“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
This is just one of many great quotes from an American literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald back in 1925. I recently became obsessed with this piece of literature after watching the latest version on film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Toby MacGuire (2013 is the release date). There is also the older version with the amazing Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, which I have seen. But for some reason when I saw this particular version on a flight home from Miami a few weeks ago it really spoke to me. The characters reached out and seemed to grab me while I was sitting in my middle seat waiting for peanuts and water. Perhaps it was the acting or the wonderful music, or perhaps it was just the story itself and all the various characters in it.
Before I delve into this post, many things have floated across my mind while thinking of what I wanted to write. I have jotted down pages of ideas and correlations to what you will read (or I hope you will read) in a moment. One correlation I probably should save for a different post is how Gatsby can mimic the main character, Donald Draper, in Mad Men. It is not exactly the same scenario, but I saw so many similarities that combining the two together in this piece would be more of a collegiate essay than a simple blog post. But perhaps if you have watched episodes of Mad Men and understand the main character, then you will see the same correlation I did as I read The Great Gatsby. All the ups and downs Draper went through over the series I could see neatly wrapped up in Fitzgerald’s novel, down to the last shot of Draper getting his Zen on while sitting on a California hillside. It’s definitely enough to talk over a great bottle of wine or an “Old Fashioned.” Now back to the main point of the post…
Here is a brief synapsis of the novel in case you have not had a chance to read the book or watch one of the above movies. The main characters include a rich socialite couple, Tom and Daisy Buchanan, a budding Wall Street man named Nick Carraway (he is also a writer by trade), and of course the main man Mr. Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is considered “new-money” in the wealthy society ran by families such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors and the Buchanans (fictional family, of course). Believed to have earned his fortune from bootlegging in an era of prohibition, Gatsby is a phantom to the people of New York City and Long Island Sound. Taking place in the Jazz Age when sex and alcohol were fluid amongst society, the love Jay Gatsby has for Daisy Buchanan leads him to throw lavish parties for all of New York society at his estate in an effort to reunite with her after a five-year hiatus. Gatsby had lost touch with Daisy after leaving to serve in World War I. Despite efforts to write and continue the courtship they began, Daisy ended up marrying Tom, a man considered to be more her “equal” in the social circles she inhabited. The story tells of how Daisy and Jay are reunited, thanks to Nick, and the tumultuous summer these three characters experience together. It tells of a man (Gatsby) who recreated himself into a superstar of his day in efforts to reclaim a lost love, or a life he felt he was cheated from because of circumstances out of his control.
What I loved so much about this novel is how, even though it takes place 90 years ago, the underlining premise behind the characters resonates greatly in today’s society. The selfishness found in Daisy and Tom, careless people who “smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made….”(Fitzgerald, p. 179) is seen so often in our own culture, one would think Fitzgerald’s novel was written just yesterday. But the beauty of this work doesn’t just lie in the facets of cultural living; it lies in the warped realities in which these people existed.
Turn on any reality television program and I feel like I revisit the pages of this novel. People constantly wanting to be someone other than himself or herself in efforts to “fit in better” with the going crowd. I see this even in daily life, to some extent, because someone is always trying to keep up with the “Buchanans” of our time. Do we not all do that at some point? When we step outside our door, do we tend to put the “best face” forward to give the appearance of having it all when in reality, most of us are a hot mess? These are the questions that continued to pop up in my head as I read Gatsby page by page. Like looking in the mirror and seeing bits and pieces of Daisy, Tom, Nick and even Jay appear before me, the novel led me to really step back and look at how we all live our life in today’s messed up world. Full of temptations and excess, the very evils that affected the relationship of Jay and Daisy also affect the relationships we have in our own lives, does it not? Really think about it for a moment, especially if you have had the opportunity to read this book. They are beautiful parallels of society that tend to eat at our core and rot us from the inside out while simultaneously smelling of Turkish roses.
I am not audacious enough to say I avoid all the gems and jewels this world offers. Very much the opposite, I hate to admit. I like the niceties in life, and I don’t mean just simple clean, running water or a roof over my head. I am talking about the superficial adoration of things like beautiful shoes, purses, and clothes-you name it and I have focused on it. Am I a bit like Daisy Buchanan? It is enough to make me squirm a bit in my seat, but I would be lying if I answered no. I am not alone in this large vessel of material infatuation. It is the very thing I had to chuckle over while reading because we are ALL like this, even if we find ourselves being the most philanthropic in our respective communities. It is because we are human, and human beings have a great propensity for obsessing over shiny, pretty objects. It is just the length some of us go for these pretty trinkets that differentiates us from the person next to us in the check out line at our local 7-11 convenience store.
