Dream Machines: The Motorcar as Sign of Conquest and Destruction in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Paul Ryder


In my article, "A New Sound; a New Sensation: A Cultural and Literary Reconsideration of the Motorcar in Modernity" (Ryder), I propose that "a range of semiotic engines" may be mobilised "to argue that, in the first quarter of the twentieth century, the motorcar is received as relatum profundis of freedom". In that 2019 article I further argue that, as Roland Barthes has indirectly proposed, the automobile fits into a "highway code" and into a broader "car system" in which its attributes—including its architectural details—are received as signs of liberation (Barthes Elements, 10, 29). While extending that argument, with near exclusive focus on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) and with special reference to the hero’s Rolls Royce, I argue here that the automobile is offered as a sign of both conquest and destruction; as both dream machine and vehicle of nightmare. This is not to suggest that the motorcar was, prior to 1925, seen in absolutely idealistic terms. Nor is it to suggest that by the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century the automobile had been unequivocally condemned. As observed in my 2019 article for the Southern Semiotic Review, while The Wind in the Willows (1908) is the first novel written in English to deal with the deleterious effects of the motorcar, "it is [nonetheless] impossible to find a literary text from the early part of the twentieth century that flatly condemns the machine". So, from Gatsby’s emblematic "circus wagon" to narrator Nick Carraway’s equally symbolic "Dodge", I argue that the motorcar is represented by Fitzgerald as an emblem of both dreams and wreckage.

The first motorcar noted in The Great Gatsby is the "old Dodge" belonging to Nick Carraway—the novel’s narrator and greatest dodger (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 17). Dreaming of success, and having declared himself restless, Nick claims to have come East to try his luck in the bond business (16). But, reflecting a propensity to dishonesty, the unreliable narrator (Abrams, 168) eventually reveals that at least one of the reasons for his migration East is to escape his emotional responsibilities to a girl "out West" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 30); a girl to whom he continues to write letters signed "Love, Nick" (61). While these notions of being dodgy and dodging—and their connection to Carraway’s car—seem to have escaped the attention of commentators, several have nonetheless observed that the make suits its owner for another reason: a work-a-day mass-produced machine, the vehicle is surely a sign of the narrator’s conservatism. Tad Burness, for instance, notes that in the early twentieth century the Dodge was a make that particularly appealed to conservative and careful drivers (91). Certainly, the Dodge brothers’ advertising of the nineteen-twenties, which steadfastly emphasised staunchness and stability, reinforces this conclusion. The make, therefore, is entirely appropriate to Nick: a man who evades the vicissitudes of romance; who shuns excitement, who aligns himself with mainstream Midwestern values, who identifies more with the mechanical than with the human, and who, until the very end, fails to commit to the extraordinary. Apropos, in reviewing the manuscript of Gatsby, Keath Fraser records an exchange between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway that was finally, and perhaps unfortunately, excised:             

"You appeal to me,” she said suddenly as we strolled away.
“You’re sort of slow and steady ... you’ve got everything adjusted just right.” 
(Qtd. in Bloom, 67)

To have been included at the end of the third chapter, Jordan’s assessment of Nick suggests that the narrator has over-tuned the cognitive machinery necessary to navigation through a social milieu to which he does not belong. While Fitzgerald may have felt this to be too blunt a narrative tool, the ‘slow and steady’ approach to life attributed to Nick in the finished novel clearly suggests that the narrator lives life by the manual.

It may be argued, then, that while ostensibly facilitating a new start and an associated desire for upward social mobility, Nick’s old Dodge symbolises a perfunctory approach to the business of living, a shabby escape from a "tangle back home", and an escape from self (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 61). Certainly, it represents no "on the road" conquest. Indeed, Nick’s clinical and mechanical approach to life comes close to ruining him. Short of his identification with Gatsby at the end—and the subsequent telling of a tragic tale—Nick is an archetypal loser. While claiming to identify with the "racy, adventurous" feel of New York (59), his instinct is to fall back on "interior rules that act as brakes on [his] desires" (61). He therefore fails to connect with Jordan Baker—his racy and attractive would-be lover, herself named after the Jordan Playboy automobile: the "first car to be marketed on emotional appeal alone" (Heimann and Patton, 14).  So, it turns out that Nick is one of life’s "rotten drivers" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 60)—an accusation he ironically levels at Jordan Baker who eventually tackles him on this point:

"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person." (154)

As Fraser has pointed out, the mechanical and shifty Nick is far from honest (Bloom, 68). Rather than achieving any sort of emotional consummation, his already muted desires idle, misfire, or stall. Declaring himself to be "one of the few honest people that [he has] ever known" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 154), Nick’s self-deception is, from the outset, complete. Left without the stimulus of the hero, one wonders if perhaps Nick might become a George B. Wilson.

