Friday, June 14, 2013

The Great Gatsby

I have not seen the latest film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, but the commercial hype led me to reread what at one time in my life I might have said was my favorite novel of all time.

There is something about the writing style, the wedding-cake richness and artifice that greatly impressed me as a college student.  This time, the language, while I could still admire it, struck me as more pretentious than I had ever thought before, and that, of course, reflects on the narrator, Nick Carraway, who struck me as more snobbish, more deceptive (perhaps self-deceptive) and evasive than I had remembered.  He presents himself as a product of the Midwest, which is more “decent” and less corrupt than the East Coast and East Egg.  Yet Nick is in the thick of enabling two adulterous affairs and covering up the truth of a traffic accident that resulted in someone’s death. 

Nevertheless, as with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, there is incredible power in language that can take the ugliest, most sordid of human experiences and transform it into artistic beauty.  But that is what art and imagination can do, and that is largely what the novel is about, for Gatsby has that same power of imagination to take someone as shallow, hollow, and, as Nick says, “careless” as Daisy and transform her into a romantic ideal.  Nick also projects his romantic idealism, not only onto himself, but also onto Gatsby’s character and onto the whole tragic tale.

If one can look past the misogyny and anti-Semitism of the novel, one can perhaps appreciate how Nick allegorizes its events into a cultural narrative of the American experience and ultimately into a universal statement of the human dilemma, in which we find ourselves forever caught in the web of contradictions between our imaginative vision and the ashes of our own corruption (except that Nick seems to present himself as an innocent bystander rather than a full participant). 

Gatsby’s story parallels the quintessential American success story and I could not help but think of some of his literary forbears—Rip Van Winkle who transforms himself from a hen-pecked husband into the town raconteur after disappearing for twenty years; Ichabod Crane, the fortune hunter, who is attacked by the headless horseman (see previous blog posts Feb. 6, 2013); and, of course Benjamin Franklin, whose project to achieve human perfection pre-figures Gatsby’s self-improvement notes on the book cover of his boyhood copy of Hopalong Cassidy (see previous blog post March 12, 2010).  Like Rip, Gatsby transforms himself from the poor son of “unsuccessful farm people” into a product of his own imagination.  Like Ichabod he courts a woman more for the dream of “money” that she represents than for her own character.  And like Benjamin Franklin he projects the image of a self-made man, who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.

In the classic American success story it is hard work and moral virtue that takes one from rags to riches.  In Gatsby’s case it is imagination, opportunism, and criminal activity which bring him to the lavish mansion across the bay from the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.  The American Dream of material prosperity, in this version, rests on a rotten foundation of moral corruption.

West Egg and East Egg on Long Island Sound represent not only the Midwest and East Coast, but also the New World and the Old World, new (cheap) money and old aristocracy.  Just as the original European settlers glorified and romanticized their plunder of North America, so Gatsby justifies his criminal career in terms of his romantic ideal, personified somehow by the wholly inadequate Daisy. 

In the end we realize that, like all of us, as Gatsby pursues his dream he ultimately hurtles toward his own death.  And the novel suggests that his story is somehow emblematic of the American experience, full of romantic idealism that founders on corruption and destruction.  Between the quintessential city of New York, where their money is made, and the homes of the wealthy on Long Island Sound lie the ash heaps of vulgarity, duplicity, betrayal, violence, and crime.  Overlooking it all are the sightless eyeglasses of T. J. Eckleberg, an abandoned advertisement that seems to represent either the godlessness or the god-forsakenness (or both) of the whole American experiment.

But, of course it is not just American culture; it is the universal story of our human potential for greatness alongside our capacity for evil. 

And so, the dark side of the “success story” is that of ill-gotten gains, and the “love story” is marred by greed, deception, and adultery.  And Nick’s “coming of age,” to the extent that it is that, is aborted by his failure to recognize the evil inside that he carries with him when he returns to the “decent” Midwest.

In Nick’s eyes Gatsby’s sordid life is redeemed by the power of romantic idealism, and perhaps the same can be said of the American dream and the whole human enterprise.  But the phrase “Great Gatsby” also rings hollow with irony, as the mythical host of lavish parties ends up dying alone in his swimming pool at the hands of a misguided revenge-seeker and buried with a bare handful in attendance at his funeral.