This coming Sunday, April 10, celebrates the 91st anniversary of the release of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. It’s a book that refuses to let go of its hold on my mind and heart and below is a piece I’d written a while ago trying to dissect why. It’s a bit more quote-heavy than my usual pieces, but then again it’s such a quotable book. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section 🙂
(Originally published on Write Club)
I don’t claim to be an expert on “The Great American Novel” or the “roaring twenties” but The Great Gatsby is a book I’ve been unable to forget since I first read it some eight odd years ago. I’m haunted by the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the one that keeps propelling Jay Gatsby towards a future that is already in the past. I’m affected by the sheer hopelessness of the characters, their need to escape and forget demons that will never leave, their attempts at creating a façade that cracks at the first hint of reality and shatters any illusion that they’ve been building up.
Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 movie version was by no stretch of imagination without its flaws and glaring omissions, and yet there is truth behind the seeming superficiality and focus on the exterior. His interpretation may fail to capture many of the layers and brilliance of Fitzgerald’s writing (an area where every cinematic version has failed so far) but the essence of “shallowness” that permeates everything in the film is not off the mark. A longstanding theme of the novel is its almost complete surrender to material wealth and its lurid comforts. It was a period of excess, of debauchery, of being everyone but yourself, and also ultimately about the stark futility of it all.
There is a certain hollowness to the entire production that pays perfect homage to the emptiness felt by the reader at the end of the book, however many times he may have read it. It is something the new version embodies very well, with a modern twist that shows just how compatible the 21st century with its commercial, consumerist, material values is with a time Fitzgerald himself titled the Jazz Age. After all, isn’t a carefully crafted and controlled image, money and the subsequent abuse of power so entrenched in the psyche of our society today? Maybe that’s the reason why we still gravitate towards the text, still try to find meaning, some answers, any answers but fail to come away with anything tangible.
At this point I will confess that I hate the characters that populate the world of the story. There are flashes and moments when I felt a sudden pang of sympathy and understanding, but more often than not I wanted them to be woken up from their fake lives and face the reality. Daisy and Tom Buchanan and even lady golfer Jordan Baker for that matter are all careless, selfish people retreating back into the safety of their money after destroying the lives of others. Jay Gatsby and Nick Carroway were possibly the only two characters I empathised with for a bit longer than the others. The others definitely aroused my curiosity and I wanted to know whether they got their comeuppance (the answer is not really), but it was the two West Egg neighbours that made me want to read on. And yet I knew that they were hurtling towards an obvious, cruel fate that I was powerless to stop.
“It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.”
Nick’s parting words to him, on the brilliant morning that should have heralded a new dawn but instead meant an end of sorts, make you ache with the tragedy of it all; a part of you hoping against hope that it could turn out well after all for this man with the incorruptible dream. It is the only compliment he ever pays Gatsby, and we smile in spite of the foreboding and foreshadowing of the words.
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
In a way he really is. He may have a past that is unsavoury, may have used illegal means to amass his fortune, but everything that he does has one underlying purpose—an undying hope that propels him forward, a hope of one day meeting Daisy again and being given a second chance to live his life the way he really wanted to. Jay desperately wants to recover the person he was back when he first fell in love with Daisy; he has an obsessive passion that the past can be changed, that our current confused course of life can be altered, that if given a chance to go back to “a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was …”
This endears us to him, makes us feel sorry for him once it’s clear that it’s a dream he should have let go long ago. Even his first meeting with Daisy after five long years falls short of the brilliant expectations he has carefully and meticulously built up about her and their life together.
“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
And yet he persists because he must. Without the dream he is nothing, he has allowed every inch of himself to be consumed by thoughts of the perfect life he believes was snatched away from him. It is doomed from the start, the seemingly infallible wish that shatters his belief that the American dream means anybody with money can buy himself a new past, can seek redemption. Gatsby is unstable and yet in spite of it we desperately want things to turn out right for him, the same desperation that is mirrored in his every action, word and thought once it is clear even to his delusional mind that his perceived closeness to Daisy (who we realise never deserved his love) is simply that. An illusion. Just like the elusive green light at the end of Daisy’s dock across the bay from Jay’s West Egg opulence designed to woo only her.
