Upon first reading there appears to be little to connect the narratives of The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes, two novels that for many came to define the literature of their respective nations in the twentieth century. The first can be considered the quintessential modern American novel set firmly in the dynamic urban world of wealth and conspicuous consumption, high finance and low corruption, resonant with the clamour of wailing jazz music and thundering motor cars. The second a tranquil idyll comfortably set deep in old rural France as yet untouched by modernity and soundtracked with birdsong, folk music and the slow clip clop of horses’ hooves.
However, on closer examination the reader may well be struck by the numerous similarities between these two great books, and may even become persuaded that the resemblance goes further and deeper than mere coincidence.
Le Grand Meaulnes was the only completed novel written by Alain-Fournier, and published in 1913 after a gestation period of seven years. Fournier showed great promise as a writer but was tragically killed in the very first weeks of the First World War, of which he once said, “This war is fine and great and just.” He was shot in the head leading his men in an attack against a German stronghold just seven weeks after the outbreak of hostilities, and less than two weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday. The same age, incidentally, that Fitzgerald was when he wrote Gatsby.
Alain-Fournier was himself a true romantic idealist, and the central theme of his book, Meaulnes’ doomed pursuit of his ideal love Yvonne de Galaise, was based on Fournier’s own fantasy love of Yvonne de Quievrecourt, a beautiful young aristocratic girl whom he met casually in Paris in the summer of 1905 when he was just nineteen years old. He had first seen her as he emerged from an exhibition at the Grand Palais just off the Champs-Elysées and followed her to an address on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. She quickly became his obsession and he returned frequently to the house hoping to get the opportunity to meet her. His persistence paid off some ten days later when he finally got to talk to her as they walked along by The Seine, but his hopes of romance were doomed from the start. They were both young and she was outside his social class. “What’s the use?” She said.
This is a situation that Fitzgerald would have recognised, and indeed with which he would have been in complete sympathy, from his own unrequited love for society belle Genevra King whom he had cast as the romantic heroine in many of his early stories, and also from his trouble filled courtship of Zelda Sayre, the daughter of a Southern Judge.
Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in the South of France in the summer of 1924. He and Zelda rented a villa in Valescure, just above St Raphael on the Riviera. At this time the summer was out of season so the rent was cheap, an important factor to the couple as they were broke, and Scott was already borrowing heavily from Scribners, his publisher, against the royalties of the novel he had yet to write. He also needed to escape the distracting influence of his friend and drinking partner Ring Lardner, and the rest of the Great Neck crowd from Long Island.
But even in the South of France the pressures on Fitzgerald, both creatively and financially, were enormous. He was still spending money freely. The Fitzgeralds had fallen in with a wealthy circle of people, and it was not in Scott’s nature to shy away from prodigality in such company. In addition to this his reputation as a writer and celebrity were fading and he had written nothing of real substance for two or three years.
In a letter to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribners, before leaving Long Island in the spring of 1924, he wrote promising great things and asking for Perkins’ patient indulgence: “It is only in the last four months that I’ve realized how much I’ve, well, almost deteriorated in the three years since I finished The Beautiful and Damned. The last four months of course I’ve worked but in the two years – over two years – before that, I produced exactly one play, half a dozen short stories and three or four articles – an average of about one hundred words a day. If I’d spent this time reading or travelling or doing anything – even staying healthy – it’d be different, but I only spent it uselessly, neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally….So in my new novel I’m thrown directly on purely creative work – not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world. So I tread slowly and carefully and at times in considerable distress. This book will be a consciously artistic achievement and must depend on that as the first books did not.”
So it was that Fitzgerald committed himself wholeheartedly, and to some extent desperately, to writing the novel that was so vital in rekindling his career. As Zelda put it: “…Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy.”
The titles of the two novels, published a decade apart, were exactly similar, each rich with ironic undertones – a fact that appeared to have discomforted Fitzgerald. In numerous letters to Max Perkins, he was constantly trying to convince his editor that alternative titles were more effective. In letters dated between October ’24 and March ’25 he suggested Gold Hatted Gatsby, Trimalchio In West Egg, Trimalchio, On The Road To West Egg, The High-bouncing Lover, Gatsby, Under The Red, White and Blue, and Among Ash-heaps and Millionaires.
