Remember in Chapter 5 of The Great Gatsby, during the big reunion scene when Daisy and Jay briefly talk about their experiences during the flu epidemic? No? What about that exchange in Chapter 3, when Nick Carraway tells Jordan Baker he still feels uncomfortable at large parties, after a year of social distancing?
Well, you may not be able to recall those moments in the novel because they didn’t happen. F. Scott Fitzgerald never once mentions the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in The Great Gatsby — an exclusion that’s both curious and, as it turns out, bizarrely typical.
It’s curious because The Great Gatsby is a timeless classic inexorably linked to its own time. Although published in April 1925, the novel takes place during the summer of 1922; in Chapter 4, Fitzgerald kindly includes a date for us, July 5th, 1922. But even if he hadn’t been so specific, we could have been able to place the novel’s events in time thanks to the historical bread crumbs Fitzgerald leaves. For example, the multiple references to World War I (both Gatsby and Nick Carraway are veterans) and the description of Meyer Wolfsheim as “the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.” Fitzgerald also fills his pages with other allusions to 1920s pop culture — for example, celebrities (Gilda Gray, a dancer from the Ziegfeld Follies), books (Simon Called Peter, a bestseller from 1921), and music (the 1922 song “Three O’Clock in the Morning”, described as “a neat, sad little waltz of that year”). In short, setting– the places but more importantly, the time– is absolutely critical to The Great Gatsby. The novel isn’t historical fiction… but it kinda is.
So how is it possible that Fitzgerald doesn’t make even a passing reference in The Great Gatsby to the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic? An outbreak that infected 500 million people and killed 50 million worldwide by 1920– and Fitzgerald doesn’t mention it in a novel so steeped in modern history? If you’re Fitzgerald in the early ’20s, writing the next great American novel, how do you not talk about it? (For what it’s worth, none of the film versions– including Baz Luhrmann‘s 2013 version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan– overtly mention the influenza pandemic either.)
What makes Fitzgerald’s seemingly deliberate avoidance of the topic even more unusual is that it doesn’t seem that unusual at all. None of his contemporaries talked noticeably about the pandemic in their art — not Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, or any of the artists represented in Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Midnight in Paris. T. S. Eliot and his wife Vivien were allegedly sick with the flu while he was writing The Waste Land, but the poem includes no direct references to the outbreak. Virginia Woolf— who suffered many bouts of influenza over her lifetime– noted in her 1926 essay, “On Being Ill”, how it was “strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.” Of course, save for two oblique references in 1925’s Mrs. Dalloway (Clarissa had “grown very white since her illness” and her heart had been “affected… by influenza”), Woolf also omits? avoids? talking explicitly about the pandemic in her novels.
Incidentally, both The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway–published a month apart– have a common trait that might resonate with modern readers in the midst of our current COVID-19 pandemic: both include passages that celebrate crowds. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway — while out buying flowers for a big shin-dig — drinks deep of the bustling city of London:
In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
And Jay Gatsby, of course, is notoriously associated with crowds, which is ironic for an old sport who’s also known for standing alone on his dock reaching out for a green light eternally beyond his grasp. But Gatsby sure knows how to throw big bashes, usually attended by hundreds of drunk strangers (who don’t know or care who the host is). In Chapter 3, Nick exuberantly describes a party at his neighbor’s mansion this way:
the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names… The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath.”
In short, both The Great Gatsby and Mrs. Dalloway, two novels written in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, feature characters absolutely luxuriating in crowded spaces. If Fitzgerald or Woolf had ever practiced social distancing, they’re not writing about it; in fact, they’re writing about the exact opposite — the “triumph” and “jingle” of lots and lots of people jammed into one place.
The 1918-1919 pandemic– besides being known, unfairly, as the “Spanish flu”– has also been labeled the “forgotten pandemic”, and indeed, Fitzgerald, Woolf, and most of their contemporaries did seem to forget about it, almost immediately. But why? Some have theorized these Jazz Age-era writers glossed over the pandemic because they considered the “Great War” a much more dramatically compelling topic. And while that makes sense, I wonder if something else was going on. Maybe they didn’t write about the pandemic because no one wanted to read about it. Maybe everyone was just ready to move on.
I’m reminded of the epilogue in Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, a novel that has nothing to do with The Great Gatsby (other than the fact both may appear on an American literature syllabus). Set in post-Civil War Ohio, Beloved involves the ghost of a murdered baby who haunts her family. After the ghost disappears, the townspeople make a conscious choice to put her out of their minds, as a matter of survival: “They forgot her, like a bad dream,” Morrison says, since “Remembering seemed unwise.” Maybe Fitzgerald was doing the same thing in The Great Gatsby— willfully forgetting the bad dream that was the influenza pandemic, in order to awake to the rousing new world of the “Roaring 20s”.
Is That Kind of “Forgetting” So Bad?
I find that encouraging. I like using the 96-year-old The Great Gatsby as a crystal ball for our current not-quite-post-pandemic life. Now, don’t get me wrong: having taught the book to my high school students for 15 years, I’m well aware that The Great Gatsby is a critique of the “American Dream”, and that by overlooking the tragic parts of The Great Gatsby, I’m doing the same thing Taylor Swift does by romanticizing Romeo and Juliet in “Love Story”.
Moreover, I’m not hoping for a reboot of the “Roaring 20s” which was not as rosy as nostalgia would have us believe; under the jazzy and boozy veneer of happy-go-lucky America lurked race riots and lynchings and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. (And don’t forget: the “Roaring 20s” culminated in the Great Depression.)
Still, I’m encouraged that Fitzgerald doesn’t mention his era’s pandemic in The Great Gatsby, because it helps me glimpse optimistically into our future — a time when we aren’t talking about, writing about, thinking about COVID-19 non-stop. A time when people gather inside — and without masks. A time when people can accept invitations for big parties. Or better yet: a time when people can decline invitations for big parties, simply because they’re not interested. (Think about it: Fitzgerald ends up being very critical of extravagant parties in The Great Gatsby. Imagine a future when parties have become so commonplace that we actually get bored with them? That’s the dream!)
I’m not saying we need to pull a Jay Gatsby, who was so in love with Daisy he tried to pretend the five years he spent apart from her didn’t happen. We’re not going to be delusional. We’re not going to forget some of the good things the more fortunate of us experienced during the pandemic– time spent with family, re-connections with friends, a deeper appreciation for hobbies and health, and life. And most of us, at least, will continue to take precautions when necessary. But we will move on.
The Great Gatsby’s famous last line reads, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” A downer ending, for sure, since Fitzgerald is saying we can never move ahead because we’re always anchored to our past. But that doesn’t have to apply to us. if we consider what the novel says– or more accurately, doesn’t say– about last century’s pandemic, then maybe the recent past can help us think optimistically about our future, one bursting with parties and devoid of masks. Unlike Gatsby’s green light, that future is within our reach.