F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, consistently features on the editors’ and readers’ lists of the best novels of the twentieth century. The novel has also fascinated different generations of Hollywood filmmakers. Apart from offering brilliant insights into the American life of the 1920s, marked by unprecedented prosperity and material progress, the novel stands out for its subtle characterization, suggestive symbolism and deft craftsmanship.
The novel is set in the fictional townships of East Egg and West Egg. Most of the action takes place in West Egg, a town outside Manhattan Long Island Sound, where the newly rich have built their mansions. Across the bay at East Egg are the stately houses of the old-money people, amongst them the rich Buchanans. These towns largely symbolize the cultural and economic division of the USA into the East and the West. East coast, where many Ivy League universities are located, has always been the cultural centre of the USA, and also the financial hub of the country, with the world’s biggest stock exchange, Wall Street, based in the New York. However, what essentially sets apart East from the West is its cosmopolitanism and European elegance.
In the novel, the West is not the western coastline of the USA but middle-western states: Chicago, Michigan and Minnesota, where large and prosperous communities have mushroomed with the rapid growth of railways and with the wealth derived from agriculture, coal and oil. The main characters, including Nick Carraway, Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby are from mid-west; two of them have studied on the East coast, at Yale, and all three have taken up residence in the New York for different reasons. Tom Buchanan and Daisy, after spending some years in Europe, buy an elegant mansion in East Egg, a fashionable suburb of Long Island, while Nick rents out a small residence and Gatsby purchases a palatial residence at West Egg, a less fashionable suburb but home to nouveau riche, eager to splash out money on gaudy parties, flashy automobiles and ostentatious clothes.
The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a war veteran, who is starting out into the bonds business. Despite the single point of view, the tightly knit plot, the slow unraveling of the character of Gatsby and suggestive symbolism give the novel a sense of mystery and ambiguity. The intellectual element, the writer’s grappling with ideas, and there are plenty in the novel, is not presented in the form of monologues or soliloquies, but dissolves into the action of the novel.
The imagery of the novel is compact and gives poignancy and suppleness to narrative. There is no detailed description of beauties of nature, of sunsets and rainbows, as words only serve the purpose of bringing out the inner worth of characters and setting them in their true space and time. When Nick Carraway visits Daisy Buchanan’s house for the first time, the fractiousness in the Buchanan household and the domineering nature of Tom is captured by apt visual and auditory images: “I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”
On a simple level, it is a story of Gatsby’s boundless love for Daisy, who marries Tom, a supercilious philanderer, for his ample means; and Gatsby, intends to win back her love, after earning tons of money as a bootlegger. Daisy decides to leave her husband after meeting Gatsby, but on learning the source of his wealth, she dithers, retreats back from her decision, and continue to live with Tom. Despite the novel’s deceptively plain reading, it is exquisitely crafted and revolves around timeless themes of mindless pursuit of pleasure, loneliness and vapidity of human relationships based on worldly possessions.
One theme of the novel is the pursuit of happiness by rich classes as exhibited by their attendance of glitzy, sumptuous parties, where champagne overflows and party-goers dance on popular jazz tunes till wee hours of the morning. Jay Gatsby hosts opulent parties, where people interact in loose social networks, and try to construct personal histories through rumor, slander and gossip. They never make an attempt to understand Gatsby and persistently slander and gossip about his origins and source of wealth. A swirl of rumors surrounds him; he is called “a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm”, or “a German spy during the war”. In fact, the attendees of Gatsby’s parties are social mercenaries , who come to his parties for free food, wine, and limitless amusement, and repay his hospitality by sneering “most bitterly” at their host “on the courage of” his liquor.
The novel is also a commentary on amoral and empty human relationships. Wealth and worldly possessions determine worth of a man and not human qualities such as honesty, generosity and respect for women. Daisy marries Tom for money while Wilson Myrtle, a girl friend of Tom, despises her husband for his limited means, and is attracted to Tom because of his fancy suit and patent leather shoes. Despite Myrtle’s infidelity, Wilson is shown hopelessly devoted to his wife. On the contrary, Tom not only cheats his wife but also beats Myrtle and contrives an intricate lie to thwart her stubborn insistence for marriage, by saying that he cannot divorce Daisy because of her Catholic faith as “they don’t believe in divorce”. The “elaborateness of lie” of Tom shocks Nick beyond disbelief. Daisy is also depicted as superficial and artificial; she can also dissimulate her emotions and perhaps that is the reason that she can’t distinguish fake from genuine or right from wrong.
Exquisitely interwoven into this narrative of gaiety is the theme of the dream of Gatsby: his inexhaustible love for Daisy. However, author makes distinction between unbridled pursuit of wealth and pleasure and the grand dream of Gatsby; one shows decadence and disrespect for social conventions while other exhibits ‘infinite hope’ and romantic idealism. Amidst scorn, deceit, artificiality and pretension, the optimism of Gatsby – belief in his capacity to realize his dream of regaining love of Daisy – endows on him a heroic status, which is described in mythical terms by Nick Carraway:
“The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about his Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty.”
No doubt, the terse imagery of the novel, its poignant dialogue, punctuated with amusing comments, and the gradual de-layering of the character of Gatsby, explains its enduring popularity.
The writer is a public policy practitioner based in Lahore.