The Great Gatsby – Did I teach this to you?

At first it was the image of Gatsby in his pink suit watching over Daisy, waiting so patiently that made me love The Great Gatsby. The idea that a man (and one as beautiful as Robert Redford was in the original movie) would dedicate five years of his life to the dream of obtaining the woman he loved, resonated deep within me. That feeling of longing, of infinite hope, that so mesmerised Nick, captured me too, and at fourteen, I hoped to find a man who would love me as Gatsby loved Daisy.

Now, because I have taught it so often and write myself, I love Gatsby because of the crafting; because of Fitzgerald’s evocative use of language as he describes Gatsby’s parties, Doctor T J Eckleburg’s insidious Eyes over looking the Ash Heap, a place of singular despair and bleakness; the orgiastic green light that Gatsby looks to hopefully, and how Fitzgerald fills me with the futility of Gatsby’s quest. How can a novel be so hopeful and so hopeless at the same time?

I return to the opening pages again and again, marvelling how within several hundred words we know all we need to know about Nick so we can trust him with the story, embrace his fascination with Gatsby. We are taken in by Nick’s moral certainty as we embark on the journey to find out why Gatsby ‘turned out all right in the end’, even though we expect tumultuous times along the way.

Gatsby is a poignant story of misplaced love, of the waste of a good man’s life. The image of Tom and Daisy sitting together in the kitchen after the deaths (film) of Myrtle, her sad and desperate husband, George and the deeply flawed Jay Gatsby, fills Nick with revulsion, and we recognise careless people who damage others and go on with their lives as if nothing has happened. Fitzgerald suggests it was the Buchanans’ wealth that desensitised them to the feelings and value of others. But he knew, like Nick, that Gatsby, despite his shady deals and dubious background was worth ‘the whole damn bunch of them’.

A boy I taught years ago, now a grown man, confessed that Gatsby was the only novel he fully read during his years at school. He went on to become an economist – did Nick influence him more than he realised? (Hello, Gary Jones.)

Fitzgerald’s characters linger  

Nick because we trust him – his ‘inclination to reserve all judgements’ allows the rest of the cast to confide in him; to tell this story of beautiful waste. Nick is everyman, capable in a range of social settings, insightful, vaguely envious of the rich but able to see into their hearts and the emptiness therein.

Jordan is the dishonest, careless one who cheats at golf and drives terribly. We want Nick to be in love with her but we understand that as the only truly decent person in the text he can’t possibly find happiness with her.

Tom is the arrogant, ignorant fool, who peaked too soon: wealthy but spiritually vacant. Fitzgerald’s description of Tom is as sharp as a photograph – ‘ a rather hard mouth and a supercilious manner. Two shining arrogant eyes… enormous power of that body… a cruel body… there was a touch of paternal contempt’. Of course he breaks Myrtle’s nose, he has already broken Daisy’s heart.

Daisy is beautiful, as ephemeral as her gossamer white dresses: she suffers at Tom’s hand, her ‘voice is full of money’. Does she know what love is? Is she worthy of love? Look at how she reacts with Pammy, her daughter, who seems more like a doll than a child. Is that what Daisy is – a doll, pretty to look at but devoid of any substance?

Myrtle and Wilson are both ground down by life, by unfulfilled promises and the grind of daily life in the grime of the Ash-heap, no man’s land, half way to hell. Both are half dead anyway, so their deaths seem assured from the moment we meet them.

But what is it about Gatsby that captures us? He is not a man of breeding or worthy of our respect, given his early years and his dubious dealings with Wolfshiem, who fixed the World Series. Gatsby seems as dishonest as Jordan, as dangerous as Tom, as careless as Daisy, as desperate as Myrtle, as superficial as those who flock to his magnificent weekend parties. Gatsby is new money, as opposed to Tom’s old money. Gatsby is self made, (even his name is made up) ambitious, willing to get his hands dirty. He uses people for his own ends: Nick is used to get to Daisy.

It is love that sets Gatsby apart – his unrelenting quest of Daisy that drives him from poverty to riches; from poor soldier boy to wealthy host with the palace on the water-front directly opposite Daisy’s mansion. It is Gatsby’s naïve hope of love: that Daisy loves him as much as he loves her; that she never stopped loving him and that they can obliterate her five years with Tom and be innocently in love once more. How can he be so brutal in his acquisition of money and status but so innocent in his expectations of love?

The tragedy of the novel is not that Gatsby dies in true Tragic Heroic style die, like Shakespearean tragic heroes, undone by the fatal flaw of his unrealistic expectations about love; a love based in fantasy. Gatsby’s tragedy was that he loved someone utterly worthless. Daisy and Tom carelessly careening through life: death and disillusion in their wake.

It seems that what is important in the novel, what Nick tells us, is that it is more important to have a dream, to have aspired to great things, be it love or wealth, to have tried and lost, to have been mistaken, than to be like Tom and Daisy, careless people drifting aimlessly through life, feeling nothing, giving nothing. After all Nick says ‘Gatsby turned out all right at the end.’

Of the three giants of 20th century American literature, Hemmingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, the latter is the one who matters most to me, despite the other two having Nobel prizes for Literature. All three wrote of despair and of the American Dream. Steinbeck’s vision was without hope – remember Lennie and George’s dream shattered on the barn floor? Hemingway was too interested in the hearts of men not women for me. Only Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, had the gift of beauty and hope amidst the despair. If you only read one of these titans, read Fitzgerald, his short stories and Tender is the Night as well. You’ll thank me. (Images from the 1974 movie staring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow)

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4 Responses to “The Great Gatsby – Did I teach this to you?”

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