I insisted on rereading The Great Gatsby before seeing the new film version partly because I hardly remembered anything about it (including the ending) but mostly to test my conviction that I’m at least a little bit better at understanding art and literature than I was at age 14, which is not really that arrogant when you consider how much time and money I’ve spent in the name of getting smarter over the past several years. So in the theater just hours after finishing the book, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear how often the words of Fitzgerald’s text were quoted verbatim in the film. Yet, as you may know, many reviewers have pointed out discrepancies between the two that they find worthy of great outrage, some of them apparently so loyal to the spirit of Jay Gatsby that they regard the film as some sort of injustice to his (fictional) character, and have felt compelled to write, in his defense, as Jay Gatsby’s post-mortem ghost (creative, or ironically performing the same act it criticizes?).
But that is not the morally uncomfortable datum I wish to ponder here: it troubled me both while reading the book and sitting in the theater, and so I’ll lay those disagreements aside for the moment and consider a plot point about which Fitzgerald and Luhrmann reasonably agreed: how and why Jay Gatsby got rich. In each, it was explained with enough clarity that Gatsby had grown up in poverty, missed a chance at a substantial inheritance, and eventually accumulated his wealth by way of some sort of shady business, which business was left mostly in the shade by both. This shade provided some ambiguity concerning Jay Gatsby’s moral character: though he’s mostly presented as larger-than-life, he is certainly not that pure hero in the ranks of Aragorn, Frodo, Samwise, et al, in whom almost no faults can be found. Let’s not forget Gatsby’s shame concerning his origins and resulting lies, his treatment of Tom Buchanan, and his bumping Jay-Z at his Moulin Rouge!-themed parties (hardly appropriate for those seeking wholesome fun).
So the simple point here is that while Fitzgerald isn’t fully endorsing this Gatsby guy’s every move, he’d still like him to be some sort of tragic-hero, who deserves our sympathies to an extent; and this is where that moral datum comes in, because he’s really easy to like and respect. Jay Gatsby disowned his family and made millions illegally, which for many is just cause to hold up self-righteous noses and applaud the fact that his funeral was under-attended—the bastard deserved it. But even if you’re happy to think that the ‘20’s were corrupt no matter how you look at them, so who cares how Gatsby got rich; or even if you’re left-leaning enough to see that Tom Buchanan did even less to earn his fortune than Gatsby did his, tossing the legalities aside, there’s still something unsettling about this whole narrative. What scares the hell out of me is not that I still want to cheer for Jay Gatsby even though he’s done some bad things—I don’t care that I don’t care that he’s simply done bad things. I care that he did them all for a person. He wanted to be with Daisy, the woman he loved.
What this means is that Gatsby is a man with very serious desire. He not only broke laws but also went to (literally) absurd lengths to lie, to falsely present himself to Daisy (and everyone else) in order to gain her love. But unfortunate for him and critical for us is that the way that Gatsby went about trying to Daisy’s love excludes the possibility that he could earn it, because earning love takes more than just serious desire: it also takes some serious integrity. In other words, real love requires that you submit to a pretty high standard set of ethical rules, including a level of honesty and vulnerability between you and your lover, often requiring you to relinquish some of those more selfish desires; but this is not the kind of love that appears center stage in Fitzgerald’s novel.
Gatsby’s willingness to ignore these rules reveals that however much he loves Daisy, he’s also quite happily in love with himself. If anyone would contest Gatsby’s self-love I’d ask you to recall his final encounter with Tom during which he tries to have Daisy deny that she had ever loved Tom because she always loved only him. Which, maybe its my theological studies background but this kind of life-long exclusivity of love sounds a bit too Decalogical—as in the First of the Ten Commandments—for human-to-human romantic relations; that is, maybe taking the vow to Forsake All Others a little too far. Gatsby’s character, not being an Omnipotent Creator Deity, has no reason to request/require such life-long exclusivity, especially while he was off-the-map; so it seems pretty clear that he should appear repugnantly selfish to us readers because he gave the finger to every person, place, or thing that stood in the way of his desire’s satisfaction, including the woman who was supposedly the point of it all (think about it: his only ‘friends’ were Wolfshiem and associates, who were helping him get what he wanted). He didn’t just want Daisy to love him; he wanted her to consider him the only thing worth loving, which, I would submit, falls more in the category of worship than love, at least in love’s standard romantic sense. And its also the kind of love in which his lover, Daisy, wouldn’t actually know the real Gatsby, because she would have hated the real him, who was just a human being (i.e. not God). Of course, this only adds another layer of ethical discomfort, because the woman Gatsby did all this for was really quite shallow and immature and hardly seems worth that much trouble, even if said trouble had been, say, rule-abiding (e.g., she was the type to invest the whole of her identity in the man she loved—again, looking a lot like worship or idolatry, depending on your theological preferences).
