You can basically divide people who have not read a novel since high school into two camps: (1) those whose "favorite book" is this, The Great Gatsby
, and (2) those who champion Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
. These tend to be bitter camps, and without any evidence to back it up I stake the claim that these camps are mutually exclusive, and these two books seem to appeal to two distinct groups, and turn-off the other completely. I'm sure someone will rain on my parade and say they love both but poo to them, I'm talking about non-readers! If you're on here, you don't fit that bill.
The appeal of Salinger is one that I understand but do not share. Particularly for those who haven't read any Literature (capital ell) that wasn't assigned in a high school classroom, they probably read Catcher in the Rye
at that perfect age: on the edge of solipsism and responsibility: that spark of life called "adolescence" which shimmers between the black abysses of blindered youth and burdened adulthood. Probably misreading the whiny Holden as an oh-so-misunderstood teen like themselves, rather than a teen who suffers from the post-trauma of his dead, idealized brother Allie. "Holden gets me; I get Holden" they cry! "Woe is us, the misunderstood! the Holden Caufields!" Or some nonsense like that. Holden didn't resonate with me at sixteen, but for those that he did, that seems to be the basis for the larger-than-life infatuation with Salinger's novel (I wonder if many have read it again since?). But there's a different sort of sensibility that loves Fitzgerald's beautiful novella The Great Gatsby
. I find it difficult (impossible
) to believe that anyone, least of all sixteen year olds, can truly relate to the careless carousers, lush languishing of New York's nouveau nobility and posh passivity of the East Egg élite. As modern readers we are distance from Gatsby by eighty years, and in most cases a string of zeroes at the tail-end of our pay-checks. Why do readers persist in their love for The Great Gatsby
? While Catcher in the Rye
fans love that tangible, personal element they find in Holden, Gatsby
fans seem to cling to the more abstract elements of illusion, dreams, ideals, and ultimately tragedy.
In Gatsby there is a childlike sense of wonder and imagination, a petulant desire for the impossible, a stubbornness and blindness of what is real, human, accessible. Daisy, the lazy, lackadaisical, and flighty damsel of Gatsby's dreams figures lowly in reality. She is shallow and vapid. Like Werther's Charlotte, who she actually is accounts barely at all in the ledger of Gatsby's imagination, which is all to her credit. While Goethe's tragic lover is blinded by the coup de foudre
flash of love's crystallization, Gatsby's love is for an image of the past, which has diamondized like compressed coal in his solitude over the many years of their separation. For Gatsby, the past is a perfect thing, his nostalgia for all things has reflected onto the single locus of his young love for Daisy, and all that makes him happy in the world adds to his infatuation, while likewise his infatuation reflects sunny on the world around him. Gatsby's image of the past-in-the-present is not one of time-travel: for him the past is merely a state of being, a station which can be revisited by reconstructing the surroundings, by tearing away the barriers, the interceding changes. He believes in the past because, like Ms. Havisham, he stopped living after he met Daisy: his clock is stopped, and the world which he sees is the pale reflection of his fleeting salutary gesture to Daisy.
There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams -- not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
In John Banville's The Sea
, he asserts: "The past beats inside me like a second heart,
" but for Gatsby, his heart has receded away and the past has claimed the solitary tremor of his only heart. His illusion gives him his vitality, his life-force, his sangfroid bearing and composure. He enjoys a few sojourns in his own memory when he meets Daisy at Nick's, when he escapes with Daisy at the party, but these are lost, illusory Edens. Slowly the dazzling mask of nostalgia begins to slip from Daisy's doe-eyed face, and Gatsby is too quick to try and prop it back up, only to bear the ultimate brunt of his lost paradise when she refuses to deny her one-time love for Tom.
I've heard that Fitzgerald once said something like "A man is happy to lose his innocence, but it kills him to lose his illusions" - I've never been able to track down the exact quote or source of this apocryphal aphorism, but Fitzgerald certainly seems a likely candidate for its originator. We are all hospitable to our own handful of illusions, which we defend in silence when they are rebutted, which we nurse when our vanity is wounded. The "American dream" is a common illusion discussed in relation to this book, but I think that "American dream" is a bit too grandiose: we do not nurse illusions for our country, our illusions are us at our most selfish and vain. Everyone carries with them a dream in their back-pocket, but the American dream is only to say that we are a country of dreamers. We dream of success, we dream of true love, of happiness, of one million silly fancies which feed our vanity and self-love. The American dream is a dream particular to people who do not live in America: "America" is stripped of its reality and impregnated with the private dreams of each individual which sees salvation in moving. Movement is how we feed our dreams, whether it is a literal movement from one place to another, or the existential movements and emotional movements which take place when we stand still, alone or with someone we adore: movements of the heart. Gatsby's dream is not the American dream, but his story of rapid-rising success is the cheap veneer which glosses most who dream of success. Wealth, power are revealed to be empty achievements to Gatsby, they are merely waiting rooms in the eternal enfilade of his illusory movements toward Daisy, towards idealized love. They are wrong-bought wrungs on a ladder of success which he climbs alone, and each step he moves up, his idol retreats higher and higher: is imbued with the image of his success which only he knows is empty and ill-purchased.
Each of Fitzgerald's shadow puppets which adorn his theatre carry in them the illusions of different lights. For Gatsby it is the long-ago love for Daisy, for Tom it is social power, for Daisy it is freedom from choice, from ethical and emotional obligations, and for Nick it is the masculine vitality of Gatsby. No matter what our illusions, they are simply the gilt-rimmed robes worn by our idealized selves, manifestations of the perfect which is always beyond our reach: greens lights across a "courtesy bay" which pulsate in the twilight of reality.
In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.
We are all of us, all of us dreamers, like moths: chasing a flame which we cannot reach without ensuring our disaster. In accordance with Flaubert's caveat (Il ne faut pas toucher aux idoles: la dorure en reste aux mains
) our illusions are both a source of our vitality and of our mortality, shimmering mirages over the precipice of disaster. We chase celebrity, fame, physical perfection or professional success, but when we come within the range of a snatch at our idols, when our fingers graze the gilding of our wildest dreams, they are revealed to be hollow vessels. Our dreams only constitute an image, never a substance.
Gatsby was incompatible with the world: with the roaring world of the 1920's and still in the world of 2013. While the character of Gatsby has an almost fairy-tale surrealism, though he escapes potentiality and possibility, his dogged pursuit of an unattainable dream is something which vibrates at a universal frequency. Gatsby is not a "good man" (he is, in fact, a crook), but in his vain hopes, in his childlike love for his illusions and dreams, we see our own follies, our own vain hopes, our own bodies floating lifeless in the swimming pools bought on the credit of our self-styled castles in the sky.