Gatsby and the American Dream


Is The Great Gatsby the greatest American novel?

PERHAPS the greatest message of The Great Gatsby, in cinemas now, (and in print since 1925) is that, no matter how we strive, the class system still tends to be the social flypaper from which many struggle to escape.

On the face of it a simple, if enigmatic and tortured love story, F Scott Fitzgerald’s modernist classic deserves as much recognition today as when it was conceived in 1922, if for no other reason than to give us pause to assess the grand class divides, both post the apocalyptic events of WWI and of today.

And it perhaps has an even greater resonance in the 21st C with reference to an America, which, for the first time in decades, is staring into its navel under the shadow of a huge National Debt.

Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age of the 20s was one which was yet to experience the Wall Street Crash, but also one which was able to ‘let off steam’ after the horrors of The Great War.

For those who could afford it, and even for those who couldn’t, the metropolitan perception of the American Dream – the notion that anyone could go from the log cabin to White House, or from misery to millions, regardless of background, must never have been more palpable.

As ‘old’ Europe struggled to shrug off the internal machinations and triple agreements which lead to an attritive war, the New World and the possibility of ‘new money’ overthrowing the staid, landed systems of the Europeans, themselves remnants of archaic feudal systems, must have seemed like a new Utopia.

Fast forward that thinking just a hundred years to the current status quo. Perhaps there has never been a better time to re-make Gatsby.

But perhaps it is also the ‘greatest American novel’ simply because it shows the Americans (and perhaps the West as a whole) – post the Boston Tea Party, post the Puritanism of the early days, and even post Pocahontas and the settlers of Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, how far they have (or haven’t come).

On the face of it, it is story not to dis-similar to the old tales of fiction, only in reverse.

Initially impoverished Jay Gatsby meets wealthy and flighty socialite Daisy (at some point in the past). Daisy snubs Gatsby for no other reason, (as she reveals, in the current action) that he is too poor.

Ergo Gatsby’s psychological drive and angst ridden determination to better himself – eventually reaching such a point of affluence that he can afford a huge mansion on West Egg, the ‘New Money’ extremity of Long Island.

But still not quite matching the landed ‘Old Money’ affluence and social graces enjoyed by the ‘top predators’ of the social scene in neighbouring East Egg, just across the bay, where money and the niceties of life are enjoyed in almost Caligulan abundance.

West Egg represents the equivalent of the newly rich internet millionaires; East Egg, the closest America has to a republican landed aristocracy by comparison.

Daisy, memorably played by Mia Farrow in the 1974 film with Robert Redford, is part of this high flying, if neurotic East Egg elite.

The main events of the novel take place in the summer of 1922, narrated by Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate and World War I veteran from the Midwest who takes a job in New York as a bond salesman.

He rents a small house on Long Island, in the (fictional) village of West Egg, next door to the lavish mansion of Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire who holds extravagant parties.

Nick drives across the bay to East Egg for dinner at the home of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, a college acquaintance of Nick's.

They introduce Nick to Jordan Baker, an attractive, cynical young golfer with whom Nick begins a romantic relationship.

She reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, who lives in the "valley of ashes": an industrial dumping ground between West Egg and New York City (NYC is on the very Western extremity of Long Island).

Post her initial romance with Gatsby, Daisy has married Tom – a bullish, rich athletic man.

Each night, from his mansion on West Egg, Gatsby looks across the bay and longs for Daisy. When she finally turns up at one of his parties, the social clashes begin; and despite his wealth, Gatsby’s true background and how he climbed up the slippery pole is revealed.

Many have speculated that Gatsby himself is the ultimate parvenu – the new arrival in the socio-economic situation who soon makes waves.

Fitzgerald himself originally contemplated a title of Trimalchio, for the work (the character from the Roman work Satyricon by Petronius), a slave made good who throws lavish parties for various members of the Roman classes.

Or, perhaps from a different standpoint, Daisy is the flipside of Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Ms Bennet, from a modest yet respectable late 18th C family, finds herself beguiled by Mr Darcy, whose wealth and mansion prove significant draws. Darcy is initially dismisses on social grounds.

Contrast that then with Daisy – already rich and moving in the ‘right’ circles at the fashionable and ‘old moneyed’ end of Long Island, namely East Egg.

Now nouveau riche, with a mansion and millions behind him, Gatsby has come a long way – but still struggles to entice Daisy, or to break her from her circle.

Just as Ernest Hemingway’s contemporaneous The Sun Also Rises documents the rivalries between Jake Barnes and co in Paris and Pamplona, against the background of bull fights, brought on by class and sexual tensions, Gatsby (the novel) is adroit in mirroring this restlessness at the top of the society tree.

