Give me your answer do
I’ve become a symbol of foolish decadence and corruption of the American Dream
All for the love of you…
After the crushing disappointment that was The Sun Also Rises (sorry, Hemingway fans) I had to cleanse myself in the florid, engaging jazzy bath that is the prose of F. Scott Fitzgerald. My bias may seem petty as The Great Gatsby is also a Great American Novel hailed in all directions as a piece of century-defining literary might, and is also about people partying and having affairs as narrated by a blank slate observer, but at least ol’ Fitz describes stuff.
Indeed, the lavishly detailed New York seafront of the 1920s that makes up the world of The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite mental holiday spots: hypnotic to read about and imagine, but not a place you’d want to stay. And as the novel serves as a kind of exposé of the degraded debauchery of the rich in America, I’d say that’s kind of the point. The reader is introduced to this wild and messy land of dinner parties and dancing by Nick Carraway, a wholesome young fellow who travels East to work in the bond business (the economy was booming, after all, cresting before it crashed into The Great Depression) and settles comfortably into fashionable obscurity in a little cottage next door to an extravagant mansion, supposedly the home of a mysterious Mr. Gatsby, who hosts huge parties every week and has a long-lost longing for Nick’s cousin Daisy.
Daisy, and her husband Tom (and their oft-forgotten daughter) live on the other side of the bay to Gatsby and Nick, the water a symbolic divide between the neighbourhood of old money and the neighbourhood of new money. Of course, the opulence of both seems equally obnoxious, but this is not something the snobbish characters seem concerned with. Despite the fact that the idea that people can “come from nothing” and work their way up to magnificence is meant to be The American Dream, which is also something the novel quietly dissects.
Gatsby was in fact a big nobody, a dirt-poor farmer’s son, but he forged a new, idealistic identity for himself and made the world his stage for his imaginings to play out. And now, thanks to what is revealed to be the fun business of bootlegging alcohol, he’s so rich he probably brushes his teeth with gold leaf. Which will impress his old sweetheart Daisy, right? Gatsby went away to the First World War, and in the meantime Daisy married someone else, but they can pick up where they left off right? I mean look!! He’s back, he came to live across from her in a big shiny house! Showing off his big shiny wealth! Daisy! Daisy look, look at the extravagant parties I can afford to hold! Look at my beautiful shirts and my shiny new Chekov’s Gun of a car! Daisy look! Look, Daisy, no hands!
Essentially you could say it’s an underdog story that seeks to prove that the underdog story is BS—the underdog scrabbles to become top dog, and when he reaches that glamorous place the pampered pooches born into it still smell the stray on him and turn up their noses, and the regular dogs are only interested in his cool kennel. Spoiler alert, in a great tangle of affairs led by various selfish people, Gatsby ends up getting shot, in his pool, doomed to float forever in the stylish garden, in denial of the fact that autumn was coming and it was getting too cold to swim. “Can’t repeat the past?” he echoes to Nick, one night, baffled. “But of course you can, old sport!” Anything’s possible according to Gatsby. And due to the wonder surrounding him, you’d almost believe he really could warp time, but alas, he’s only human.
Whether or not you know much about the whole American Dream thing, I still think the story’s incredibly relevant—which is possibly why it’s stuck around and gained the stamp of “classic”. The Great Gatsby is about people hiding in fantasy worlds they’ve constructed for themselves (or diving into the worlds others have created, in the case of Gatsby’s many party guests) and chasing intangible things. Or, in the case of Daisy, things that are in fact tangible, but turned out to be far lovelier as a dream. In a material world, is the only incorruptible thing an intangible thing?
It’s also a story about consumerism, classism, gossip, and people being awful to each other simply because they have little else to do with their time. And oh, the people who populate this colourful world are hilariously awful. It’s less down-to-earth than Ernest’s “What I Did on my Holidays” report, for sure, in fact the characters of The Great Gatsby are exaggerated for effect into a sometimes cartoonish whirl.
The cameos are the best, honestly: the lofty art photographer, the girl weeping on top of the piano, the flappers in yellow who speak with their lipstick-lined mouths wide in perpetual scandal and delight, Wolfsheim and his tight bundle of Jewish stereotypes, Owl Eyes who prowls around in awe that Gatsby’s books are real. And Tom, good lord, what a case. I adore him; he’s constructed perfectly to fall somewhere between Cool Jock, villain, and fool.
And I haven’t even mentioned Daisy. What a wondrous toxic flower of a character—as Nick himself remarks, we’re drawn in by her frothy personality and dazzling, era-styled beauty, only to discover that she’s as shallow as a tea saucer. Of course, the reader notices it long before Gatsby does, and can only watch with cruel fascination as she flits in a state of flapping distress to a situation where she doesn’t have to think too much about the bad things in life, whether that means spending her days lazing on couches or fleeing the city when her lover gets murdered. What a supreme ass. But I love her, she’s one of my favourite fictional characters, just because she’s such a shamelessly darling atrocity. The book makes you fall in love with her and fall at her feet, questioning what the hell anyone even sees in her as you do.
Then there’s Nick, our observer, who… doesn’t make a stunning impression, really. His writerly voice is tremendously vivid and wry, but that’s his downfall: it sounds so authorial and world-wise that you forget it’s meant to be a thirty-year-old newcomer narrating, and not an omnipotent force. Gatsby’s majesty and mystery is such that he could hardly tell his own story, and I feel Daisy and Tom would be horribly (but interestingly) unreliable narrators. Nick is objective enough to look at New York and its people through a clean glass lens, and let the reader look with him.
And what a mad whirl of a look it is—to wrap up, The Great Gatsby is still one of my favourite books because it’s beautiful, ridiculous, heartbreaking and endearing, all wrapped up in allegory and words-of-warning that give us a brilliant peek into the Jazz Age, but are also still relevant today, and in fact will still be relevant as long as people continue equating success and wealth with status. So there’s possibly a utopian alternate universe where this didn’t do so well, but for ours I think it makes perfect sense.