The Great Gatsby has been on my to-read list for many, many years, but for some reason I was never able to get myself to read it. It gave me a weird feeling, especially during the times when I preferred long novels published during the second half of the 19th century. Have you ever seen one of those movie scenes where the music is playing, and – as the character gradually starts realizing something bad is happening – the music becomes distorted and distant? That’s exactly the kind of feeling I had whenever I was faced with this book. I think now I know why.
Photograph of an era
The whole atmosphere in Gatsby oozes decadence: here you have the most accurate snapshot of the sensational Roaring Twenties, if there ever was one. The book was written in 1925, just four years short of the Wall Street crash of October 1929. In hindsight, it tastes like an empire on the verge of collapsing, a disaster just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, those involved still had no idea that was the case… and their illusion that the party would last forever makes the awareness of what was about to go down even more bitter.
The Great Gatsby didn’t have a huge success when it was published, perhaps because it was simply the depiction of normality during that time. It became hugely popular during World War II, when the memory of the Roaring Twenties had become something of a legend. This is also probably the reason why the book has gained the name of “Great American Novel” a work that is “[…]presumably written by an American author who is knowledgeable about the state, culture, and perspective of the common American citizen. Said author uses the literary work to identify and exhibit the language used by the American people of the time and to capture the unique American experience, especially as it is perceived for the time.“ The Great Gatsby ticks all the boxes.
A few words ought to be spent on the costumes used in the movie: costume designer Catherine Martin took very special care in making the costumes feel as close to the Twenties as possible. The collaboration with Miuccia Prada for some of the dresses worn during the party scenes was both a challenge and an amazing opportunity to enrich the set with true pieces of art, drawing inspiration from the past and projecting it directly into the future. Descriptions of attire do not lack in the book, so there was a wealth of information and detail that allowed to faithfully recreate the atmosphere.
A story of no significance
However fascinating for romantic love enthusiasts, the story of Jay and Daisy isn’t one of particular depth. Daisy is first seen all clad in white, an angelic figure floating in the breeze. However, as the story advances, it becomes evident that she’s just a human being made of meat and bones and all the wrong aspirations and dreams. Gatsby is obsessed: his rejection was rooted in nothing else than Daisy’s social expectations for her future, which fueled his burning desire to become what she needed and wanted when they first met. Time, unfortunately, is not on his side. By the time he actually manages to transform himself into the wealthy socialite he thought would be able to conquer her, she had already married and become a mother, but that doesn’t lessen his resolve. It just complicates matters the tiniest bit (sarcasm sign needed).
Their reunion is doomed to failure because of their very different views on how the relationship should evolve: for Gatsby, it is only natural that she should leave everything behind to be with him. For Daisy, that idea sounds outrageous. She is drawn to him, but not to the point that she would just abandon her husband and daughter: she’s fickle and superficial in everything, including her scandalous adulterous adventure with the man that built an empire for her. That’s where it all comes tumbling down: all of Gatbsy’s drive and riches cannot change the status quo. The bitter end is a disappointment mainly because it robs the reader of the possibility of seeing how he would have dealt with the reality of losing Daisy, this time for good.
Nothing is quite what it seems
Daisy Buchanan is a generally despised character, but it is worth to note that she is nothing more than a product of her time. She was raised to have certain ideals and certain standards, especially when it comes to marriage, and it feels like love and affection only come after the careful analysis and consideration of her beau‘s financial situation and social status. What her true feelings are is impossible to discern clearly from just her actions, which at times seem contradictory and confused. In a way, that’s exactly what she is.
But is she truly a superficial socialite or is there more than meets the eye? Does she embrace foolishness as a survival strategy or is she truly and utterly a fool? Her relationship with her husband Tom seems authentic, and the author’s decision to not let us in on their husband-and-wife conversations deprives us of a much needed insight into the complicity of their marital life. In a way, their are the best match for one another. No matter what Jay does, he’ll always be a nouveau riche, instead of being born wealthy, which is exactly the point Tom leverages during the famous final fight scene.
On the other side of the bay, Gatsby’s house – perpetually full of people engaged in gargantuan parties – is like a flickering light meant to attract Daisy’s curiosity. He built an entire world with the intent of luring her to his nest, capturing her back from Tom, just like a spider waiting for the prey. Once he achieved his goal and Daisy became his lover, the whole dreamy illusion had no other reason to exist, so the huge blooming flower closed its petals around the couple’s passionate secret encounters, leaving everyone else on the outside.
The death of Gatsby’s American dream
One thing that strikes the reader is the normalization of hypocrisy in The Great Gatsby. Daisy is an undecided fool, Jordan is a pathological liar, Tom is a brute, Myrtle is a social climber, Gatsby is essentially a criminal: none of that matters.
They’re almost like the backdrop to the context they live in, just examples of what the time’s society was capable of bringing into the world. The conclusion can only be disastrous: Gatsby’s expectations are shattered as Daisy returns to the fold, with Tom boisterously reclaiming possession of his wife. Ironically, just minutes later, Daisy accidentally kills her husband’s mistress in a car accident, a tragic event that makes everything spiral out of control. What happened next is reconstructed with difficulty: with Myrtle dead, Tom convinced her husband that Gatsby was in fact her lover and killer, a cruel move that led both of them to an early grave. Wilson then shot and killed Gatsby, wrongly believing he had been driving the car that killed Myrtle, and then killed himself.
Nick, who has been our eyes and ears throughout the novel, is the only one to attend Jay’s funeral, a sad ceremony completely removed from the former glory of Gatsby’s parties. Everyone has abandoned him, revealing them as what they had been all along: parasites feeding off the fame and wealth of a man who had done it all for the one woman he couldn’t have. We are drawn to like Gatsby and root for his cause, but in the end it becomes evident that none of the characters are worthy of admiration: each and every one of them is miserable, no matter how rich or beautiful they are.
The American Dream is dead. The sparkling lights and temptations of a world that idolized all the wrong things only had a few years before going down in smoke. You can already taste the upcoming financial catastrophe in the last pages of the book, but as they say: it’s easy to be a prophet in hindsight. However bitter it might be, it is worth the read if only for the immersion in a world so incredibly rich in social, economic and cultural context. A vivid depiction of the Roaring Twenties, for good and for bad.