Monday, June 17, 2013
June 17, 2013: American Swims: Gatsby’s Pool
[For me, summer has always meant swimming: in the pool across from my childhood home, at the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard, with my boys. So in honor of the summer solstice, this week’s series will focus on meaningful swims in American culture and history. Add your responses and summertime thoughts for a warm weekend post, please!]
On the tragic dip that’s as difficult to pin down as the man taking it.
Jay Gatsby spends his final moments relaxing in his home’s luxurious swimming pool. As Nick Carraway is about to leave his neighbor for what turns out to be the last time, Gatsby’s gardener arrives to drain the pool; fall is arriving and he’s worried that “leaves’ll start falling pretty soon and then there’s always trouble with the pipes.” But Gatsby asks him to hold off for one more day, noting to Nick, “you know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer.” And so it is during Gatsby’s first and only dip in his own swimming pool, lying on “a pneumatic mattress that had amused his guests during the summer,” that the grieving George Wilson arrives, an “ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.” Wilson is armed and crazed, seeking vengeance for the death of his wife Myrtle, and kills both Gatsby and himself.
It’s a striking and evocative image and moment, as so many of Fitzgerald’s are. And like so many others in the novel, it seems clearly symbolic—but of what, exactly? The imminent shift in seasons feels significant—Gatsby is a novel of summer, and here the season has ended but Gatsby is not willing to let it go, not least because he has not yet had a chance to enjoy it. Or perhaps the pool is simply a microcosm of Gatsby’s palatial home—the height of luxury and excess, of the Roaring 20s and their decadent atmosphere, but offering those thrills less for its actual owner (who barely makes use of it as anything other than a host for visitors) and more for all those guests who come to bathe in its excesses. Or maybe it’s just the final irony in a novel full of them—Gatsby finally takes a moment to relax, for what feels like the first time in years, and looks what it gets him.
All of those interpretations hold water (sorry), but I would also note a historical context that it’s easy for us 21st century readers to forget: like so many of the novel’s crucial social and technological features (cars, Hollywood films, recorded music), an in-ground swimming pool in the early 1920s represented a striking innovation. The first such pools in America had been open for less than two decades, and were generally public or communal spaces; it was not until more than two decades later, after World War II, that they would become part of the typical imagery of the ideal American home. So as with every aspect of Gatsby’s success, here too he would seem to have been ahead of the curve, helping to embody the American Dream—as well as its dark and violent undersides—as it would continue to develop for the rest of the American Century, and into our own.
Next American swim tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on Gatsby’s swim? Other summer links you’d highlight?