Throughout this bombardment Perkins stuck to his guns. The title would be The Great Gatsby, which was among Fitzgerald’s early suggestions and was the one Perkins preferred from the beginning. The alternative titles seem to us now almost ludicrous, but Fitzgerald appears to hold an inordinate desire that his book should not be called The Great Gatsby. It may be that he was already anticipating comparisons being drawn between the two books by critics who had previously raised an eyebrow at his literary borrowings.
In 1921 the critic Frances Newman described This Side Of Paradise as a ‘desecration’ of Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, an accusation that Fitzgerald defended by suggesting ‘that occasionally we may have drunk at the same springs.’ When writing a review of The Beautiful and Damned, Gilbert Seldes, the critic, suggests that Fitzgerald “had been running so closely on the heels of Edith Wharton’s recent novels that he had been skirting plagiarism.” And when Scott’s own wife, Zelda, reviewed the same book in the New York Tribune she accused the author of stealing passages from her own diaries and paraphrasing segments of her old letters. There was a good deal in the book, she said, that seemed vaguely familiar. “In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald… seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home”.
But the similarities between the two novels do not stop at the title page.
It is true that both novels employ a theme of the quest for a grail, which has appeared throughout literature from Parsifal to Moby Dick and Heart Of Darkness, so nothing particularly unusual there. But in the case both of Gatsby and Meaulnes the Holy Grail pursued by these particular protagonists is that of a lost innocence, and an obsessive desire to regain the past. Each of these young men pursues a romantic dream, something too perfect and almost wilfully unachievable in their eyes, but in the course of time they do indeed reach and take the object of their desire, and from that point attempt to reject this worldliness in which they find themselves and return to a time of purity, “a fresh green breast of the new world”.
Each novel is written from the point of view of an actively involved narrator. Both Francois Seurel in Meaulnes and Nick Carraway in Gatsby are directly influential, through their friendship with the hero, to the outcome of the book and not merely passive observers.
Equally both narrators, as close friends and confidants of the heroes of these stories, are given a rare and privileged insight into their hearts and souls. Given that the two principle characters are created as private and enigmatic individuals with a great degree of self-sufficiency, and about whom there is much curiosity and speculation, this is highly significant.
The two narrators each have their own story to tell, which, although completely separate, run parallel to that of the protagonist; and they each tell their story self-consciously as a written document. The reader is frequently reminded of this fact, as at the beginning of Gatsby we learn of “the man who gives his name to this book” and later, after relating some of Gatsby’s history Nick writes; “He told me all this very much later, but I’ve put it down here with the idea of exploding those first wild rumours about his antecedents, which weren’t even faintly true.” Towards the end of Le Grand Meaulnes, as Seurel is reading a journal kept by Meaulnes, he says “…I read the lines which explained so much and which I reproduce word for word…”
Much of the story they tell is as related to them by Gatsby or Meaulnes, so that we are given the protagonists view of events as well as the narrators, a convenient device for both writers to enable them to give personal insight from whichever perspective they choose. As Nick Carraway puts it: ‘I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’
Each narrator also takes pause in his narrative to recap on what he has written to date and express doubts about their literary abilities. Francois asks the question:
Have I told the story badly? At any rate it fails to produce the effect I expected.
Similarly Nick wonders whether he has given us an accurate account:
Reading over what I have written so far, I see I have given the impression that the events of three nights several weeks apart were all that absorbed me. On the contrary, they were merely casual events in a crowded summer…
It was not Fitzgerald’s original intention to write in the first person at all. He abandoned earlier drafts of the story which he wrote while still living on Long Island, although elements were to turn up in the short stories Absolution and Winter Dreams, both of which are written in the third person.
Whilst the characters of Nick and François are essentially bookish and studious, solid and dependable, so Gatsby and Meaulnes also share many qualities. They are both primarily romantic idealists given to impulsive adventure, but are equally capable of long bouts of maudlin self-pity. In addition they are seen by others as charismatic, enigmatic, and aloof, which leads to many inaccurate myths growing up around them, and causing them to become the object of much jealousy.
Our first encounters with these protagonists present quite striking visual tableau. François and Meaulnes have stepped into the schoolyard immediately after Meaulne’s arrival where the latter boy had, to François’ astonishment, lit a firework. We are then presented with an image from Madam Seurel’s point of view as “two great bouquets of red and white stars soar up from the ground with a hiss. And for the space of a second she could see me standing in a magical glow, holding the tall newcomer by the hand, and not flinching…” When Nick Carraway returns from an evening at Daisy’s house, at which Gatsby’s name is first mentioned, he is standing outside his house and becomes aware that he is “not alone – fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbour’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars.” And these visual devices present Meaulnes and Gatsby in a ready made aura of romantic possibility.