Despite his dream of pecuniary success (something shared with Nick Carraway), garage proprietor George B. Wilson is impoverished by the automobile. A dissolute dealer in second-hand machines, this once-handsome but "spiritless man" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 33) has worked for years on scant margins. James Flink notes that dealers in used automobiles had a particularly hard time in the mid to late 1920s when profits on sales were very slight (144). The fact that Wilson is a second-hand car dealer also reinforces that everything else in his life is second-hand: built on the enterprise of others, his dream is second hand; his premises are second-hand; even his wife is second-hand. And, of course, he himself is used. Fitzgerald, then, is at pains to highlight the cultural meaning of the common or inferior car. Indeed, in the dark recesses of Wilson’s garage—which itself rests precariously on the edge of a wasteland under the faded and failed eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg—sits a "dust-covered wreck of a Ford" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 33). Emblematic of the garage proprietor’s broken dreams, Wilson’s psychic paralysis is variously foregrounded—principally by the broken car. Here we have nothing less than Heidegger’s das Gestell: the mechanised consciousness as discussed in his essay "The Question Concerning Technology" (in Krell, 227).  Significantly, only automobiles elicit a spark of interest from Wilson—but the irony, as suggested above, is that these are signs of the technical spirit to which he has so utterly acquiesced.

It is often, if not always, the case in Gatsby that automobiles signpost derailed agency and, therefore, broken dreams. After all, Gatsby’s own death and funeral are foreshadowed through the automobile. In the first chapter, for example, Nick tells his cousin Daisy that "all the cars in Chicago have the left rear wheel painted black as a mourning wreath" for her (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 22).  More portentously, during Nick and Gatsby’s drive to Astoria, "a dead man" passes the hero’s Rolls-Royce "in a hearse heaped with blooms" (68). While Myrtle’s death and Gatsby’s murder are contemporaneously suggested, in this emblematic tableau Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce is also overtaken by a limousine—and so the final chapter’s depressing "procession of three cars" is subtly anticipated (153). A "horribly black and wet" motor hearse bears Gatsby’s corpse to the cemetery while the narrator arrives with Gatsby’s father and the minister in a limousine. Then come the servants and the postman in Gatsby’s yellow station wagon. That the yellow and black cars are so incongruously and so tragically juxtaposed is a structurally and semantically significant feature of the text. The yellow car that once bore cheerful guests to Gatsby’s parties now follows the black hearse—the novel’s ultimate and, arguably, most awful death car. Thus, Fitzgerald presents us with one last reminder that, corrupted by our materialistic drives, our dreams wither and die; that there is, in the end, no magic.

As Robert Long points out, however, the manuscript of Gatsby confirms that Fitzgerald had originally intended such foreshadowing to be much more obvious. For instance, in the manuscript, when Gatsby drives Nick to New York he declares his car to be "the handsomest in New York" and that he "wouldn’t want to ride around in a big hearse like some of those fellas do" (Long, 193). Further confirmation of Fitzgerald’s determination to mute the novel’s funereal symbolism is provided in chapter two when, along with the word "sepulchrally", the phrase "reeks of death" is crossed out (Long, 194). As published, then, the automobile travels much more subtly in The Great Gatsby. While a ghostly machine turns up to the hero’s house shortly after the funeral, the end of the road for Nick is suggested when he sells his plain old Dodge to a plain old grocer (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 157-158).

