Kathryn Schulz has seized the occasion of the newest—and probably not the last—screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby to take the great American novel down several pegs. Indeed, she is not content to critique it; the title of her provocative piece is Why I Despise The Great Gatsby” (Vulture.com, 6 May 2013). Naturally, any critic, any reader, is more than entitled to his or her opinion; art is useless unless it is capable of inspiring. At its best it can inspire pleasure and awe, sympathy and thoughtfulness, but it can and must also inspire criticism, and art that lasts is able to sustain both our scrutiny and the passage of time.
As such, I have no particular qualms with Schulz, or anyone else, expressing disenchantment with a novel so many others worship. In fact, the world needs more, not less people willing or able to interrogate our literary sacred cows and offer views contrary to received and/or inculcated opinion. On the other hand, any analysis that disputes near-universal approbation must do the necessary work on its own behalf. Thus, as a statement of personal preference, I celebrate Schulz’s decision—however opportunistic—to declare her disdain; it’s where she attempts to engage with the novel as a critic that I have reservations, and comments. More, she claims a conspiracy of sorts where we are “not free to dislike this book”. Of course we are; but if we are going to put pen to paper in the service of condemning it, we’d better have insights that are compelling and not clichéd.
First of all, I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They are invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, all too often it becomes disappointingly obvious that many of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question. Of course this scenario applies to many canonical works, whether we’re talking about Mozart, Miles Davis or (sigh) Herman Melville. The reason I associate naysayers of The Great Gatsby with Shakespeare deniers is because they frequently make the facile and irritating mistake of approaching older works from a current perspective.
To be certain, one of the reasons an eminent work (like The Great Gatsby) appeals to successive generations is its ability to depict truths that cut across time and trends. Ironically, it’s precisely the ways F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece remains relevant—and revelatory—that offer its best account for posterity. The fact that the action occurs in definite times and places which, at least on superficial levels, seem obsolete, only augments the novel’s import and prescience.
Whenever someone complains about the obviousness or unoriginality of either Shakespeare or Fitzgerald, I am obliged to remind them that the reason their words and symbols seem so readymade is because so many lesser authors have imitated or copied them. Aside from the fact that virtually any of Shakespeare’s mature works and The Great Gatsby can be savored on a line-by-line basis solely for the richness of their language, it’s almost impossible to imagine contemporary writing outside the large shadow they cast. Anytime a symbol from an older work (like, say, Hamlet or Moby Dick) seems hackneyed there’s a good chance it’s because the symbol in question has become such an inextricable part of our culture. Sound pretentious? Think about what the expression “white whale” signifies, or the ways “to be or not to be—that is the question” has been quoted or placed in diverse contexts. Put another way, it’s not the fault of the author if their words have become ubiquitous, and it’s both unfair and inaccurate to damn the work by comparison with the unoriginal or overused ways it is exploited—or abused—by its acolytes.
I’m accustomed to hearing people protest (too much) about the symbolism in The Great Gatsby, but Schulz levels two complaints that I’m not sure I’ve heard associated with this particular book, and I think, as is normally the case, they reveal more about her than Fitzgerald’s prose. The first is that the characters are unlikable, a quibble I’d expect from a college sophomore or someone who reads books about reality TV stars. Now, to be clear, some of our better scribes have been able to render terrible people as both amusing and endearing. This is something Martin Amis has practically made a career out of, nowhere more successfully than in his masterpiece Money. But who needs or wants to like all the characters in a work of fiction?
Complaining about the novel she wished Fitzgerald had written, Schulz complains “Indeed, The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable.” It is, presumably, a given that both Tom and Daisy are supposed to be unsympathetic (for my money they are, to Fitzgerald’s considerable credit, portrayed as two of the most despicable characters in all literature). But let’s take a look at the primary players for whom Schulz can summon neither love nor hate. In a book (the book) delineating shallow, misguided and spiritually hollow people, Schulz can’t fathom why Fitzgerald would create such…shallow, misguided and spiritually hollow people! One scarcely knows where to begin, but I’ll take a shot.
