The Great Gatsby
“Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men… I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
Jordan Baker’s dishonesty is all about keeping a step ahead, so she can avoid being seen for what she truly is. She is avoiding that which might expose her. In this respect, she very much embodies the values of the 1920s super-rich clique. The sense of mask-wearing and the idea of ‘dealing in subterfuges’ gives her an elusive quality. We have to ask of such people: what do they really think of themselves? The surface is brimming with confidence; but what is underneath depicts a different story. In many ways, Jordan Baker is the exemplar for the tension between substance and surface: a conflict that epitomizes the age in which the novel is set.
The driving exchange encapsulates the prevalent idea of the absence of responsibility. In many ways, the automobile symbolizes the speed, recklessness and sense of escape that so embodies this age of American history. It also symbolizes the machinery of American capitalism. The car provides the setting for this exchange and links to form (the snappy or staccato dialogue, and the sense of pace and tempo that it provides). The American car also complements the tension between substance and surface: it’s shiny chrome magnetized millions of people; yet beneath the chrome was an essentially unsafe and not particularly sophisticated machine. In many respects, Jordan Baker is the car itself.
‘You’re a rotten driver,’ I protested. ‘Either you ought to be more careful, or you oughtn’t to drive at all.’
‘I am careful.’
‘No, you’re not.’
‘Well, other people are,’ she said lightly.
The exchange conveys, among other character traits, her lack of integrity: she doesn’t hold to her position and gives up on it almost immediately. She is vacuous. She lacks substance. The fact that she believes her negligence won’t cause damage or accidents is strongly linked to the overarching theme of illusion.
Always consider the image itself: driving a car, fast! She cannot countenance the idea that someone will halt her progress; that someone will ‘check’ her. Consider this in light of other characters and the motivations of this age.
‘It takes two to make an accident.’
This presages the image of the car-crash that occurs later in the novel. The car-crash is symbolic and symptomatic of a much larger crash. Don’t forget, too, that the car ride also equates journey; and that the question of who’s a ‘rotten driver’ will be bookended in chapter 9, at the end of Nick’s journey.
‘I hate careless people.’ She has just admitted that she is not careful. Is this confession, therefore, an ironic and subconscious admission that conveys her self-loathing? Remember: Nick describes her as ‘incurably dishonest’ and while this is not absolutely binding, given the unreliability of his narration, there is at least a grain of truth to it. It is often the case that people lie because they seek to dwell within an opaque existence: a state that is, in spite of every outward appearance, the result of a lack of self-love.
Paradox is also fascinating because it has the capacity to magnetize. In this way, the paradoxical nature of the dialogue encapsulates the paradox of the age and, specifically, the dilemma it poses for Nick Carraway – i.e. the paradox of Jordan Baker is that she embodies the tension between substance and surface. Consider this in light of the tension between appearance and reality – an idea that recurs in the novel.
The idea of paradox may be continued to include Nick Carraway. We must ask ourselves: if Nick is so careful, why is he in the car? His reliability as a narrator comes into question upon many points.
‘It made no difference to me. Dishonesty, in a woman, is a thing you never blame deeply – I was casually sorry, and then I forgot.’
Is this an example of the corruption taking place within Nick Carraway? It appears that he is engaging in hypocrisy within this very section of text. He concludes with the admission of thinking that he loves her and with the idea that he believes his honesty to be beyond reproach.
The car itself is a paradox: at once the embodiment of great hope and progress and at the same time the instrument of destruction through its association with glamour and surface beauty. This is the vortex in which Nick Carraway finds himself. The automobile for Nick Carraway might as well be the image of the rising balloon, in which Nick asks himself: ‘How long can I keep holding onto the rope?’ (the higher I get, the more dangerous it becomes). Relate this to the often-overlooked image of the balloon in chapter one. Perhaps Carraway was an honest man, until he becomes corrupted by the visions of greed and vacuity that so characterize the world into which he ventures.