Machinery Induced Insanity: How Technology Connects and Isolates in The Great Gatsby
Machinery Induced Insanity: How Technology Connects and Isolates in The Great Gatsby
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is a man searching for connection in an increasingly automated world. Technology surrounds Nick — he takes cars, calls his friends on the phone, and goes to parties that new inventions have made possible. Nick works with bonds in both senses of the word, both trading debt and searching for love and friendship. Yet the more he immerses himself in New York and its technological wonders, the more isolated he feels. By the end of the novel, technology has murdered Myrtle, Gatsby, and Mr. Wilson, allowed Jordan to become engaged to another man, and has driven Tom and Daisy away, leaving Nick all alone. In The Great Gatsby, although technology seems to be a benevolent force at first, it ultimately breaks and irrevocably destroys the bonds between the characters.
At first, technology is solely beneficial because it allows characters to connect with one another. Gatsby’s parties are a major hub for connection in the novel. Jordan Baker says that even though the parties are grand in scale, “They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy” (49). The colossal size of Gatsby’s parties fosters a special connection that other parties cannot. At one of these parties, Nick notes that Gatsby’s electric lights “grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun” (40). Gatsby depends on technology (here the electric lights) to throw these parties because candles and oil lamps are expensive and require too much constant maintenance for the small amount of light they produce. Electric lights, while also costly, last longer and can illuminate larger spaces. Machines like Gatsby’s juicer also enable him to host his parties because they supply him with enough food and drinks for his enormous amount of guests. Gatsby’s juicer “could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb” (39–40). With the juicer and electric lights, Gatsby can now foster the connections that his parties create because he has the means to entertain large numbers of people in a big space.
As time passes, technology begins to invade the novel’s interpersonal relationships, harming the characters more than it helps them. When Gatsby and Daisy are together, the lights “were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars” (110). Although the lights do not ultimately ruin the encounter, they have an ominous presence. They disrupt nature, thus threatening the natural order and life itself. After Nick finishes telling the story, he “was reminded of something — an elusive rhythm… for a moment a phrase tried to take shape in [his] mouth and [his] lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air” (111). The humming, which evokes factory lines and machinery, bars Nick from communicating with others and connecting with Gatsby’s story. Although telephones strengthen the characters’ relationships, they break them with the same ease. While Nick and Jordan are having a tense conversation, “abruptly [they] weren’t talking any longer. [Nick didn’t] know which one of [them] hung up with a sharp click, but [he knows he] didn’t care” (155). Because Nick and Jordan can hang up, they can easily separate themselves and break their connection which difficult conversations could have strengthened. Jordan says that the experience left her feeling “ a little dizzy for a while,” revealing the sheer ease and speed with which the characters can now isolate themselves from one another and deprive themselves of essential human connection (177). Cars, another form of technology, ultimately cause Gatsby’s downfall. Gatsby says that Myrtle’s death “all happened in a minute… the second [his] hand reached the wheel [he] felt the shock — it must have killed her instantly” (143–144). In a moment, machines can murder innocent people and rip characters apart, creating rifts within their relationships. These rifts are not only deep, but permanent.
By the end of the novel, technology has affected a complete, eternal isolation for the main characters. Death is irreversible — Hamlet calls it “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveler returns” (III.i.87–88). Although Hamlet claims that death “puzzles the will,” in Gatsby, murder does not faze the main characters because technology that makes killing easier removes responsibility from the killer and dehumanizes its victims (III.i.88). Although Daisy kills Myrtle, Mr. Wilson says “Auto hit her. Ins’antly killed… she ran out ina road. Son-of-a-bitch didn’t even stop the car,” acknowledging the role the driver had in murdering Myrtle while putting the blame on the machine itself, thus relieving Daisy of her accountability (139). Nick also objectivizes the victims, describing Myrtle’s body in great detail and reducing Gatsby to leaves circling “a thin red circle in the water” and Mr. Wilson into “Wilson’s body” (162). In doing so, Nick lets machines dehumanize their victims and make their bodies into props in a larger story, much like Hamlet does with Polonius and Ophelia. Guns are another way to quickly and impersonally kill someone. Although one of Mr. Wolfsheim’s chauffeurs that was working for Gatsby heard the gunfire, he did not immediately go to see what was happening because “he hadn’t thought anything much about them” — shootings have become so commonplace that they are no longer a cause for concern (162). The advancement of all of these technologies will only exacerbate murder’s ability to easily disconnect characters and objectify its victims, and these disconnections are permanent. After their breakup, Jordan reveals that she is engaged to another man, thus removing herself from Nick’s life. Earlier, although Nick tried to connect with Gatsby’s story, he “made no sound, and what [he] had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever” (111). Nick uses Gatsby to connect with the outside world and explore himself, and so when he is unable to communicate his feelings, he becomes isolated from the other characters in the novel, society, and himself.
These technologies are not only pervasive throughout the novel, but they will not disappear. Even as Nick tries to return to the pre-technological age of the Dutch settlers, Myrtle’s death and the green light haunt the passage. Fitzgerald uses “breast”, “rolled”, and “run faster, stretch out our arms faster” to evoke Myrtle’s death to remind the reader that they cannot easily dismiss the effects of the murders in the novel. In the last sentence of the Gatsby, Nick reflects that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back carelessly into the past” (180). Although we might desire and attempt to return to a past without technology, we do so carelessly, without any promise of success. In the second-to-last paragraph, Nick, sitting alone on the beach, describes the hope Gatsby placed in the green light and the light’s permanence. The light hangs over the last sentence, further cementing that any escape from technology is impossible and so Nick’s isolation is indomitable.
In The Great Gatsby, although technology seems wholly innocent and beneficial for its users, it hides a more insidious ability to divide and disconnect. The machinery that once allowed Gatsby to host his parties emotionally and physically disconnects the characters by slowly invading their relationships and breaking their bonds. Today, technology has made our lives easier and more efficient at the cost of our emotional health. Our increasing dependency on these devices makes an end to their isolation seem impossible. Before the pandemic, with ever-increasing screen-time rates, there was an unprecedented loneliness epidemic and mental health crisis that has only worsened during COVID. Because we now see our friends, family, and classmates through a screen instead of in person, our connections have become more parasocial than personal, creating an intense emotional and physical isolation. Additionally, with the simultaneous advancement in arms technology and lack of gun control legislation, it has become easier than ever before to kill someone without accountability; gun control debates tend to focus more on the weapon than on the shooter themself. The Great Gatsby tried and failed to warn us about technology’s shimmering facade of connection and the grim reality of physical and emotional isolation. Now we suffer the few benefits and many consequences of the automation that was once so eagerly anticipated and celebrated.