Their corresponding impulsive qualities are described in two pertinent episodes. When Meaulnes finds his classmates engaged in debate as to who might be given the duty of collecting François’ grandparents from the railway station he seizes his opportunity, skips class, ‘borrows’ a wagon and horse and sets off on an ill-conceived adventure that is to transform his life. Similarly, when the young Jimmy Gatz rows out to Dan Cody’s yacht to warn him of the dangerous changing winds he finds himself presented with the opportunity to completely change his fortunes. These central episodes were to lead the two young men, indirectly but ineluctably, on a path to meet the young girls who were to become the object of their obsessive romantic desiring.
Gatsby and Meaulnes are viewed by those people not intimately involved with them as being mysterious and enigmatic, subjects of much speculation and dramatic rumour, but privately they each reveal themselves to Nick and François in quite parallel moments of contrived confession to be fragile and insecure. In both instances the narrators find the candidness of the occasion almost embarrassingly comical.
But at the heart of each novel is the pursuit of a romantic ideal on the part of the principal characters, a dream of lost innocence and of a love that is impossibly perfect. A love that is chaste. But in each case, when they feel that this dream is within their grasp, their love is physically consummated and the ideal is lost with catastrophic results.
There are a number of symbols common to each book, and although Alain-Fournier was recognised as a symbolist writer Fitzgerald was certainly not. The books share a constant use of colour, as well as light and dark among their symbolist elements.
One of the most immediate and obvious of these is the green light. Augustine Meaulnes had accidentally stumbled upon “the mysterious domain” after setting off on a wild adventure and getting lost. Hiding in an upstairs room of the chateau he noted, “The window had been opened, and two green Chinese lanterns hung in the embrasure.” These were placed by two shadowy figures to guide Frantz, the heir to the domain, across “a vast frozen plain devoid of landmarks” to the place where he was to be married. In The Great Gatsby the green light appears serving an identical symbolic function. When Nick first sees Gatsby he is standing in the moonlight looking out across the bay: “Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been at the end of a dock.” In fact the dock was Daisy Buchanan’s, the girl Gatsby loved and the object of his obsessive quest. But to Gatsby the green light takes on a meaning of it’s own. It almost becomes the quest itself, his grail. When later Daisy has been reunited with Gatsby at his mansion:
“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay,” said Gatsby. “You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”
Daisy put her arm through his abruptly, but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.
Then, on the very last page, the green light takes its significant place in one of the finest closing passages in modern literature:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
When writing critical guides to The Great Gatsby essayists frequently draw comparisons with T S Elliott’s The Wasteland, usually with reference to “the valley of ashes”. The valley of ashes is “a desolate area of land” that must be negotiated by Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s faithless husband, in order that he might get to New York for his sordid liaison with his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who actually lives in this bleak place. In its own way “the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound” can be seen to perform a similar function. Long Island Sound is that stretch of water that separates Gatsby from Daisy. So both places represent a barrier between the lovers and the object of their desire, although for Gatsby it represents something much more romantic than the grotesque arena in which Tom seems quite comfortable.
In Le Grand Meaulnes we learn that Augustine has set off on an adventure but very soon becomes lost: “Then once more he was surrounded by a vast frozen plain devoid of landmarks”. He struggles on but without comfort: “In the whole of the Sologne it would have been hard to find a more desolate spot than the region in which he now found himself.” Eventually he comes upon a remote chateau in which, he is to discover, lives the beautiful, aristocratic Yvonne de Galais, with whom he will fall deeply in love. He finds shelter in the house, and, as mentioned earlier, his sleep is interrupted by two shadowy figures, one of whom says, “What’s the point of showing a light on a mere stretch of country – a desert as you might say?”
Thus we become aware that the wasteland is a symbol common to both books. This point is further reinforced later in Le Grand Meaulnes: “On one side of us is an expanse of waste land where the chateau and its outbuildings formally stood.”
