[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some famous phones in American culture, leading up to a special weekend post on AGB’s life and legacies!]
On three phone calls that illustrate the classic novel’s thoughtful portrayal of Modern technologies.
When you teach a book as often as I have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, you start to focus on different layers each time. Along with the dialogues with other authors/works like Nella Larsen’s Passing that I talk about in that hyperlinked post, in my last couple times reading and teaching the novel I’ve thought a lot about just how many early 20th century technologies play central roles in its story. That’s especially true of automobiles, of course; not only in the book’s climactic events (which I won’t spoil here for the few people who managed not to read Fitzgerald’s novel in high school), but in the central presence (geographically as well as symbolically) of Wilson’s gas station and auto repair shop. It’s true of Hollywood film, both in presences at Gatsby’s parties (and Fitzgerald’s career) and in the novel’s underlying themes of surface and depth, illusion and reality. But it’s also certainly true of the still relatively new technology, particularly when it comes to the idea of every household having one, that was the telephone.
As we meet the novel’s main characters in the opening few chapters, Fitzgerald uses a couple key phone calls to present mysterious and ambiguous sides to them. In Chapter 1, as Nick Carraway visits the beautiful home of his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom for a dinner party, Tom gets a mysterious phone call; Daisy suspects that it’s his mistress on the other end, but of course can’t know for certain to whom he’s speaking. In Chapter 3, as Nick attends one of the lavish parties at his neighbor Jay Gatsby’s mansion, Gatsby gets a mysterious call; other partygoers suggest that it’s a criminal business partner of Gatsby’s on the other end, but of course no one knows for certain to whom he’s speaking. These calls reveal both men as defined by secrets, dynamics that precisely because of their ambiguity are a source of intense speculation by those around them. And those secrets can only be maintained in these scenes because of the technology of the phone, without which their conversants would have to visit in person (or write a letter, which of course would be far less immediate).
[Serious SPOILERS in this paragraph.] At the end of the novel, after all the aforementioned climactic events have unfolded, Nick has his own, quite different phone call. He is trying to organize a funeral for Gatsby (or maybe James Gatz, since his father who knows him by that name is one of the few who attends that tragic event), and manages to speak with Gatsby’s elusive business partner Meyer Wolfshiem on the phone. In one of the novel’s only moments where a character says directly what he’s feeling and thinking, shares what seems at least to be the unvarnished truth (even when Gatsby and Nick have their heart-to-hearts, it’s always an open question whether Gatsby is telling the truth), Wolfshiem confesses to Nick that he can’t possibly be seen at the funeral, that it would be far too destructive for his reputation and relationships. This is the side of the telephone that allows us to be more honest, more ourselves, in its conversations than we might manage to be if had to face someone and something in the flesh. Just another layer to how Fitzgerald’s novel reflects the technologies and contexts of its rapidly evolving Modernist world.
Next famous phone tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Famous cultural phones you’d highlight?