Friday, 24 May 2013

The profound shallowness of The Great Gatsby

I’m still not sure what to make of The Great Gatsby, though I must have read it half a dozen times over the years for different reasons. It’s hard not to be distracted by the noise. For such a delicate thing it seems to be burdened with an awful lot of cultural clutter. Is it, for example, the Great American Novel? I’m not sure what kind of beast that would be, but if the phrase suggests anything other than a great novel that happens to be written by an American, I suppose it must be some sort of national epic. 

It seems to me that to fit that definition a novel would need a wider social range. I get that there’s a distinction between Old Money and New Money in The Great Gatsby, but No Money doesn’t get much of a look-in. The narrator Nick Carraway isn’t in the Tom Buchanan class, with the spare cash to transport a stable full of polo ponies at a whim, but he’s able to support himself in New York while he learns the bond business: “Everybody I knew was in the bond business,” he explains. “All my aunts and uncles talked it over as if they were choosing a prep school for me.”

Nick is ironic at his own expense here, as he generally is about Tom and Daisy and the rest of moneyed class.  But that ironic tone is itself a mark of privilege, a style of slightly bored detachment that he shares effortlessly with other members of his narrow social set.

So if not the Great American Novel, is it at least a novel about the American Dream? Well it’s certainly about an American who has a dream. But it’s a peculiarly impractical dream that’s obsessively resistant to forward motion. Gatsby, in case you’ve forgotten, has made himself wealthy by unscrupulous means and bought himself a mansion, which he has thrown open to the whole of New York’s high society, all for the purpose of attracting Daisy, who once rejected him because he was poor. 

The only representative of that class of Americans who work hard in the pursuit of prosperity – or “happiness” as the Declaration of Independence has it – is the utterly hapless George Wilson, husband of Tom Buchanan’s mistress. Wilson struggles to run a garage, a business enterprise in which neither Fitzgerald, nor his narrator Nick Carraway, show any interest. Wilson and the other inhabitants of the “valley of ashes” that lies between Manhattan and New York’s Long Island suburbs are described as “ash-grey men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” They hardly register as people, let alone as individuals with their own dreams and aspirations.

The other candidate for American Dreamhood is Gatsby’s mentor, Meyer Wolfsheim. Wolfsheim is definitely a self-made man and, judging by his accent, an immigrant, which makes him a representative of the old world’s huddled masses, who have been drawn over the centuries to make a new life in America. But Wolfsheim is also a gangster who wears cufflinks made from human molars, a grotesque, shadowy figure who needs Gatsby – “an Oggsford man”—to put a semi-legitimate face on his crooked deals.  Fitzgerald is uncomfortably complicit in this and other stereotypes accepted by the privileged insiders.

Of course Fitzgerald can see that his rich characters are indifferent to the lives of the working people on whom they depend. How else could he construct a sentence as brilliantly pointed as this: “There was machine in [Gatsby’s] kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.”

But Fitzgerald is no more interested in the Butler than Gatsby is. Work is not his subject. He’s fascinated by wealth, not by the pursuit of wealth, and certainly not by its creation. Class in The Great Gatsby is a static condition and to rise socially seems to depend on a kind of fraud. I think this is why I find references to the novel’s American-ness so unhelpful.

I’m more conscious of its European connections and, behind that , its archetypal resonance. I think of Great Expectations. Gatsby is a cousin to Pip, with Wolfsheim as his Magwitch, the criminal who has made him a gentleman. Pip too harbours the delusion that his social rise will allow him to win the beautiful rich girl who rejected him in his impoverished youth.

In his obsession with the past, Gatsby is related more distantly to Dumas’ Edmond Dantès, who escapes from wrongful imprisonment, acquires fabulous wealth and returns as the Count of Monte Cristo to haunt the lives of those who have injured him, including the beautiful Mercédès, now married to his enemy.

Gatsby’s story is a variation on Wuthering Heights, another tale of an impoverished and low-born lover who is rejected in favour of an aristocratic rival, but returns a wealthy man to brood in his desolate house, across the moor from where his soul-mate endures a life of decorous boredom.