The novel was also important from a stylistic point of view in its use of the first person narrative.

The equable Nick Carraway – Daisy’s cousin and middle ranking bond salesman – the Everyman of the piece perhaps – looks on and, as the narrator,  can only reflect in some awe and perhaps some distain.

Hundreds of authors have used the technique since, but it is one which is cleverly self-limiting.

As readers, we have to ‘trust’ Nick – given that the events of the novel, the perceptions and interpretations of such, are told via him as our only conduit.

Is he too close to Gatsby, giving us a skewed view of events  - and why should the reader place any trust in Nick in any case?

Is indeed he in fact the parvenu or outsider who enters this world of opulence, success and excess -  and more to the point, for those who live in this glorious bubble, is their champagne existence the ‘norm’. 

For the flappers and the Gastbyites, is it (to them) everyone else,  (a few notches down on every scale of the social ladder), who have ‘got it wrong’?

As such, the novel is also perhaps a clever comment on the American Dream itself – once you’ve made it – where do you go from there?

The partygoers at West Egg, amid the fountains and sprawling lawns, while living the American Dream writ large, perhaps also know they can only opulently stagnate. Either that or quietly reflect by what perhaps crooked or desperate means they got there in the first place.

Gatsby’s millions, it turns out, are made through behind-the-counter bootlegging and via connections with organised crime.

The man who ‘made him’ is revealed to be Meyer Wolfshiem, a Jewish racketeer who Gatsby says ‘fixed’ the World Series.

Fitzgerald reportedly based the character on Arnold Rothstein, nicknamed "the Brain," a Jewish-American racketeer, businessman and gambler who became a kingpin of the Jewish mob in New York.

Rothstein was widely reputed to have organized corruption in professional athletics, most notoriously conspiring in the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

Rothstein transformed organized crime from a thuggish activity by hoodlums into a big business, run like a corporation, with himself at the top.

He was also reportedly the person who first realized that Prohibition was a business opportunity, a means to enormous wealth, who "understood the truths of early century capitalism” (hypocrisy, exclusion, greed) and came to dominate them.

Perhaps the other lesson is that ‘old money’ – that socio-type forged years ago and handed down through generations, based on old industries and representing a class system long since woven into the consciousness of a country, will always watch the ‘new money’ with some reserve.

But beyond all this, perhaps the lynchpin of the book is the notion of the final closure of the Frontier.

For years, the psyche of the United States was powered by a drive west.

Various western land purchases were made available to pioneers and homesteaders who went west in search of their own life and freedom.

‘Manifest Destiny’ was even a term which enshrined a belief that the United States was ‘pre-ordained’ to expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast.

The concept was expressed during Colonial times, but the term was coined in the 1840s by a popular magazine which editorialized, "the fulfilment of our manifest overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."

The phrase became a rallying cry for expansionists in the Democratic Party in the 1840s as the then government administration successfully promoted this nationalistic doctrine.

The frontier line – the outer line of settlement – moved steadily westward from the 1630s to the 1880s (with occasional movements north into Maine and Vermont, south into Florida, and east from California into Nevada). The "West" was always the area beyond that boundary

For years, the Mississippi and the major frontier town of St Louis, made famous by Mark Twain and ‘Huck Finn’, marked the western edge of the frontier.

Denver became a major frontier town;  by 1890, it had grown to be the 26th largest city in America, and the fifth-largest city west of the Mississippi River

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his "Frontier thesis" (1893) theorized that the frontier was a process that transformed Europeans and the settlers of the New World into a ‘new people’.

The frontier officially closed in 1890 when the pioneers hit the Pacific coast, and from there the American Dream arguably had nowhere to go – other than back East.

Nick himself, at the start of the novel, heads East to Long Island rather than going west – and Gatsby himself says his family was once a prosperous one in San Francisco.

Perhaps the whole thrust of the novel and the notion of the lost American Dream  is best represented in the short comment  Nick makes when he, with Gatsby, at the close, overlooks the watery Sounds of Long Island, one of the first landing points of the ancient Dutch settlers of the New World.

“-- as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world...for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Just as the frontier would close in the west 400 years after those first settlers landed at Plymouth Rock, perhaps the greatness of Fitzgerald’s writing, and of his Modernist contemporaries, was the realisation that, no matter how much they tried to reclaim it, even by heading far East (as reverse pioneers as it were), the Great American Dream was never going to return.

Today, a hundred years on from Gatsby, Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda and the champagne of those jazz days, in an America and a western society which has lost its sparkle, perhaps the real greatness of Gatsby is that it still has so much to tell.