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The Motif of Driving in The Great Gatsby

A Discussion of Driving as Symbolism in The Great Gatsby

This essay seeks to address the motif of driving in The Great Gatsby. Driving is a recurrent image in the book and seems integrally connected with one of the book?s more important themes. This theme involves differences of class?specifically, the profound difference between those who have had money and power from birth and those who have had to work for, or earn, what money and power they have. What could be a better representation of one?s class in and relationship to society than one?s car and how one uses it? How characters travel in this book?their chosen mode of transportation, and how they go about getting places?shows important things about the characters? social status and character. Fitzgerald uses the motif of driving as a way of revealing and exploring the social and psychological implications of class.
There is much evidence to suggest Fitzgerald intended driving to represent life. There are several scenes in which the driving motif seems symbolically linked to living. For example, when Nick, the narrator of the story, realizes it is his thirtieth birthday, he compares the new decade to a road: ?Before me stretched the portentous menacing road of a new decade,? [p. 120]. On the same page, he remarks, ?So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.? In this scene, Nick, Tom, who is Nick?s brother-in-law, and Jordan, who is his love interest, are driving literally toward death?the scene of Myrtle?s demise. An ulterior meaning could be we are all driving down a road that eventually will end in death.
If driving is a metaphor for life in the book, one might expect the way characters use their cars to reveal something about them. This is, in fact, the case. The submotif of chauffeurs is used to this end. If one has a chauffeur, it would certainly appear one possesses great power and wealth. Yet, such a person must depend completely upon the chauffeur not to get into accidents and to get him or her where he or she wants to go; to this extent, a person with a chauffeur is not in control. Fitzgerald seems to use chauffeurs as a way of symbolizing various characters? self-reliance, or lack thereof. It is a case, perhaps, where one?s wealth undermines one?s own initiative and abilities. The first references in Gatsby demonstrating the link between chauffeurs and class show the chauffeur employed by Gatsby, who is Nick?s eccentric, self-made, wealthy neighbor. He is not shown in a car on either occasion, but on foot. In chapter 3, he walks over to Nick?s house to give him an invitation to Gatsby?s party, and, at the party itself, he is fetching Jordan to speak with Gatsby at the party. Gatsby has the means to employ a chauffeur, but never is he mentioned as being driven anywhere by him, and Gatsby frequently drives cars himself throughout the book. He is a self-made man, and the fact that he drives himself rather than using his chauffeur shows he is real and in control of his life, or at least he attempts to be . He has money, but he has already learned to take care of himself. His wealth does not undermine his power over himself as it might those who inherit their status.
In contrast to Gatsby, the self-made man, Daisy was born to wealth, and is not a good driver. In the only instance throughout the book where she drives herself rather than being driven by a chauffeur, she hits and kills Myrtle, who is Tom?s lower-class mistress. Tom, also born wealthy, is an equally careless driver. He crashed a car soon after his wedding to Daisy, breaking the arm of the hotel maid in the car with him. Finally, Jordan, the other member of high society featured in the book, is as bad a driver as Tom and Daisy. Fitzgerald?s seeming disrespect for such people, who are utterly out of control in their lives, may be manifested. Nick and Gatsby are crossing the Queensboro Bridge and Nick notices ?a limousine?driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes. . ..? [p. 69] Nick says there are two ?bucks,? who are suggestive of Tom and the oft-masculinized Jordan, and a girl, who could be suggesting the feminine Daisy. This image may have been intended to suggest a similarity between anyone who cannot drive themselves, whether they be rich and white or ?Negro.? This image quite plausibly implies that Tom, Jordan and Daisy are really no more in control than those whom they (especially Tom) look down upon or scorn.
There is an emphasis in the book on the inability of Tom, Daisy and Jordan to control their lives, and this characteristic is amplified through the driving motif. Whenever one of the three gets into the driver?s seat instead of the passenger?s, accidents tend to ensue. It seems Fitzgerald?s point is that there is an inherent carelessness that comes from being born into wealth.
There is a conversation between Nick and Jordan in which the link between driving and living (specifically the concept that one?s attitude toward driving tends to mirror one?s attitude toward living) is made explicit. In chapter 3, Nick accuses Jordan
of being a rotten driver. Jordan denies it at first, but then explains that it doesn?t matter until she meets another bad driver, because it takes two to make an accident. She adds that this is the reason she likes Nick, because he is careful. Later, when everything has fallen apart between them, she realizes she had been wrong about Nick. In chapter 9, Jordan says, ??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. I thought it was your secret pride.?? [p.152]
On the very next page, Nick [Fitzgerald] again uses the word careless?three times?to describe Tom and Daisy:
It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy?they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together. . .. [emphasis mine]

It is clear that Fitzgerald wants us to view Daisy, Tom, and Jordan as very careless people. The difference, I think, between Tom, Daisy, and Jordan on the one hand and Nick on the other is that Nick has the potential to learn from his experiences. The rest will go on forever breaking others and moving on (like Daisy after she kills Myrtle), but
Nick decides to go home and fix whatever it was he made wrong at the beginning of the book with a girl back home.
Perhaps one of the messages Fitzgerald was trying to convey was the idea that while the upper classes seem to have it all?they can coast by in their chauffeur-driven cars, and coast by in life?the truly worthy are those whose ?class? lies within, those who drive themselves. Gatsby was such a man, and while he had to wheel and deal in illegal things and was sometimes blinded to sensitivity by his love, the title of the book truly does fit him. I agree with Nick when he tells Gatsby he is ?worth the whole damn bunch put together.?
Throughout The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald drives us to change our perceptions of social status using the motif of driving as a vehicle for conveying concepts pertaining to class and character.

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