F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
May 12, 2013 § 1 Comment
I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought – frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.
And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction – Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament” – it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men. (pp. 6-7 e-book edition)
For nearly ninety years, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) has entranced and befuddled readers. It is simultaneously a narrative of an age and a repudiation of it. At times elegant and sophisticated in its treatment of the Jazz Age of the 1920s, it also outlines the self-destructions that took place during the Prohibition Era in the aftermath of World War I. Yet each generation finds something of itself within this narrative. For the first readers, The Great Gatsby was a portrait of ephemerality, a mere capturing of a helluva party and its blinding hangover. It is little surprise in hindsight that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime that it sold poorly; it was but one of several “period pieces” and not necessarily the most inventive one (even among Fitzgerald’s own works) at that. Yet something began to change during World War II. Perhaps it was the author’s death and his friend (and book critic) Edmund Wilson’s tireless championing of Fitzgerald’s work that led to its rediscovery nearly twenty years after its initial publication. Whatever it was, for the post-WWII generation, The Great Gatsby read more like a prophecy of their own times, of the period before the deluges of the Great Depression and World War II. The wild excesses of the speakeasies and the flamboyant daring of the flappers stood out in contrast to the grinding mass poverty of the 1930s and the destruction of WWII. It is easy to see within The Great Gatsby a condemnation of the extravagance of the Roaring ’20s and a brief hint of the ruinous world to come. Yet other generations, namely those of the ’60s and ’80s, could see in the hypnotic lure of the period presages of their own riotous rebellions against the parsimonious qualities of the decades before them. Even today, there is something compelling about that time which Fitzgerald narrates in such detail. In the wake of the wars on terrorism and human rights (depending upon your outlook, I suppose), there is a paradoxically hedonistic innocence to the Jazz Age. The rations of WWI were over, women had begun to gain long-overdue civil rights, and the whole country seemed to be in a state of reactive rebellion against the constraints of rationing and the Progressive Era prohibition movement.
Yet within these socio-cultural rebellions lurked something less noble and more threatening. In the character of Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald presents a modern-day Trimalchio (originally, this was the title to the first draft of the story), a near-innocent who observes the degradations that people put themselves through in order to make themselves believe that they are alive and of great worth. The opening section, excerpted above, shows the character reflecting back on the tumultuous year of 1922 in the fictitious Long Island settings of East and West Egg. Through the Midwestern middle-class eyes of Nick, Fitzgerald details not just the glitz and glamor of the bon ton set but also the more sordid lives of the Wilsons and those who lived on the margins of (polite) society during the 1920s. Overlooked by readers focusing on the love triangles of Gatsby-Daisy-Tom and Tom-Myrtle-George is Fitzgerald’s keen eye for the troubling societal issues of the day. “The valley of ashes,” while it does not constitute a major part of the story in terms of page count, provides a counterpoint to the decadent parties of the West and East Eggers:
This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powderly air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. (beginning of Ch. 2, p. 25 e-book)
It is here that the most grievous exploitations are witnessed: the cuckolding of the auto repairman George Wilson, the casual domestic violence toward his wife Myrtle by Tom, and the casual dismissal of the populace by both the nouveau riche West Eggers and the old money East Eggers alike. Fitzgerald outlines their plight in short yet sharp strokes; a detailed portrait of the lives of those who did not benefit from the 1920s speculations glints through the narrative. Yet Fitzgerald’s main concern is not with illustrating the underclasses and how they bear the brunt of providing the services for the idle elites but instead is with exploring the moral lassitude of the business and gentry classes. In scenes involving the consumption of bootlegged alcohol or the parties at Gatsby’s, the shallowness and corrupted natures of a wide range of characters is shown: barely is anyone exempt from Fitzgerald’s caustic pen, as police commissioners rub drunken shoulders with crime lords while carousing young men and women dance in a Bacchanalia of frenzied excess. The overall effect is that of an observer narrating the decline and fall of a civilization into petty greed and self-absorption.
This certainly can be seen in three of the main characters: Jordan Baker and the unhappily-married couple of Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Beneath the flash of each of them (golf star, debutante, former college athlete and wealthy heir) lurks nastier traits such as Jordan’s duplicity toward not just Nick but to all that she encounters; Daisy’s reduction of love to material baubles; and Tom’s arrogance toward those who he presumes to be of “lower status” than himself. Even Nick comes across as a pushover, a semi-willing accomplice to deeds that he publicly professes to despise. The world of the Buchanans and those who move in their circle such as Jordan is that of callous disregard for those who cannot provide them with what they need. Fitzgerald not only has Nick voice these opinions but he reveals them through the actions of these characters. The result is a story version of staring entranced at a cobra, knowing that eventually it is going to strike with deadly consequences.
And so it goes in the second half. Ironically, it is Gatsby himself, with his mysterious past, who provides a counter. He moves in the world of swindlers, social parasites, and gangsters and yet no matter how many of their guises he may don, ultimately none of these cling to him. He is surprisingly noble and optimistic in a society that has narrowed its hopes from the spiritual to the base materialism of money, booze, and sex. If anything, he is almost too good to be true and it is to Fitzgerald’s credit that he recognized that and created a character with enough foibles to become a flawed yet sympathetic character whose pseudo-requited love and tragic end resonate more powerfully because he is the antithesis of the other characters.
The Great Gatsby flows smoothly from scene to scene, as the reader witnesses the apparent dissolution of the Buchanans’ marriage and the apparent renewed love of Daisy and Gatsby in a detailed yet quick-moving fashion. Fitzgerald’s dialogues are outstanding, as he masterfully captures the voices of his characters. There are very few false notes, either in the narrative or in the themes that Fitzgerald explores. The conclusion is powerful because of the time spent developing the characters and their flaws. There are no heroes, just only the dead and animated corpses who have shambled throughout the book looking for their next fix. The Great Gatsby continues to be an important work not because it is required reading for millions of high school and college students but because it transcends its particular time and explores the human condition in a way that makes it feel new for succeeding generations. It truly is a masterpiece of American literature and one that deserves to be examined and re-examined as its readers grow older and perhaps less wise about the world around them.