The geographical settings for these books are not, however, completely devoid of any recognisable landmark. In Le Grand Mealnes, Seurel is sauntering along a country lane in the company of his friend, Jasmin Delouche and is given a clue as to the whereabouts of the lost domain:
As we approached the top of the hill where two great stones mark what was said to be the sight of an ancient fortress, he began to speak of estates he had visited and particularly of a more or less abandoned domain in the neighbourhood…
As Nick rents a small house on Long Island he describes two landmarks in particular:
…where there are, among other natural curiosities, two unusual formations of land. Twenty miles from the city a pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay, jut out into the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.
These ‘natural curiosities’ bear a striking resemblance to the stones in Alain-Fournier’s story that denote the proximity of the lost domain.
Each book features two parties in particular that are described in detail, and in both cases they are significant turning points in the narrative. The first party in Le Grand Meaulnes is seen through the eyes of Augustine after he has accidentally stumbled upon a remote chateau, following his disastrous adventure. The chateau is lavishly made up to look like ‘a palace en féte’ and populated largely by children and mild old folk, all in extravagant costumes, and apparently allowed to behave as they pleased.
Meaulnes had little trouble integrating as “The guests seemed hardly to know one another.” But not only did the guests not know each other, they seemed to know little of the person in whose honour the party was being given as Meaulnes overhears in snatches of conversation:
“Do you know her?” the older boy asked his comrade, an urchin with a round head and candid eyes.
“No, but my mother said she had a black dress and a muslin collar and looked like a pretty pierrot.”
“Who does?” asked Meaulnes.
“Why Frantz’s fiancée, of course…that he’s gone to fetch…”
When later Meaulnes inquired further:
“Is his fiancée as pretty as they say?”
They looked at him as if not knowing how to reply. No one but Frantz had seen the girl.
At Gatsby’s first party Nick: “…wandered around rather ill at ease among the swirls and eddies of people I didn’t know….” There were: “…introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names….” And the guests, as Nick discovers – again from overheard snippets – behave just as they like: ”I like to come,” Lucille said. “I never care what I do, so I always have a good time.”
But of the host little is known:
As soon as I arrived I made an attempt to find my host, but the two or three people of whom I asked his whereabouts stared at me in such an amazed way, and denied so vehemently any knowledge of his movements, that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table..
Later, as Nick is settling in he becomes surrounded by wild speculation about his host’s mysterious past: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.” and, “It’s more that he was a German spy during the war.”
But none of this lack of familiarity was allowed to get in the way of a good time. At the chateau Meaulnes was able to observe:
In the passages groups were forming for round dances and farandoles. Somewhere strings were playing a minuet…Meaulnes, his head half buried in the collar of his cloak which stood out like a ruff, was loosing all sense of identity. Infected by the gaiety he too joined in the pursuit of the pierrot through corridors that were now like the wings of a theatre where the spectacle has spilled over from the stage. And well into the night he was lost in the throng taking part in a joyous masquerade. He would open a door and find that a magic-lantern show was in progress, with children loudly clapping their hands…Or in a salon crowded with dancers he would get into conversation with some young fop and pick up hints about the costumes to be worn on the ensuing days…
The resemblance to Gatsby’s first party as attended by Nick, and seen through his eyes as a stranger, is undeniable. No expense is spared in making the house look extravagantly festive:
There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden; old men pushing young girls backwards in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably, and keeping in the corners – and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian, and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz, and between the numbers people were doing ‘stunts’ all over the garden, while happy, vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky.
Earlier the fun had been out on the bay:
I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam.
Back at the chateau the following day the fun moves to the lake, albeit of a slightly more genteel persuasion:
Other guests were now standing about under trees. Then three pleasure-boats came alongside to take on the passengers.
In deep silence they drew away from the shore. Nothing could be heard but the putt of the engine and the wash from the bows.
Earlier, inside the house, Meaulnes had been immersed in a deep and wonderfully peaceful contentment:
A piano was being played in an adjacent room. The door stood open, and out of curiosity Meaulnes went over to see who it was. He stood looking into a small drawing room. A young woman, or possibly a mere girl – her back was turned – a reddish-brown cloak over her shoulders, was playing softly some simple familiar airs or part songs. On a sofa near the piano six or seven small boys and girls sat as primly as children in a picture, listening and “being good” as children are when it is getting late…
To Nick Carraway’s eyes a similar scene had an altogether more decadent feel:
The large room was full of people. One of the girls in yellow was playing the piano, and beside her stood a tall, red-haired young lady from a famous chorus, engaged in song. She had drunk a quantity of champagne, and during the course of her song she had decided, ineptly, that everything was very, very sad – she was not only singing, she was weeping too….
