Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Great Gatsby

So far a lot of my thesis research has consisted of looking up initial reviews of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Now I am moving into later reviews and criticism of Fitzgerald-- pieces written during and after Fitzgerald's American literary canonization. At this point in a book's critical reputation, it can be the tendency of the critic, from what I am finding, to see what he/she wants in the author's themes. (Often, I am finding, the initial reviews don't do an adequate job exploring a book's themes, in favor of focusing on the biography of the author).

I too am guilty of reading my own beliefs into a work like Gatsby by virtue of a reason for my researching this subject: my sense that Gatsby reveals the most disconcerting aspect of the American Dream, which is its unattainability--for even when one realizes its material promises, one is still not satisfied--and my curiosity as to whether the concept translates into an intriguing subject to other nations. What makes Jay Gatsby both sympathetic and even likeable while at the same time naive and frustrating is the fact that he conflates material success with emotional satisfaction--and in fact it becomes questionable whether his coveting of blue-blood flapper Daisy Buchanan for emotional satisfaction is just another part of his materialistic vision of success. Yet, in the scheme of things, Daisy and her husband Tom are worse, for, being born wealthy, they have neither been forced to climb the ladder to success, nor, most importantly, do they appreciate their status for what it is: luck.

For me this story is a truly American story, especially in our current times. The Great Gatsby is not an opitimistic story, which is why I am puzzled by an article I found while researching, wherein the writer says:
The thirst for money is a crucial motive in Gatsby, as in Fitzgerald's other novels, and yet none of his major characters are materialists, for money is never their final goal. ("Scott Fitzgerald's Fable of East and West" by Robert Ornstein, p. 140. College English. Volume 18, Number 3).
I think this writer misses the point, which is that the selfish and ultimately fatal carelessness exercised by major characters Tom, Daisy, and Jordan in Gatsby stems from the fact that "money is never their final goal"--because they already have it! Sure, they don't need to covet wealth for this reason, but that hardly means they aren't materialistic. (Just look at the valuation given to the automobile in Gatsby).

This whole conversation--or soliliquy, probably--can be brought back to the fact that we see in the open-ended aspects of a piece of literature what we want to see, and we have a reason for wanting to promote our interpretation--because our worldview feels a little more validated. Whether it says what we want to believe about wealth, about the American Dream, about the 1920s, etc., this is why we care about a novel, and why a book like Gatsby, with its sophisticated rendering of the American Dream (or Myth) endures.

1 comment:

Chris said...

The first scene in Tom and Daisy's house when they sit in the room with the wedding-cake ceiling and complain about how hot it is and how bored they are always made me think that Daisy etal were an American sort of aristocracy...and are, partially for that very reason, dangerous. Just like the European aristocracy before them, they have so much time and money that they don't know what to do with it anymore; and from there follows decadence.

The reactions of the French public to the portrayal of the American upper class seems especially intriguing to me.

I can't wait to hear what you find out.