Epic Grandeur and Gatsby

Liza T. Powers

 

 

Set in the 1920s, The Great Gatsby stands as an American masterpiece, and the story, altogether authentic to the Jazz Age, unfolds themes universal to any other American era. Moreover, in many ways, the novel, published in 1925, created a universal picture of the decade, a picture paradoxically pessimistic and optomistic. As Fitzgerald wrote, "It eluded us then, but that's no matter-tommorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby also resulted in two movies. In 1949, Elliot Nugent directed The Great Gatsby that starred Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby, and a cast which included Macdonald Carey and Shelly Winters. The 1974 version directed by Jack Clayton starred Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, and more accurately portrayed the themes Fitzgerald expressed in the novel.

The later film successfully captured the careless lifestyle and moral decadence of America in the 1920s that fascinated Fitzgerald and his audience. Gatsby throws wild parties, in which he does not know a majority of the guests who attend. The parties last into the early hours of the morning while guests run around in drunken stupors which ultimately become a metaphor for the shallowness and aimlessness of discarded or forgotten pasts, while booze symbolizes American society's decadence. In recreating the sense of disillusionment that followed World War I, the movie also graphically depicts the Prohibition era, Gatsby's involvement in bootlegging and other notorious crimes in his association with Meyer Wolfshiem.

On a larger scale, the movie manifests one of the profound themes of Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby as well as of American History: the unattainable American Dream. From its origins, American democracy rhetorically exulted the theoretical equality of each American, yet, social conditions in America often contradicted this. Even today, perhaps especially today, divisions among different social classes prevent easy social mobility. It is often easier for Cinderella to marry the Prince than to marry into the middle class. Two characters in The Great Gatsby exhibit this brilliantly. An important character, Myrtle Wilson, dreams of breaking out of her social class, and joining the ranks of the aristocratic Buchanan family. Myrtle strives for social mobility; she has a great personality and is full of life and like Cinderella, she attracts Prince Charming. She sexually attracts Tom Buchanan, and begins an affair with him. Even though Tom Buchanan does not love her, Myrtle persists in believing that Tom will pull her up to his social class. Instead of the affair benefiting her, the affair corrupts Myrtle and she loses her original sense of morality. She becomes a vulgar society woman, yet has no wealth of her own. In the end, she realizes Tom will never leave the glamorous and sophisticated Daisy for her, that she is relegated to a social class she despises. This destroys her psychologically, and sequentially leads to her suicide.

Another theme from the novel is well expressed in the 1974 film. Fitzgerald maintains that the blind pursuit of any dream is, ultimately, blindly destructive. Gatsby's obsessive pursuit of Daisy destroys him. Gatsby dreams and then convinces himself that he will one day live together with Daisy "happily ever after." Both the book and the film reveal how Gatsby first met Daisy, and how he loved her from the very beginning. His social standing does not allow him, however, to marry the woman he loves. Thus the passion and the poverty become mutual obsessions. He quickly develops the belief that only money and power will bring him love and happiness. As a result, Gatsby spends his whole life amassing wealth to prove to Daisy that he is worthy of her love. His distorted idealism never doubts that he will one day woo and win Daisy. In the end, Daisy tells him that she "loved him too." Yet, waiting outside Daisy's house after the relationship is revealed to Tom, Gatsby realizes that Daisy will never leave her husband. Gatsby, who has spent his whole life waiting for her, fighting like an economic knight to win his lady, is crushed. In a sense, Gatsby dies that night, rather than later, when George Wilson kills him. Emotionally he dies from his dream before suffering his physical death. Ironically, none of his earlier friends, or even his constant partygoers, attend the funeral except Owl Eyes, a misfit from several of Gatsby's parties, and Nick, his next door neighbor and narrator of the story.

Utilizing this narrative story line, the movie develops an important historical sub theme from the novel. One can not live for the past because the present always changes the past. Gatsby sets his lofty goals based on past perception. He remembers Daisy as she was, he serves in the army, and begins building his wealth. He rests all of his goals on his past knowledge, failing to see change or even the possibility of change. Meanwhile, Daisy lives her life and changes. She marries and gives birth to a daughter. She moves from city to city. She becomes a different person than the young girl who once entranced Gatsby. At one point, Nick tells Gatsby he can not relive the past. Gatsby adamantly disagrees with Nick's statement and the reader and viewer recognize the blinding obsession that will destroy him. At the end, Gatsby realizes everyone around him has changed, while he remains still the same stagnant character, rich but friendless.

