Gatsby, a parable for our times

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made ….

Jay Gatsby is in the news again. Commerce and culture have presented us a new movie version with tie-ins to Gatsby-themed fashions and a rush of Gatsby parties. Yet again, we float over the surface, envying the glamorous trappings of the Jazz Age with barely a thought for the corrupt and unstable foundation that supported it. Not so Scott Fitzgerald. Out of his early encounter with success, he created a story that revealed the corruption of his times and exposes the corruption of our own.

The Great Gatsby - spine of the copy I've read since 1974.

The Great Gatsby – spine of the book-club copy I’ve read since 1974.

The background details easily could be transposed into the present. Gatsby’s parties were notorious on a local scale; today, gossip magazine, websites and television reporting would simplify amplify the gossip to the farthest ends of the earth. Fixing the 1919 World’s Series was a precursor to the point-shaving, electronic eavesdropping and performance-enhancing drugs that have marred sports in recent years. Stock manipulation by Tom Buchanan’s set—with their polo ponies and lavish lifestyles—are outstripped by the misdeeds of our financial barons and frauds like Bernie Madoff. Bootlegging has given way to the drug trade.

The restlessness at the core of the characters’ inner lives is entirely to be expected. Wealth, pleasure, power and honor—the false gods of all times and places—lead them from the bright lights to the gloom of their self-made purgatory. Gatsby accumulates wealth but finds no satisfaction in his heaps of imported shirts, his mansion, his float-plane or his flashy car. In the midst of his gigantic parties, Gatsby stands aloof, dreaming of regaining his lost love and rewriting their past. Tom Buchanan carries on an unsatisfactory affair with Myrtle Wilson, out of boredom and a sense of entitlement; in a drunken argument, he breaks Myrtle’s nose when she taunts him with his wife’s name. Daisy, she of the breathy voice and the object of Gatsby’s desire, is generally too bored to rise from her couch.

In the midst of the drinking, double-dealing, partying and plotting, reality breaks in. An agitated Daisy, driving Gatsby back from a disastrous party, accidentally kills Myrtle Wilson and flees the scene. Gatsby hides the car in his garage and prepares to take the blame for the accident. He watches Daisy’s house through the night, fearing that Tom will beat her. But there had been nothing to fear: Tom and Daisy had reconciled.

Daisy and Tom were sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, with a plate of cold dried chicken between them, and two bottles of ale. He was talking intently across the table at her, and in his earnestness his hand had fallen upon and covered her own. Once in a while she looked up at him and nodded in agreement.

They weren’t happy, and neither of them had touched the chicken or the ale—and yet they weren’t unhappy either. There was an unmistakable air of natural intimacy about the picture, and anybody would have said that they were conspiring together.

The following day, Myrtle’s husband kills Gatsby, acting on hints from Tom that Gatsby had been driving.

The Great Gatsby, a cautionary tale, reminds us of how easily the well-lit path detours into darkness. Betrayal, misplaced loyalty, wasted lives abound. And not even the narrator, who maintains his scruples to a degree, escapes untarnished: he shields the hit-and-run driver from the law and makes himself party to the injustice he implicitly condemns.

The question that Gatsby poses is not one of fashion or fad or even literary merit; it is the hard question, directed to the discerning heart during the Baptismal rite, “Do you reject the glamor of evil?”

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