I first read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald back in high school and liked it on a more “romantic” level – not so much about the love story component but the overall pathos of the book, if that makes any sense. There was a sense of characters being swept up into their storylines, which seemed new and different and a bit exciting. When I reread it about seven years ago, I really felt sad that there were so many people in this story who were either unhappy with their choices in life or uncomfortable with who they were as people.
It seemed a more personal story than I remembered and, though obviously set in a particular era, it seemed more timely. When I read it in the late 1970s, it seemed more “of a past era” and an introduction to a new world. It was historical fiction, in a sense. These days, superficiality seems to be celebrated – many of the people who crave the limelight and seek to be influencers today would fit right in with Gatsby’s party scene. I couldn’t help but see that the superficial aspects of the story – the “superiority” of the rich, the lavish party lifestyle, the focus on cars and clothes and stuff – are every bit as relevant today as they were in the 1920s.
I was reminded of a line from the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s – that Holly Golightly was a phony, but a “real” phony. That was how I thought of Jay Gatsby. He threw legendary parties and was fantastically wealthy. He assumed a new identity and engaged in a life that was at once exciting and false, but there was at least something about him that was real. He was a bit of a lost and shallow soul who was holding on to an old love that ended up not being quite what he thought. He made money through not strictly legal means and had done some shady things. Yet, there was something about him that engaged me despite his many flaws. He had potential – he had served in World War I and then went to Oxford to get an education – but things went so very wrong. He was complicated. He seemed to understand (on some level) that the choices he was making were not the best options he had – they were a means to an end, but not the end itself.
Gatsby’s neighbor in West Egg, Nick Carraway, was the average-man in the story – he was the reader’s touchstone. He was partly in awe of Gatsby and yet also exasperated by him. Seeing Nick try to navigate the high society world reflected my own discomfort with that lifestyle. Nick was a midwesterner and temporary transplant in West Egg, Long Island, which was where the “new money” lived. His cousin Daisy was part of the East Egg crowd, who were wealthy and established. As it turns out, Gatsby knew Daisy – or at least knew her many years before, when he was poor. Actually, he was in love with her. Nick became the conduit to renew their passion.
In fairly short succession, the actions of these characters have dramatic consequences. Daisy’s husband Tom was having an affair with Myrtle, who lives in squalor with her husband George. Tom finds out about Daisy and Gatsby and the gender imbalance is played out – it’s OK if Tom has an affair, but his wife isn’t allowed to follow suit. Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, kills Myrtle but Gatsby is willing to take the blame. Tom tells George that Gatsby killed Myrtle, so George takes his revenge on Gatsby.
Tom, Daisy and the party-goers are not people I would want to know. They were empty and self-absorbed people. “Careless” people was how they were described in the book and that is the perfect word. They thought themselves above others because they had money, beauty, and personae, and they never worried about how their words or actions might affect others. They just didn’t care. I often leave a book wondering what happens to characters but I had no desire to know more about them and didn’t really care what happened to them beyond at the end of the story. For me, they died with the end of the book – maybe I’m a bit careless, too, but I try to apply that approach only to characters in books!
I did think about Nick and Gatsby and what might have happened had they left West Egg. Maybe had Gatsby found more people like Nick, who had substance over flash, he could have earned money is a better way. Maybe he wouldn’t have been so obsessed with the trappings of wealth. Maybe he would have explored the parts of himself that had depth and meaning, rather than those shallow, easy, means-to-an-end qualities that ultimately defined his life and determined his fate.