten, rotten old world'' where she remains `` tied to the sinking ship of future matrimony.''" Then, voicing Fitzgerald's sense that the struggle of sexual selection is far more disturbing than what the Freudian craze had suggested in its apparent invitation to promiscuity, she remarks: ``I'm hipped on Freud and all that, but it's rotten that every bit of real love in the world is ninety-nine per cent passion and one little soup├žon of jealousy. '' Amory (already depressed about his purpose in life as a male) agrees that this `` rather unpleasant overpowering force [is] part of the machinery under everything'' (238).

[. . .] there is a final important point ± the essential point ± to make about Fitzgerald's interest in The Riddle of the Universe. Everything is determined by the accident of heredity ± ``the soul-blending at the moment of conception [when] only the latent forces of the two parent souls are transmitted by the coalescence of the erotic cell-nuclei '' (142). Intent on showing his theory's `` far-reaching consequences'' regarding ``our great question'' of man's place in nature, Haeckel notes that ``the human ovum, like that of all other animals, is a single cell, and this tiny globular egg cell (about the 120th of an inch in diameter) has just the same characteristic appearance as that of all other viviparous organisms'' (62). Thus Haeckel concludes not only that the ``law of biogeny'' demonstrates our heritage back through ``the ape'' and all the ``higher vertebrates '' to ``our primitive fish-ancestors, '' but that it `` destroy[s] the myth of the immortality of the soul '' (65, 138). For Fitzgerald, though, Haeckel's conclusion that ``each personality owes its bodily and spiritual qualities to both parents'' raises questions not only about man's place in the universe, but in the social hierarchy; for it demonstrates ± as `` in the reigning dynasties and in old families of the nobility '' ± that all individuals are held `` in the chain of generations'' (138, 143).

[. . .] Aside from the East and West Egg material, he includes two other odd but meaningful scenes. In the first, sitting in the New York apartment where Tom Buchanan meets with Myrtle Wilson, Nick notes that ``the only picture was an over-enlarged photograph, apparently a hen sitting on a blurred rock. Looked at from a distance however the hen resolved itself into a bonnet and the countenance of a stout old lady beamed down into the room'' (33). Moments later Nick realized that it was a ``dim enlargement'' of Myrtle's mother that ``hovered like an ectoplasm on the wall '' (34). ``Ectoplasm'' is a succinct comment on Myrtle Wilson's place in the social and evolutionary hierarchies, its two meanings (according to the Random House Dictionary) being (1) ``the outer portion of the cytoplasm of a cell, '' and (2) ``the supposed emanation from the body of a medium.'' According to Haeckel, ``the skin layer, or ectoderm, is the primitive psychic organ in the metazoa the tissue-soul in its simplest form'' (160).

The other ``egg'' scene in The Great Gatsby serves to gloss the well-known passage in which Tom Buchanan exclaims `` violently '' that `` `The Rise of the Coloured Empires' by this man Goddard'' shows how `` Civilization's going to pieces '' (17). Fitzgerald seems to discredit Tom's belief that `` it's all scientific stuff; it's been proved'' (17) ; but, through Nick's observation as he and Gatsby enter the city, Fitzgerald suggests his own anxiety about the Rising Tide of Color. Crossing over the Queensboro Bridge, Nick sees ``a dead man'' pass `` in a hearse'' accompanied by friends with ``the tragic eyes and short upper lips of south-eastern Europe'' ; then ``a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry '' (my emphasis; 73). Nick's own anxiety is clear here when he stops laughing and thinks to himself, ``Anything can happen now that we've slid over this bridge'' ; ``Even Gatsby could happen, without any particular wonder,'' he concludes. But this is before Nick meets Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz, or learns that Gatsby's ``parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people [and that] his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all '' (104).

Gatsby's effort to create himself ± to spring ``from his Platonic conception of himself '' ± can only fail in the biological universe that Haeckel described (104). [. . .]

In The Beautiful and Damned beauty is simply part of the ``machinery under everything'' ± an engine of sexual selection ; and Fitzgerald identifies `` life '' itself as `` that sound out there, that ghastly reiterated female sound'' : `` active and snarling, '' it moves `` like a fly swarm'' (Beautiful and Damned 150, 260). In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald anoints both Daisy and Gatsby with the power of beauty, as I will explain below; but, in both their cases, as in the `` intense vitality '' of Myrtle Wilson (which contains no ``gleam of beauty''), the underlying force is simply `` life '' (35, 30). This is Fitzgerald's ultimate subject in The Great Gatsby: ``the full bellows of the earth [that was blowing] the frogs full of life '' at the moment on that evening in late spring when ``the silhouette of a moving cat '' drew Nick's eye to Gatsby for the first time (25). Later, when Nick leaves Daisy and Gatsby alone during her first visit to his house, he sees that they are ``possessed by intense life '' (102).