“She had a fight with a man who says he’s her husband,” explained a girl at my elbow.
I looked around. Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.
As the two parties draw to a close there were scenes of drunkenness. In Le Grand Meaulnes Augustine observes:
But since this meal was after all the concluding feast in what should have been a wedding celebration, some of the more uncouth visitors, no doubt spurred on by wine, had burst into song. And as he made his way back Meaulnes heard vulgar songs desecrating a park which for two days had harboured much grace and many marvels. It was a portent of disintegration.
Now both events are developing this “portent of disintegration”, and each party, whilst magical at their height, end in scenes of pandemonium. In Le Grand Meaulnes Augustine is preparing to leave when he is faced with a tableau of chaos:
Under the window, out in the carriage yard, there was a scene of utter confusion. Pulling, pushing, and yelling, each man was intent on disengaging his own vehicle from the jam.
Similarly, as Nick is leaving Gatsby’s, he had bid his farewells to Jordan and Gatsby:
But as I walked down the steps I saw that the evening was not quite over. Fifty feet from the door a dozen headlights illuminated a bizarre and tumultuous scene. In the ditch beside the road, right side up, but violently shorn of one wheel, rested a new coupe which had just left Gatsby’s drive not two minutes before. The sharp jut of a wall accounted for the detachment of the wheel, which was now getting considerable attention from half a dozen curious chauffeurs. However, as they had left their cars blocking the road, a harsh, discordant din from those in the rear had been audible for some time, and added to the already violent confusion of the scene.
The second party in both books carried the promise of what should have been the realisation of all the romantic dreams of the two heroes, but that dream in each case turned sour. Nick Carraway, looking back on the occasion, explained his feelings thus:
…it stands out in my memory from Gatsby’s other parties that summer. There were the same people, or at least the same sort of people, the same profusion of champagne, the same many-coloured, many-keyed commotion, but I felt an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness that hadn’t been there before.
Francois Seurel recalled the events in a similar hue:
I can never recall that outing without an obscure feeling of regret and of constriction. I had so looked forward to it! Everything seemed to conspire towards a happy outcome. And so little happiness resulted…
After Daisy had left the second big party Gatsby was inconsolable. He kept
saying to Nick, “She didn’t like it. She didn’t have a good time.” Then Nick tries to console him:
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said,
nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
This famous passage so closely parallels a conversation between Augustine and Yvonne that was overheard by Francois at the end of the picnic party, when the two lovers have been reunited:
They did talk. But fatally, with an obstinacy of which he was certainly unaware, Meaulnes kept going back to the past and all its marvels. And at each evocation the tortured girl could only repeat that everything had vanished: the strange and complicated old house pulled down; the lake drained and filled in; the children and all their gay costumes dispersed…
In the course of a slightly later conversation Yvonne asks:
“…But can the past ever be revived?”
“Who knows?” said Meaulnes, thoughtfully.
The desire to relive the past is central to both narratives. Indeed to both Gatsby and Meaulnes happiness can only be found once everything is put back exactly as it was before. Despite the fact that they have each regained their lost loves, a true and perfect happiness cannot be attained unless it is formed in the image in which it was first perceived. It must be reconstructed out of an impossibly naive innocence.
Fitzgerald had explored the theme of repeating the past in a short story written earlier in the year, The Sensible Thing, which, like Gatsby, draws on Fitzgerald’s own experience when he first courted Zelda. In this story George O’Kelley has lost the love of society heiress Jonquil Cary because, as he sees it, he is too poor. When later his fortunes change he returns for her but reflects that something has been lost: “But for an instant as he kissed her he knew that…he could never recapture those lost April hours…There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.” Clearly something had persuaded him to change his views on the matter during the intervening months, after he had approached the novel ‘from a new angle’.
Gatsby is not satisfied that Daisy loves him, he wants her to say that she never loved Tom. Meaulnes is not content with being married to Yvonne, he needs to make it his destiny to see that her brother Franz and his fiancée, Valentine, are also reunited, as if in some fairy tale.
