To Know Gatsby Is to Know America

 in "The Great Gatsby

Mulligan, DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby

With the release of the new Great Gatsby, I turn to what appears an excellent review in The New Yorker. Although I haven’t seen the film, I know the novel and I know the film director Baz Luhrmann, and the author of the article makes a convincing case that the two belong together.

Certainly what he says about the novel’s focus on fantasy is on target. The tragedy of the novel, as the following passage from the novel’s conclusion reminds us, is that our dreams can never live up to our expectations:

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion.

I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

I’m convinced that, more than anything else, it is the American Dream that holds us together as a nation. Our capacity for wonder, for dreaming, may help explain why we act so badly when grim reality sets in. Perhaps that’s why our politics are so nasty at the moment. Perhaps we are acting out all the rage of our disenchantment.

Here’s reviewer Joshua Rothman:

The real achievement of Gatsby, in other words, is that it shows us a state of mind. It’s a state of spiritual hunger and dissatisfaction, of restlessness and curiosity, of excitement and anticipation, in which one is, as Nick puts it, “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” All this unfolds beneath that disillusioned surface. This is how you feel when you understand that there is no obviously right way to live, but find that you must choose anyway. It’s pessimistic and ironic, in the sense that you are always only half-committed to your way of life. But it’s also exciting, because you are always on the edge of discovery. There’s always something at stake. The main thing is that you are never settled. You are always hungry, always searching, always throwing feelings away in order to make room for new ones.

It’s possible to believe, as many critics do, that this is a uniquely American state of mind, and there’s a sense in which Gatsby is describing what it’s like to be young in America. Youth is when we do the most weighing and choosing, when we try out new personalities until they become exhausted or destructive. And in a consumer society, youth is extended. We’re increasingly free to pursue our fantasies, to buy the costumes and accouterments of the lives we’d like to have. The result is a kind of national carelessness that realizes itself economically, ecologically, and politically. Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” gestures toward the link between our period and Fitzgerald’s. Our pop hits take place “in the club,” and, Luhrmann shows, so did theirs. We love cocktails and speakeasy bars, and so did they. As in the twenties, we tend to admire wealth, no matter how it’s made.

But the real strength of Luhrmann’s movie is that it turns inward—not toward psychological realism, exactly, but toward fantasy. Gatsby is, to the end, defiantly unrealistic.

America has always been a land of dreamers and probably always will. That’s both the good news and the bad news.

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  • I intentionally didn’t read the New Yorker review because I wanted to see the movie first. I think Luhrmann gets Fitzgerald, which I explained in my review (posted last night). I think many critics fail to understand modernism and Fitzgerald.

  • Robin Bates

    You’ve written a fabulous review, Glenda. Readers can go here to find it. Here’s a sampling:

    Some critics have likened the party scenes to athletes on steroids. However, the ostentatious nature of the scenes serve the excesses of the 1920s as well as those of our decade. At one point in the novel, Nick tells Gatsby “Your place looks like the world’s fair” (86).Indeed, as a 20th Century work of Modernism and as a novel with a carnivalesque aura, the garrishness of the apartment scene makes sense. In part because it’s such a contrast to the classic Buchanan home with is Greco-Roman architecture. The setting has a brothel quality fitting to Tom’s relationship with Myrtle and in keeping with the irony of her questionable tastes. Similarly, the debauchery depicted in the two party scenes at Gatsby’s remind readers of Nick’s comment that those who attended Gatsby’s parties behaved with all the decorum of amusement park attendees. Consequently, the erratic images and chaotic atmosphere serve to depict him as “a tragicomic figure in a social commentary,” as Richard Chase describes Gatsby in The American Novel and Its Tradition. Fitzgerald wanted readers to see Gatsby as both romantically heroic and ridiculous in his pink suit and golden car. In contrast to the 1974 The Great Gatsby, Luhrman literally interprets Fitzgerald’s party descriptions. Thus, we get a real sense of the crowded anonymity of these gatherings. Later, Nick says, “For a moment I was sorry I’d ever step foot upon his overpopulated lawn” (72).

  • Thanks so much for the plug. I mentioned your Gatsby post and the link to my blog on Facebook where Peggy O’Brien saw it and told me you teach w/ Michael Tolaydo.

    I know both Peggy and Michael from the Folger Shakespeare Library; I participated in the 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute and was on a panel w/ Peggy at the 2009 NCTE conference.

    It’s apropos that I learned about these connections as a consequence of our Gatsby posts, as Peggy and Michael hosted a rollicking reunion party fot TSI alum in July, 2010. Small world!


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