It's almost as if Fitzgerald hadn't written anything other than The Great Gatsby
—have people read any of his other novels? (I started Tender is the Night
but never finished it.) In a sense, Fitzgerald might be the victim of Gatsbty
's success: he's lauded for the work that is most likely not his best. This immediately makes me wonder what people would think of him if he lived today. (Let's pretend that Woody Allen's wretched Midnight in Paris
never happened.) Would he be more like Dan Brown or Jonathan Franzen? Would he be popular or 'indie'? Would he care?
These questions may seem irrelevant, but they're all part of what I consider to be the biggest problem facing Fitzgerald's work today: does it still mean anything to anyone? Is it still worth reading or teaching to tenth-grade students? I'm not suggesting that we need to modernize the classics (I'm looking at you, Romeo + Juliet
), but there ought to be some way to take its core themes and apply them to the modern world. Otherwise we end up rehashing the same old symbolic analysis that's been done to death in high school.
In the spirit of such a comparison, let's take a look at the ways Gatsby
has fallen behind. There are some good lines in The Great Gatsby
, but most of it is a pretty elementary examination of the flawed nature of humanity. Sure, Nick is an unreliable narrator, but hasn't it been done so much more competently? (Off the top of my head: Conrad's Heart of Darkness
and David Foster Wallace's "Another Pioneer" from Oblivion
.) Of course, if a person is narrating a story, of course
it's going to be at least partly unreliable. Have you ever met a completely objective person?
Thus it seems that the unreliable narrator card does not a good novel guarantee (although it certainly doesn't hurt Gatsby
overall). What else is there worth examining>? There's a tragic love story, but it might not resonate with readers who feel that Jay Gatsby's existential woes are just 'first-world problems', as it were. There's a particularly depressing subplot that ends in the death of a secondary character, but this seems like an author-designed contrivance to get Gatsby across the tipping point. The most interesting part of the story is Nick's relationship with tennis star Jordan. When Nick criticizes Tom and Daisy for being people who smash everything and leave others to pick up the pieces, he conveniently forgets that he's just done the same thing himself. It's one of the great ironies in The Great Gatsby
, one that really succeeds in humanizing Nick. But this too lacks any meaningful conclusion—just a conveniently depressing bachelor endgame for Nick and a blasé marriage for Jordan.
Why all the depression? Fitzgerald probably wasn't "emo" per se
, but it's not much of a stretch to imagine him with a Myspace page and a scene haircut. "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past"? Of course, we're only borne into the past if we forget that we're alive in this moment. Heck, the only reason Gatsby couldn't get out of the past was because he kept pining for someone else's wife. All he had to do was open his eyes at one of his parties and notice that he was alive.
I suppose that Gatsby
's depressive aura might work well in retrospect: perhaps the nihilistic feelings that Gatsby
evokes function as commentary on the lavish meaninglessness of the 1920s. Of course, it's certainly nothing that Fitzgerald himself could have planned, unless he had some gift of foresight. I'm sure that Fitzgerald saw through the pretense of the Jazz Age and located the despair hiding within, but today, that message is more of a history lesson than a scathing indictment of modern times. There are, of course, uncanny similarities between the two (for example, the modern world's social malaises are aptly documented in David Foster Wallace's work), but Fitzgerald's insistence on the past is a bit too strong for my taste. After all, humans aren't the exclusive product of their past—otherwise there'd be no credit for trying.