Meaulnes sees it thus:
“…Of course I should have liked to see Mademoiselle de Galais once more – just to see her…But I’m sure now that when I discovered the nameless domain I was at some peak of perfection, of purity, to which I shall never again attain. Only in death, as I once wrote you, can I expect to recapture the beauty of that moment…”
Nick’s resignation to the impossibility of the quest is captured in that final line:
‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
In the interim period after Meaulnes first meets Yvonne his time seems to be spent largely with a process of self-improvement in which he strives to establish himself as the dominant character in his immediate society, this even develops into open warfare with his classmates in which allegiances are made and unmade. But his new status would serve him well when reunited with his love. Gatsby undergoes a similar period of transformation after his initial relationship with Daisy, but the playful warfare of Meaulnes schooldays is transformed into the greater conflict of World War One in which Gatsby serves, followed by a spell at Oxford University.
The lovers have now become reunited, but in each instance it is the narrator himself who is the catalyst that brings them together. In The Great Gatsby the connection is first made on the evening that Nick is invited to supper at the home of his cousin Daisy. Here he meets the “self-sufficient” Jordan Baker:
“You live in West Egg,” she remarked contemptuously. “I know somebody there.”
“I don’t know a single –“
“You must know Gatsby.”
“Gatsby?” demanded Daisy. “What Gatsby?”
Later in the novel Nick has tea at the Plaza Hotel with Jordan Baker, and she tells him some of the background story of Daisy’s romance with Gatsby, before broaching the subject that Gatsby wants Nick to organize a meeting with Daisy at his house.
In Le Grand Meaulnes François discovers that Yvonne de Galais regularly visits his uncle’s general store (Nick Carraway’s family had a hardware business), and is a friend of his cousins. She calls on the store one day when François is holidaying there, and François and his uncle Florentin conspire to arrange a meeting between the two star-crossed lovers, a meeting which was to take the shape of a riverside picnic:
“By the way, François,” he added, as though he had just thought of it. “You might bring that friend of yours, Monsieur Meaulnes – that was the name, I think you said.”
Mademoiselle de Galais got up, suddenly very pale. And only then did I remember that Meaulnes, that day in the strange domain, near the lake, had told her his name…
The party by the river is arranged, and as the time approaches for his reunion with the girl of his dreams Meaulnes becomes very agitated while François attempts to reassure him:
Another fifteen minutes went by.
“She may not be coming after all,” he said.
“But she promised. Do try to be patient.”
Again he gazed down the road. But after a while he could bear the tension no longer.
“Listen, Francois. I’m going back to the others. I don’t know what there is about me at the moment, but I feel that if I stay here she’ll never appear – I just can’t believe I shall be seeing her in a few minutes coming down the path…”
Similarly in The Great Gatsby Nick invites Daisy, his cousin, to tea at his house so that she and Gatsby can be reunited:
Finally he got up and informed me, in an uncertain voice, that he was going home.
“Nobody’s coming to tea. It’s too late!” He looked at his watch as if there was some pressing demand on his time elsewhere. “I can’t wait all day.”
“Don’t be silly; it’s just two minutes to four.”
When, eventually the meeting does take place the tension is still present in all those involved, and François’ own discomfort becomes evident:
I, too was wondering whether I should not withdraw, but the other two seemed so ill at ease, so uncertain with one another that it seemed wiser to stay…
Here, after Daisy’s arrival, Nick, like François, is also uncertain what to do with himself:
Aware of the loud beating of my own heart I pulled the door to against the increasing rain.
For half a minute there wasn’t a sound. Then from the living room I heard a sort of choking murmur and part of a laugh, followed by Daisy’s voice on a clear artificial note:
“I certainly am awfully glad to see you again.”
A pause; it endured horribly. I had nothing to do in the hall, so I went into the room.
It should also be noted that whilst Meaulnes and Gatsby share confident, even arrogant personalities throughout the greater part of the books, during these pre-arranged liaisons they expose themselves to be vulnerable and lacking any degree of self confidence, becoming helplessly dependant on François and Nick.
To return to the subject of the symbols which are employed throughout the two books, both writers, being brought up in a strong Catholic tradition, would have been familiar with the rose as a symbol of purity or virginity. In Christian symbolism the rose, being emblematic of perfection, is often applied to the Virgin Mary, known as “The Mystical Rose”.
In Alain-Fournier’s first reference to roses Augustine has just met Yvonne de Galais at the féte and is, to say the least, smitten, when he finds himself in the company of children still in fancy dress, but he is looking among the crowd for the headdress worn by this beautiful girl:
But most of the spectacle was lost to him as he looked everywhere for another hat, one trimmed with roses, and a reddish-brown cloak. But Mademoiselle de Galais did not appear.
