Gorlick, K 'It'll turn out all right in the end: The Great Gatsby as a cultural practice', NAFF_Online 5.1 (2007): pp. 10-12.
Browsing through the many tabloids and television programs devoted to the lives of Hollywood stars, it is easy to wonder what it is about these ‘celebrities’ that make many everyday people desperate to hear what they had for breakfast. America is famous for having spawned these ‘stars’ which frequently grace screens, papers and beaches with their ever flamboyant lives of glitz and glamour. Their wealth, ‘beauty’ and celebrated, jet- setting lifestyles represent everything many ordinary people are not and for this they are worshipped as gods and emulated by every starry- eyed youth wanting to make it big. Lately, reality television and increased paparazzi attention has meant ordinary people flock with disbelief to see their idols acting and looking like real human beings, amazed and shocked that these glossy, perfect individuals are just like them underneath. Even with this understanding however, celebrities are ridiculed for dropping this perfect demeanour, being caught looking any less than the glossy image they usually project is a cause for outcry and disgust, why?
The reason for America’s obsession with the unreality of celebrities can be argued as being the reason The Great Gatsby ( Fitzgerald, 1987), a book written 82 years ago has remained a popular classic of American literature. Both the ‘literary’ works of today and Fitzgerald’s novel are cultural practices that can be read as representing an American preoccupation with ‘unreality’, the constant seeking of something glossy and shiny in the distance or in the past, and believing in it even when that something ceases to exist. By viewing Fitzgerald’s novel as a ‘cultural practice’, this novel is as relevant, if not more so today as a blueprint of a culture swept up in the rhetoric of past glories and preoccupied with the whimsical dreams of romantic aspirations.
If The Great Gatsby was historically a manifestation of the American culture of the 1920’s, encapsulating its youthful naïve enthusiasm and optimistic dream-seeking, it represents today the harsh reality of romantic disillusionment and the American failure to achieve its own ‘great dream’ in a never-ending quest to reach another, brighter one. “The Unending quest after the American Dream, which is forever betrayed in fact and yet redeemed in men’s minds” (Ornstein, Cited in Eble, 1985, p. 86). Before the great depression, in the ‘golden era’ of the 1920’s Fitzgerald situates his protagonists amid a world of great economic possibility, and great economic disparity (Frank, 2006). Reading the novel as a cultural practice sees Jay Gatsby as not just the main character in a novel about the extravagances of the 1920’s, but as a symbol of the glittering dream envisioned in a land of plenty, by a people of abounding possibility and inhibiting naivety. The optimism that overcomes realism and the enthusiasm that refuses defeat; the great American dream, where anyone can be anything and achieve greatness- is embodied in the creation of Jay Gatsby.
James Gatz creates for himself a new persona, one which he believes is worthy of wooing the wealthy Daisy, this ‘Jay Gatsby’ lives the fantastical life that great wealth enables, yet not content with his successful metamorphosis, Gatz/Gatsby continues to strive for what is unlikely to be his, he is addicted to the “evanescent and the intangible” (Will, 2005), the doomed dream of marrying Daisy. When all his striving for this dream fall apart when he loses Daisy and is killed, the hollowness of his existence- and that of the elusive American dream- is revealed plainly to the reader.
Eble likens America to an amusement park where the idealistic dream shines and glitters brightly- like the colourful parties Gatsby hosts- but closely is chipped and worn- it is not gold and never will be, but it glitters all the same (1985, p. 87). The excessively extravagant parties held regularly by Gatsby are a facade, they are meaningless, the host himself doesn’t know half the people there and they know “nothing whatever about him” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p. 45) regularly amusing themselves spreading rumours to explain his elusiveness. The senselessness and profligacy that goes on at the parties and the shallowness of the guests presents an analogy a young nation of people with great wealth and abundance, but with little maturity to know how to deal with it, similar to children thrust into a candy- store, who refuse to believe they will get sick from overindulging, but who always believe there are greater candies to be discovered and enjoyed.
As children devise dreams without reason, without being held back by the sensibility of age, so too did America commit to the “following of a grail” ( Fitzgerald, 1987, p. 91), the idealistic romanticism untempered by critical intelligence (Bewley in Eble, 1985, p.88) that kept the ‘dream’ alive and keeps it burning today. Although Gatsby’s dream to woo and wed Daisy was destined to fail to begin with (Marsh, 1992, p. 5), it was his do- whatever- it- takes attitude and overconfident self- belief to achieve the elusive dream that is truly a part of the American ethos. Because the achievement of the dream is unlikely, the seeking of it never has to end, it is always beyond the horizon, just out of reach. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s not matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.107)
Gatsby embodies the extremity of the American quest for self-definition; he is the ‘director’ of his own existence, like the ‘stars’ of today, the image he projects is unreal, a facade. “…Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his platonic conception of himself… he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a 17- year-old boy would be likely to invent and to this conception he was faithful to the end”(Fitzgerald, 1987, p.64). Gatsby’s arrogant belief that he is capable of not only creating his own identity but also deciding the way his world would turn out, is evident in his belief that even the past is not beyond his manipulation; “Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can… I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before ….” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p. 71). Like the unwithering self- belief at the core of American ideology, Gatsby refuses to even consider he might fail, in order to consciously seek something so unreal, he too must live in a fantastical world of ideological romanticism.
