18 June 2012

Re-Read : The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner (1925)
218 pages


As I write this the 7 hour 15 minute long staged reading of Fitzgerald's 'greatest' work is playing in London's West End at the Noël Coward Theatre as part of the annual LIFT Festival.

I mention this merely as a starting point. That this production, Gatz, created in 2006 by Elevator Repair Service, exists at all is telling of so much of Gatsby's allure. And of its failings.

We all know the story: Gatsby is a rich man, Nick is not. Gatsby pulls Nick into a world of opulence and wonder. Gatsby loves a married woman. That woman's husband is also engaged in an affair. It all ends terribly. Nick goes back to reality.


That is the trailer for the Baz Luhrmann movie, out this Christmas from Warner Brothers! In 3-D! Which begs the question: Why Gatsby? Why now?

In a recent Sellers post I touched on how I think our attraction to past eras of perceived glamor seem to coincide with periods of economic downturn. In that post I was focused on the Tudor period. I touched on 20s and 30s fashion making a comeback as well as the re-emergence of Dallas in that post. We have a strange cultural blind spot for certain eras; the 1920s, 1950s and apparently Tudor England.

Nostalgia overwhelms reality.

Tudor England was not sexy. It was political havoc and many (most) were killed in the process. And that is what is interesting about why we seem to be having a Gatsby moment. The 20s were dark, full of crime, and led to the Depression. The book is racist, classist, and sexist. The characters are unlikable, rich, white, and many die or end up in a sort of arrested development because of their wealth or 'position' in society.

So are we feeling like the 20s represent the early 2000s? Are we trying to explain our situation through the past? That's interesting because of how the book ends:

He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - to-morrow we will run faster, stretch our arms farther...And one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

This is one of the greatest closings in American writing. I would argue this is why the book is still around. Why it is read and loved. This final passage takes what is a basic pot-boiler and twists it into a cautionary tale against vapid wealth, against nostalgia. We are held by our past and that hold will destroy us. In large or small ways.

I will go into my views of how reading this book now vs. high school felt in part two of this post.


Re-Read is a sometime article where I go back and read a book from my childhood over and examine the threads that I find in my current adult life.