Its not discomforting simply that a much-praised novel has morally questionable characters, but rather that the central figure of a (and to some, The) Great American Novel seems not so laudable after all: the man who Nick tells us was “worth the whole damn bunch put together” was one so bent on satisfying his own desires that he lived as if he really believed that he was better than that whole damn bunch, and often even as if the rest of humanity were just another whole damn bunch standing in the way of Jay Gatsby and what Jay Gatsby wanted. But we love him. At least, I do.
If you’re not at all uncomfortable with this—Gatsby’s Great American Legacy despite his substantial moral failings—I would suggest that you’re either happily naïve or profoundly self-aware. If you’re convinced that Fitzgerald’s is just another story, another great work of fiction telling us (at most) about an America of the distant past, then I’m telling you now: you’re in the first camp. Those of us willing to admit our discomfort do so because we know there’s something deeply true in the character of Jay Gatsby, true because it’s also in us. While most people will admit that they have no problem cutting corners and breaking rules in the spheres our culture has deemed acceptable (thereby not really breaking the real rules, the ones that matter)—such as faking a sick-day or speeding a little too much—the lengths to which most of us would go were some mythical power able to guarantee that we not get caught (cf. Plato, Republic, Book 2) are further than seems allowable to admit. Sure, it might start out small—plagiarize a few ‘unimportant’ assignments, putting the low-level moves on the neighbor’s wife, and so on—but once we would learn that we get what we want by breaking all the rules and everyone still treats us like we’re not breaking the rules, things would undoubtedly escalate. We could submit several impressive assignments that weren’t ours and we could really get to know the neighbor’s wife (think again in the Decalogical sense), and somehow, magically/mythically, even she wouldn’t know that we were acting unethically. Of course, we’d still all be the first one to blow the whistle on anyone we caught taking a frowned-upon shortcut, because it just wouldn’t be fair for someone to have that sort of advantage over everyone else.
And this is why it is possible for some to read Gatsby and not be uncomfortable or naïve—those in this camp are already well aware that this is how most of the world is operating, and so it doesn’t scare them because they’ve already come to terms with this truth in themselves and in American society. In our most raw and unfiltered moments, we are all selfish and repugnant and would do almost anything to bypass the masses of the world and its rules in order to get what we’ve always wanted, and our culture thrives on these attitudes, somehow, collectively. Sure, a healthy dose of individual or corporate rational reflection often convinces us that most rules are worth following, but it also tends to remind us how many of the other successful people around us don’t really deserve their success, at least not as much as we deserve ours, and that if the cards really fall fairly next time, we’ll be a step or two ahead of him or her or them. And all this under the conviction that most of this was fair, as we work not only that people would love us, but with Yahweh-like jealousy seeking to be the foremost object of many others’ affection, seeing ourselves as the One most worthy of love (consider the idiom, Life’s Not Fair, which assures me that the reason I have to face the same misfortunes as everyone else is exactly because only I have to face them: the world has been unjust to me, not everyone else). Seriously, how often does anyone think: It really makes sense that they’re not impressed by me?
The designation of The Great American novel perhaps makes the most sense under these considerations, because we live in a society—which means we contribute to it, we help facilitate it—that praises just this sort of individualism and desire. This is the country where your getting rich, your fulfillment of desire, is out there for the taking, and you’re the only one to blame if you can’t seem to achieve those things on your own. And its all described as a good thing, a freedom unprecedented in human history—this is the land of opportunity, after all.
Should we really be that enthralled with individual success, even our own? What good is individual success except the happiness of related individuals, and is that a good enough reason to praise it with such fervor, even if it brings unhappiness to others? And what can be made of the possibility of collective happiness if the ruling principles, at bottom, favor the individual? Of course many institutions and organizations, religious and otherwise, work to combat this attitude of selfishness and instill us with some form of respect for order and authority; and even those who praise self-interest, aware of its repugnance, feel the pressure to claim that, as it turns out, being selfish is actually better for everyone: being selfish is actually not being selfish. But this is only a small part of the battle easily won by the culture of gratification, and how could it not be—promising to everyone that all the forbidden pleasures are worth it after all, even and especially at the expense of those constricting institutions, which are only as good as their individual members? What sort of cultural or economic solidarity could we expect in America, if Jay Gatsby’s life is one that deserves our praise and sympathy? If The Great Gatsby really is The Great American novel, it might be because it tells such a version of the Great American Dream: a society of over 300 million people, each secretly believing him- or herself worth the whole damn bunch put together.
- Robin Herbert on Rorty, Heidegger, and The New Republic: A Counter-Example
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- David Sessions on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
- Robin Herbert on Burn Your Indecision to the Ground
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