Visible and Invisible Technologies in The Great Gatsby and The Third Policeman
December 12, 2007
ENGL 300 – Newcomb
Visible and Invisible Technologies in The Great Gatsby and The Third Policeman, and how they Demonstrate Contrasting Modernist and Postmodernist Worldviews
In Shifting Gears (1987), Cecelia Tichi notes a trend to view the technology of “boilers and gear wheels, ball bearings, pistons, and the like” as “no longer. . . the dominant or defining technology.” She argues that the machine-age technologies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (which she thereafter nicknames “gears and girders” technology) gave way to “the era of the digital computer” in the second half of the twentieth century (xi). The paradigm shift from machinery with visible working parts to the invention of invisible cybernetic technologies resulted in a change of attitudes toward machines. This shift echoed in the world of literature as the dominant Modernist outlook of progress and efficiency gave way to a new Postmodern attitude. In comparing the Modernist outlook of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) with the proto-Postmodernist worldview in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman — which he precociously wrote in 1940 but reached publication in 1967 when postmodernism became popular — this essay seeks to demonstrate how two eras’ perception of contemporary technology illustrate their differing views of modernity. Modernists use machines as a means to further plot development, progressing efficiently toward a logical end by showing how separate pieces in a text join together to produce meaning like working gears in a machine-age invention. Postmodernists, on the other hand, use the esoteric imagery of information technology to lead stories away from a logical ending, thus demonstrating that in the Postmodern culture of complicated and alienating technology, chaos overrules order.
The Modernist literary movement invests itself in portraying images of modernity that emphasize both efficiency and progress. According to Tichi, humanity perpetuated the modernist mindset by “engineer[ing] the structures and machines able to function with maximal efficiency and minimal waste” (xii). The concise writing of poets like William Carlos Williams and novelists like Ernest Hemingway take their generation’s belief in efficiency idea to the extreme, chiseling away at flowery language and playful digression. Short and to the point, their writing exemplified machine-age modernity, casting out the chaff in order to increase the speed of progress. While the proprietors of Romanticism ambled toward their theses in no hurry, decorating their poetry and prose with stylistic elaboration, the Modernists’ penchant for progress rocketed their works toward meaning. Although it stops short of Hemingwayesque terseness in prose form, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing also demonstrates the Modernist ideology of logical progress from point to point with its use of visible working parts: introduction, development, rising action, climax, and resolution.
Visible travel technology, especially cars, propels The Great Gatsby’s plot from part to part. A chapter-by-chapter play-by-play illustrates Fitzgerald’s ability to craft his novel with sober logic featuring machine-age inventions. Chapter I introduces Nick Carraway, the narrator, as well as his cousin, Daisy, her husband, Tom, and her friend, Miss Baker. Readers learn why Nick fancies himself an appropriate narrator; his tendency to “reserve all judgements” (5), coupled with his “interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (7), lead him to narrate the turbulent story of the summer of Gatsby. His ability to reserve judgment places him as the narrator in a situation where he meets vibrant and dynamic people, since excessive opinions from a story’s focalizer can clutter the action, making it less efficient. A train transports Nick from the quiet Midwest to New York City, which he decides seems as good a place as any for an educated man to buy “old Dodge” and set up a bonds business (8).
Several instances of visible technology in The Great Gatsby develop its colorful characters. An elevator ride at the end of Chapter II casts some doubt on Nick’s heterosexuality. He leaves Tom’s party with a photographer, Mr. McKee, and as the two “groaned down the elevator,” McKee suggests that Nick “Come to lunch some day” (42). An ellipsis separates the elevator scene and a moment in which McKee, lying in bed stripped down to his underwear, shows Nick several of his artworks. The lowering elevator implies a descent into a lack of morality, in which one drunk stranger can ask another out on a lunch date, have casual sex, and then make smalltalk to ease the ensuing awkwardness. The lowering continues as the closing image of the chapter shows Nick waiting in the “cold lower level” of a subway station, waiting for a train to escape from the scene of his sin (42).
