Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Great Gatsby

---Spoilers for The Great Gatsby---

I always knew Fitzgerald as someone that associated with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and as a result I've avoided reading any of his books because I really cannot stand Hemingway or Gertrude Stein. With the movie coming out, though, my husband gave it a try, and he liked it so much he persuaded me to read it. I was seriously taken aback.

As far as I understand it, it's a fantastic criticism of wealth and status for wealth and status' sake, and of the historical upper classes. Class is an interesting English invention, and what has happened to it in America is even more interesting, but this isn't the place to go into that. As I understand it, here is what ought to be taken from the book:

The concept of the "old money" upper class is a self-referential standard of success. It has no criteria or standards for value except the fact of its own existence. As a result, it has become a ruinous, greedy, shallow way of life, lived by spoiled, immature, self-absorbed people who view anyone that does not belong to their class as existing for their pleasure and will treat them accordingly. Additionally, as a broader criticism of (1920s) society, the "old money" class is held up as the highest and most refined of people, when due to their lack of ethics, compassion, direction or responsibility they are in fact the worst and most worthless. 

There is a passage in which Nick describes Gatsby as "the son of God" in that he had no desire to follow in his parents' footsteps but had a dream of his own perfect happiness that he was willing to do anything to pursue. The young Gatsby sees himself as unlimited, and essentially as transcending class. He's willing to fish and clam for food and money, but he detests doing janitorial work to pay his way through college (while, presumably, surrounded by boys who are not working class and do not have to be subjected to the 'humiliation' of working for their education). Gatsby takes risks, retains his integrity, conducts himself honestly and never loses sight of his goals or his dreams.

Daisy, on the other hand, looks to others to define her life (to use Nick's words) and doesn't even have the redeeming feature of being loyal. While Gatsby's love for her is motivated by his "incorruptible dream", Daisy's love for him is transient and inessential to her happiness. She personifies the fickle immaturity of her class, not understanding Gatsby's devotion to her and not wanting to either. She has no goals or dreams, and looks to others to define her and give her life meaning (a metaphor, I decided, for the upper class's lack of definable value beyond that which everyone has decided to give it), but as a result of her lack of dreams, she doesn't actually care how it is defined. Her happiness is not important to her - her way of life is.

Her husband, Tom, is an appalling man. He cheats on his wife, he hits women, he bullies, and he has no ambition of his own except to retain power over others. From beginning to end he is portrayed as a racist and white supremacist in the most ridiculous ways possible. I have heard that people refuse to read Fitzgerald because of racism in his early works, but I can certainly say that he has lost his racism by the time of Gatsby. Tom's hysteria over whites and blacks marrying and the dilution of the "dominant Nordic race" is painted in such an absurd light that it's completely impossible for anyone to sympathize with.

What is really interesting to me, though, is the character of Meyer Wolfsheim. He is a Jewish mobster, and he helped Gatsby make his fortune. Meyer never goes to Gatsby's parties or to his house, but he is always there for Gatsby - at Gatsby's request, he sends him a full staff of servants so that Gatsby can keep the lid on the rumors about him and know that he is surrounded by people he can trust. But given the time period, he couldn't be less acceptable in polite society. Now the most negative interpretation possible is that Meyer is there as the "dirty Jew", the stain on Gatsby's reputation that prevents him from ever becoming truly respectable. But set against the very deliberate pantomime of Tom's hysterical racism, I can't think that it was intended that way.

Throughout the whole book, we see people we have grown to love being torn apart by Daisy and Tom's frivolity and aimlessness left and right. Throughout the story, Nick berates Gatsby for trying to repeat the past, for trying to find himself in the past, for trying to live in the past - and yet by the end, Nick is completely consumed by the past. He was constantly being forced to stay in situations that he didn't actually want to be a part of by Daisy and Tom - constantly being forced into getting involved. As a result, he ends up chewed up and spat out by the same vortex that consumed Gatsby - that is the tragedy of the book.

Yet there is Meyer, in the background, the only character who gets a good ending as a consequence of making the right choices. Meyer is portrayed as sensitive, loyal and obliging to Gatsby, very honest but also very self-assured. It is obvious that he loves Gatsby, but he refuses to go to his funeral. It is slipped in between Nick's frantic attempts to get a hold of all the other high society people who didn't truly care for or love Gatsby, and at first glance it is easy to write Meyer off as one of those. But if you read what he's saying, it doesn't quite seem that way. He tells Nick that he won't go to the funeral because he doesn't want to get involved. When Nick tells him that everyone's dead and there's nothing left to get involved in, Meyer simply repeats that he doesn't want to get involved. I believe he was referring to not wanting to get involved in anything of that upper class world - very sensibly, given where involvement got Nick and Gatsby.

He also tells Nick that he hates funerals, because he believes that one should honor friends in life, not after they're dead. This is the only time in the whole book that a person doesn't dwell on the past, and instead focuses with integrity on the future. Nick and Gatsby end up both obsessed with people who are no longer there, and in her final betrayal, Daisy cries that Gatsby should just be satisfied that she loves him now - in other words, erasing her mistakes and absolving herself of responsibility for her actions. Between these people, Meyer's solemn, ethical, private approach to friends and to Gatsby's affairs are like a few flakes of moral gold in the silt and mud left behind in Daisy's selfish wake.

I think that Meyer's unrespectable status was that way on purpose, to invert the standards of respectability, as a part of demonstrating how odious the old upper classes were. Those who were supposed to be great are in fact the scum of the earth, and those who were supposed to be low, tacky and untrustworthy are the moral, loyal, dependable ones.

Personally, I got very emotional about Gatsby because I identified very strongly with Jay. His wanderlust, all of the different lives he's lived, his dreams, his patience, his devotion, and the intense way he loves everything all struck very close to my heart. He is one of the protagonists that is most 'like me' in anything I've read. So I couldn't help but be sad when I finished the book - I wished that Nick had taken Meyer up on that "business gonnegtion" and Jay had ended up falling for Nick and the three of them had gone off and been successful and rich together, instead of being all torn apart by shallow, superficial Daisy. But ultimately, even if it was very sad, the book was a masterpiece and will always be very close to my heart.

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