Is GATSBY the Great American Novel or just a pretender?
“Whether it’s something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion—one that’s close to me and that I can understand.” F.Scott Fitzgerald
This quote is key to Fitzgerald, a source of strength and criticism as a weakness-- especially in his rivalry with Hemingway. I felt revisiting this novel was like reading a diary about a lost love— nostalgic, bitter-sweet, and touching. A huge success in its era, GATSBY was later reviled as trivial, politically bankrupt , a celebration of rich people and their decadent life style. Today of course, it’s assigned reading for schools, supposedly about class and money in America. But for that, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy may be the better novel. So why is this novel a classic?
Let’s begin with Nick, the haunted narrator, struggling to come to terms with events he can’t quite understand. GATSBY is a novel haunted by the inexplicable and that theme repeats, like a novel designed as a symphony or an opera. Gatsby is a man who lives in inexplicable luxury and no one knows the source of his wealth, whether it’s bootlegging or mysterious “drugstores.” Though he doesn’t drink and is self-contained, he inexplicably throws huge wild parties. Daisy and Tom are inexplicably married, though Tom’s a bulky man with rough talk and coarse excesses and Daisy’s a slight girl of delicate beauty and mannered nuance. These three are the major chords, the triangle for reverberating themes of love and loss.
Opposing themes are Nick, the honest bond salesman and his relationship with Jordan, a beautiful tennis pro. Daisy’s childhood friend, Jordan is a tough athletic woman who likes controlling her game, on the court and off. She’s “nobody’s fool” to Daisy’s dreamy attitudes. The wary attraction-repulsion Nick feels for Jordan is a counterweight to Gatsby’s complete obsession with Daisy. Nicksomehow admires and fears for Gatsby’s complete abandonment. Yet, under the spell of Gatsby’s belief, he lets him use his house to meet Daisy for tea. As Gatsby cherishes his love as the highest value, Nick cherishes honesty. So, he lends his integrity to the couple, but is uneasy.
Nick’s aware of Hazel, Tom’s “woman in New York..” Though it’s not "right" for married Daisy to renew her affair with Gatsby, Nick has seen how Tom carelessly flaunts his affair. He rationalizes there is something okay about Daisy meeting Gatsby, since but for the war they might have married. Nick, the supposed realist, ignores the truth that Daisy didn’t wait for Gatsby but married a solid man of her class— in physical bulk and money. She even has a little girl, with her neck and face shape.
Like Chekhov’s The Sea Gull or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, you get the fluttery movement of love in conflict with reality and fear there will be a price. GATSBY provides a crescendo of emotion, before the horrific, somehow inevitable fall. The brilliance of GATSBY isn't the plot but that like Nick, you become a believer in Gatsby’s dream. That dream is echoed in the minor theme of Hazel, who lives out her fantasy that Tome will leave his wife and they will go away together.
As Gatsby and Daisy are suited in temperament, Mabel and Tom possess animal “vitality.” Their enjoyment of money and sexual pleasure is low life, repellent to Nick, when he’s trapped in their “love nest” of a flat. He much prefers Gatsby’s ethereal fantasies, to this dark underside of "love." In fact, Nick, who denies attachment, finds Gatsby’s yearnings, both foolish and admirable. In the beginning, he sees Gatsby on his lawn gazing at a green light on a dock. Later, he learns that's Daisy’s dock. He’s shocked, when he comes to realize that Gatsby’s aspirations; the handsome mansion, on the edge of nouveau riche, like his crafted appearance and manners, were all acquired to win Daisy’s love. Even his parties were a hope she would wander in.
Searching for Gatsby's identity, Nick finds that for five years he has dedicated himself to this passion. Meanwhile, Nick, who prides himself on his honesty, finds reason to reject Jordan for her “easy lies.” He can’t help disparaging her self-assurance. Spoiled, he thinks, easily bored, because Jordan, like him, is a loner without moorings. A kind of society nomad, she goes from tournaments to parties, to other people’s houses. Always at her leisure, she’s never quite engaged. So in the end, when she tells him she is actually engaged to be married, he's in disbelief, without acknowledging his own failure to risk love.
What Nick the realist does get, more than Gatsby, is that Daisy and Jordan, are “rich girls,” meaning they think much of themselves. Jordan’s proud independence is as much a pose as Daisy’s particular delicacy. When Gatsby asks Nick to invite Daisy (his cousin) for tea, the event is the pinnacle of all Gatsby's striving to deserve her—his castle in the air. Nick surmises this, when he meets Gatsby’s “associate,” a man of dubious criminal activities. But this matters little to Nick, who wants Gatsby to win, when he grasps the depth of Gatsby’s love; the drive for him to acquire the appearance of aristocracy, money and taste. That Gatsby’s high romance ends tragically for him, as does Mable’s, isn't a surprise. But this plot is not news.
In the end, Nick wonders how such an ambitious talented man could end up with no real friend but himself? How did his great unselfish love lead to his downfall? When Nick attributes it to class and money, he's only partially accurate. He calls Tom and Daisy “careless” in the way of rich people that can do damage and retreat into their wealth and that's true. But it's not Fitzgerald's point. The larger theme he plays is the pathos in the inevitable shortcomings of human existence.
In a lifetime, a man shoots for the heavens, yet must eventually come to earth. And love as transcendence, though hardly adequate, is something. Nick finally admits that at the end. When Jordan says she had cared for him, as a man who prided himself on honesty, he denies himself. Says he never did.
But he comes to know his own self-delusion and what it has cost him.
Fitzgerald's written a great American novel, though I don't think it's THE definitive one about our culture. His friend John Dos Passos was a chronicler of class in his USA Trilogy. Fitzgerald wrote about the timeless flapper and endless love.