This is the point I feel Fitzgerald wanted to bring to the forefront with this particular novel because he saw how cruel and careless humanity could be no matter what decade it is. It addresses our baser instincts at survival, our instincts to overcome obstacles and the need to flaunt our prettiest feathers in front of others like a male peacock attracting a mate. It is something television series are made of (think Mad Men here), yet Fitzgerald was able to capture this vision in 180 pages. It shows the extent people will go to find love and adoration, to find acceptance and feel a part of something special, something “big.”
“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Then you have Jay Gatsby, whose purpose in life started out being something bigger than what he was, but took a turn towards obsession when he let himself go and fell in love with Daisy. Instead of becoming whom he originally had in mind, Gatsby became what he thought Daisy wanted in a friend, lover and husband. Gatsby used his wealth as a façade of respectability. His big parties were a ploy in the hopes of getting Daisy Buchanan to step foot inside his grand estate located on the side of Long Island Sound known as West Egg (new money), which lay directly across the bay from her own grandiose estate on East Egg (old money). Playing a part, creating a role in order to fulfill personal desire and somehow belong in the world, this was Gatsby. Had Gatsby just focused on his original plan and created a life based on what he wanted instead of what he thought someone else wanted, the outcome of the story could have been different. But that is not what Fitzgerald was after here; it is too simple of a solution. Things get in the way and make a mess of endless possibilities we see for ourselves, just like Daisy did for Gatsby and the future he had mapped out for himself before meeting her.
What does a person do when all they have accomplished in life stems from trying to re-create the past? Do we not all want to return to some point in our life that was wonderful and happy? This is what Gatsby wanted to do-recreate a time in his life where he gave all of himself to one person who was completely out of his realm. Obsessed and focused on creating a future with Daisy, despite the fact she was already married, Gatsby took whatever opportunity (mostly illegal) offered to give him the financial stability he needed to play fairly in Daisy’s social field. Ironically in the end, the very means used to gain Gatsby’s wealth repulsed and scared Daisy away from him. The idea of living a lifestyle from a source she saw as less respectable caused her to turn away from something she believed she wanted. The wicked twist of human nature claims another victim in the game of wanting to belong; we have all experienced this to some extent at some point in our life. It would be asinine to shake our head in denial and look the other way.
Perhaps there are bigger messages to take away from Fitzgerald’s novel besides simply reading a good yarn. Maybe we can use the significances laid out in his story as a means to remind ourselves how cruel the world can be and what we can do to amend it, even in the tiniest of circumstances.
This brings me to the character of Nick Carraway, the ultimate optimist in the story and the person who comes out the most damaged from living within the toxicity of careless society.
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’
Nick’s opening line in the novel, first page, first paragraph and it offers a great description into the kind of character he possessed. He saw the love and desperation Gatsby felt for Daisy. He saw the misery and loneliness she felt in her own life. He also realized the arrogance and debauchery of Daisy’s husband, Tom. Nick was a voyeur, an outsider looking into the menagerie of a messed up world. A world he was sucked into briefly and enjoyed, but a world that left him cynical in the end.
It is another piece of the proverbial puzzle I felt as I read the pages and watched the film because I see a bit of Nick in all of us. We strive to be the person in the room with an open mind, devoid of criticism for our fellow comrades. It is the white dove of peace amongst a cloudy sky. Call it the angel on one shoulder that combats the devil on the other, but it is the Hope given to humanity as a reminder to be better than ourselves for the good of those around us, not for the selfishness that can flow within us at times. Nick is a beautiful addition to the characters in Fitzgerald’s book, rounding out the human psyche in a way that makes us less into assholes and more into people doing the best we can in life, but happen to slip and make mistakes along the way. It reminded me, despite a world of trinkets and treats, how we can become the better individual who recognizes selfishness and is willing to do something about it.
This post was not truly meant to be a book report, but a reminder to myself and to those who happen to read these words that human nature is real and ugly but ultimately improvable. We just have to maintain a little more Nick Carraway in us, avoid less of the Daisy’s and Tom’s and perhaps remember to maintain more reality than Gatsby did. If you have not had the opportunity to read or watch this story, I highly recommend. Even if you don’t take away the same viewpoints as I did, make your own assumptions and enjoy a great piece of literature.