OK, let’s get something straight right off the bat: There’s really nothing new to say about ‘The Great Gatsby.’ There’s probably an entire library’s worth of criticism, counter-criticism and counter-counter-criticism about the book. In fact, just by writing about it, I’m probably inadvertently duplicating work done by someone else, somewhere else, at some other point in time. And of course, many others have analyzed it more intelligently than I possibly could.
So, why write about it here? Well, it was kind of inspired by this other blog post I recently came across. If I can turn someone else on to this work who’s put off by its capital “L” Literature standing, I’ll be happy. Plus, I read a while back that a Gatsby movie, starring Leo di Caprio in the eponymous role, is in the works despite the fact that a perfectly serviceable film already exists. If Hollywood can offer yet another take on this flogged nag, then so can I.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s turn our attention to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic. This book has been called the quintessential Great American Novel, because it vividly captures a snapshot of a specific era in our country’s history: the Roaring Twenties.
Just a few years before the time in which Gatsby takes place, the U.S. had gone through the tail end of the Great War and the Spanish Influenza, which together killed tens of millions of people in Europe and North America. After helping win the First World War, the United States — despite its status as the richest and most powerful nation in the world — had largely withdrawn from the international scene in a period of deliberate political and diplomatic isolationism. The sale of alcohol had been outlawed, bringing into being a massive black market economy to supply Americans with booze. And trends in fashion and entertainment, in an apparent effort to sweep away the tragedies and turbulence of the previous decade, pushed aside former boundaries of decorum in search of mindless diversion.
This is the world that Fitzgerald details via memorable characters such as the perpetually bemused and out-of-his-element narrator Nick Carraway, surly rich guy Tom Buchanan, spoiled socialite (and Tom’s wife) Daisy Buchanan, and — of course — the enigmatic Jay Gatsby.
The book starts out with Nick moving into a cottage on Gatsby’s property. He hears strange stories about his mysterious landlord, such as the fact that he holds lavish parties that he doesn’t actually attend and that his money comes from some not quite on-the-level business endeavors. When he finally meets Gatsby, he must square these odd rumors with the actual person, an ostensibly self-made millionaire who seems very generous and friendly.
Nick, who is not wealthy, is granted entrée into the rarefied world of the rich because of his filial relationship with Daisy, who was courted by Gatsby years before, when he was poor (or at least not in the same class as she was). Because of his lowly station, Daisy rebuffed him and married Tom Buchanan, who, like her, came from a well-to-do family. But Daisy apparently maintains real feelings for Gatsby, which resurface when Nick invites her to one of his famous soirees. Gatsby and Daisy have an affair, which sparks jealousy and rage in Tom (who himself is having an affair with the low-class Myrtle Wilson). One gets the sense that this can’t end well, and it doesn’t.
It’s not really worthwhile to go into more detail on the plot, which is already quite well known and has been rehashed many times elsewhere. The symbolism of the book is worth further examination, though. It’s been said that Gatsby represents the American Dream and Daisy represents money. (Gatsby even says that Daisy’s voice is “full of money.”) I think that’s close, but it’s not quite right.
Daisy and Tom represent something besides just money. They represent old money — that is, prestigious families in which great wealth has been handed down through multiple generations. To be part of one of these families (such as the Rockefellers, Astors, Vanderbilts, etc.) in this country is to be de facto American royalty. It’s about more than mere wealth: It has to do with institutional prestige and power that come with being wealthy and influential for that long. This can be determined by things such as what foundation boards you sit on or what museums or libraries bear your family name in addition to the size of your estates or how much you have in the bank (or even whether you own the bank).
And what the character Gatsby represents, to me, is that specifically American trait of doing just about anything — good or bad, without shame or second guessing — to get ahead. Instead of merely accepting his position on the social ladder, as a European might have, Gatsby goes out and does whatever it takes to accumulate the wealth he thinks is necessary to make himself suitable for Daisy. But there’s a sense that despite his amassed fortune and their feelings for each other, he’ll never fit into her world. He is still, as Tom puts it, a “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.”
So what the book represents is how, in Fitzgerald’s time, the nouveau riche, many of who had recently made piles of money in the booming stock market of the 1920s, were not really considered part of the elite. The members of the old-money families saw them as “trespassers” who did not belong among the brahmins. This may seem harsh to the 21st century reader, but events would soon … well, not vindicate this view, but show it wasn’t entirely wrong. Of course, I refer to the Great Depression, which wiped out the wealth and status of many of these social strivers (along with a few of the more established moneyed class).
Fitzgerald might be happy to know that the divide between old and new money that was so severe in his time doesn’t matter nearly as much today. If he could only see how far we’ve come!