In the previous example, the elevator and the subway train serve as means to develop characters. Nick’s claim of exemplifying conservative morality in the midst of zany residents of the American East in Chapter I now seems suspect, which teaches readers to doubt his reliability. This knowledge brings readers one step closer to understanding the motives at work in the novel. Gatsby begins simply with Nick’s assertion that his good judgment will produce a coherent story, but then his actions complicate that expectation. One might argue that this moves the story away from logic and understanding, but that misconception undercuts the skill of the novel’s audience. Nick’s descent into supposed immorality in Chapter II via elevator and his open desire to allow another machine—an underground train—to carry him away allows readers to understand that they must learn to interpret characters’ actions themselves instead of blindly accepting the filtered perception of Nick Carraway. Once readers understand the rules inherent in the Modernist text, they can move forward.
The novel repeats the pattern of complication and understanding a few chapters later, when Nick observes that as he and Gatsby “crossed Blackwells Island a limousine passed [them], driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl.” Nick reacts by “laugh[ing] aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in a haughty rivalry,” then muses that “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge” (73). Nick acts as if the scenario of servile whites driving stylish blacks spirals out of the realm of possibility. Black people rivaling white people in wealth? Nick thinks. I guess any bizarre and unlikely sight is possible in this crazy place known as New York City. Nick’s apparent racism against black people pulls the whole novel into question. Can one trust the intentions of a novel whose narrator declares his arbitrary bigotry against a large percent of the national population?
When the car arrives at the restaurant, the text answers the question it raises. After Gatsby introduces his friend, Mr. Wolfsheim, in the restaurant, Nick describes him as “A small flat-nosed Jew” with a “large head” and “two fine growths of hair which [luxuriate] in either nostril” (73-74). Nick’s use of blatant racism paints Wolfshiem as the stereotypical New York Jew, and its caricature-like quality forces readers to step back from the novel and realize the text’s separation from its own first-person narrator. Nick’s description critiques itself due to the fact that he crushes his own initial promise of objectivity. Thus, the car ride transports readers from a location where doubts linger about whether or not to equate the text with the narrator, to a place where Nick’s cruel exaggeration fractures his credibility. With the help of machine technology, certainty replaces confusion about the novel.
Machine technology moves The Great Gatsby into rising action when, in Chapter VII, Tom demands that Gatsby drive his coupe and that he drive Gatsby’s “circus wagon” into New York City (127-28), where Tom and Gatsby reach confrontation about the latter’s inappropriate love for the former’s wife. Tom’s coupe symbolizes his practicality. Without a family large enough to require a sedan, Tom’s chooses to drive a small car, demonstrating his belief in efficiency. Gatsby, on the other hand, splurges on a fancy car that Tom feels he must deride in order to validate his efficiency. Does the title character’s showboating excess make The Great Gatsby an anti-Modernist novel? As readers learn elsewhere in the novel, Jay Gatsby is a sham. He renames himself because out of shame for his humble origins as James Gatz, a farm boy from North Dakota (104). Inspired by fantasies of greatness, Gatz creates a false identity for himself and spends his ill-gotten fortune on material possessions to sugarcoat the truth. In his core Gatsby is still Gatz, and Tom, who represents old landed wealth in America, senses Gatsby’s roots and knows not to trust him and the fanciness of his “circus wagon.”
The climax comes as a result of a car accident. George Wilson, husband to Tom’s mistress, finds out that Gatsby owns the car that hits his wife and drives away. Daisy’s poor driving ends Myrtle’s life, but Gatsby pays for her mistake when George murders him (169). The conclusion shows Nick’s resolution to sell his car to a grocer and move back to the Midwest by riding a train (188). As a way to reject New York, he sells his car, the most expensive item he bought there, opting to use a train yet again as an escape from tragedy. Machines bring him to the city, machines allow him to travel within the city, and machines remove him from it once more. Without machine-age methods of transportation, Nick would have no agency to commence his adventure, delve into the experience, and ultimately learn a lesson he can teach others through his act of narrating The Great Gatsby.
Due to machine travel’s visual accessibility, Fitzgerald’s choice of using automobiles and other methods of motorized transport to further the plot suits a Modernist text. One can lift the hood of a car and learn from an expert or an instruction manual how the separate parts work together to activate the engine that power cars forward. The complex relationship between the various parts complicates understanding of the car—just as characters in Gatsby interact in confusing ways, requiring close analysis to comprehend. Yet in the end, a sharp eye for attention can clarify the parts’ relationships—and characters’ motives—leading to an overall understanding of the machine—and piece of literature.
