The Great Gatsby, Race, and Passing

Like most people in the class, I’ve read The Great Gatsby several times, both for class and on my own.  Gatsby is one of those novels that doesn’t get old to me, and I think that’s due in part to the different ways each part of the novel can be interpreted, and how I notice something new each time I read it.  Not long after the Baz Luhrman adaptation of the novel came out, I saw a theory floating around that Jay Gatsby could be read as a black man passing as a white man, and I thought that theory was pretty interesting and did some more research on it.  I think reading the novel with that interpretation in mind brings a whole new narrative out.

The article I’m referencing was published in 2000, thirteen years before the newest adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby was released.  Professor Carlyle V. Thompson argues that Gatsby was indeed black, specifically that “‘Fitzgerald characterizes Jay Gatsby as a pale black individual passing as white.'”  There are clues throughout the novel that allude to Gatsby’s race, including his name change from Gatz to Gatsby, much like freed slaves changed their names to give themselves a new beginning.  There are also mentions that Gatsby’s family is dead, which according to Thompson references that “‘those light-skinned black individuals who pass for white become symbolically dead to their families'”, suggesting that perhaps Jay Gatsby had done the same.

As of 2000, Thompson hadn’t yet run the theory by Fitzgerald scholars for fear of them being offended, but I think this reading is entirely plausible and actually brings a whole new level of depth to the novel.  Instead of having Gatsby pine over Daisy because she’s something he can’t have, we would have the barrier of race dividing the two.  Issues of classicism would still be present, but there would also be the issue of intersectionality; Gatsby is rich, but he is also black.  Which would he be primarily judged as by high society?  It raises a lot of questions that I think would have given the novel even more to look at than there already is.

I couldn’t find anything about the theory being debated by Fitzgerald scholars, but I still think it’s an interesting way of looking at the novel.  Either way, Gatsby is full of details to latch onto and analyze, no matter how many times you’ve read it.

One Response to The Great Gatsby, Race, and Passing

  1. Prof VZ March 4, 2015 at 7:59 pm #

    Yes, it is certainly interesting. If nothing else, Gatsby “passes” in the sense that he partakes in a broader identity fluidity that marks American Identity, whether it has to do with class, gender, or race. So many of the novels and authors we’ve read have moments that one might discuss as a sort of passing: Cather’s use of a male narrator to describe experiences very close to her own biography (or Cather’s own passing as a male earlier in life); Lily Bart’s attempt to pass into high society; and of course the three main characters we encounter in “passing.” But viewing Gatsby as a literal passing figure does offer an interesting commentary (or critique) of the desire to pass for white: Daisy, with her “white childhood,” and the sense of light and whiteness that often attends descriptions of her, seems in that sense to symbolize some illusive and unattainable (and false) ideal. As Nick says of her voice: it was just made of money.

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