The counterpoint to Nick’s old Dodge is, of course, Gatsby’s magnificent Rolls Royce: literature’s ultimate dream car. C.S. Rolls knew very well that his automobile was the new haute couture of the privileged. In his famous article on motorcars in the 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, he declares the upmarket machine to be "the private carriage of the wealthier classes to be used on all occasions" (223). To set it apart from competitors, the Rolls Royce not only offered an extraordinarily robust and responsive chassis, but boasted bodywork hand-crafted by a range of highly skilled artisans. W.A. Robotham writes that "one of the more fascinating aspects of Rolls-Royce car production in the twenties was the manufacture of the body at the many coachbuilding establishments that existed in London, the provinces, and Paris" (14). Once an order for a chassis was placed, an appointed carrossier would prescribe and detail coachwork and agonise over every internal appointment. With its "interior of glittering plate glass and rich morocco", the unnamed machine that so hopelessly besots the Toad in the third chapter of The Wind in the Willows is undoubtedly the result of such a special order—and seems likely to have goaded Fitzgerald into a fit of imitation (Grahame, 30).  

Apposite to a novel that contrasts dream and reality and pertinent to the near nonchalant agency of its wraithlike, almost ethereal, hero, Gatsby’s car is a cream-yellow Rolls Royce: a Silver Ghost. When C.S. Rolls conceived the model, he wrote: "the motion of the car must be absolutely silent. The car must be free from the objectionable rattling and buzzing and inconvenience of chains. ... The engine must be smokeless and odourless" (Robson, 27). Reflecting its whisper-quiet locomotion and its extensive use of silver, nickel, and aluminium plating, Rolls’s partner Claude Johnson gave the model its perfect name. Manufactured between 1906 and 1925, the Silver Ghost was the automobile of choice for F. Scott Fitzgerald himself. In 1922, the year in which Gatsby is set, Scott and his wife Zelda owned a second-hand Silver Ghost which they drove, with much joy, between Great Neck and New York. Here, then, lies one of those rare and fortuitous connections between one’s personal drives and one’s work; really, the hero of Fitzgerald’s third novel could have no other motorcar.

Like the machine he drives, and in keeping with Roland Barthes’ idea that automobiles  are somehow "magical" (Mythologies, 88), Gatsby would appear to have arrived from the heavens. Ghost-like, he glides in and out of the narrative and is, moreover, ineluctably associated with silver. He has pursued silver for much of his life and is, on numerous occasions, specifically identified with this powerful symbol of privilege and betrayal. While Nick finds him "regarding the silver pepper of the stars" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 31), later the "pale", wraithlike hero wears a "silver shirt" (80). So much the object of Gatsby’s yearnings, along with Jordan Baker, Daisy Buchanan is likened to a "silver idol" (105), has a "voice full of money", and wears a hat of "metallic cloth" (109). A trophy held in hopeless memory, Daisy may be said to be one of an extensive collection of enchanted objects beheld and worshipped by an all-too-flawed hero—but while Fitzgerald’s numerous references to silver undoubtedly highlight a double-edged significance, it is nonetheless suggestions of glamour that first strike us. Early in the novel, then, aside from the portentous foreshadowing of disasters to come, Gatsby’s car emerges as a powerful archetype: an image coupled with enormous emotive significance (Jung, 87); a sign of uncompromised and near-miraculous opulence. Terraced with windshields and sporting a green leather interior, his magnificent cream-yellow Rolls Royce is "bright with nickel" (a very expensive plating used for Rolls Royce radiators) and is "swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper boxes and tool boxes" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 64). Fitzgerald’s parataxis here seems to encourage breathless awe at the near obscene luxury of the vehicle, yet the depiction is historically accurate.

In an Autocar article of 1921 there appears a closely-annotated plan of a two-seater Rolls Royce. Numerous fittings are noted: food lockers, tool cupboards, hot-and-cold water-locker, wash-basin compartment, spares cupboard, kodak photography compartment, cooking utensil compartment, suit and dressing cases, spare accumulator compartment, and recess for spare petroleum tins (Garnier and Allport, 50). Like Toad’s, Gatsby’s chimerical car is undoubtedly the creation of a carrossier. Its standard of appointment, moreover, suggests royal status. Since the Rolls-Royce is an English car, its presence in America, where it was manufactured under licence for a time, also points to a desire to recapture something left behind. This, as all readers of Fitzgerald will know, is a major thematic thread in Gatsby. To be explored in a forthcoming article, the relationship between this theme of "backing up" (that is, recapturing the past) and representations of the motorcar in the novel is profound, but for the moment I focus on the Silver Ghost as a sign of Gatsby’s outrageous aristocratic pretensions. Perhaps an expression of Fitzgerald’s own fantasy that he wasn’t the son of his parents at all, but the child of a world-ruling king, Gatsby claims to have lived "like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 65). If not actually a Rolls-Royce-loving rajah, Gatsby certainly lives like a king and even signs himself "in a majestic hand" (47).  Indeed, in these senses and more, the hero is "circus master" and performer par excellence.