Fitzgerald used the character of Nick as a symbol of change to contrast with Gatsby's resolve to preserve the past as unchanging. Nick who has moved to New York from the Midwest to learn the bondsmen trade, finds it a riveting and exciting career change. Inevitably, Nick denegrates the dull life of the Midwest and believes his life will improve in New York. He equates the rich squalor of New York society to his stoic youth, but finds his ideals and goals conflict with reality. Gradually Nick sees the frivolity, and the excitement of New York does not compare to the simplicity and dignity of his youth and Midwestern values. Gatsby's ideals do not work for him either. He believes he can dedicate his life to pursuing Daisy, and in the end, he will win her. These ideals destroy his life. The difference is that Nick recognizes, accepts and learns the value of change as a part of personal growth. Gatsby never can.

Both the movie and F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel remain historically significant. The setting of the story paints a realistic picture of the Roaring Twenties. The book presented a contemporary setting for Fitzgerald's peers that they recognized immediately and adopted as symbolic of the times. The film brings the Jazz Age to pictorial life for the modern viewer. In both novel and film, a decade resting between two world wars has its own stories to tell: flappers, bootlegging, crime, disillusionment, the lost generation, wall street. An excellent supplement to this film is a documentary video, The Roaring Twenties: Everybody Ought To Be Rich sponsored by the Center for Humanities. John Kobler's book Capone: The Life and World of Al Capone provides a solid background on the criminal element of the times and Wall Street: A History by Charles R. Geisst also examines the activities of Wall Street in the 1920s and gives a background of other events happening in the Booming Twenties. In describing the decade Geisst writes, "The 1920s quickly became the most paradoxical decade in American history. The prosperity that began in 1922, lasting until 1929, was not anticipated."

The Great Gatsby endures as a timeless American classic that deals with twentieth century issues. It addresses the social inequalities existing in America and, more importantly, it examines the dreams to which many Americans have devoted their lives. Does the American Dream come true? Is it just a myth characterizing modern society? Interestingly, both the movie and the book use the Dutch who settled in New Amsterdam when first coming to the New World and briefly focuses on the dreams of the Dutch, in seeking the opportunity to make this frontier whatever they want it to become. Fitzgerald parallels Gatsby to the Dutch experience. He had the opportunity to make of his life what he wanted it to be, but his dreams and passions seized his life and took control of all his actions. In the end, like the Dutch in New Amsterdam, change defeats intent. Does the story reveal a universal theme? Advertising the American Dream: Making Way For Modernity, 1920-1940 by Roland Marchand discusses the rise of idealism in the 1920s and how Americans bought into the idea of an American Dream.

The Great Gatsby remains an important piece of literature written by a great literary figure. F. Scott Fitzgerald's life paralleled the life of the Gatsby in many ways. He came from humble beginnings, and fell in love with the beautiful Zelda who refused to marry him until he proved he could provide her a suitable lifestyle. Determined to win her hand in marriage, he wrote a novel and submitted it for publication. This Side of Paradise instantly won Fitzgerald fame and fortune. Zelda agreed to marry him. Initially, Fitzgerald and Zelda lived in Paris, New York, and the French Riviera, and shared the careless lifestyle of the characters in The Great Gatsby. Life did not stand still for the Fitzgeralds anymore than it does for Gatsby and his Daisy. Zelda's doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia, and Fitzgerald spent his fortune and much of his life attending to Zelda's needs. He died before Zelda, and in a tribute, she wrote of Fitzgerald, "Such [stories] Fitzgerald made into many tragic tales; sagas of people compelling life into some more commensurate and compassionate measure. His meter was bitter, and ironic and spectacular and inviting; so was life. There wasn't much other life during those times than to what his pen paid the tribute of poetic tragic glamour and offered the reconciliation of the familiarities of tragedy."

A fascinating book to read about the life of the Fitzgeralds is Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, which their daughter Scottie Fitzgerald Smith edited with Frances Kroll Ring . A great study of Fitzgerald, aptly titled, is Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Matthew Bruccoli. In one passage of the book, Bruccoli describes how people remember Fitzgerald, "There was agreement that F. Scott Fitzgerald was an exemplary and monitary figure- that he epitomized his generation, that he had not fulfilled his promise, that his history provided a warning. . . None of the obituaries anticipated that Fitzgerald would be resurrected like Adonis, the beautiful youth adored by the goddess of love."

The Great Gatsby is more than an entertaining story. One sees oneself in the story, and the story serves as a catalyst for a deep self-evaluation. Can one live on dreams alone? Can money buy love and happiness? Fitzgerald's insightful story asks these questions, but it is up to the reader/viewer to determine his own answers, answers that shape his own destiny. Both the book and the movie The Great Gatsby, provide the history student with some searching questions about values, society, and the ways in which eras of American History shape the historical mores and perceptions of a generation.