Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thoughts on Gatsby

I watched Gatsby today.  I was never a big fan of the novel (sacrilege, I know) but Baz has never steered me wrong in the past, and I was intrigued from the trailer -- and its perfect casting.  I also drug my boyfriend along and was pleasantly surprised to learn that he loved it.  Somehow he escaped high school without ever reading the book, so he didn't know what he was getting into.

Anyway.  Oh, what to say.  I can't precisely say that I liked it.  I'm not quite sure that The Great Gatsby is a  book that's meant to be liked.  It's messy and uncomfortable, a story occupied entirely by unlikeable people leading vacuous lives.  But it's a story that does make you think, and the film certainly left me full of thoughts.

First among them:  The matter of Daisy.

Why is it that so many people hate her so much?  I can't help but pity her.  She's victimized by everyone who touches her:  Her boorish, unfaithful husband.  Her charming stalker.  Her cousin, who's so enamored with aforementioned stalker that he never intercedes in what is clearly a doomed situation -- and who instead facilitates it.  She has no agency and makes no choices.  She's a well-bred woman from old money; you can't tell me her family would have stood for her marrying a penniless soldier.

I'll grant that she's vapid and morally vacuous, holding a certain upper-class apathy and caring only about the most frivolous of things.  But that's hardly a character trait unique to her.  In the Gatsby universe, those attributes describe nearly the entire cast.  The only character with any inch of humanity is Carraway, and he's so caught-up in voyeurism that he never acts.

And Gatsby himself, charmingly heroic though he may appear, is a disturbing figure.  Here is a man who has built up this image of Daisy, placed her on a pedestal and courted his image of her for years.  He doesn't see her as a person, only as a facet of the life and image he wants for himself.  Like everything else he has, Daisy is just something to be acquired, an achievement.

Not only is his obsession with her creepy, but he goes about courting her through a series of Grand Romantic Gestures that (as grand gestures are wont to be) are laden with manipulation.  He intends to buy her affection, and if that doesn't succeed he will emotionally blackmail it out of her.

And further complicating matters, there are at least two layers of unreliability in the storytelling.  First, any information we get from Gatsby himself is automatically suspect.  He's not exactly a man well-known for his truthfulness.  What's to say that the "truths" that come out later aren't just a different flavor of lie?  And then everything he says is once more filtered through the eyes and ears of Nick Carraway, a man who I'd argue is too in love with Gatsby to ever be critical of him.

When I say "in love with", I don't necessarily mean homo-erotically -- although you could make a compelling argument for that.  But even if you ignored that subtext, Nick is still obsessed with Gatsby and everything he stands for.

I say the whole thing is a mess, and pinning it entirely on Daisy is unfair and -- I'll say it -- sexist.

The other thing that was stirring in my brain while watching:


We have this interesting myth in our society, the story of the "self-made man."  The story goes that if you work hard enough, you'll be rewarded with fortune.  It's at the core of our meritocracy and it's basically the aspiration of the entire middle class.

But at the same time, we kind of hate the self-made man.  We hate old money because it wasn't earned -- but we hate new money, because we don't trust it.  After all, we work hard, and we aren't rich and famous.  Surely the people who are have done something wrong or duplicitous.

There used to be a common motif in fairy tales:  the low-born hero who ends up acquiring wealth through a mixture of cunning and trickery.  These trickster heroes transcended class boundaries at a time when doing so was well-nigh impossible.  An example is the hero of Puss in Boots, or The Brave Little Tailor.  These trickster heroes have fallen out of fashion in more modern times, though, perhaps because moving through class boundaries has become somewhat easier.  Now when we see them, we distrust them and generally consider them to be villains (Petyr Baelish comes to mind).  

I don't know for certain that Gatsby was the last of the American trickster heroes in literature, but he certainly is one, and I think his death is a stand-in for the death of the motif in general.  Here is a man who has truly created himself, even going so far as to re-name himself.  But it was dishonest, and such a thing cannot go unpunished.

Anyway.  Like I said -- so many thoughts.  Anybody else care to weigh in?

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