Inevitable and indomitable, death is the ultimate expression of human frailty. We cannot escape its judgement, and we cannot share its experience. Death leaves us naked and alone against the universe. Modern writers believe that because of its own frailties, language, the written and spoken word, ultimately does the same.
Words are merely symbols for the notions they designate. Depending on our respective experiences and imagination, they can be interpreted in a number of ways, rendering our individual perspectives unique and impossible to communicate. Like humanity, language is imperfect. Modern writers mean to display the often forgotten weaknesses of the written word, how it ultimately leaves us in a state of eternal solitude. Modernists mean to expose the mortality of language.
The notions of death and solitude are linked in both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. In Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby’s scarcely attended funeral is a final testimony to his solitary existence. In Faulkner’s book, Addie’s demise isolates each character in his or her own grief. These lonely deaths are, in fact, extensions of equally lonely lives. The connection between death, life, and solitude is used as a metaphor for modern writers’ elucidation of the solitary confinement in which language leaves us.
Gatsby’s funeral is the most pathetic scene in The Great Gatsby: “The minister glanced several times at his watch, so I took him aside and asked him to wait for half an hour. But it wasn’t any use. Nobody came.” Despite Nick’s best efforts to “get somebody for him”, no one knows or cares enough about Gatsby to mourn his death: “as he lay in his house and didn’t move or breathe or speak, hour upon hour, it grew upon me that I was responsible because no one else was interested—interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right at the end.”
Even when he’s alive, Gatsby’s acquaintances are quick to forget him. To them, he is merely a host: “He’s just a man named Gatsby.” Though they “go there by the hundreds”, not a single guest cares where Gatsby is: “People of whom I asked his [Gatsby’s] whereabouts stared at me in such an amazed way, and denied vehemently any knowledge of his movements.” The name Gatsby means no more to his guests than that of a pub or prestigious club where they spend their nights.
When Gatsby dies, the club shuts down. That is the extent of their commitment to him. At the news of Gatsby’s demise, Klipspringer declines attending the funeral for “a sort of picnic or something”: “I’m staying with some couple up here in Greenwich, and they rather expect me to be with them [...] What I called up about was a pair of shoes I left there. I wonder if it’d be too much trouble to have the butler send them on.” Even Daisy, a woman who claims to love him, “hadn’t sent a message or a flower.”
Wolfshiem states that we should “learn to show our friendship for a man when he is alive and not after he is dead.” Gatsby was shown empathy at neither time. He died the way he lived: drowning in a luxurious pool, half-naked and alone. The luxurious pool is an emblem of the lifestyle he tried to acquire but never successfully embodied: “I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck [...] whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.” His skimpy attire represents his seldom apparent vulnerability: “You [Gatsby] are acting like a little boy [...] Not only that, but you’re rude. Daisy’s sitting in there all alone.” Finally, his solitude is a representation of the true nature of his existence. All delusions of grandeur stripped away in a single, final moment, the great Gatsby dies humiliated.