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Kill Your Idols: "The Great Gatsby"

Discussion in 'Anything goes' started by Dick Whitman, Feb 3, 2013.

  1. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Last month we discussed "Citizen Kane" and it turned out great. This week, with Baz Luhrman's film version coming out in a few months, let's turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece.

    The greatest American novel ever written, in my opinion. At least the greatest I've ever read, and it would be difficult for anything to top it. So I'm admittedly somewhat biased going into this discussion. Like I did with "Kane," I'll start off with a few comments just to get the discussion going. I'll probably supplement at some point with some more direct quotes and deeper commentary. But just to begin:

    * It is an intellectual tragedy, in my opinion, that many people end their study of the classics in college or, even worse, high school. On Friday night, I had a friend over to my place because his wife just left him. He's obviously devastated and we talked long into the night about it. He wants her back. He's idealized her. Then, the next day, I read perhaps the single greatest chapter in literary history. And the single greatest line: "Can't repeat the past? Of course you can." There is no way that I understood the significance of Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy at age 20. None. In 2013, at age 35, it hit me like a shovel upside the head. It's gut-wrenching. I'll dig up some more direct quotations to make that case later today or early tomorrow.

    * At age 20, I thought that Fitzgerald's critique of the Jazz Age, as it was happening, was what made the novel so incredible. Today, after our own financial crisis, I find it to be one of the most banal parts of the novel, at least arguably. Voices in every generation thinks that they live amid moral rot unparalleled in history. I guess the case could be made that Fitzgerald was right: The country had just suffered through a World War. And opulence and materialism truly were out of control during his time. But did he really insightfully foresee that society and the economy was headed for a particular fall? Or did he just kind of get lucky?

    * I haven't sought out a feminist critique of the novel yet, but it would be interesting. The men are pretty despicable in Gatsby, but the women are worse. Daisy: Terrible person. Shallow. Bad mother. Jordan Baker: Dishonest golf cheat. Shallow. Myrtle Wilson: Cheats on her husband. It makes me a little uncomfortable, and it's something I'd like to read further about, to think that this critique of the Jazz Age's moral decrepitude points the finger at women somewhat during a time period when women had just gotten the vote, and were starting to pursue and experience some sexual and financial independence for the first time. Did Fitzgerald see this as a problem?

    * At the same time, he seems progressive in some of his thoughts on immigration and race. There's a quote from Tom Buchanan - I'll dig up the exact passage in a little while - that could have come straight off of Fox News in 2013 about minorities or immigrants taking over.

    * At the same time, Fitzgerald holds some Fox News views himself. He idealizes the Midwest and sees East Coast elites as the root of America's moral rot. Seems pretty lazy, no?

    * The role of religion and spirituality in the book is fascinating. The eyes of T.J. Eckelberg are a pretty heavy-handed symbol, made moreso when Wilson explains them, on the nose, late in the novel. Wilson is also interrogated about whether he goes to church, and it's clear that he doesn't. Does Fitzgerald believe Americans are straying from God? That would be such a disappointing theme, such a simplistic view of morality from a complex writer and thinker and critic. In fact, it's too simple. I don't think Fitzgerald held that simple of a view of either spirituality or God. I think God is largely symbolic here. God is just a metaphor for loss of moral compass in general. It doesn't have to be the God of the Christian Bible. And I think that the questioning of Wilson can be interpreted as a frivolous reason given, in Fitzgerald's view, for why he got to where he was.

    More thoughts from me later, on the writing and storytelling, in particular.

    Just thought I'd kick it off while I had a moment.
  2. Brian

    Brian Well-Known Member

    I do take the position that Tender is the Night is a better novel, but I understand I'm an oddity in that respect. I find the Dick Diver character more haunting than Gatsby and Nick Carraway and the personal connection of Fitzgerald to mental illness painfully on point. I was gutted by Tender is the Night the first time I read it.

    But we're talking about two of the greatest novels ever written, so I can't really pick flaws at Gatsby -- although I like the concept behind these threads.

    I do think a lot of young readers are done a disservice by high school English teachers. Gatsby is always prefaced by the "best book you'll ever read" expectations, as if every 16 year old is going to respond to that final chapter that so many of us hold dear exactly the same way.

    I'm not sure a sophomore in high school is allowed to dislike this book in an English class. That goes back to what Dick (Whitman, not Diver) says about having the necessary perspective at 35 to appreciate the quest for Daisy. There are things that should be disjointed to a 16-year old about Gatsby. So when a kid doesn't respond to it well, they unnecessarily think they'll hate a lot of other literature.
  3. 21

    21 Well-Known Member

    So much homework for Super Bowl Sunday.

