The Great Gatsby Really Great Essay
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What's So Great About The Great Gatsby? - Professor Bernstein
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Misunderstanding has been a part of The Great Gatsby's story from the very start. Grumbling to his friend Edmund Wilson shortly after publication in , Fitzgerald declared that "of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about. The novel achieved only so-so sales, and by the time of the author's death in , copies of a very modest second print run had long since been remaindered. The novel has become a force in pop culture, helped by Hollywood; the term 'Gatsbyesque' emerged a few years after the film starring Robert Redford Credit: Getty Images.
Gatsby's luck began to change when it was selected as a giveaway by the US military. With World War Two drawing to a close, almost , copies were distributed in a special Armed Services Edition, creating a new readership overnight. As the s dawned, the flourishing of the American Dream quickened the novel's topicality, and by the s, it was enshrined as a set text. It's since become such a potent force in pop culture that even those who've never read it feel as if they have, helped along, of course, by Hollywood. It was in , just a few short years after Robert Redford starred in the title role of an adaptation scripted by Francis Ford Coppola, that the word Gatsbyesque was first recorded.
Along with Baz Luhrmann's divisive movie extravaganza, the book has in the past decade alone spawned graphic novels, a musical, and an immersive theatrical experience. From now on, we're likely to be seeing even more such adaptations and homages because at the start of this year, the novel's copyright expired , enabling anyone to adapt it without permission from its estate. Early calls for a Muppets adaptation may have come to nothing never say never , but a big-budget TV miniseries is already in the works, and author Min Jin Lee and cultural critic Wesley Morris are both writing fresh introductions to new editions.
The Great Gatsby has in the last decade spawned a film adaptation, a musical, a ballet and an immersive theatre experience Credit: Alamy. If this all leaves Fitzgerald purists twiddling their pearls like worry beads, it's quite possible that while some such projects may further perpetuate the myth that throwing a Gatsby-themed party could be anything other than sublimely clueless, others may yield fresh insights into a text whose very familiarity often leads us to skate over its complexities.
Take, for instance, Michael Farris Smith's new novel, Nick. The title refers, of course, to Nick Carraway, the narrator of Gatsby, who here gets his own fully formed backstory. It's the tale of a Midwesterner who goes off to Europe to fight in World War One and comes back changed, as much by a whirlwind love affair in Paris as by trench warfare. Like many, Smith first encountered the novel in high school. It seemed like something on almost every page was speaking to me in a way I had not expected," he recalls. Reaching the scene in which Carraway suddenly remembers it's his thirtieth birthday, Smith was filled with questions about what kind of a person Gatsby's narrator really was. The thought crossed my mind that it would be really interesting if someone were to write Nick's story," he says.
In , by then a published author in his forties, he sat down to do just that, telling neither his agent nor his editor. It was only when he delivered the manuscript 10 months later that he learned copyright law meant he'd have to wait until to publish it. Smith points to a quote from one of Fitzgerald's contemporaries as having provided the key to understanding Carraway.
It's a far cry from the riotous razzmatazz of all that partying, yet Carraway is, Smith suggests, the reason Fitzgerald's novel remains read. We have to respond to and understand Gatsby and, as we do so, remain aware that we're approaching him through Nick's very particular perspective, and through Nick's very ambivalent relationship to Gatsby, which is simultaneously full of praise and full of severe criticism, even at some moments contempt," he says. Like Smith, Cain first encountered the novel as a student. It was a different era — the s — but even so, little attention was paid to Nick.
Cain recalls instead talk of symbolism — the legendary green light, for example, and Gatsby's fabled automobile. It's a reminder that, in a way, the education system is as much to blame as pop culture for our limited readings of this seminal text. It may be a Great American Novel but, at fewer than pages, its sublimely economical storytelling makes its study points very easy to access. Ironically, given that this is a novel of illusion and delusion, in which surfaces are crucial, we all too often overlook the texture of its prose. As Cain puts it, "I think when we consider The Great Gatsby, we need to think about it not just as a novel that is an occasion or a point of departure for us to talk about big American themes and questions, but we have to really enter into the richness of Fitzgerald's actual page-to-page writing.
