Global warming in The Great Gatsby

We’ve changed, in the space of a few days, from fleece to cotton, now dragging the hose, straw-hatted, out to the salsa garden, where it suddenly looks like the tomatoes and hot peppers will get a fair chance. And while this weather event of the season was transpiring, we were reading F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

The credible and reliable narrator, Nick Carraway, tells the story in the space of a summer spent in a “commuting town” on Long Island. Moving to and fro by rail and parallel road from the outlying “eggs” to “town,” by which they mean Manhattan, the characters, rich as they are, lack air conditioning, and the weather heavily influences the events of the summer. Nick shows us the foibles and vicissitudes of simple and complex minds rooted in the land from which is built the simple and complex landscapes of personal economy, family, and, ultimately, personal history, for what any of it is worth.

Simple minds, Carraway explains, are easily confused. It remains somewhat ambiguous who he has in mind when he thinks this, so we’re not sure if he’s thinking of Tom Buchanan when Tom says, drinking a gin rickey one particularly hot, late summer afternoon: “I read somewhere that the sun’s getting hotter every year,” said Tom genially. “It seems that pretty soon the earth’s going to fall into the sun – or wait a minute – it’s just the opposite – the sun’s getting colder every year.” Fitzgerald’s writing is clearly influenced, as the events of the story unfold, by the heat, and it’s equally clear, by the end, that, as Nick says, while the story has taken place in the “East,” it has been “…a story of “the West, after all…”

We grew up on the Pacific coast, close to the beach, and our mental landscape is informed by that simple fact. We still live near the coast, but farther north, and have for some years now experienced both the expansive heat of summer and the shrinking cold of winter. We hold then, with Robert Frost, who said in his little poem “Fire and Ice”: “Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire. / But if it had to perish twice, / I think I know enough of hate / To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.”

But The Great Gatsby could not have taken place over the course of three winter months. It had to be summer. Thinking back though to Nick’s opening lines, when he quotes his father: “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” one wonders what advantages today’s heat is likely to bring home.

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