Friday, the long-awaited, big-budgeted Hollywood re-imagining of the book often hailed as the Great American Novel will hit theaters. Like most fans of American literature, The Great Gatsby holds a special place in my heart, though I've learned to look at it much differently since first reading it in junior high. Gatsby speaks endlessly to the contradictions of American culture and morality, and today is perhaps a perfect time to reexamine its themes. But whether we love it for the right or wrong reasons might be the most interesting question, as well as the reason its story has managed to transcend decades of changing culture.
The arts have managed to glamorize the so-called roaring 20's in a way that seems to render the decade still, suspended in some sort of idealistic vacuum, and I can't help but think that this phenomenon has a profound impact on the way we view the book. But the 20's were a time in which economic stratification was even worse than today. For most Americans, the lifestyle of the book's central characters would have been as foreign as that of someone who manages a massive hedge fund, learjets to Dubai for weekend getaways and hires Ford Agency models to dance at parties would be today.
John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra was a similarly-themed book set only a few years later. It cast a much more universal look at the fixation on transcending classes and was also a damn fine novel, though it's proven nowhere near as resilient as Gatsby. It's interesting to note that Gatsby found little success in its own time, considered by most critics to be a disappointment when compared to Fitzgerald's well-received debut, This Side of Paradise. While the author's reverence for Gatsby is well established, he nonetheless died with the book out of print and only about 40,000 copies having been sold.
It's not uncommon for a period-piece to come into focus a bit down the road. An author might well capture the essence of an era in a very poignant way, though it often takes a bit of distance for even those who occupied its time to pull it into focus. Who amongst us doesn't look at the 80's a bit differently in the rear view mirror? Then again, maybe O'Hara captured the period more accurately, while Fitzgerald captured it more romantically and such has made all the difference.
But Gatsby's allure is more than just nostalgia and glamor. It's a magnificently written book by one of the most refined, if inconsistent artists in the medium. Fitzgerald's literary voice has often been compared to perfect pitch in music, and while this is never consistently realized in his other novels, Gatsby's rhythmic prose is hypnotic, pulling the reader along through one of the most easily-read books in literary fiction. While the story might have some shortcomings, the writing certainly isn't among them.
What has always interested me most about the book is how people react to it. This is not uncommon when a piece of literary fiction manages to achieve mainstream success, as it often seems that books which are less plot-driven and rely more on thematic undertones and rich symbolism rarely connect with large audiences. When they do, the wide range of admirers seem to take very different things from the story. The Bonfire of the Vanities and The Corrections are two that quickly come to mind.
In Gatsby, many fans seem almost wholly entranced by the glamor, as evidenced by the slew of decadent, opening night pre-parties being thrown all over the country, celebrating what is ultimately the villain of this morality tale – not any one character, but the offensive gluttony and careless disregard shown by those whose money allows them to afford both. But as clearly as Fitzgerald (through the rare device of a second person narrator in Nick Carraway) seemed to be condemning a gilded social class, whose characters are shallow, morally-vacant and all too willing to climb over bodies to reach the peak of the mountain, he nonetheless romanticizes what might otherwise be seen as gaudy and vulgar opulence, and with such beauty that many readers never seem to pull their attention away from the images of warm nights filled with jazz and gin-soaked parties, shiny jewels and dancing to big bands on manicured, seaside lawns until the sun comes up.
As I came to learn more about Fitzgerald the man, it was interesting to note that almost everyone who knew him well described someone who professed to despise such vacant pursuits, while very clearly longing to join the small class of Americans who could afford them – and acting accordingly during the brief periods when he could. Maybe the duality in the book is intentional, maybe it's accidental, perhaps even a little of both.
But the vacancy beneath that glamor, the worship of the empty and the idea of self-centered obsession as love, is a constant theme in American art – one that seems to be well-received even when it's not intended to be. Gatsby's obsession with Daisy Buchanan couldn't be more barren of anything we'd describe as virtuous, nor could her attachment to either him or her husband Tom. Yet many fans profess admiration for the love story inherent of a man who would go to such great length to not only pursue, but materially comfort a woman he hardly knew for a brief time as a teenager. Does it perpetuate our fascination with the age-old concept of love at first sight? Perhaps, though I'm not sure that's any less slanderous.
I remember hearing similar responses to another excellent book and movie, Water for Elephants, with regards to a romance based on a man's perception that a woman he does not know is beautiful and therefore deserves a beautiful life – it's that simple. Despite all we know about how hard it is to make a relationship work, how important things like common interests and stimulation beyond the physical are, we seem to see these things as shortcomings – which would render stories of happy endings that require little more than a sparkle in two sets of beautiful, wet eyes terribly attractive I suppose.
I also recently read, You Couldn't Ignore Me if You Tried, a behind the scenes account of the famous Brat Pack movies of the 1980's. At one point, director John Hughes recounts that the original ending for Pretty in Pink had Molly Ringwald's character choosing her lifelong friend – the one who loved her for all the right reasons – over the handsome and rich crush, whom she didn't really know and found to be superficial and shallow once they had met. But in early screenings, females in the audience almost unanimously reported loving everything but the ending, which was changed to have Andrew McCarthy's Blane, and empty (Vesace) suit, experience a change of heart, ultimately winning her back with a simple kiss and a pseudo apology for skipping out on their prom date when his friends disapproved of him dating below the poverty line. The movie went on to be a huge hit once the frog turned into the prince at the end.
But Gatsby isn't a fairy tale. Rather, it's a morality tale and one that somehow leaves many readers oblivious to the commentary on the lifestyle it so elegantly describes, while ultimately taking it down. If the movie is true to the book, and the audience pays attention, they would likely feel quite silly having spent the value of a new car in some cases to enjoy watching it in the exact sort of decadence that the story denounces – or maybe not. And such is the complicated relationship between American culture and the values we portend to revere, while so obviously wishing their antithesis could only exist without such a steep price. That's why James Gatz was not only a man for his time, but one for ours, as well as every era between. The Great Gatsby, which Fitzgerald fittingly wanted to title Under the Red, White and Blue, perfectly describes the American Dream and all of its complex contradictions.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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