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The Great Gatsby
May 6, 2007, 2:30 am
Filed under: the arts

The Great Gatsby is a fantastic book. Its merits are summed up in the Preface where Matthew Bruccoli described the book by pointing out what it is not:

The Great Gatsby does not proclaim the nobility of the human spirit; it is not politically correct; it does not reveal how to solve the problems of life; it delivers no fashionable or comforting messages. It is just a masterpiece.”

Fitzgerald neither holds a moral position nor seeks to broadcast warnings about the decadence of the Jazz age in the book; he is decidedly ambivalent and this is seen in the lack of real resolution in the book. The book is a “masterpiece” largely because it is simply very well-written and touches the hearts of readers from all walks of life and cultures.

The greatest literature are usually timeless works that retain its relevance through the years. Consider Shakespeare; he is wonderfully relevant to our times. When I first caught news of the Thai coup in which the former president Thaksin Shinawatra was disposed, I immediately thought of Julius Caeser’s assasination in Julius Caesar because he has grown too powerful and popular with the people. The Duke in Measure for Measure reminds me of how personal immorality does not equate to immorality while serving in public office; Clinton comes to mind.

The Great Gatsby does retain this relevance through the years. It incites different responses from different readers to achieve the effect of producing a different “meaning” everytime it is read and reread. It is able to elicit reactions from all readers and this is testimony to the power of Fitzgerald’s writing.

Personally, the characters of Nick Carraway and Gatsby have always fascinated me and studying them has influenced my worldview and values.

I have always likened myself to Nick; we are both observers of those around us, perhaps playing the role of the fool in Shakespearean plays where they observe unfolding events and mouth truisms. I enjoy knowing new people and observing human behaviour and reactions, and doing so offers me “privileged glimpses into the human heart”, as Nick will put it. Now that I have experienced working life, I begin to realise the underlying sadness and disgruntlement that seems to simmer under the hood of seeming calmness worn by many colleagues. Some drink and sometimes I wonder to myself, “what is the point of it all?”. But I have always told myself that perhaps there are reasons that I have not fathomed, and that I should not be a moralising prude.

More often than not I disagree with the actions and viewpoints of others, but I try my best to moderate my views and understand the perspective of others, trying to constantly not judge a person since I believe that I have no hold on the moral truth myself. However there is always a tension between reserving judgement and keeping faith in the morality of humans, which in itself seems to imply that I do have a moral standard to judge others by; I believe Nick echoes my thoughts and he has even gotten jaded trying to unravel the threads of the hearts of those around him:

“Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope… When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotious excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.”

Of course, moral simplicity, so much sought after by Nick,  simply does not exist in the real world and the world of The Great Gatsby. Nothing stands at a “moral attention” forever.

Which brings me to the character of Jay Gatsby. It is the various contradictions inherent in him and his relevance to my life that made him so fascinating to me.

Nick on Gatsby:

“there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life… an extraordinary gift of hope… No- Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

To me, that “something gorgeous” about Gatsby is his capacity for fidelity to his dreams and ideals, even though his ideal of the horribly shallow Daisy Buchanan was based on self-delusion and ultimately led to his downfall. In a society of drifters and an age where decadence and opulence was mixed with a lack of direction and purpose in the lives of many (as epitomised by Tom and Daisy Buchanan with their aimless lifestyle), Gatsby’s quixotic attempt to “repeat the past” he once enjoyed with Daisy stands out. Never mind Gatsby’s bogus history and his supposed ill-gotten wealth; his actions were means to a noble end of getting back his love, of pursuing the green light at the end of the harbour. His nobility of action and character transcends petty human concerns with dross morality.

His actions touched me greatly. Especially so since I live in a Singaporean society where many just seek to live out life without pursuing some ideal or their dreams. Once again, there is nothing wrong with just surviving and going through the motions in life; I am attracted to Gatby’s obessive pursuit of what he feels he wants in his life.

Gatsby actively remade himself into a rich man in order to get Daisy back. He earnestly remade himself (“The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself”) and I see a striking resemblance between myself and Gatsby in this aspect. I have actively sought to learn the ways of society and acquaint myself with issues like dressing, grooming, manners and social skills in order to ascend the societal ladder. However Gatsby’s actions proved to be futile since social mobility seems to be a myth and his dream of Daisy seem to be a false one. This got me thinking about my own situation and serves to warn me against deluding myself about reality and the value of my ideals and dreams.

At the end of the novel Nick writes about how there is a part of Gatsby in all of us and the universality of Gatsby’s concerns:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter- tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms father…. And one fine morning-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Don’t we all have a “green light” in our lives? It might be a new car, getting married or something simple like being able to enjoy three meals a day without worry. It’s human to dream and it is a shame if we are not able to pursue it like Gatsby did. Having the courage to pursue a dream and ideal is probably Gatsby’s greatest advice to us; his delusion over the true value of his dream of having Daisy serves as a warning to us of the perils of self-delusion.

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