And All that Jazz: Popular Music as Narrative in The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night


Anyone who has seen the recent film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby knows the important role of music, which establishes the mood and atmosphere of the story as well as reflecting the novel’s characters and themes. Looking back at the original novel, Nicoletta Asciuto examines the role that jazz and song play and reconsiders the nuances of music for Fitzgerald’s audience and their implications in a wider context.

The 2013 film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has various narrative inaccuracies, the most apparent being perhaps its utter disconnecting the book from its music. The film’s captivating and rhythmic soundtrack, straight out of a twenty-first-century nightclub, contains only vague reminiscences of 1920s music (will.i.am’s ‘Bang Bang’, for instance), and completely nullifies the most important narrative subtext of the novel — popular music.

Yet, this contemporary soundtrack has one raison d’être. Fitzgerald interspersed both The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934) with popular music of the 1920s, which would have been familiar, and immediately recognizable, to the reader of the Jazz Age; Baz Luhrmann thus reaches his audience with the same sense of immediacy the readers would have probably experienced when reading Fitzgerald’s novel, an otherwise nearly impossible achievement for a twenty-first-century audience.

This lecture gives contextualization of the North American music scene at Fitzgerald’s times, and considers the importance of including the lyrics of certain songs for the two novels’ intertext. This lecture also reassesses how Fitzgerald’s employ of popular music in his writings makes these ‘more American’. It will be thus structured:

  1. synthetic ‘recap’ of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life, and of the music scene in America during the Roaring Twenties;
  2. consideration of a few instances in The Great Gatsby, where the use of popular songs or musical comedies furthers the reader’s understanding of the plot and characters, with music acting as narrative – instances will be ‘I’m the Sheik of Araby. / Your love belongs to me. / At night when you’re asleep / Into your tent I’ll creep –’, from Ted Snyder’s 1921 song (Chapter 4), when Nick Carraway is informed of Gatsby’s request for a private meeting with Daisy Buchanan at his place, and ‘Three O’Clock in the Morning’, played by the orchestra when Daisy leaves Gatsby’s party (Chapter 6).
  3. instances from Tender is the Night, such as the irony of Dick, married to Nicole and yet falling in love with young actress Rosemary, singing the highly popular song ‘Tea for Two’ (Chapter 12, Book 2), originally composed for the 1924 musical No, No, Nanette, consequently adapted by Dmitri Shostakovich as Tahiti Trot, op. 16 (1927) and for his ballet The Golden Age (1929), and then made even more popular by Doris Day in the later musical by the same title (1950).

The lecture familiarizes readers with the music used by Fitzgerald in the two novels. This helps revise the major themes in the novels through the specific key of popular music, as well as addressing questions of narrative and ‘Americanness’.

This lecture was recorded as part of Easter Lectures Day 2015, when postgraduate researchers delivered fresh insights into key undergraduate exam topics. Easter Lectures Day was organised by Dr Simon Grimble.

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