After 1922 Everything Changed

“This is the Year of Gatsby,” the Chicago Tribune’s Julia Keller announces, but not because Fitzgerald’s novel makes any political statements or critiques capitalism, she insists. Keller complains The Great Gatsby has been “hijacked by the likes of Krugman, who, in his blog, cites the work of fellow economist Alan Krueger and the latter’s “Gatsby curve” that illustrates the gap between haves and have-nots.”

Okay, so this is the Year of Gatsby, but we can’t talk about the issue of wealth in America, the most important issue of the 2012 U.S. election. So what is The Great Gatsby about, according to Keller? “It’s about the American dream — which is celebrated, not undermined, in the novel. There. Simple as that. Any other reading is a coarse distortion of Fitzgerald’s work.”

Putting aside for a moment Keller’s utterly fatuous claim that any novel, let alone one as rich as Fitzgerald’s, can only be interpreted one way, let’s take a look at the proposition that the novel is a celebration of the American dream.

In his reflections on the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald pinpointed 1922, the year in which Gatsby takes place, as the last moment when the American dream still retained its Edenic (Puritan, to be precise) form. He called 1922 “the peak of the younger generation.” After that, traditional values were dissolved, history forgotten, and “with a whoop the orgy began.”

Fitzgerald dramatizes the collapse of the certitudes that supported the American dream most vividly in Nick’s debates about consciousness and will, which spin off into questions about eros, faith, and the ultimate powerlessness of the self against the forces of history.

The novel is obsessed about the passage of time–see, for example, Nick’s elegiac description of a winter train ride through Wisconsin. The characters are keenly aware that they are confronting an entirely new reality. At a time when best-selling American novels were often set in small town America ( for example, Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street [1920] and Babbitt [1922]), Fitzgerald set his novel in New York City and its affluent environs. Fitzgerald writes about ads, photographs, automobiles, magazines, and Broadway musicals. He juxtaposes images of post-war New York with the stultifying social mores that doom Jay and Daisy. In The Great Gatsby new ways of experiencing and feeling emerge, but they can’t be reconciled with the social structure, which remains inert despite its surface changes.

It’s often been claimed that The Great Gatsby is a rewriting of Joseph Conrad’s Almayer’s Folly (1920). Both novels are about a hero’s dream of a better future seen from an ironic time perspective, namely, after the dream has been dashed. In Conrad as in Fitzgerald point of view is everything, which is why Jay Gatsby doesn’t tell his own story. Fitzgerald’s great theme was recapturing a vanished past. The tragedy of his heroes is the great problem of the American dream in late capitalism: You can’t know when the dream has finally arrived until it’s gone, for desire keeps propelling you blindly toward an uncertain future.

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3 Comments

  1. La lecture de votre article fait une sorte d’inspirer le sentiment, au moment où mon esprit est plein de belle photo, très reconnaissants de votre article, je pense que je devrais vous amène à apprendre, et donc d’améliorer leurs compétences en écriture, et aussi espérons que vous serez heureux tous les jours, je vous remercie.

    Like

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