- The Grotesque Rose:Medieval Romance and The Great Gatsby
It might seem perverse if not plain wrong to affirm, as I shall in this paper, that F. Scott Fitzgerald, known for his careful examination of the human heart and for his realistic evocation of the Jazz Age, Swiss mental hospitals, and Hollywood in the 1930s, should also be guilty of writing medieval romance. Fitzgerald is known primarily as a "realistic" writer: to be sure, not as intelligent a realist as Gertrude Stein, nor as intellectual a realist as Joyce, nor as depressive a realist as Hemingway, nor as evocative a realist as Faulkner—but a palpable realist nonetheless. Perhaps Fitzgerald was a lyrical realist or, more likely, a romantic realist.1 We all accept the notion of romance in his writing. Both Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon are subtitled "A Romance" (Bruccoli, Grandeur 343). And at the end of his life Fitzgerald thought of himself as a "romance writer." But I mean romance in quite a different sense. I want to look at the ways Fitzgerald used the design, characters, details, and distinguishing characteristics of medieval romance in composing The Great Gatsby. [End Page 541]
I have said that to call Fitzgerald a writer of medieval romance appears a perverse claim. First of all, it presupposes a scholarly temperament and historical perspective of which Fitzgerald has never been accused before. Although he did become something of an aficionado of the Napoleonic wars, claiming to have 300 books on the subject in his library, Fitzgerald was no scholar (Turnbull 49). He was constantly about to fail out of Princeton, and he finally succeeded. His Latin was fair. But he knew French literature only in translation, and throughout his life he spoke no more than "restaurant French" (Bruccoli, Grandeur 238).2
The second reason it seems perverse to claim Fitzgerald was purposely writing medieval romance is that his doing so assumes a method of literary composition of which he has never been thought capable before. Fitzgerald composed at speed and revised at leisure. His method did not lend itself to the elegant transmutation of previous literary modes—the sort of thing one admires in Joyce, for instance. In his early works especially, Fitzgerald "transmuted autobiography": that is, by combining "his own emotions with the qualities of an actual figure" (Bruccoli, Grandeur 127) or someone he had read about or even characters he had created earlier, he transmuted the events of his personal and his imaginative life into fiction. Late in his life, he admitted to Laura Guthrie, his secretary: "I take people to me and change my conception of them and then write them out again. My characters are all Scott Fitzgerald. Even my feminine characters are feminine Scott Fitzgeralds" (Turnbull 267, 66, 315; see also Lid, Corso, Mellow).
We know a great deal about Fitzgerald's personal life during the time he worked on The Great Gatsby: we know what he was reading and the kinds of things that were foremost in his mind. We can see how close his fiction is to his own life. During the eighteen months he spent with Zelda and the baby in Great Neck, New York, where he had gone to write The Great Gatsby, "so many New York friends" dropped in to drink and frolic "that serious, sustained writing had become impossible" (Piper 103). So they left in May, 1924, for the south of France where their money would go farther and where they could be free from the rigors of constant partying. As soon as he arrived on the Riviera, Fitzgerald wrote to a friend: "I'm going to read nothing but Homer & Homeric literature—and history 540-1200 A.D. until I finish my novel . . ." (Bruccoli, Grandeur 197). Curious reading for The Great Gatsby; perhaps he even did it.3 [End Page 542]
That summer, while Fitzgerald was reading and writing, Zelda, who could rarely tolerate Fitzgerald at work, took Scottie to the beach at St. Raphael—and met and fell in love with Edouard Josanne, the handsome French aviator who kept her amused. Fitzgerald's Ledger identifies "13th of July" as the date of "The...