We have to come to Gatsby, yes, aware of its social and cultural significance, but also we need to return to it as a literary experience. Ewing Klipspringer plays the piano:. Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air. The tune accents the contrast between rich and poor, and combines the intonation of a loud wind and a counter-intuitive, faintly sounding thunder. Almost five years!
There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. He is a reader as much as we are, a reader of Gatsby who is struggling to understand this fabulously rich man who is captivating and mysterious, at once intriguing and absurd. Is this perception or, again, is it projection? It could feel tacked on, a sudden shift from the focus on Gatsby himself.
His hand took hold of hers and as she said something low in his ear he turned toward her with a rush of emotion. Fitzgerald was an avid reader of poetry, especially Keats and Shelley and others of the Romantic and Victorian periods. Nick tells us what he sees as he looks at Gatsby and Daisy, but he cannot hear her words. I looked once more at them and they looked back at me, remotely, possessed by intense life.
Then I went out of the room and down the marble steps into the rain, leaving them there together. Gatsby and Daisy are reunited; Nick is forgotten, isolated from them, the detail of the falling rain calling attention to his sense of forlorn separateness from them. It voices the feeling of being alive at the highest degree that dreamers long for, the dream for them becoming incredibly true. This intense life is not in Nick himself. He is on the outside. When we read The Great Gatsby , we tend to highlight Gatsby and his pursuit of Daisy, and the conflict that arises between him and Tom Buchanan—two wealthy men, each determined to defeat his rival and claim exclusive ownership of the beautiful woman.
The action of the story that Nick is telling took place in June—August , and it is now two years later. Much time has passed, and he is back home in the Midwest. We might consider how much we could recall of a stretch of incidents and persons, spanning three months, that occurred two years earlier. How trustworthy would our memory be? When we really read The Great Gatsby , we should devote attention to Nick, to his dreams or their absence , and to his social and economic position. Nick, we learn, is a Yale graduate and a veteran of the war. At the outset, his tone is sometimes self-indulgently clever and sarcastic, irritating, even as all the while he—that is, the astute artist Fitzgerald—is revealing his own entitled background and fine fortune.
Nick is not from a very wealthy family, but he is not from a poor one, either:. My family have been prominent, well-to-do people in this middle-western city for three generations. Nick says that the family tradition is that they descend from a line of Scottish peers, a detail that he mentions with irony but that, at the same time, he did not need to mention at all. He has pride in his origins, his status and distinction, which he downplays and is wry about, but which matters to him. The Carraways were immigrants, generations ago; they are not newly arrived on East coast shores. This is more than a family; in an American context, with its more compressed time-frame, it is a clan, a line.
The founder of this family-line must have achieved a measure of success, his American Dream, because when the Civil War threatened him, he had the money to buy an exemption from service in the Union army. He paid a substitute to risk mutilation or death in his place. After the war, Nick was restless and, unlike the pioneers who journeyed westward, he moved in the opposite direction:. I decided to go east and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business so I supposed it could support one more single man.
Father agreed to finance me for a year and after various delays I came east, permanently, I thought, in the spring of twenty-two. Nick is somewhat cavalier about turning to the bond business. He is not single-minded or ambitious, not motivated by a burning dream of his own. The fact that everybody he knew was in the bond business tells us about the types of people he and his supportive family are familiar with.
Nick then headed East, with a propitious advantage not available to others: his father agreed to finance him for a year. Periodically, Nick refers to the work he does, the people with whom he interacts, and his attitude toward them:. I knew the other clerks and young bond-salesmen by their first names and lunched with them in dark crowded restaurants on little pig sausages and mashed potatoes and coffee. I even had a short affair with a girl who lived in Jersey City and worked in the accounting department, but her brother began throwing mean looks in my direction so when she went on her vacation in July I let it blow quietly away. Her brother suspected that Nick would take sexual advantage of his sister and then would dispense with her.
To him, this young woman was merely a fling. But, nonetheless, he is a member of this club. It is not only the very wealthy Tom Buchanan who benefits from privilege, but so does the Ivy League graduate and Yale Club member Nick. Nick has the means to travel abroad and sojourn in resort towns on the French Riviera and in Normandy. He is among the fortunate few. Perhaps this is the trait in Gatsby that for Fitzgerald defines him as an American Dreamer—imagination. The greatest American dreamers say Yes, but their power comes first from saying No.
