A common motif in The Great Gatsby is Gatsby smiling, which is immediately followed by Nick swooning so hard he just about dies.
I learned this back when I was reading the book and blogging it chapter by chapter. I tried to take note whenever this happened, but the fact of the matter is that it happened too many times to count. I had things to do. I had to talk about the American Dream and Tom Buchanan’s khaki jeggings; I didn’t have time to be listing off every single instance Gatsby smiled and Nick thusly ascended to the next realm.
But that was then, and this is now, so here’s every single one of those times ranked in order of most to least platonic.
#7: Some Random Guy Smiles At Nick, Nick Barely Cares
At a lull in the entertainment, the man looked at me and smiled.
Utterly platonic. There’s nothing to suggest that this as-yet-unnamed man is anything more than a man, or that Nick has but the barest interest in what his face does. To be fair, however, he does not yet know this is Gatsby.
#6: Gatsby Smiles; Nick Responds By Having Lots of Feelings in Gatsby’s General Direction
He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
This is me with every hot person I have ever made direct eye contact with.
Nick seems to be under the impression that we have all, in our time, been subject to one of those smiles. I think the closest I have ever come to experiencing this is that time I saw this cute guy at a book store and he smiled at me, and I smiled at him, and I was already envisioning our future together when I realized he was smiling at the person behind me and all my dreams turned to ash.
#5: Okay Now Nick’s Just Projecting
“Good night.” He smiled — and suddenly there seemed to be a pleasant significance in having been among the last to go, as if he had desired it all the time. “Good night, old sport. . . . good night.”
I MEAN, BUT WE’VE ALL BEEN THERE, HAVEN’T WE? We have all of us, I think, attended a party thrown by someone we had a crush on—someone we wouldn’t have minded hanging out with, in a sexy way—and we stuck around a little bit longer than necessary to help them clean up, after which they smiled and bid us good night and we told ourselves the smile meant something.
#4: Nick is Running Out of Ways to Say “Radiant”
“Oh, hello, old sport,” he said, as if he hadn’t seen me for years. I thought for a moment he was going to shake hands.
“It’s stopped raining.”
“Has it?” When he realized what I was talking about, that there were twinkle-bells of sunshine in the room, he smiled like a weather man, like an ecstatic patron of recurrent light, and repeated the news to Daisy. “What do you think of that? It’s stopped raining.”
Just one dude comparing another dude’s smile to that of a patron of recurrent light. Sure, Nick’s third wheeling Gatsby’s date with Daisy pretty hard, but that hasn’t stopped him from mentioning Gatsby in the same sentence as “twinkle-bells of sunshine,” which I choose to believe was deliberate.
Rough translation: “THE SUN CAME OUT AND GATSBY SMILED LIKE AN ACTUAL IDIOT. HOWEVER, HIS SMILE ITSELF KIND OF LOOKS LIKE THE SUN, YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?”
#3: Nick Doesn’t Believe a Word Gatsby’s Saying, But He Believes in Him
“I was promoted to be a major, and every Allied government gave me a decoration — even Montenegro, little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!”
Little Montenegro! He lifted up the words and nodded at them — with his smile. The smile comprehended Montenegro’s troubled history and sympathized with the brave struggles of the Montenegrin people. It appreciated fully the chain of national circumstances which had elicited this tribute from Montenegro’s warm little heart. My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.
Gatsby is taking him for a ride here, and Nick knows it. Nick is like, “Yeah, he’s spoon-feeding me lies, but hot damn does he look good doing it!”
There was the smile again, but this time I held out against it.
Nick has wised up. He is refusing to yield to the power of The Smile.
#1: There Is Nothing I Can Add to This One
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.
I come to you with no agenda, only an unquenchable thirst for truth, and the truth, as near as I can tell, is this: Nick knows every thought Gatsby has ever had, based on his facial expressions alone, and that notion is not an entirely un-romantic one. And if you can’t see that, then you’re wasting both your time and mine. Good day.
This post was originally published in September 2016