By: Eric Thomas
An eighty-seven year old relic was dusted off recently, F Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” a novel of towering literary significance because its lurid prose and doomed protagonist captured the hearts of many, along with other platitudes that fail to accurately describe the painful twist of a novel contained inside that iconic blue cover. Publicity for the new movie has ramped to a fever pitch, with jewelry and clothing stores touting “Gatsby” inspired merchandise; even Donald Trump has offered, in a move that defies even the most cynical imagination, a $14,999 “Gatsby” inspired stay at the Trump Hotel in New York. If you don’t believe it, go ahead and Google it; the part of your soul that leaves your body when you see it is your own problem. Then there are the discussions on countless contemporary talk shows offering grim opportunity for hosts and guests to offer opinions on what the novel means to them. The results have been nauseating at best, making many wonder if anyone involved in these conversations has ever paused to think about the story at all.
The novel gets blurry when viewed through the smeary lens of history. When it was released “Gatsby” was a thunderous failure, hailed by critics and fellow members of the Lost Generation but a sloppy thud with the reading public. Fitzgerald died broke and forgotten in 1940 amid a haze of epic alcoholism. The novel never saw success until copies were donated to the military to help distract World War II soldiers on their way to the front. Now eighty-seven years after its initial publication, Gatsby is getting the “Moulin Rouge!” treatment and the novel sits atop the New York Times bestseller list.
History lesson aside, it seems many people discussing the novel this week have forgotten the beating heart within the prose. Several commenters’ have claimed the novel is about the greatness of “Self-Made America,” because Gatsby wants to be rich and achieves it through pluck and determination. Others have said that Gatsby is about the greatness of dreamers and how they can make something out of themselves if they put their minds to it.
What’s been forgotten is that the novel was written when the splendors of the Jazz Age were in full roar. History looms large in Gatsby’s foreground, we know that the stock market making all that glittery wealth possible will crash and the dirt from Kansas will come to cover the ruins in a grainy cloud. The story is often taught in high schools as a cautionary tale about the sins of excess prevalent in the 1920s that led to the sobering reality of Black Tuesday.
The central theme of Gatsby does not lie in the lavish parties of East and West Egg, but rather in the ashen lands where George B. Wilson owns his garage under the watchful spectacles of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. He is somehow contented in his situation, the only person who isn’t willing to climb over everyone for a chance to be rich. It’s instructive that Wilson is the one character whom every other character appears to hate, because as you read the novel it becomes clear how much the author dislikes the creatures he has created.
Fitzgerald seems to seethe through much of the novel, his prose pointed and angry, the characters are reprehensible. Daisy and Tom Buchanan are portrayed as selfish, reckless people who can’t be bothered with the existence of others. Gatsby himself is the most redeeming, sort of, despite that he amassed his wealth as a bootlegger, a crime against the constitution in 1925. Gatsby is willing to sell his soul for a shot at the green light at the end of Buchanan’s dock.
More than anything else, The Great Gatsby is about the casual callousness of society, how many can’t see the people right in front of them. Daisy and Tom destroy the lives of everyone around them and they don’t even pause to reflect on what they’ve done. Gatsby goes to great lengths to win Daisy back, but in the end she doesn’t care about anyone but herself. This is a story of the futility of the American dream, not the existence of it; laying bare the ridiculousness of harboring goals and hope because they do not adjust for the indifference in the hearts of others.
Literature is always debatable, reading a book is a solitary experience where you allow an author to raid your mind. The fun part about reading is that everyone walks away with a different experience and can argue about what was useful and what wasn’t. People say that Gatsby is about the bling and winning back the girl that got away, that’s their interpretation, but it doesn’t dig deep enough into the story.
Maybe the movie will reveal those themes, or maybe it will merely hum along the surface and give you a 3D version of the book’s lighter moments. For the real 3D version, pick up the book and read it some weekend, you have a better chance of getting what Fitzgerald intended.