    Favorite quote/SJ anthem: "There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind."
  4. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    Is this you suggesting that God isn't complex, or that your view of how Republicans who probably aren't Christians view God?
  5. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    I don't believe in a fixed morality/moral dogma.

    Along with that, it would be quite a pat root cause by Fitzgerald to foundation all that has come before it upon. Like the people who blamed Newtown on God's absence from public schools. Fitzgerald certainly could have made the critique, with further support. Lacking that support in the text, though, I think Wilson's God is, at best, metaphorical and, more likely, SUPPOSED to be a ridiculously pat indictment by the red shirt who floats it.

    YGBFKM Guest

    Maybe I'll finally read the book so I can comment on this thread.
  7. Alma

    Alma Well-Known Member

    Even if you didn't believe in a "fixed morality" Christianity is, well, rather complex. Unusually so. I would argue that's because God is complex beyond our comprehension.
  8. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Agreed. He would have to be. But the God of Josh Hamilton and Ray Lewis is not.

    Full post on this tomorrow. "Gatsby" is an atheist novel. At most, it's agnostic. Because if it were not, it would be bad. And it's not bad.
  9. bumpy mcgee

    bumpy mcgee Well-Known Member

    This is one of the few topics on which Thornton Melon and I disagree.
  10. Norrin Radd

    Norrin Radd New Member

    Book or movie?
  11. Bubbler

    Bubbler Well-Known Member

    Read it in high school. Was bored to tears.

    Though I enjoy high-brow music and movies, I can't remember the last time I read a fictional book. Pretty much everything I've read in my adult life has been non-fiction. Most of it history.
  12. Dick Whitman

    Dick Whitman Well-Known Member

    Alma, we have to keep in mind the date that Fitzgerald wrote the novel. It's important. The year 1925 was the year that "Gatsby" was published. It also happens to be the year of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial regarding the teaching of evolution in schools. And the trial didn't arise out of nowhere. "The Origin of Species" was published in 1859. By the '20s, the United States was pushing back (as it continues to today). For the first time in its history, humanity was being forced to seriously contemplate a universe without a benevolent overseer, without a first cause, without God. It is probably difficult for us to contemplate how jarring that was.

    Religion looms over "Gatsby," God looms over "Gatsby," but I don't think that Fitzgerald at all believes that Jazz Age America has lost its way because it has turned from God. Losing its way, at most, is just a byproduct of a system of morality giving way - it didn't have to be God. That was just the foundation humanity had constructed over the centuries. I think that Fitzgerald probably was an atheist. I know he was raised Catholic, and there seems to be, just from quick poke around the Internet, strong conjecture that he had turned away from religion and was a secularist. But, at the same time, and this comes through in the novel, I think that he recognizes that religion had long given humans an anchor for their morality. Without God, they were free floating and unmoored. I don't think that Fitzgerald thought that humanity was being punished for turning away from God, or that they could not eventually find their way without God, and probably develop a new source for their moral values. But I do think he seems to say, in the novel, that people are going to have some difficulty for a while because of God's exit. This isn't an argument for God's existence, though. It's just, well, the way things are. Ignorance was bliss. But now it had yielded.

    Fitzgerald wrote at a time when our concept of morality was being turned topsy-turvy. Before Darwin, we believed that morals were absolute and knowable and provided from a divine source. By 1925, this idea of natural law was losing steam quickly. Instead, morals were simply derived from the consequences that certain actions happened to have on society. Let's just go, for the sake of argument, with my Fitzgerald-as-mysoginist theory in the original post. I don't think he would argue that women's suffrage was, intrinsically, a morally corrupt concept. But I think that he would argue that women's suffrage had had a corrupting influence on society and, thus, was arguably immoral - because of context. And while he may or may not have been a misogynist, he definitely abhorred materialism. Or at least thought it was dangerous, within this work. But I don't think that "Gatsby" argues that materialism is inherently immoral and, thus, bad consequences flow from it. Rather, materialism is a neutral choice made un-neutral by its consequences - here, empty people living empty lives.

    Let me add to all of this that I think the Jazz Age/social critique part of "Gatbsy," as I wrote above, is probably the least interesting part about the novel. And probably the least important to Fitzgerald. Rather, I think he saw the Jazz Age and its inhabitants as ready pawns to make the point that he actually wanted to make about human nature and how dangerous nostalgia for an idealized past can be. And yet, at the same time, pretty much unavoidable/inescapable.
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