As a letter from Fitzgerald to Maxwell Perkins tells us, Petronius’s Satyrica furnished one of several alternative titles for Gatsby (Fitzgerald Letters, 169). Pointing to a delight in comedic hedonism, "Trimalchio in West Egg" was one of several titular options entertained by Fitzgerald (Gatsby is actually referred to as Trimalchio at the start of the novel’s seventh chapter) and so it is fitting that Brian Way declares Gatsby’s Rolls Royce to be "not so much a means of transport as a theatrical gesture"—one commensurate with the hero’s "non-stop theatrical performance" (Way in Bloom, 102). Similarly, in their 2019 article "Comfortably Cocooned: Onboard Media and Sydney’s Ongoing Gridlock", Richardson and Ryder argue that the automobile is far greater than the sum of its collective parts.  In a similar vein, Leo Marx writes that Gatsby has about him a "gratifying sense of a dream about to be consummated" and argues that the hero’s dream car is one of many objects in the novel that speak to Gatsby’s attempt to locate, in the real world, the stuff of unutterable visions (Marx, 77). As "circus wagon" (Fitzgerald Great Gatsby, 109), the machine also makes a substantial contribution to Fitzgerald’s comedy of the excess: cars driven by clowns at circuses stereotypically seem to operate according to a set of physical laws distinct from those governing the real world. However, with its "fenders spread like wings" (67), the hero’s car seems destined to fly. 

But, like Daisy’s white roadster, a machine that ironically bespeaks innocence and purity while sitting portentously "under … dripping bare lilac-trees" (81), Gatsby’s machine—one of the most heavenly automobiles in literature—is also literature’s most famous death car. While, in the end, the make of the killing machine is not spelled out for us, we may nonetheless be sure that it is Gatsby’s ever-so-aptly owned Silver Ghost. After the dreadful accident in the seventh chapter, the fender of the hero’s carefully hidden open car is in need of repair.  That the death car is an open one is highlighted for us before the accident, when Gatsby feels the pleated leather seats of the machine that will mow Myrtle down. The point is reinforced in chapter eight, after the accident, when Gatsby orders that his open car not be taken out. Moreover, while automobile upholstery specification varied in the nineteen-twenties, open cars generally had pleated leather seat cushions while mohair or broadcloth featured in closed tourers. This, too, narrows down the options confronting readers. Finally, the focus on the Rolls Royce’s great fenders (these are referred to at least three times before Myrtle is killed) also establishes a clear connection between the calamity and Gatsby’s "winged" Rolls. And, finally, there is the crucial matter of the ambiguous paintwork.

Nick tells us that Gatsby’s Rolls-Royce is a "rich cream colour" (64) while Mavro Michaelis claims that the death car is "light green" (123). Another witness to the accident claims that the vehicle involved is "a yellow car"; "a big yellow car" (125). In fact, they are all right. Like Gatsby himself, his motorcar suggests one thing at one time and another at another. From about the mid-nineteen-tens, Rolls-Royce painted a good many Silver Ghosts a rather uncertain cream-yellow and, in fading light, the lacquer betrays a greenish hue. We remember that the party drives "towards death through the cooling twilight" (122); that Myrtle runs out "into the dusk"; and that the death car comes "out of gathering darkness" (123). While an earlier 1914 model, there is an excellent example of this ambiguous colour used on a Silver Ghost in Turin’s Museo dell’automobile. Finally, of course, the many references to ‘ghosts’ and to ‘silver’ connected with both the hero and Daisy Buchanan cannot be considered accidental. In one of modern literature’s greatest novels, then, behind the dream of the automobile falls the depressingly foul dust of betrayal and death.


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Gatsby, Rolls Royce, Conquest, Destruction

Copyright (c) 2020 Paul Ryder

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