Incorporating the movie culture of his time into the narrative, Fitzgerald makes numerous parallels to the “insubstantiality”(Marsh, 1992, p.4) of Gatsby’s world with the “medium of film”(Marsh, 1992, p.4), it exists, it can be seen, but it isn’t real, it’s a fake mirror of reality. Gatsby is the director, as well as the star of his own film, his world a combination of scenes of his own construction. Importantly though, not even the director’s plans always eventuate, as Gatsby’s grand scheme to win back Daisy breaks with the script he had written and becomes reality – the real ending being his death and Daisy moving away with her husband. Ironically, and possibly as a warning for American idealism, in constantly being in a state of fantasy- living in the past and his planned future, Gatsby excludes himself from the happiness that can be gleaned from the reality of the present. It may not be as glorious as dreams, but at least it is a real existence. Gatsby lives separated from his life, he isn’t a participator in the parties he holds but more of an enigmatic observer (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.40); he lives as if the present is a means to an end. As a result of his never living a ‘real’ life, when he leaves it, barely anyone cares to attend his funeral. One who does attend, his father, remembers him not as the flamboyant, wealthy Gatsby who hosted grand parties, but as the real, good person he was as James Gatz who envisioned great plans for himself (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.103). Others who took advantage of his hospitality were more concerned about collecting their belongings than farewelling someone who to them was nothing more than party host (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.101). This harsh reality makes a statement about the corruption of possessions as much as it does about Gatsby. In living lives of unbelievable wealth, his peers lack real connection or emotional attachment, recognised by the shallowness of their acceptance of infidelity and death. Historically, this element of Fitzgerald’s novel marks transience from a community spirit to that of the individual, the disposable ethic that began post- World War 1 where life, death, wealth and morality began being disposable commodities.
The obvious contrast between the economic debauchery at the parties and the infidelity, stupidity and shallowness of emotion displayed by the guests, further illustrates the obsession with the ‘unreality of reality’; Gatsby lived in his great plans and assumed identity, others hid behind wealth and possessions (Gibb, 2005).
Following the death of Gatsby and the disappearance of Daisy and Tom, Carraway laments that the latter “were careless people… they smashed things and creatures and the 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…” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.106). Was Daisy ever genuinely in love with Gatsby, did she love Tom, did Tom love Myrtle? Was any of the characters emotions real to begin with? Or were their feelings authentic, but the characters too weak to trust them and, so instead they preferred to live in a fantasy of fake emotions? The answers are up to the readers interpretation, although suffice to say, Fitzgerald did not write a heart- warming romantic novel.
Similar to the ‘stars’ of today, because of their abundance of material possessions and their exposed superficial fronts, it becomes difficult to see that there is much else to them, nothing deeper than the shallow facades they flaunt. Thus the ‘unreality’ of them as people becomes more profound. Significantly in the novel the reader begins to wonder whether anything is genuine at all: the people, their feelings and behaviour. It is only with the abrupt deaths Myrtle and Gatsby that everything screeches back to reality and the reader is reminded that although one can conceal reality for a time, it is ultimately unescapable.
As well as the symbols and analogies present in the novel, The Great Gatsby is clearly a warning about the downsides of being preoccupied with tangible acquisitions. Although the novel was written in the 1920’s at a time of great advancement and opportunity in America, the world today is realising that whatever dreams are held, there is a realistic limit to resources. Although a ‘democracy’, the economic inequality in America has been rising sharply since the 1970’s and the novel can be interpreted as raising questions regarding the discrepancy between the unrealistic dreams and lifestyles of the few with power, wealth and status and the realistic dreams of the masses for an equal democratic society (Eble, 1985, p. 89, 95).
If there were a lesson to be gleaned from this novel, it would be through the actions of the most morally- sound character Nick Carraway, the observer and narrator. His strategy of coping with the excessive corruption and morally abject behaviour is to live separate from it- to see it as something apart from him. Nick does not ignore the morally corrupt goings on around him, he sees it and is regularly disgusted, but rather than ever trying to fix it, he only ever observes from a distance. He is comforted with the knowledge that these people truly believed they were right, so why would he try to change it? As he leaves he sees no point in carrying on disproval because these people knew no different, they were childlike. “I couldn’t forgive him, or like him, but I saw what he had done was, to him entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused…I felt suddenly as though I was talking to a child” ( Fitzgerald, 1987,p.106).