This is the insight that Fitzgerald, writing during and about the s, establishes and explores. The American Dreamer, as exemplified in the charismatic, crazy Gatsby, strives for success, for self-realization, rushing forward. Who I am, is intolerable to me, and I will not endure my existence in this paltry life: I will become someone else. What was happening all around him? In the aftermath of the war, the U. The unemployment rate hit But, in a spectacular turnaround, it dropped to 6. As the scholar Robert A. The U. Many Americans at last had discretionary income, and, from shrewd marketers, they were receiving nonstop guidance about how to spend it.
The historians George B. During the spending sprees of the s, Americans could purchase cameras, wrist-watches, washing machines, and much else. By , "50 million people a week went to the movies--the equivalent of half the nation's population" Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts, Hollywood's America , 4th ed. Nick and Tom attended Yale. Gatsby spent some weeks at Oxford. Daisy, meanwhile: we hear nothing about her education which may have been entirely at home, with tutors. She has no interests other than travel and conspicuous consumption and display.
The action of the novel takes place in ; the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified in August There is no indication that this means anything to Daisy. During the s,women began to benefit from greater freedom. Divorce, for example, became easier. In , 1 in every 21 marriages ended in divorce; in , it was 1 in 7. The ever-increasing popularity of movies and magazines also led to more attention to the right and best types of female behavior and appearance. As another historian, Jane Bailey, has said:. The heightened emphasis on female sexuality was not entirely emancipatory, however. As movies and magazines became more popular, standardized ideals of physical attractiveness took root. Daisy is slender, and she smokes.
She also drinks alcohol, though, it seems, not to excess. This, in the story, was in June Prohibition went into effect in it was illegal to manufacture, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages, and the consumption of alcohol, overall, declined. But drinking was common, and fashionable, for the middle and upper classes; at the expensive Plaza Hotel, Tom takes out a bottle of whiskey, and Daisy offers to make him a mint julep Robert A. The s also marked the boom of the automobile-industry. By , there were 25 million registered passenger vehicles. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns.
Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory we started to town. Meanwhile, the ineffectual gas-station man George Wilson dreams that Tom will bestow on him a car that the wealthy Buchanans intend to get rid of; he appeals to Tom, reminds him, and in response Tom barks at him in annoyance. Nick also visits the Buchanan residence:.
Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold, and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.
Later, we learn that he and Daisy left Chicago for this massive mansion in the East because of one of his sexual escapades The lifestyles of the rich and famous are maintained by innumerable workers—drivers, cooks, waiters, gardeners, servants. The butler, dehumanized, depersonalized, has been reduced to a thumb. Gatsby does not give him a thought. Fitzgerald perceived that the s economy was making American a new gilded age. At the beginning of the decade, President Warren G. He also implemented steep tariffs and slashed federal spending. Loyalists of big business were appointed to regulatory boards and agencies. Corporate profits and stock dividends soared, rising far more rapidly than did the wages of workers.
The poor man is vanishing from us. Under the Republican system, our industrial output has increased as never before, and our wages have grown steadily in buying power. Poor people were vanishing because no one was bothering to look for them. Workers were losing power, and labor unions—a force during the era of Eugene V. Debs and the Socialists and International Workers of the World—suffered a falling off in their ranks. Farmers had to deal with unstable prices, deep debts, foreclosures, and bankruptcies.
Farm exports fell as agriculture in Europe was restored after the war; farm income in was 22 billion; in , 13 billion. What about African Americans? Nick refers to them several times, e. In s New York City, few African Americans were being escorted in limousines with white men as their drivers. Most were sharecroppers in the South, under the sway of white landowners. Falling prices for crops hurt them badly, and for many the s were harsh and unforgiving. Hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers and other workers lost their jobs during this decade.
They found employment but of an uneven and inadequate kind. Much of the work they did was in the lowest-paying jobs; and they lived in segregated areas, in inferior-quality housing. Mexican Americans, too, had failed to share in the prosperity. During the s, each year 25, Mexicans migrated to the United States. Most lived in conditions of extreme poverty. In Los Angeles the infant mortality rate was five times higher than the rate for Anglos, and most homes lacked toilets. A survey found that a substantial number of Mexican Americans had virtually no meat or fresh vegetables in their diet; 40 percent said that they could not afford to give their children milk.