Having examined a famous Modernist text, one must then contemplate how Postmodernism differentiates itself from its predecessor. Stanley Trachtenberg writes that “Despite its now widespread acceptance, writing about postmodernism has always been made difficult by a lack of agreement about what the term refers to” (1). Should one just consider Postmodernism an extension of Modernism, and do critics’ arguments about the differences benefit literary studies? Trachtenberg argues that scholars agree on a few key differences, including its denial of “recuperat[ing] meaning by coercing differences into an Aristotelian beginning, middle, and end” in an “interpretative process of causal relationships” not unlike a “detective story” (1). According to Trachtenberg, this style of thinking climaxed with Modernism. In other words, Modernists sought to describe Western culture as they perceived it by writing stories that introduced problems, attempted to solve the problems by adding facts together in a sensible manner, and formed logical conclusions based on those facts. Postmodernists disagree with the deductive logic of Modernism, stating that literature should not try to focus on making linear arguments toward truth. Trachtenberg writes that critic William Spanos “proposed a definition of postmodernism that resisted closure, that acknowledge temporal discontinuities and contingencies, and that emerged finally in the open-ended if stylized forms of the anti-novel” (1). Thus, Postmodernism aspires to defy solid definition because it refuses to solidly define the point of literature. Instead of narrowing down facts to one premeditated conclusion, Postmodern authors prefer to remain open to more interpretations.
The novel The Third Policeman offers the opposite viewpoint of The Great Gatsby. From the Postmodernist perspective, technology no longer sends people moving in a simple linear path toward truth, understanding, and resolution. As one critic writes, “O’Brien is skeptical of absolute answers anywhere in his work,” and he cites proof from the novel by quoting a character named Sergeant Pluck who “tells the narrator in The Third Policeman, ‘The first beginnings of wisdom is to ask questions but never to answer any’” (Booker 49). This logic directly opposes that of The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway seeks to make sense of the madness around him by identifying one heroic victim of tragedy. On the contrary, even if The Third Policeman’s narrator searches for clear meaning, he never comes close to finding it.
Perceptions of the work’s emphases and significance vary. Henry V. Fackler compares The Third Policeman to The Inferno in that “Both are allegories of man’s condition, and both utilize a cosmological landscape controlled by a concept of hell,” and describes its basic plot as “relatively simple to follow,” but admits difficulty in ascertaining meaning in it (142). M. Keith Booker compares it to the decentering philosophy of Nietzsche and believes it parodies “the Western drive for knowledge” (38), while the copy on the book’s back cover defines it as “Flann O’Brien’s brilliant comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence,” which could hardly be vaguer. Kim McMullen views O’Brien’s Postmodern writing as a response to current events, since the rise of Irish Nationalism provided good fodder for deconstructive commentary and because “the beginning of World War II” and the death of James Joyce “provided a convenient closing date for the Modernist revolution” (62-64). Due to the open-endedness inherent in Postmodern works, one cannot discount any of these observations. The Third Policeman may very well explore the reversal of natural order, the Irish tradition, and the philosophy of futility. Yet for the large part, the essays by McMullen, Fackler, and Booker underscore the significance of science and technology in O’Brien’s novel.
The Third Policeman details the downfall of an unnamed narrator who murders a rich neighbor in order to afford to publish a bibliography of accounts of de Selby, a fictional philosopher. He dies and goes to Hell (without realizing that fact) when opening the man’s cash box, and meets three strange policemen who show him eternity (located in an Irish cellar) and teach him how Atomic Theory transforms bicycles into humans and humans into bicycles. Just when the narrator thinks he escapes from certain doom on a policeman’s (decidedly female) bike, he circles back toward the scene of his initial crime, then toward the police station without realizing he had been there before, and readers discover that fate dooms the narrator to repeat the same events with small variations for eternity.
Atomic Theory parodies scientific discoveries of the early twentieth century that alienated everyday people from understanding biology. The atom exemplifies invisible technology since literally no one can identify a single atom with his or her naked eye. Unlike the visible albeit complicated workings of a car engine, one cannot see an atom. The idea that every object in the universe consists of billions of invisible atoms casts an esoteric shroud of bewilderment on machines once viewed as simple, such as bicycles. A bicycle amounts to more than a frame, two tires, and handlebars; it consists of uncountable atoms rubbing against each other. O’Brien uses the idea of atoms colliding to evoke humor when a police Sergeant reports that “Michael Gilhaney. . . is an example of a man that is nearly banjaxed from the principle of Atomic Theory. Would it astonish you to hear that he is nearly half a bicycle?” (83). Sergeant insists that Atomic Theory did not always exist, but pervades now by the will of the County Council, and turns men into bicycles because “Everything is composed of small particles of itself. . . flying around in concentric circles and arcs” (84), and atoms exchange between objects, their chemical compositions continually altering.