Later the rose makes another appearance, this time on the afternoon of the wedding of Augustine and Yvonne, when all the guests have gone and the young couple have been left alone, and it becomes emblematic of a flower less than perfect:
Early in the afternoon Augustine and his wife, whom I still call Mademoiselle de Galais, were left alone in the sitting-room…
And now the house is immune from the outside world, of which the only reminder is the scratching sound made against the pain by a leafless branch of a rose-bush. Like passengers on a boat adrift, the lovers, in a wintry gale, are enclosed in their own happiness.
“The fire is getting very low,” said Mademoiselle de Galais, and moved towards the wood-box.
Later that evening, reflecting on ‘an event too full of meaning for words’ they faced each other before the fire:
Mademoiselle de Galais offered to play for him before night came on, but it was dark in the corner where the piano stood and they had to light a candle. The rose-coloured shade made even more vivid the flush on her cheeks which betrayed a great anxiety…
These last two passages are a privileged glimpse into the couples last moments of happiness, as confided to the narrator, before Meaulnes sets off on his hopeless quest to save Frantz. The resemblance to this passage in The Great Gatsby, when flushed cheeks again appear as a euphemism for recent love making, and it’s Gatsby who is about to leave, this time for the war, is hard to ignore:
On the last afternoon before he went abroad, he sat with Daisy in his arms for a long, silent time. It was a cold fall day, with fire in the room and her cheeks flushed.
And the symbolic power of the rose is not lost on Fitzgerald as it makes a number of appearances in The Great Gatsby when Daisy is present. When Nick first visits Daisy’s house he is shown ‘A half acre of deep, pungent roses,’ and then walks through ‘a high hallway into a bright rosy-coloured space’. At the dinner table Daisy says to Nick:
“I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a – of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?” She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: “An absolute rose?”
This was untrue. I am not even faintly like a rose.
While Gatsby is away at the war Daisy finds herself drifting around a circuit of artificial and cheerfully snobbish society balls where “fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor”.
Then finally, after all Gatsby’s dreams had been destroyed, and as he is lying on the mattress in his pool with death approaching through ‘the amorphous trees’:
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.
This “mystical rose” has now, as Gatsby faces death and the realisation that his dream is over, become grotesque.
The characters of Daisy and Yvonne have more in common than is immediately apparent. After Meaulnes’ disappearance François takes on the responsibility of looking after Yvonne:
It fell to me to befriend, to console with whatever words I could find, one who had been the fairy, the princess, the mysterious love-dream of our adolescence…
When the young Jay Gatsby dreams of the infinite possibilities of his future life, his reveries were:
…A satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.
This vision must have been so tantalizingly close when he first met the young Daisy Fay, whose maiden name means ‘fairy’.
The two women also shared a certain quality in their voices. When one afternoon François is having a conversation with Yvonne:
…I stood, one knee resting on the bench, leaning forward to listen.
Nick, when visiting Daisy’s house for dinner is listening to his cousin speaking in a murmur:
I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her;
Her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened.
There is another theme that is quite central to both novels, and that is the matter of class. It could be argued that the true object of Gatsby’s desire, coming from an Eastern European immigrant background, is social acceptance. He tries to buy this with money, and acquire it through the possession of the upper class Daisy. Gatsby denies his humble origins and invents for himself a whole new persona and background, claiming, for example, that it is his family tradition to have been educated at Oxford. But Tom discovers the truth about him (that he is a bootlegger) and Daisy’s faith in him is irrecoverably shattered.
When Gatsby and Daisy first meet he is dressed in the uniform of an army officer, and being a uniform this does not betray his origins. Similarly, as Meaulnes introduces himself to Yvonne at the fete he is wearing disguise, but declares himself to be a student. He is at other times described as having his hair cropped like a peasant, he mixes comfortably in the company of peasants at the féte, and when he is sheltering in the chateau one of the men hanging the green lanterns:
…paused at the alcove where he made a ceremonious bow and began in a tone of bland mockery:
“Mister sleepy-head, may I remind you it’s time to rise and dress up as a marquis, even if you’re only a pauper like myself.”
Nick Carraway, too, is stepping out of his class in his doomed relationship with Jordan Baker, and even Myrtle Wilson claims to have married beneath herself: “I married him because I thought he was a gentleman,” she said finally. “I thought he knew something about breeding, but he wasn’t fit to lick my shoe.” But Tom Buchanan’s own squalid affair with Myrtle demonstrates the incompatibility of the classes while at the same time each person’s fascination with an involvement out of their social status.
