Sometimes you pick up a classic, and sometimes a classic picks up you. By the throat. And shakes vigorously. I must have read Gatsby at least twice during my school career: definitely in middle school, and then again in high school, and both times, it was completely went over my head. I had later on seen the Robert Redford/Mia Farrow and Toby Stephens/Mina Sorvino movies, and it still didn’t do a lot for me, but I had the vague sense that it was a book I ought to come back to someday.
So I finally made it down my Netflix queue to last year’s Baz Luhrmann Leonardo DiCaprio/Carey Mulligan production, and having some past experience with Luhrmann, I wasn’t expecting much more than some VERY lavish party scenes, so I’m standing in front of the TV on a Saturday afternoon folding laundry, and DiCaprio as Gatsby invades Nick’s house with a truly ridiculous profusion of cascading orchids and is sitting there, looking fidgety and miserable, and I GOT IT.
In the book, Fitzgerald writes:
He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. . . . Chapter 6
That wish to go back to some earlier point and do things over, that this time, somehow, you could make things turn out better – the idea that the solution could be to recapture the past, as Gatsby insists, instead of finding a way forward in the future because the present has become too tangled and so many regrets lie behind – that’s something no one who has not crossed the midpoint of their life can really relate to. Truly, classics are wasted on the young, which is when, more likely than not, we are exposed to them, and perhaps for the only time.
I started thinking about Gatsby and Ahab, who both have fairly colorless first-person narrators somewhat inexplicably attracted to following them, who both are dominated by an idée fixe so powerful that it leads to their downfall, who both die floating passively in water. I think that last part is not accidental: someone with an obsession strong enough to try to bend life to their individual will is finally left swimming (borne up, but without personal direction or effort) in the unconscious, greater forces that a person in balance knows enough to respect. What I think it really, truly brilliant about Gatsby is that he actually achieves his goal, only to find the many ways in which it is not and never could be what he wanted, and it’s a slow, dismaying process of disillusionment that never quite takes hold because he refuses to let it, but there’s that beautiful line “His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one,” and you sense the defeat contained within the victory. This leaves me to wonder what would have happened to Ahab had he managed to kill the white whale – surely he doesn’t go on to become a happy man (“OK, job well done!”). And I think this is where the Luhrmann version really stands out, because the Stephens (2000) and Redford (1974) movies read too much like a love story, but I think the psychological brilliance of the text is that Daisy is not worth it: she is very pretty, and used to being rich, but ultimately a weak reed, and essentially shallow.
The other surprise for me on coming back to the book now after so many years was Tom. He is an unlikeable character, but I think Fitzgerald’s depiction of him is absolutely brilliant, and he so easily could have been a stock character. I love his inarticulate appeals to pseudo-science (purity of races and other repulsive nonsense) to bolster himself up. I love his total lack of self-awareness when he begins pontificating about the sanctity of traditional “family life and family institutions…” only to break off, as he usually does, because his ideas are so limited. “Flushed with his impassioned gibberish he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization,” Fitzgerald writes. I love his essential inability to see the similarities between himself and Wilson, although the narrator and reader can. It’s just a brilliant description of a character with a shallow mind and robust, yet shallow, ego, who takes from life without recognizing his common humanity.
In the Luhrmann movie, Luhrmann and his coauthor, Craig Pierce, take the Chapter 7 climax scene farther, and while it is usually a very iffy idea to try to improve on an original text, they do it: it’s so absolutely on target that it feels as inevitable and satisfying as watching a basketball swish through the net at end of a successful three-point shot. All through the novel, you’ve been building to this head-to-head conflict between Gatsby, the man of subtlety and deception, and Tom, the unconscious, self-righteous brick, and you finally get it in the scene in the hotel, but Fitzgerald leaves it to fizzle out with Tom making vague accusations that Gatsby not only made his fabulous wealth bootlegging, but is associated with shady people and that he’s “got something on now” that is even worse, although we never learn what that is. This apparently blows Gatsby’s cool, and Fitzgerald describes him in a rather cumbersome, bizarre way that finally concludes he looked “as if he had killed a man.” (Guilty? Enraged? I still can’t figure this one out.) Daisy is described as withdrawing further and further into herself, and it is not clear whether this is because she is afraid of what has been revealed, or because Gatsby has lost his polished luster. Possibly both.
