Josh Cohen on The Great Gatsby and the myth of the American Dream
Gatsby is surely more in love with his idea of Daisy than the flesh-and-blood version. He seems to believe that he’s pursuing [a higher good], and that his criminally acquired bootlegging fortune will be redeemed by the purity of his love for Daisy.
But in a world corrupted by money and greed, higher and lower forms of ambition are bound to become confused. Is it really Daisy that he sees in that distant green light? Isn’t it rather some elusive, ultimately ridiculous hope of transforming his worldly life into one of exemplary beauty? But instead of ending his life in old age, a silver-haired Daisy at his side, he’s found floating face down in his crimson-tinged swimming pool, a spectacle for rubbernecking boys.
So how and why did Gatsby’s life end so sordidly? As Julien Sorel has already shown us, and as the growing power and influence of today’s tiny billionaire class are making all too plain, the pursuit of a fortune is a dangerous beast. In 1930, five years after Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby, the British economist John Maynard Keynes, in his essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’, looked forward to a world in which the pursuit of excess wealth for its own sake would be ‘recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease’.
Ninety years later, with more than half the world’s wealth concentrated in the hands of the richest one per cent, and much of that wealth itself controlled by a tiny number of billionaires, it seems depressingly safe to confirm that Keynes was a tad optimistic on this point. Far from being a quaint relic of an unequal past, obscene ostentation has become one of the iconic features of our age.
Fitzgerald mercilessly exposes the deleterious psychological and moral effects of this kind of wealth on those who possess it. Freed from even the minutest burden of necessity by his vast unearned wealth, Tom Buchanan’s life has become a random and empty parade of polo matches, extramarital sex and blowhard bigotry. Carraway notices his ‘cruel body’, a cauldron of compressed brutality, shockingly and gratuitously unleashed at the slightest hint of frustration – invariably against women. Tom’s viciousness looks like the effect of a seething mass of energy lacking any outlet for its meaningful employment. Few characters could evoke more precisely the ‘disgusting morbidity’ of which Keynes speaks.
Tom and Daisy are, in their friend Jordan Baker’s famous phrase, ‘careless people’. But aren’t people who never have to consider the cost of anything, who can buy their way into any pleasure and out of any trouble, bound to be careless? Able to acquire anything they please, the Buchanans are never forced to consider what really matters to them, a privation that takes on the dubious guise of a privilege.
Born James Gatz into a life of poverty, Gatsby is very different in this regard. Having nothing endows him with an equally dubious advantage, namely the painful itch of aspiration. We get a glimpse of how deeply this itch has taken root in him near the end of the novel, when Gatsby’s estranged father arrives at the house for his son’s funeral.
Henry C Gatz swells with pride as he surveys the infinite distance his son has traversed between the anonymous North Dakotan town of his birth and this enormous mansion in which he died. He carries two mementos with him: a cracked and dirty photograph of the same house, sent to him by ‘Jimmy’ and ‘more real to him now than the house itself’, and ‘a ragged copy of a book called Hopalong Cassidy’ Jimmy ‘had when he was a boy’.
On the flyleaf of the book is a series of handwritten lines under the heading schedule, itemising Gatsby’s tough boyhood regime of early rising, exercise, study, work, sport, elocution and poise. Contemporary American readers are likely to have recognised these disciplines as corrupted versions of Benjamin Franklin’s notes for self-improvement in his famous diaries. But Gatsby’s routine is directed not, as in Franklin, towards the cultivation of civic virtue but of personal gain.
For Mr Gatz, the notes are living proof of the juicy fruits of determined ambition. Without a trace of irony, he tells Carraway that ‘Jimmy was bound to get ahead. He always had some resolves like this or something.’
Gatsby’s father either fails or doesn’t want to notice that his son’s ‘resolves’ have culminated in his violent death. He doesn’t allow the fact that his first visit to his son’s house is for his funeral to get in the way of the illusion that he lived the exemplary American dream, rising from rags to riches through sheer will and hard work.
Extracted from How To Live. What To Do. by Josh Cohen (Ebury, £16.99). Buy a copy here.
Josh Cohen is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 18 March. Register here.