As a result of Atomic Theory and its damaging effects to humanity, the Sergeant loses trust in the County Council that encourages belief in the theory. He claims “The County Council has a lot to answer for” and “The County Council is the culprit” (82). Science becomes so complicated that it disorients people living in modernity, slowly but surely making men into machines—like bicycles—as a consequence. The new science emerging in the early Postmodern era alienates people and leads to their distrust of simpler inventions like bicycles because simple machines paved the way for complex machines, which enabled leisure to create incomprehensible scientific theories and the inaccessible information technology that follows. The common modern person can only stand back and blame those responsible for making life more complicated, and the Sergeant singles out the County Council for allowing Atomic Theory to be “at work in this parish” (83).
The story’s Postmodern discoveries of the unexplainable nature of the physical inspire the creation of Postmodern machinery. The foremost example of this comes in Chapter VIII, wherein the narrator discovers that eternity consists of “a well-lit airy hall” full of “inventions with little dials and meters place plentifully here and there,” “Hundreds of miles of coarse wire,” “thousands of doors like the strong-hinged doors of ovens” and “arrangements of knobs and keys that reminded [the narrator] of American cash registers” (131-32). Due to the proliferation of modernization, eternity no longer exists as a sacred space filled with a deity and human souls, but as a room in Ireland filled with machinelike objects. Mechanized progress leads modernity ultimately toward the replacement of God and spirituality with dials, meters, wires, doors, knobs, and keys, the instruments of modernity. The ever-changing theories of science inspire doubt and confusion instead of faith in God in the Postmodern world. The policemen seem not to understand how their eternity works, but trust in it because in the manmade room full of mysterious gadgets, they cease to age and never become hungry (133). They come to terms with their geared-and-girdered eternity because their parish’s Postmodern condition leaves them lacking understanding but willing to accept whatever works.
Because the plot of the novel cycles back to the beginning and indicates that the narrator will loop around the same events forever, The Third Policeman accepts ambiguity. Unlike works of Modernism, Postmodernist literature states that plot closure is a fallacy. The novel ends with the narrator set to relearn Atomic Theory and the state of eternity, then forget, then relearn, then forget, and so on. This indicates the worldview that the Modernist ideals of progress and efficiency do not lead to fulfillment. Because the term “progress” implies the existence of beginning and ultimate conclusion, the concept of the straight line of progress cannot work if modern life sends people in circles. In the process of achieving understanding, modern people discover more questions than answers. Thus, The Great Gatsby’s Modernist belief in literature with visible working parts that efficiently progress toward logical resolution undoes itself when science and technology venture into the realm of invisibility and incomprehension that Postmodern literature such as The Third Policeman exposes. The “gears and girders” of literature now prove difficult to identify, and they work against logical understanding, as the nonworking parts in the engine of modernity spiral out of control and overheat the unit.
Booker, M. Keith. “Science, Philosophy, and The Third Policeman: Flann O'Brien and the Epistemology of Futility.” The South Atlantic Review. 56.4 (November 1991): 37-56. JSTOR. University Library, Urbana, IL. 1 December 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0277-335X%28199111%2956%3A4%3C37%3ASPA%22TP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-G>.
Fackler, Herbert V. “Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman: Banjaxing Natural Order.” The South Central Bulletin. 38.4 (Winter 1978): 142-145. JSTOR. University Library, Urbana, IL. 1 December 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0038-321X%28197824%2938%3A4%3C142%3AFO%22TPB%3E2.0.CO%3B2-M>.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. First Scribner trade paperback ed. New York: Scriber, 2003.
McMullen, Kim. “Culture as Colloquy: Flann O'Brien's Postmodern Dialogue with Irish Tradition.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. 27.1 (Autumn 1993): 62-84. JSTOR. University Library, Urbana, IL. 1 December 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0029-5132%28199323%2927%3A1%3C62%3ACACFOP%3E2.0.CO%3B2-X>.
O’Brien, Flann. The Third Policeman. Second ed. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2002.
Tichi, Cecelia. Shifting Gears. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. xi-xvi.
Trachtenberg, Stanley. “Introduction.” Critical Essays on American Postmodernism. Ed. Stanley Trachtenberg. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1995. 1-27.