Equally Augustine Meaulnes, from a modest background, courts and marries the aristocratic Yvonne de Galais, while her brother, Frantz learns that his financée, Valentine…”went off, leaving word that she could not be my wife, that she was a dressmaker, not a princess.” Tom Buchanan’s doomed relationship with the very sensuous but working class Myrtle can be seen to strike chords with Franz’s courtship of Valentine. Of all the relationships in both books it is only Tom and Daisy who emerge relatively unscathed:
‘…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…’
This evidence within the text is enormously compelling, and it would seem that at some stage during his struggle to compose his ‘consciously artistic achievement’ he came upon Le Grand Meaulnes and was much taken with it. Even though he might have had a strong idea of the story he was telling, he was having problems with the structure and form of his novel, and Le Grand Meaulnes offered a tantalizing solution, as well as many irresistible metaphors and symbols. His characters were also far from established in his mind. Early models for Gatsby are to be found in his short stories Absolution and The sensible Thing but were later abandoned when he became persuaded to approach the novel from ‘a new angle’.
However, there appears to be little or no hard evidence outside of the text to support the theory that Fitzgerald directly plagiarizes Alain-Fournier’s novel. There are no fingerprints on the bookcase, as it were.
For example, although living and working in the South of France, Fitzgerald had no real knowledge of the language beyond a little ‘restaurant French’ and Le Grand Meaulnes was not to be translated into English for another four years. So how could he have read it?
On arriving in France and finding herself largely abandoned by her husband Zelda was restless, and kept herself occupied with reading. Although Zelda was also unable to speak much French, with the aid of a French-English dictionary she managed to struggle through Raymond Radiguet’s Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel. Of this book Fitzgerald writes enthusiastically to Max Perkins: ‘Raymond Radiguet’s last book…is a great hit here…it’s called Le Bal du Comte d’Orgel and although I’m only half way through it I’d get an opinion on it if I were you.’ So somehow, perhaps with Zelda’s help, he had the means, however laboured, to read this book in its original French.
Additionally, in a letter from October 1924 Fitzgerald asks Max Perkins “What chance has a smart young Frenchman with an intimate knowledge of French literature in the bookselling business in New York? Do tell me as there’s a young friend of mine here just out of the army who is anxious to know.” A couple of months later he is equally keen to help “a smart young French woman who wants to translate the book. She’s equal to it intellectually and linguistically, I think – had read all my others – if you’ll tell her how to go about it as to royalty demands, etc.” So he was clearly not short of assistance and advice in the area of French literature.
It is also entirely possible that, during his spell in Paris before travelling south, he might well have heard a translation of the novel read at one of the many literary salons held at that time, hosted by Gertrude Stein and others and attended by many of ‘the lost generation’ of American expatriate writers, including Harry Crosby who was later to become the first to translate Le Grand Meaulnes into English. All speculation, but intriguing nonetheless.
It is impossible to know how aware Fitzgerald was of Alain-Fournier’s personal history but it is tempting to speculate that there may well have been some kind of mischievous intent on his part to tease the reader with this hidden clue to the source of his novel as the usually steady and prosaic Nick Carraway describes the private fantasies of his days working in New York:
I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness.
This passage, giving us a glimpse of an uncharacteristically romantic side to Nick’s nature, appears to make a direct reference to the real incident in Paris that was to become the seminal event for Alain-Fournier’s novel, when he followed the beautiful Yvonne de Quievrecourt along by The Seine and exchanged flirtatious glances before she eventually turned into her house on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. He followed her again a few weeks later and eventually got to speak briefly to her but she then asked him never to follow her again as she was engaged to be married.
Perhaps the usually highly moral Fitzgerald was being obliged by his powerful sense of guilt to flirt with exposure.
The last word can be left to the two writers themselves. In the opening passage of “The Great Gatsby” Nick gives us an insight into the type of character he wishes to be seen as:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticising anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
When Meaulnes reflects to Francois upon the events surrounding his behaviour at the fete he does so in terms of seeking the indulgence of those that might pronounce upon his actions. Therefore he says:
“When you’ve done something quite inexcusable, you try to ease your conscience by telling yourself that someone, somewhere would forgive you. You think of old people, perhaps indulgent grandparents, who are convinced beforehand that whatever you do is alright.”
© Bill Philpot April 2012