“He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.”
It’s doubly intense and tragic as his dream is destroyed twice—once in his youth when Daisy is the one that got away, and secondly (and more poignantly) when he realises that the present was but a fleeting illusion of the attainment of his dream, one that died before it even began.
“He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
This time around he has nothing to fill the gaping emptiness that engulfs him and his purpose of existence.
“He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”
It’s a common theme throughout the novel. Of all the perceived stylish, cool, rich lifestyles of the rich being a well-constructed façade. But a façade none the less. One that is very fragile, easily exposing the brittle reality behind the unreality.
“For a moment the last sunshine fell with romantic affection upon her glowing face; her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened–then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.”
We are like Nick, who at one of Gatsby’s famed parties finds his perception of the scene changed after some (read, a whole lot) of champagne. Only, instead of champagne, for us it’s the drug of Fitzgerald’s fine prose, the world he’s created, the characters that inhabit it.
“I had taken two finger bowls of champagne and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.”
Fitzgerald’s masterstroke is in creating a superficial world with unreal characters that still linger far longer in our collective memories that we would ever think. We fall under the spell of this headiness just as Nick numbs his mind with the rest of Long Island’s “flappers and philosophers”, but like them, we also have to face the reality once the narrative comes to an end. Accept that the façade will crumble when it is all said and done.
“He (Gatsby) smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life … It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished … Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.”
But we also cannot remain unaffected by Gatsby’s wondorous capacity for hope, the hope that Nick carries within him (“reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope”) as a result of his father’s advice (“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had), which unfortunately at the end is defeated by our capacity as humans for cynicism. Cynicism caused by the capacity of the characters for betrayal. The characters themselves ooze an essential loneliness, a listless, rudderless quality that causes them to drift along life clothed in the highest order of superficiality. But it’s a lack of depth that fails in their purpose for adopting it—they cannot hope to escape or truly run away from the demons of their pasts, from expectations, crushed hearts, hopes and dreams. They cannot forget the meaninglessness of their lives in all their desperation.
There is a literary ironic sense in that a lot of Gatsby’s life mirrored that of Fitzgerald himself. He and the Alabama belle Zelda Sayre led a legendary existence for the first half of their lives, embodying all the excesses of that age. But unlike Gatsby who thought he could hold onto his dream forever, Fitzgerald knew it was borrowed time and that contrary to public opinion, the party would end.
And it was soon enough, just after the publication of The Great Gatsby in fact, that the lives of the Fitzgeralds started to slowly but surely unravel. Zelda ended up in her asylum and Scott went to Los Angeles, Hollywood to build the second great act of his life, not realising that he was already a “forgotten man”.
“Like Gatsby, I have only hope,” he had once said. But just like with Jay Gatsby, it was never meant to be. There would be no second chances for the self-made man. Fitzgerald died of a heart-attack at the age of 44 with his final novel (The Last Tycoon) unfinished. His rival Hemingway had long ago pegged his talent to be something that Fitzgerald himself didn’t quite understand,
Both his art and life mirrored the same fleeting, ephemeral quality. Just like with Gatsby, we know what’s to come and yet we cannot stop it nor pull away. Maybe because a part of ourselves, much against our intelligence, still wants to believe in the power of second chances, in hope and the fulfillment of dreams, in the myths of the American dream. Even as the haunting depression creeps up on us whenthe sun sets on Long Island, the sheer emotions of an ultimately hollow narrative overwhelm us and take an inexplicable hold on our minds, hearts and imaginations.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning—- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Like Nick, who finds himself to be an outsider and an insider at the very same moment, we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by the world of Fitzgerald’s creation. A feeling that never really goes away.
“Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”