A common motif in The Great Gatsby is Gatsby smiling, immediately followed by Nick swooning so hard he just about dies. I decided to make a note of this whenever it happened during my latest read-through, so here is every instance of Gatsby smiling normally and Nick’s soul leaving his body as a result, ranked from 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 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.
Nick seems to be under the impression that we have all, at one point or another, experienced one of those smiles. He is just confidently putting this out there like “You know when someone smiles at you and your whole life changes and it feels like the smile just gets you?” No, Nick! Nobody knows what you’re talking about! The closest I have ever come is when a cute girl smiled at me at a coffee shop and I instantly fell in love with her, but then it turned out she was smiling at someone behind me and all my dreams turned to ash! Stop bragging!
#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.”
Now this one I can get behind. We have all of us, I think, attended a party (or some other similarly casual get-together) orchestrated by a person we had a crush on, then stuck around a little 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 guy comparing another guy’s smile to that of an ecstatic patron of recurrent light. Sure, Nick’s third wheeling Gatsby’s date with Daisy pretty hard, but do I detect some wistfulness in Nick’s observations? A hint of jealousy, perhaps?
#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, “Sure, he’s spoon-feeding me lies, but boy 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. The fact that The Smile is something Nick must actively resist is so romantic to me that I can barely stand it.
#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 this is one of the most romantic things I have ever heard. And if you can’t see that, then you’re wasting both your time and mine. Good day.