The first book I took seriously in a high school English class was The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus. At the time it seemed that this was because I had enjoyed the original 1973 version of the movie as a young kid when it was out on Netflix, as well as the modern adaptation of the book by Baz Luhrman. Though these things would not have sustained my interest for as long as the book ultimately has. What has kept my interest is the great commentary provided by Fitzgerald in the novel and the mystery of what its implications are for our society. This mystery has captivated me for years, far longer than I would have ever expected. Here I am proposing to work through the questions this novel poses, not solely as a means for literary discussion, but more so as a way to more completely flesh out the commentary, come to terms with what it means for life in America, and to hopefully, once and for all, put this great work to rest in the American mind.
The most obvious commentary provided in the novel is definitely related to economics. Fitzgerald takes the theories of the early twentieth-century economist Thorstein Veblen into the Long Island of the roaring twenties, an apt home for such musings. The novel is teeming with what Veblen termed “conspicuous consumption”; in the relatively quiet, old-moneyed, East Egg, with its polo fields and white houses crawling with servants, and in the loud and monstrous castles of Gatsby’s West Egg. These two different versions of such a reality are then juxtaposed against the downtrodden Valley of Ashes in a not-so-subtle play meant to direct readers toward thoughts of oppression as the furnace for these lifestyles. Though beyond this somewhat thin and now worn-out commentary there is another dichotomy. In creating an opposition between East
Egg and West Egg, Fitzgerald points out the then-rising class war in the United States. This is not a war of class against class in the typical sense, but rather a civil war within the elite. With the rise of the industrial age and its opportunistic inheritors, exemplified in Jay Gatsby, the hegemony of the old landed aristocracy, embodied by Tom Buchanan, was put into question. The norms and customs of the old elite, exacted over centuries, were in jeopardy of being overthrown by a more capable though less cultivated bourgeoisie. Fitzgerald dramatizes this battle rather perfectly in Tom and Jay’s struggle over Daisy, Tom’s wife. Gatsby, capitalizing on the negligence and arrogance of Tom’s well-known pursuit of extramarital affairs is in a position to step into his shoes. Though, Fitzgerald points out that this can never be; Gatsby is not and could never be what Tom is, as Daisy admits. We can see this problem still bubbling up in our own time, our current political struggles could largely be explained as competition over the culture of America.
This brings about the question of what the two opposing orders are, beyond their economic backgrounds. Fitzgerald answers the question posed here and does so in a way that holds up to this very day. On the one hand, you have the parties of Gatsby, the new order, radical liberality that crosses over various boundaries into stark licentiousness. This order is at first intoxicating though, ultimately, at the end of the night, it leaves everyone with a feeling of emptiness and dread. The problem with licentiousness, Fitzgerald points out, is not just that it is wrong in the moral sense but also that it is such a waste of time, a palpable waste of time that requires continued and advancing consumption to avoid the complete recognition of this fact. No serious or fulfilling answer to the ends of humanity is based on materiality; the signs of this view’s incompleteness are flashing all around us in our current age, and apparently have been for some time. Fitzgerald does hand Gatsby and his new order some credit though, largely on the basis of its intense and unwavering presumption. This is not to say that the other view is oppositely perfect. While it may be in its ideal form, the old order of Tom and Daisy has been neglected and forgotten first and foremost by its inheritors, as is represented in the deteriorating eye-clad billboard for an optometrist, only remembered by those that must live under it in the valley of ashes. The result of the neglect of the grounding principles of this order is brought to life in the angst of Daisy and Tom and their compatriots, as well as in their horrible treatment of those in the valley of ashes.
While Huckleberry Finn was once the great American novel, inspiring this one and its contemporaries, as Ernest Hemingway keenly pointed out. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is the new great American novel. Its longstanding clarity in commentary, cultural ubiquity, and proper acknowledgment of the problems needing addressing in America makes for a grand novel. In addition to the fact that following its ascension, the American literary tradition has been consumed by similar social commentary and psychodrama. However, I am still hopeful that someone could dethrone Fitzgerald and Gatsby, not because I have any intense disdain for the book, but rather because these problems need to be addressed and seen from a new perspective. For almost a century now we have either collapsed under the burden of advancing from these problems (as is gruesomely highlighted in the downfall of Fitzgerald into alcoholism and his companion expatriate Ernest Hemingway into madness) or shied away from these problems entirely. In my estimation, this is because we as a nation do not have the strength to humble ourselves and embark on the journey of accepting and living by the true but cutting solutions. I think we will be hard-pressed to find a writer willing to admit the fact that he cannot articulate such answers on his own, as so many have failed to do in the recent past, though we must still have hope.
Featured image via AWN.com.
Cooper is an assistant editor of the common ground section and a sophomore. He studies political science and classics and wants to work in journalism after school. When he is not thinking about politics and writing he enjoys fishing, golfing, and reading. Cooper’s literary influences include Ring Lardner and Ernest Hemingway.