The Great Gatsby and Technocriticism

Note: I think I wrote the wrong blog assignment, forgive me!

While The Great Gatsby is often viewed in many other different lenses of criticism such as focusing on the idea of the American Dream or how the women are depicted within the novel, there is usually little in the way of technology that is mentioned when the novel is discussed. When focusing on this aspect however we can certainly notice various aspects of the text when technology plays an important role, at the very least when serving as literary devices.

One of the first technologies we might notice throughout the novel would be that of light. Everything is lit up and Gatsby’s house is once described by Nick as appearing like the World’s Fair. There are also the memorable scenes of Gatsby staring off across the waters at the green light at the end of the dock.

What I decided to focus on, however, is the prominence of cars in the novel. Specifically, in chapter 8. Here is the scene in which Tom takes Gatsby’s car after an argument about the amount of gas in his tank. In this scene not only is the car a dominant feature, but gasoline as well as commercialism and advertisement. We can also perhaps notice how drug stores might have been that day’s Wal-Marts: “And if it runs out I can stop at a drug store. You can buy anything at a drug store nowadays.” (p 127)

(As a sort of aside, Tom mentions science in an interestingly strange way, “Perhaps I am, but I have a- almost a second sight, sometimes, that tells me what to do. Maybe you don’t believe that, but science-” [p 128])

The second moment in this chapter I found very significant toward a technocriticism of the novel is when Nick spots Eckleburg’s billboard: “Then as Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’s faded eyes came into sight down the road, I remembered Gatsby’s caution about gasoline.”

In a strange sort of way, Nick is influenced by an advertisement for eye-glasses to remember to buy gas (might have thought of it simply because maybe they really did need gas).  This is also the chapter in where Myrtle is run over. Before discussing this moment however, I want to point out two interesting quotes from Nick on p 143:

“I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade.”

“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”

Now comes the big moment of the chapter: Myrtle’s death. The car is the vital instrument in not only her death, but indirectly Gatsby’s as well.

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Edward Hoppers "Nighthawks" (1942)

A famous painting commonly seen today.

When first looking on the painting by Hopper, it seems very calm. Though as we take a much closer and prolonged look at the painting we begin to feel other emotions as well. One of the first things someone might notice is the light being emitted from within “Phillies”. The only light source within the painting is what’s coming from inside the cafe/diner and it casts shadows on the streets outside. Here is another thing the viewer might notice, the lack of any trees or vegetation or life other than the four people inside Phillies. One man working behind the counter and three patrons, two of which are male. One female and three men. Now we can pay a little more attention to the people.

There is one man sitting by himself in a blue suit and a gray fedora.

Man sitting by himself.

Since he is sitting by himself and quite a distance away from the other two patrons, we can assume they’re not part of the same group. This man is also sitting with his back to the viewer and is the only face we don’t see, so we can’t exactly tell what his mood might possibly be so we’re left with the fact that he’s sitting by himself and looking downward at a cup of coffee or something. He could very well be the man from Hemmingway’s short story that tried killing himself.

Next are the man and the woman.

Man and Woman

The man in the suit and the woman in red.

At first glance we might assume that these two are a couple of some sort, but by picking up from subtle hints we can also assume that they’re in some sort of affair. Why an affair you ask? Well for one we can see both of the woman’s hands and neither have a ring, as far as we can tell. If she were married, there’d be some sign of a ring on her left hand, which there isn’t. As for the man, his left hand is hidden, probably for good reason (cheating and all). Perhaps they’re genuinely a couple, however. But we also see the woman is wearing red (typical archetype for a woman of that caliber) and if we reach into older literary beliefs we can judge her by the people around her and her hair. If we follow Swift’s beliefs, red hair can be associated with being “highly sexed”.  There’s also the fact that she’s the only woman in the scene, surrounded by three other men. A harlot if I ever saw one! A ghoulish looking one, too.

In a totally random tangent we can also assume that they’re possibly secret agents trading information. What is the man hiding in his left hand? What’s that green stick the woman is holding?

Now we come to the man working behind the counter.

Phillies Employee

The man behind the counter.