In the following section I explain how Fitzgerald dramatizes the process of sexual selection in the stories of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Daisy and Gatsby, Myrtle and George Wilson, and Nick and Jordan Baker. But it will help at this point to sketch in the main features and implications of the tangled web of conflicted life in which all the players exist. First, everyone is subject to the anxieties that arise in the general, unending struggle for life. In Fitzgerald's presentation of the evolutionary reality everything is subject to change: accidents happen at any moment, men and women must struggle to win and then keep their mates, the `` tide '' of ``lower'' racial groups is on the rise, and civilizations themselves rise and fall. Moreover, in the individual's development through life, according to Haeckel, his or her ``psychic activity '' is subject to the same pattern of progress and decline. In Haeckel's five stages of ``man's psychic activity, '' the ``new-born'' develops `` self-consciousness, '' the ``boy or girl '' awakens to ``the sexual instinct, '' ``the youth or maiden'' up to ``the time of sexual intercourse '' passes through ``the ` idealist ' period, '' the mature man and woman engage in ``the founding of families, '' and then `` involution sets in '' as the ``old man or woman'' experience ``degeneration. '' As Haeckel dismally concludes, ``Man's psychic life runs the same evolution ± upward progress, full maturity, and downward degeneration ± as every other vital activity in his organization '' (146±47). Rather in this key, Nick Carraway on his thirtieth birthday looks forward to only ``the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiam, thinning hair. '' Having just witnessed the disastrous confrontation between Gatsby, Tom, and Daisy, who ``loves'' them both, he remarks, ``So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight '' (143).

Second, in this universe of accident and change, every individual and every individual's ``house'' or line is fixed at the moment of conception ± as in ``the Carraway house,'' for example, `` in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name'' (184). And third, although people like Myrtle and Gatsby are not only free but compelled to enter the struggle of sexual selection (their only means of elevating themselves in the social and evolutionary hierarchies), they nor any other characters in Fitzgerald's fiction can break the bonds of what Haeckel calls ``the chain of generations'' (143). [. . .]

Whatever his sources, it is clear that Fitzgerald focused on the key principles of sexual selection that previous American novelists from Howells to Edith Wharton had depended upon in constructing their own plots of courtship and marriage. Seeing the process in general as he put it in This Side of Paradise, as the `` rather unpleasant overpowering force that's part of the machinery under everything'' (238), he emphasized the female's power to select the superior male, and the male's struggle to be selected. Both the male and female in Fitzgerald's fiction wield the power to attract, often through music or dance, the female through her physical beauty and the beauty of her voice, and the male through his strength or ornamental display. And like so many American novelists who had also worked with the Darwinian materials, Fitzgerald embraced Darwin's observation that civilized human beings select for wealth or social position. Also, as in Darwin and the many realist and naturalist novelists who took up his theory, the successful male is compelled to exhibit superior strength and to contest his strength with competing males in what Darwin called ``the law of battle '' for possession of the female. Finally, as part of a more recent development in literary interpretations of Darwin's theory, Fitzgerald was interested in (and considerably frightened by) the new woman's aggressive sexuality ± her occasional desire for more than one man and her recognition that she must engage in sometimes deadly competition with other females to win her man.

Working essentially with these points in The Great Gatsby, then, Fitzgerald constructed a plot with a fully natural ending: Gatsby fails in his romantic quest and remains a ``poor son-of-a-bitch '' because he denies his genetic identity and ignores the laws of sexual selection. Moreover, while Tom Buchanan retains physical possession of Daisy, his hand covering hers in ``an unmistakable air of natural intimacy, '' he continues in his `` alert, aggressive way his head moving sharply here and there, adapting itself to his restless eyes. '' [. . .]

He is responsible not only for Daisy's ``black and blue'' knuckle in this scene, but also for another woman's broken arm (82), and he will go on to break Myrtle Wilson's nose (41). Ultimately, Fitzgerald's point is that Tom's brutal sexual power is alive in his ``house'' and that it is determinant in his struggles with both George Wilson over Myrtle and with Gatsby over Daisy. By contrast, no such force resides in Gatsby's fake `` ancestral home'' (162). [. . .]

Fitzgerald's plot is quite in accord with ``the fundamental principle of biology'' that he alluded to in The Beautiful and Damned, the ``ontogenic fact '' that in the `` tiny globular egg cell '' one is already bound within ``the chain of generations'' (Haeckel 63, 62, 143). Representing a different `` strata '' from Daisy's, Gatsby ``had no real right to touch her hand'' ; and when she saw his ``huge incoherent failure of a house,'' it simply fell `` in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes '' (156, 188, 120). For such reasons Fitzgerald suggests in his closing paragraphs that there never has been a ``new world,'' only the ``old unknown world. '' The `` fresh, green breast of the new world pandered in whispers'' to the first sailors, compelling their unwanted `` aesthetic contemplation'' ; and beauty is still part of the ``machinery under everything'' that derives us toward an `` orgastic future '' (189). ``The essential point, '' as Haeckel remarked, `` is not the `embrace' or the amorousness connected therewith; it is simply the introduction of the spermatozoa into the vagina'' (139). Thus the imagined ``pap of life '' at which Gatsby would ``gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder'' is destroyed by the `` accident, '' and by the grotesque reality of Myrtle's `` left breast swinging loose like a flap'' (117, 145).


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