Digital American History, University of Houston. Only the top 10 percent owned stocks. This was a decade of extreme income inequality, as Fitzgerald confirms. McElvaine, The Great Depression , Also in , the stock market crashed, from in September to 52 in July Banks failed; farmers lost their lands; factories and mines came to a stop. Investments and savings were wiped out. There was no safety net. For much of the nation, financial prosperity and security were not achievable in the s, and by the s, except for the very fortunate, it had disappeared.
So much for the American Dream. But we should inquire into this American Dream even more, this term to which The Great Gatsby is always linked. For it was in circulation not only during the s, but earlier as well. From to the present, by contrast, there are more than one hundred. Still, the phrase does appear in various texts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the implication is that people know what it means. Zelda Sayre was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in ; her father, Anthony Dickinson Sayre — , a lawyer, jurist, and Democratic legislator, was appointed in to the State Supreme Court. I am sure that he read the Montgomery Advertiser ; possibly he perused this editorial on a day when his daughter was at the breakfast table or in the living room with him.
Scott Fitzgerald, commissioned as a second lieutenant, met Zelda in Montgomery in July ; this is altered slightly, but not significantly, in the novel—Gatsby meets Daisy in August , in Louisville, Kentucky. He craved success as a writer because through it he believed he could win Zelda. His first novel, This Side of Paradise , was published on March 26, ; one week later, he and Zelda were married. Age twenty-four, Fitzgerald had obtained the object that had enchanted him.
The assumption seems to be that Fitzgerald approved. The American Dream as aspiration and illusion had gained currency in the aftermath of World War II and from the surge in the economy that boosted consumption in the s. Unemployment was low, inflation was low. When was this era? The American Dream was not widespread in the s, and it became even more restricted during the Great Depression decade. Adams — , born in Brooklyn, was an excellent student in high school and college, but he faltered in his graduate studies in philosophy and history and found little satisfaction in publishing and finance. While living in New York with his father and sister, Adams began to devote his time and energy to the writing of history, based in primary sources, rendered in an appealing, accessible style.
Adams based The Epic of America on his conviction that self-improvement and self-formation were the motive forces in American history. Adams maintains that there has always been:. It is a difficult dream for the European upper-classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. No, the American dream that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtless counted heavily. It has been much more than that.
It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class. And that dream has been realized more fully in actual life here than anywhere else, though very imperfectly even among ourselves. It has been a magnificent epic and dream, Adams affirms. But he then asks, what about the American Dream at present and in the future? If the American dream is to come true and to abide with us, it will, at bottom, depend on the people themselves.
If we are to achieve a richer and fuller life for all, they have got to know what such an achievement implies. In a modern industrial State, an economic base is essential for all. The concern that Adams expresses is about income inequality—he saw it in the s, and again in the Great Depression decade. And after two years the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow—the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.
The upper tenth troubles Adams too, as he declares in a verdict that applies to the s, the s—and to where we are in the twenty-first century:. There is no reason why wealth, which is a social product, should not be more equitably controlled and distributed in the interests of society. A system that steadily increases the gulf between the ordinary man and the super-rich, that permits the resources of society to be gathered into personal fortunes that afford their owners millions of income a year, with only the chance that here and there a few may be moved to confer some of their surplus upon the public in ways chosen wholly by themselves, is assuredly a wasteful and unjust system.
It is, perhaps, as inimical as anything could be to the American dream. Gatsby wanted money, an immense amount of it, which he procures by lawless means, so that he can capture Daisy, who represents for him privilege and status. It never occurs to Gatsby to consider whether Daisy, herself, wants to participate in his dream. He assumes that she does—and that she will immediately erase the fact that she has been and is married to Tom and is the mother of a child. Gatsby is blinded by his dream, and by money and the potency he believes that it gives him. But for Gatsby this will not suffice.