It’s also a version of Beauty and the Beast, with Gatsby’s house as the enchanted castle. And it’s the story of Tam Lin, who lures Janet to his magic forest and then instructs her how she can liberate him from his captivity by pulling him from his horse as he rides with the fairies on Halloween, holding him while he shifts through many fearful shapes, until finally he will appear in his own person as a naked knight.

My guess is that for most people who love The Great Gatsby what they love is Fitzgerald’s ability to capture such a sense of enchantment. And when they talk about his style they mean his ability to spin one outrageously sumptuous sentence after another and most times get away with it. He’s a poet of the fleeting beauty of youth, a master of the melancholy cadence, always more than half in love with the life of careless indulgence that is the object of his satire. He exposes all that’s frivolous about the flapper generation, but it’s when he’s describing their frivolity that he’s at his most characteristically seductive:

All night the saxophones wailed the hopeless comment of the Beale Street Blues while a hundred pairs of golden and silver slippers shuffled the shining dust. At the grey tea hour there were always rooms that throbbed incessantly with this low, sweet fever, while fresh faces drifted here and there like rose petals blown by the sad horns around the floor. Through this twilight universe Daisy began to move again with the season; suddenly she was again keeping half a dozen dates a day with half a dozen men, and drowsing asleep at dawn with the beads and chiffon of an evening dress tangled among dying orchids on the floor beside her bed.

Nick Carraway says of Gatsby that “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him.” Out of such gestures as this sketch of Daisy’s youthful life, in all its fragility and yearning, is constructed the gorgeousness of Fitzgerald’s novel. 

Footnote: For a bright and elegantly written review of Baz Luhrmann’s film, see the website of friend and colleague Claire Dyer, who liked it much more than me. A fan of the book, Claire confesses to reading it through rose-tinted spectacles, but doesn’t say whether she wore red and blue ones to see the film.


  1. Thanks Joe. I was reminded of the Carly Simon song, "You're So Vain". I suspect "The Great Gatsby" could also be considered one of the "Great World" Novels. Vanity & Shallowness continue to prevail on a much larger landscape these days.

  2. I really enjoyed that Joe. I've never been able to put my finger on why Gatsby is so easy to read and yet so unsatisfying, or why a powerful sense of the book has stayed with me since I read it for a-level, but none of the details. I think you might have answered my questions! X

  3. Your analysis of the novel, Joe, provides the perfect explanation as to why the new Baz Lurhmann film is so awful and so completely misses the point. Many thanks.

  4. Thanks, HAF, Vic and Adrian, for your comments. I'm with you, Adrian, on the film, which seems to me to take a sledgehammer to a soufflé.

  5. Many cogent points beautifully argued, Sir. Read years ago as a schoolboy, and remember little beyond vague feelings of non-satisfaction. My Mum likes Fitzgerald, I think, and I remember being more intruiged by The Last Tycoon. Just read TGG again, simply because my wife just read it with her booze club. Sorry - book club. Enjoyed the language. Beautiful writing. For me, plot fizzles out somewhat, and I can't identify with any of the characters. Not great for me, and I suggest East of Eden, On The Road and Less Than Zero as candidates for The Great US Novel. Curiously, read my first Dumas before TGG, and am thoroughly enjoying a re-read of fabulous Gogol at the mo. Now, there's a thread for Mr T to pick up: which Russian novel is your personal favourite? Mine? Hero of our Time. Greetings, by the way, to Mr Barlow: 2 splendid English teachers on one blog!

  6. I’ve never read Hero of Our Time. Thanks for the tip. I see Nabokov did a translation. One day I’ll get to Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, which I’ve seen adapted for the stage. There was a great play at the National last year called Collaborators, in which Bulgakov is forced to collaborate with Stalin on a play to celebrate Stalin’s sixtieth. I've always liked Chekhov, including his stories.

    For favourite Russian novel, right now I'd have to say Crime and Punishment, which I read for the first time in my forties (in a very readable translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky). If I’d attempted it too young I would have probably have found it grim and depressing and missed the exhilaration. There’s a painting by the expressionist Emil Filla called Reader of Dostoyevsky. The reader is slumped back in his chair, emotionally exhausted. When I came across this in Prague a few years ago I found it so funny that I bought a half a dozen postcards. I wish now I’d bought more.