“The Great Gatsby,” written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, is often called one of the masterpieces of American literature. It is indeed in some ways distinctly American. Perhaps the lead character, Jay Gatsby, with his incredible optimism, his inexhaustible well of hope, his can-do brassiness, and his rags-to-riches story, does epitomize something true and unique in the best — and sometimes partly mythical — American character. Gatsby’s character fits one of our strongest national narratives — the one that describes an egalitarian, upwardly mobile, anything-is-possible-in-America, an exceptional country.
So sure, there is much that is American about this novel. But I think that the power and strength and enduring value and appeal of the book is in its portrayal of people — portrayals that illuminate and raise questions about the universal attributes, values, abilities, motivations and emotions that we all possess.
I just saw the movie, “The Great Gatsby,” which is quite faithful to the book, and which, therefore, does a great job of exploring some of the infinitely variable elements of human character.
The protagonist, Gatsby, is a man possessed. He has one ultimate goal, to which all of his other plans and activities are dedicated. Five years earlier (in 1917), he met Daisy Fay and was smitten. Over the course of a magical autumn, they fell in love. They committed to each other, or so Gatsby thought (the reader or moviegoer has to decide for himself).
Gatsby goes off to fight in World War I. When he returns, he delays in contacting Daisy. Fearing that his penniless state will cause her wealthy family to forbid their marriage, he works for nearly five years to amass a fortune worthy of Daisy’s upper-class standing. Ultimately, he buys a mansion on Long Island across the bay from her house.
During the war years, Daisy had waited for Gatsby. But after two years, she started seeing other men. She marries a rich man and begins a life, first in Chicago and then in New York.
Gatsby follows these developments, and he plots and plans and dreams and remains convinced that Daisy still loves him. Nothing in his life — not his wealth, his showy estate, his flashy car, nor even his status among men — has any value to him other than the value that it may have in Daisy’s eyes.
He is sure that she will leave her husband, and come back to him to restart the exceptional romance that only the war interrupted.
We learn all of this — both in the book and movie — through the eyes of Nick Carraway, Daisy’s cousin and Gatsby’s friend. Nick is smart and perceptive, and he worries about people’s lives and what people can do to themselves and others.
He wonders if Gatsby is going to ask too much of Daisy, and if she and her philandering husband are happier and more content with their gaudy, meretricious lifestyle than either we or Gatsby thinks.
He warns Gatsby that “you can’t repeat the past,” to which Gatsby replies with incredulity and certainty, “Why of course you can.” Gatsby’s inability to live in the present began when he separated from Daisy, and his emotional capacities became compromised and handicapped at that point. After Daisy, the direction and coherence of his life depended upon his conviction that one day he would be reunited with her.
There is another character in the book, a woman named Jordan Baker, who has a different reaction to events in the past. Traumatized, disappointed, or hurt too often in her own life, she lives determinedly only in the present. Toward the past, and even toward the future, she is cynical, contemptuous, and without sentimentality or expectation.
Nick sees that these two postures — Gatsby’s and Baker’s — are extremes, but he recognizes that they are not uncommon. And it leads him (and us) to reflect on the degree to which the past influences us. What is the relationship of the present to the past? How much of our character is formed by our experiences?
Struck by Gatsby’s confidence and self-absorption and strength, Nick also wonders about our capacity for self-delusion and self-awareness, and our ability to see in others — and in life generally — only what we want to see. Do we see ourselves clearly? Can we locate ourselves in relationship to others, that is, somewhere along the broad spectrum of character and personality? Is it important that we be able to do so?
Nick reflects on the nature of character, and the diverse approaches of people for navigating society. “The Great Gatsby”is about — among other things — the incredible pull of love and the orienting and sometimes indispensable power of possessing purpose and motivation in life.
Nick participates in life, but he is constantly examining it and himself in it. He states that he is “within” life, but also often outside of it, like a stranger seeing the scenes from a vantage point from afar.
As he observes the characters of Daisy, Gatsby, and Baker, and the entire Roaring Twenties, he realizes that one of the hardest things for each of us to do is “look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.” It is far easier, and sometimes more successful, he says, to look at everything through just one window.
The reader and moviegoer will have to come to his own conclusion about that.
Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.