It’s almost as if today, we are all doing just that- separating our own lives from those we disapprove of, by seeing celebrities, criminals, politicians etc… as being separate from our own lives- we are exempting ourselves from doing anything about the way they act. Perhaps an interpretation could be that Nick’s action throughout the novel was a lesson in reverse- what not to do. We cannot be casual observers to people/ cultures/ countries self-destructing and call it the causalities of some pursuit of great dreams, step back and separate ourselves, because it’s an impossibility, we are fooling ourselves if we think we can. As caraway says to Jordan “I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honour” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.106)
Like the ghost of perfection strived for in Hollywood, the great American dream, in all its wonder, is nothing but a result of a limitless imagination, it can never be fulfilled, for something greater can always be envisioned. “The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night…” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p. 65) Like the fantasies Gatsby indulges, chasing dreams is never about the actual dream being achieved, for it is unreal, it is about the path taken to achieve it. Is it Gatsby’s great love for Daisy that prompts his quest, or rather is she an excuse to constantly be on the addictive path of striving for something unreal, something unachievable?
Putting everything at risk and taking to chance to achieve a dream is put forward regularly today as being admirable, but in Gatsby’s case the reader feels pity for him never being real, always acting in a fake world and never living the real life. Much of what Gatsby did to amass his fortune is not discussed explicitly in the novel, although Fitzgerald alludes to acts that are outside moral and legal boundaries of behaviour (Frank, 2006). Gatsby takes great risk to achieve his aspirations, as has America, it could be said, throughout history in its quests for a greater existence; both apparently living through the theory that the end will justify the means. Gatsby put all on the line, even his life, when he is willing to take the fall for killing Myrtle Wilson. Antus (2006) believes Gatsby is self- loathing, he is self conscious of his origin and has no true friends because he never truly is himself, he has nothing to lose and so ends up putting himself in harms way to achieve his ultimate goal, the only thing he has left.
After Gatsby dies and Carraway walks past his neighbour’s ‘failure’ of a house, he sees an obscene word on the steps, interpreted as representing the obscene actions of Gatsby in the quest for his dream (Will, 2005). “On the white steps an obscene word, scrawled by some boy with a piece of brick, stood out clearly in the moonlight and I erased it , drawing my shoe rasping along the stone” (Fitzgerald, 1987, p.107). After Carraway wipes out the word, he then ceases to judge Gatsby for his lies and dishonesty, and instead espouses Gatsby’s goal of seeking something great in the distance. Will (2005) recommends that in doing this the fates of both Gatsby and America become intertwined, if we forget the criminality, corruption and adulterous nature of both leading them up to this point, we can see their actions as a worthy quest for greatness and say that both ‘turned out all right in the end’(Fitzgerald, 1987, p.1).
Idealism and individuality are two valued qualities of American culture, which together have contributed to the popularity of The Great Gatsby in the past and today.
Like the unreal extravagance portrayed by Fitzgerald’s characters that made the novel a transfixing portrait of economic indulgence in the 1920’s, the American population’s fixation with the authors life that is supposed to be intertwined with the novel, has contributed to the interest in the underlying themes of unreality and obsession with self- purpose (Eble, 1985, p.85). Interest in the goings on in Fitzgerald’s life and that of his wife Zelda captivated readers in America as much as the author’s protagonist did. Eble considers the American obsession with the individual, both fictional and the real, makes this novel more American than any other theme. As can be surmised by the popularity of reality programs in the world, but particularly in the USA, the intense interest in the personal experiences and responses of individuals (Eble, 1985, p. 85) is a particular American characteristic. Further, if the people in the program hold ‘unreal’ status such as a Hollywood ‘star’, the reality program is more intriguing, for like the relationship between Fitzgerald and Gatsby, the relationship between the real and the unreal is an intriguing plot.
The Great Gatsby is inherently American, not simply because it was written by an American and about a section of American society, but because the themes, symbols and motives are tightly wound into an American psyche which, as a ‘cultural practice’ has not withered in the 82 years since the books release. Contemplating the different strategies put forth for reading the novel, allows the reader to uncover some fundamental strategies for human existence. Gatsby is the great American dream incarnate, and through his protagonist, Fitzgerald has written his own ‘obituary of the American dream’ (Barrett, 2006) Further, many see Fitzgerald as not only critiquing the American dream, but also the entire American attitude to life, its idealism and focus on power, wealth and status (Eble, 1985, p.88).