- Race and the Thickening of Mediation in Repetitions of The Great Gatsby
The cultural relevance of F. Scott Fitzgerald's canonical novel The Great Gatsby persists as an examination of a singular figure who embodies the foundational myths of the American nation. The narrative of the novel reifies the logic of hegemonic structures, and thus the titular character's desires have their source in the greater American mythology. As American myth, the Gatsby narrative must contend with the policing and maintenance of the primitive accumulation—the theft of land and bodies—that is foundational to the nation in terms of the perpetuation of capitalist exploitation and white supremacy. While the Jazz Age setting ostensibly implies a revolutionary modernity—that is, a moment of transition—what matters in the novel is not the break from what comes before but the persistent repetition of that before—famously, "borne back ceaselessly into the past" (Fitzgerald 176)—and the erasure or expulsion of deviance from that trajectory. Gatsby's function in the novel is to expose the limits of this mythology by being punished for fulfilling its promise greatly, excessively: the exception to the limits of structural oppression must be made visible in order to simultaneously disavow and shore up that oppression. Greatness as a category here is fantastical and ideological and must remain in that realm; thus, the narrative logic necessarily punishes Gatsby's excessive [End Page 91] desire for legitimacy under capitalist white supremacy via Daisy precisely because he mimics it from a system that fundamentally excludes him. The project of The Great Gatsby is to narrativize the containment of racialized threats to the futurity of the white nation.
Various iterations of this narrative expose the tension between individual agency and oppressive social structures in their manifestations of different aspects of the Gatsby figure: the faithful dreamer whose desire produces a spectacular palace and the deluded social climber destroyed by his own ambition. The adaptations under consideration here, Nella Larsen's Passing (1929), Christopher Scott Cherot's G (2002), and Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013), contend with the excessively desirous figure against a structural context of racialization and reproductive futurity. Anti-Blackness has been necessary to the existence of whiteness as a category—consider the white working class agitating against their economic interests from postbellum to the present day—but manifests in multiple forms throughout American history. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander examines the reproduction of forms of anti-Blackness, arguing that slavery, then Jim Crow, and now police violence and mass incarceration require increasingly ideological and rhetorical justifications. It is no accident, then, that the move from the 1920s novels to the twenty-first-century films gets further away from overt critique.
Passing explicitly realizes the racial implications of The Great Gatsby by bifurcating the figure into two Black women who appear white. Comparing the two texts and highlighting the idea that critical reworkings produce new readings of their antecedent texts, Charles Lewis asks, "Could Fitzgerald have borrowed from the African-American tradition of the 'tragic mulatto' narrative? Has Fitzgerald committed a kind of literary plagiarism by taking possession of the trope of racial passing, or might we describe it instead as something more like a blackface forgery?" (84). This question brings up the process of infiltration, appropriation, and containment: the threat to colonial whiteness as manifested in miscegenation and illegibility is contained through its appropriation.1 What Passing reveals through adapting the Gatsby narrative is that Gatsby's class passing was always-already racialized.
G takes the form of the narrative of The Great Gatsby and transposes it into the Hamptons, from the Jazz Age to the hip-hop age. The film [End Page 92] was a critical and commercial flop, which makes sense given its narrative incoherence; that is, the film takes the basic narrative structure of the Gatsby love triangle but engages unevenly or not at all with the critical implications of what those conflicts represent systemically. Alexander points to the cultural consequences of the age of mass incarceration when colourblindness shores up racialized oppression, arguing that the conflation of gangsta culture and hip-hop, as a way of reclaiming...