In the Luhrmann screenplay the scene keeps going, with Tom sneering at Gatsby for his low birth and his essential inability to ever be like one of them, which builds logically on his quack “master race” theories and you can see it absolutely gets under Gatsby’s skin in a way the mere allusions to his shady dealings would not, because Gatsby has been trying to remake himself into “one of them” and it gets at his creeping sense of failure. He has lied and bought his way into his position and maintains it only at a cost that seems to be taking its toll on him throughout the story. And you see Gatsby finally really lose it: and instead of “looking like he killed a man”, DiCaprio actually punches him in the face, and then you know the jig is up. He has publicly, irretrievably lost his suave detachment (showing that the accusations hit home) and revealed himself as a violent thug, not the Oxford man of Queensbury rules. It is not just Daisy who turns away, but Nick, and Jordan, and to some extent the audience: the fiction of millionaire, debonair Gatsby can no longer be credibly maintained, even though he tries to patch it back together.
I think the other genius stroke in Luhrmann’s film is the casting of Indian Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfshiem. He is suitably exotic, and creepy, exuding a feeling of mysterious wealth to capture the part, which Fitzgerald wrote as a shameless “stock” Jewish character. The unconscious anti-Semitism embedded in the text reminded me “House of Mirth”, but at least there Wharton was able to rise above it. Minus points for Fitzgerald on this one. I also like the speakeasy setting in which Wolfshiem first appears, with the chorus girls who fascinate Tom, even though he is a racist - what we deny has a way of coming out twisted.
One of the things that continues to puzzle me about Gatsby is why the narrator (and reader) should find him any different than the other people, like Tom and Daisy and Jordan, that the book finally comes to reject:
They were careless people…they 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 had made. . . . Chapter 9.
Gatsby is equally selfish (a user of other people, e.g. his cultivation of Nick as a personal “friend” for his connection to Daisy), but I suppose you might distinguish him by saying at least his selfishness and using people for his own ends has someone else (Daisy) as its goal, and he is willing to sacrifice himself for her, and that, perhaps, make him more admirable. I think a lot of the change in tone – where Gatsby goes from being a rich playboy who throws parties to an almost Christ-like figure (despised, rejected, a man of sorrows, as Messiah goes), is actually due to the deep misanthropy buried in the book. Fitzgerald goes out of his way to describe the selfishness of the party goers and contrasts the crowds who came for the fun with the solitary funeral no one wants to attend. There is another, crueler, better, scene in Chapter 6 in which Tom and two of his acquaintances impose themselves on Gatsby’s hospitality and barely conceal their disinterest in their host. It is a particularly good scene because Gatsby falls for it and is surprised and disappointed when they leave him behind, and this makes him more pathetic and more human than the aloof rich man who doesn’t go to his own parties that we are introduced to in the beginning. Nick, on Gatsby’s behalf, tries to get one, any one, of Gatsby’s previous “friends” to attend the funeral, but he has been abandoned, and this draws Nick, and the reader, I think, closer to him retrospectively. BUT. I also think Fitzgerald leaves a few things out: for instance, Jay’s father does attend (that counts as one person, doesn’t it?), and moreover, this is a man whom Gatsby rejected. He has acted throughout in an obsessive, single-minded way that turned people (Nick, Jordan), into instruments for his own ends. He has built a life based on secrets, which necessitates keeping people at a distance, and engaged in purely mercenary business dealings for the sake of amassing his fortune to win Daisy. I don’t know, with the inclusion of Jay’s father, whether Fitzgerald has any awareness of Gatsby’s own role in creating a loveless, disconnected life for himself, but I tend to read the book as “not”: I think Fitzgerald put too much of his own personal sorrow and contempt for the humanity he associated with and got wrapped up in it. I am reminded, in contrast, by that extraordinary scene in Christmas Carol which always struck me as a child, in which Marley shows Scrooge the ghosts outside his window:
Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep- The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
Marley says (a little earlier, but in the same vein):
'Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed… Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life's opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!''But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.'Business!' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'
It is hard to feel too deeply the pathos of Gatsby’s alienation from this perspective. It is, nonetheless, a tremendous book, beautifully written, and worth the read as an adult, if you have not already gone back to pick it up again.