As narrator (reliable? What can we take from the fact that he is writing this, years and miles removed from the events being depicted, safe, chastened, dissatisfied, maybe a tad sentimental, still, for the things that might have been had Gatsby been just a little bit greater?), Nick is not supposed to be especially likable. In fact, he’s supposed to be exactly what he is: a passive, voyeuristic coward; the guy who silently goes along with everyone and everything even though he—as the less-than-reliable narration would have us believe—knew better. Here is Schulz’s assessment: “At no point are we given cause, or room, to feel complicit. Our position throughout is that of an innocent bystander. That’s also Nick’s role, so the perspective of the book becomes one of passive observation…Yet he never admits to collusion with or seduction by all the fabulous depravity around him. After it’s all over, he retreats to the Midwest and, figuratively and literally, tells his story from the safe remove of America’s imaginary moral high ground.” Does it occur to Schulz that part of Nick’s unspoken story is the possibility that, had Gatsby not been killed, he would have contentedly continued to lick his rich benefactor’s boot heels? Perhaps Schulz also suspects that in Poe’s tale Amontillado is the bad guy, or that Marlow is just as culpable as Mr. Kurtz, because he kind of sat around and watched the evil unfold?
Along these lines, Schulz commits the most egregious, and embarrassingly shallow of sins: conflating Nick as narrator with Fitzgerald as actual person. Granted, this type of insouciant psychoanalysis is practically de rigueur in today’s literary scene (including most college English departments), but it not only undermines the point(s) Schulz attempts to make, it leaves them difficult to take seriously. Worse, she hones in on what she believes exposes Fitzgerald’s ultimate character flaw: the fact that he struggled with his contempt for the wealthy and his ambition to be well-off. Gee, sound like anyone you know?
Perhaps, just to take one glaring example, a certain demographic in our country that consistently votes against its best interest, enabling taxes on the wealthiest fraction to shrivel because of the infinitesimal chance they, too, might one day be flush? As F. Scott Fitzgerald puts it, knocking it out of the park better than anyone not named H.L. Mencken: “Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry.” It’s what the novel says about those who are not wealthy that comprises the dark heart of its wonder—and acumen—and anyone failing to see the flappers and fools providing their gin are so much expensive scenery misses the entire point.
Schulz also laments that she can’t find sufficient reason to believe in Gatsby’s love for Daisy (indeed, she can’t believe in Gatsby and Daisy, period). I find this incredible: how can anyone read this novel and not understand Gatsby’s love for Daisy is unbelievable, in part because it is unfeasible; it is, in fact, impossible—an illusion. Like so many could-have-been-a-contender parables, he snatched at his brass ring (erected his Xanadu, etc.), and found, to his chagrin, it was not sustainable. And all that business about “You can’t repeat the past?” Hint: Nick (and/or Fitzgerald) is not just talking about Gatsby there; he’s talking about all of us, and understanding this puts the entire narrative in sharp, devastating focus. The tragedy of the novel is, ultimately, not a bunch of incurious, brutal people behaving badly; it’s that everyone, affluent or indigent, has a human desire to get more than they’ll receive, and an instinctive awareness they get less attractive, healthy and proficient after exceeding a certain age.
Once again, Schulz laments Fitzgerald’s inability to write the book she would have felt more comfortable reading, underscoring how grievously she is missing the mark: “On the page, Fitzgerald’s moralizing instinct comes off as cold; the chill that settles around The Great Gatsby is an absence of empathy.” On the contrary; what Fitzgerald does, with these ostensibly soulless and unpleasant people, is interrogate cause and effect, motive and aftermath, and all aspects of that myth sold to us as the American Dream. He takes this construction and places it on the operating table, dissecting what causes it to breathe, thrive and rot from the inside out. In this single regard, Fitzgerald was more prophetic than his critics can comprehend: he predicted how the roaring ‘20s would end and be remembered before they expired. If the people (like Nick) who wind up on the outside looking in see nothing but emptiness, it’s because all vanity, in the end, returns to the ashes whence it sprang. Fitzgerald is not describing anything Ecclesiastes did not say first, if less poetically.
In addition, he depicted the way Americans would react to every calamity of the 20th Century: after each debacle, the architects of said crisis waltz away, licking their wounds and counting their cash. No amount of dour intuition could have prepared Fitzgerald to imagine that, in the 21st century, they also get paid to scold the complicit masses (receiving book deals, going into politics or appearing on TV—the lucky ones doing all three). Think about the cowards in Congress today, who lustily passed legislation (and deregulation) that hastened the latest crash, now pushing austerity (but not higher taxes!). It isn’t that their methods or strategies are predictable (they are), it’s the narrative they employ that is so quintessentially American: cynicism covered in money, preaching solidarity.
In one of the most quoted passages of the book, Tom and Daisy are described as “careless people…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.” One need look no further than Wall Street, or Iraq, or the budgetary realities of a small town under sequestration to see, even with eyes wide shut, the ways everything Fitzgerald held his mirror up to are reflecting back at us, bigger, uglier and more shameless than they ever were a century ago. In America it is not only romance and nostalgia that ensure we are borne, ceaselessly to the past.