He will not allow Daisy to say that she once loved Tom but now loves him. He commands her to negate the person she was, a person with a past and a memory of it. The money that Gatsby has, and the magnitude of his hyperbolic purchases, should prove to her, so Gatsby presumes, that he loves her and that she should join him in the story-line of their lives than he has constructed. Gatsby does feel apprehension when Daisy seems not to be falling into exact conformity with his image of her, to which Nick replies:. He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. Nick warns Gatsby about the impossibility of this ultimatum, this imposition on Daisy.
His intention is not that at all. It is through money and rhetoric to obliterate the past, to write a new history on a blank page, as though the one there before had never existed. Why not? If you have the money, you can do anything. It is criminal to recreate another person in the coercive manner that Gatsby is committed to. His dream is to make it the way it was not: he hates his past, and his money is his guarantee that he can dispense with the person he was and invite—that is, order—Daisy to do the same. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was Often it is difficult to know when Nick is giving us an accurate impression of Gatsby and when he is speculating about him.
They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder. This is far beyond anything that Gatsby could articulate. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. It is oracular for Gatsby, who would take part in the Argonne offensive in France 66 , one of the deadliest battles in U.
To pre-war Gatsby, Daisy is not only desirable but excitingly so: she arouses, stirs, stimulates him. It amazed him—he had never been in such a beautiful house before. Later, Gatsby will insist that Daisy obliterate, wipe out , , her relationship with Tom. But at this initial stage, her value to Gatsby is increased because other young men have loved her. However glorious might be his future as Jay Gatsby, he was at present a penniless young man without a past, and at any moment the invisible cloak of his uniform might slip from his shoulders.
So he made the most of his time. He took what he could get, ravenously and unscrupulously—eventually he took Daisy one still October night, took her because he had no real right to touch her hand. Gatsby is pretending to Daisy to be someone he is not. In army uniform—another marvel, the cloak that is invisible—all of the officers are the same. Gatsby can represent himself to Daisy as better in status than he really is.
Deceiving her, he is playing a role; he knows she does not know who he is—the offspring of shiftless, unsuccessful parents whom he has repudiated. Is this love? If it is, it is expressed as if it were theft, a trespass, an act of resentment, of hate and self-hatred. Fitzgerald could have written the passage differently, or not included it at all. This is what he wanted. He feels married to her: it is hard to know what this means. For the main impression is one of coercion and grievance, of sexual violation. Gatsby desires Daisy. Or, should we say that he despises her? Gatsby knows that Daisy does not know who he is and would rebuff him if she did. His interaction with her has left him feeling cancelled out, null and void.
Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. She had caught a cold and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor. Gatsby, objectifying Daisy, values her silvery presence for its distance from futile poverty where dreams never come true. She is preserved in her wealth; she is imprisoned too, but the implication is that Gatsby, by uniting himself to her, will liberate her along with himself.
This is an impossible dream, as somewhere in his mind Gatsby is aware. Daisy is captivating but sullied in his eyes: he has tainted her by taking her. She thought I knew a lot because I knew different things from her What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do? Gatsby is acknowledging that, for him, the American Dream is better talked about than experienced: he could have done great things but what is even better is the prospect of telling Daisy that he will do them in the future.
It might be better for Gatsby never to do them, because if they were done, it would no longer be possible to talk about them, anticipate them, look forward to them. Gatsby may realize that if he did great things, these would not make him happy. Not doing them means not being disappointed. In the screenplay for his film adaptation of The Great Gatsby , , Baz Luhrmann revises the dialogue of this scene. A great mistake. I might still be a great man if I could only forget that I once lost Daisy.
But my life, old sport, my life has got to be like this… He draws a slanting line from the lawn to the stars. There is time for him to choose a different direction. Money is not everything and neither is Daisy, But Gatsby cannot make this choice: he cannot forget that he lost Daisy. Does he want to possess her because he desires her, or does he desire her because he lost her? Fitzgerald criticizes delusion and illusion, yet from first to final page, his craftsmanship, his adroit literary language, is subtle and sensitive.
He pays tribute to the American Dream that he discredits, and we remain wedded to it. In big cities and small towns; among men and women; young and old; black, white, and brown—Americans share a faith in simple dreams. A job with wages that can support a family. Health care that we can count on and afford. A retirement that is dignified and secure.