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Class and 'The Great Gatsby' | The Nation

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Michelle Dean

Culture and the arts in America, sliced and diced.

Class and 'The Great Gatsby'


A shot from The Great Gatsby. (AP Photo)

There is one thing that Baz Luhrmann gets right about The Great Gatsby, and I think it’s unintentional. It has to do with the way that, turned at a certain angle, lit in a certain way, Leonardo DiCaprio again looks like the boy everyone I knew (I’m that age) grew up loving. The rest of the time, well, he’s still handsome, but he’s aged in such a way that it makes the features of his youthful beauty look a little ridiculous, in retrospect. The worry lines and stubble seem to be telling us that the beauty of that face was only a temporary, fleeting thing. I guess you could say he looks like a ruin of a movie star—a gorgeous ruin, but a ruin nonetheless. And ruin, I always thought, was what Gatsby was all about. Everything in the book is ruined: the old mansion he lives in, the love he has for his perfect woman, the business he runs, Tom Buchanan’s mistress and, more broadly, in the way your tenth grade English teacher taught it to you, the American Dream.

Luhrmann clearly disagrees that rot has any place in the story; he sparkles and spangles his Gatsby to the hilt. But then his interpretation seems to be the dominant one. Kathryn Schulz, in a well-argued piece in New York, pointed out that Scott Fitzgerald was always a bit of a hypocrite about class. In spite of himself, he sort of liked the rich, and she argued that Gatsby suffers from that. “As readers, we revel in the glamorous dissipation of the rich, and then we revel in the cheap satisfaction of seeing them fall,” she wrote. “At no point are we made to feel uncomfortable about either pleasure, let alone their conjunction.”

For this heresy, Schulz received some entertaining blowback: A.O. Scott, in The New York Times, called her a “showboating critical contrarian,” and Joyce Carol Oates tweeted, in apparent reaction, that “Hating ‘The Great Gatsby’ [the novel] is like spitting into the Grand Canyon. It will not be going away anytime soon, but you will be.” But in fact Schulz’s position has been around as long as Gatsby has. Here in The Nation, in a review of a 1926 stage adaptation of the novel, a critic began with a rant about Fitzgerald’s worldview,

Though granted just enough detachment to make him undertake the task of description, he is by temperament too much a part of the things described to view them with any penetratingly critical eye and he sees flappers, male and female, much as they see themselves. Sharing to a very considerable extent in their psychological processes, he romanticizes their puerilities in much the same fashion as they do…

I guess I just don’t know precisely what would separate Fitzgerald from Danielle Steel if this perspective were 100 percent true. Call me naïve, but I feel certain that prose style alone doesn’t bridge that gulf. There’s some other difference at work, here. When most people write about flappers qua flappers—these days, it’d be more like celebrities qua celebrities—it’s not quite Fitzgerald-esque. When Gatsby first appeared, in 1925, the reviewer for The Nation, Carl Van Vechten, said it was the character of Gatsby himself that embodied a new and bolder art for Fitzgerald than merely chronicling the activities of flappers.

The figure of Jay Gatsby, who invented an entirely fictitious career for himself out of the material of inferior romances, emerges life-sized and life-like. His doglike fidelity not only to his ideal but to his fictions, his incredibly cheap and curiously imitative imagination, awaken for him not only our interest and suffrage, but a certain liking, as they awaken it in the narrator Nick Carraway.

I confess I’ve always wondered about the last half of that common interpretation. Gatsby sympathetic? I think he evokes pathos, because he is the kind of person who cannot see how ridiculous it is, when Nick asks him where in the Middle West he’s from, to answer “San Francisco.” Because he thinks Daisy is some kind of grand romantic heroine when she’s just someone who, like everyone else in the novel, isn’t sure what she wants. Because he thinks he’s fooling anyone with all those big parties, the sign of someone with something to prove. But liking him? I’ve always been more in the interest and suffrage camp. Identifying with Gatsby would involve me wanting him to get what he wants. Instead, I just want him to want something else.

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Schulz argued that a higher-minded reading doesn’t map with Fitzgerald’s authorial intent, though I think one statement of his not considering the psychology of his characters is not a total guide. No one can say for sure, but I suspect it isn’t an accident that that “beautiful little fools” line really is nonsense, just as one example. It was, in real life, something Scott borrowed from his wife Zelda, who said it coming out of anesthesia after the birth of their daughter. The lush romanticism notwithstanding, there’s something about using that drugged fragment from a dream, the sheer unreality of it, that suggests on some level that Fitzgerald knows all his characters are caught in a set-up, deeply vulnerable to the incursions of a messier reality.

Another way to put this is that the thinness of the tragedy in Gatsby—all that deception not quite getting him the really-quite-imaginary girl—should be, for modern audiences, exactly the point. Of course you can’t have something that doesn’t exist. Which, I thought anyway until very recently, was what we all agreed about the “American Dream” he represented. That it was silly, and in the end a kind of hurtful delusion. That there was very little to admire in it when it manifested itself, as in Gatsby’s case, as a kind of greed that can only be supported by gangsters. But then, I guess, we live in a world right now where the gangsterism is forgivable, and the indulgences of the rich are things we want for ourselves. Some things, I suppose, really haven’t changed.

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