At least on the two other men depicted in the painting we see their right hands only, as for this man we can see neither of his hands (perhaps he’s taking a rifle out to shoot the ghoulish looking woman). This can easily be dismissed as more of his preparing of a drink or something of the sort than anything the artist was trying to convey about his character. We can also determine that the man behind the counter is having a conversation with the man in the black suit (sitting with the woman) so maybe they’re talking about the lonely patron as the two waiters were speaking of the old, drunk man in A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

Now if we take the painting as a whole, while keeping Hemingway’s short story in mind (even if one simply knows the title of the tale), we can see that the scene is indeed clean, especially the counter/bar area and that Phillies is well-lighted. It is a night scene, so we can even make a correlation between the first paragraph of narrative and the painting: “In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust…” There is an eerie sort of clarity in every aspect of the painting. With a high enough resolution image (like the one posted above) we can zoom in on the title of the bar/cafe/place. Scanning from left to right we notice a cigars that are only 5 cents, Phillies, and part of a word which we can safely assume says America’s, and connecting it with the words below/next to it: America’s No 1 Cafe.” Other than that and the artist’s signature in the lower right corner of the painting, there is no other text and indeed every surface of the painting is extremely bare and plain.

The viewer is left with several questions: What sort of store is it in the background? What’s that fuzzy yellow-orange shape in the window on the second floor of the building? Why is the man turned away from us? Why is that woman so hideous looking?

After those rambling moments of analysis, what does this all mean? Why only have extremely urban and modern elements in the painting? Perhaps what the artist is trying to convey is the disconnect between people in this new age. The man sitting by himself, not interacting with the other three. The man having a conversation with the man behind the counter might be interacting, but might only be ordering something. Nevertheless they are still seperated by a counter and their difference in clothing. One obviously a worker, the other one, dare I say, blue collar (literally, he’s wearing a blue collared shirt…take a look). The female seems the most disconnected staring at something in her hands, possibly green, not paying mind to anything around herself.

Despite the painting being from the 40’s, there are still elements to be seen today, especially in the form of parodies:

The Jungle (where there is no fun or games)

While the text itself is heavily wrought with scenes not for the faint of heart, one that was particularly striking is in the very beginning of chapter IV. On pg 43, when Jurgis is waiting to work at his new job, it describes the conditions of the killing floor he’s working on:

“He was provided with a stiff besom…and it was his place to follow down the line the man who drew out the smoking entrails from the carcass of the steer;…It was a sweltering day in July, and the place ran with steaming hot blood-one waded in it on the floor. The stench was almost overpowering, but to Jurgis it was nothing.”

The conditions of the first industrial institutions such as slaughterhouses were always told to us to be poor during our high school educations. One was mainly focused on, however, would be children being put to work or people being maimed with all the machinery. Eventually we’d be told about things like the Triangle Factory fire in 1911. The descriptions Sinclair uses are extremely vivid and gory. “Steaming hot blood” is certainly a descriptor I won’t soon forget, but the fact that you had to “wade” through it is that much more powerful. While these detailed scenes are violent, there is of course the other hideous side behind the novel. I now refer to the sentences following the aforementioned quote:

“His whole soul was dancing with joy– he was at work at last!! He was at work and earning money! All day long he was figuring to himself. He was paid the fabulous sum of seventeen and a half cents an hour; and as it proved a rush day and he worked until nearly seven o’clock in the evening, he went home to the family with the tidings he had earned…”

The fact that Jurgis is moved so despite his conditions attests to the effect of industrialization on factory workers. Despite wading through blood, is able to be extremely happy because of one single fact: he was making money. His ambitions and joys are reduced down to the fact that no matter what he’s able to make money. And why not be happy? With money he can provide for his family and be that much closer to his precious American Dream, but at what cost? Is his humanity being forsaken for the sake of earning money in his pursuit of the American Dream?

Despite the time period in which The Jungle is set, this idea of sacrifice for the sake of the American Dream is still an idea that’s active today. In the movie Fast Food Nation, party of the story involves a Mexican couple crossing the border in pursuit of this fabled American Dream. The husband ends up working in a slaughterhouse, where he is involved in a terrible accident and can no longer work as a result of his injuries and is essentially discarded as being useful (he also doesn’t get any benefits).

Below are some examples of slaughterhouses in the early 20th century (some images may be distrubing!)

Assembly line of sausages being stuffed.

Not sure what part of the process this was.

Possibly a killing floor. What's in the cart the man on the left is pushing, I wonder?

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