The enduring appeal of Fitzgerald’s third novel, as with many great novels, is partly dependent on a benign misinterpretation on the part of readers, a surrender to fascination with wealth and glamour, and the riotous frivolity of the jazz age. Fitzgerald was by no means an uncritical observer, as some have suggested; the most villainous of these characters are the wealthiest, and Nick Carraway is something of a middle-class prig, who, much as he tries to reserve judgment, is ultimately sickened by all the profligacy and the empty social rituals of his summer among the wealthy of Long Island. “I wanted no more riotous excursion with privileged glimpses into the human heart,” he says at the end. And yet Fitzgerald had a kind of double agent’s consciousness about the tinsel of the jazz age, and about the privileged world of inherited wealth; he couldn’t help stopping to admire and glamorise the glittering interiors of which his midwestern heart ultimately disapproved. Gatsby’s lavish weekly summer parties are over the top, ridiculous, peopled with drunks and poseurs, and yet we can’t help feeling a sense of loss when he suddenly shuts them down after it’s clear that Daisy – for whom the whole show was arranged in the first place – doesn’t quite approve. We shouldn’t approve either, and yet in memory they seem like parties to which we wish we’d been invited.
In Gatsby and his best fiction, Fitzgerald manages to strike a balance between his attraction and repulsion, between his sympathy and his judgment. As a middle-class, midwestern Irish Catholic from what Edmund Wilson called “a semi-excluded background” vis-a-vis the Ivy League and the world of eastern privilege, he seems capable of double vision, the appearance of viewing character, from inside and outside. Fitzgerald’s best narrators always seem to be partaking of the festivities even as they shiver outside with their noses pressed up against the glass. In this manner, Nick Carraway doesn’t entirely approve of Jay Gatsby, the party-giving parvenu with his pink suits and his giant yellow circus wagon of a car. But he deeply admires Jay Gatsby the lover and the dreamer, the man for whom the mansion and the bespoke clothes were only the means to reclaim his first love. Nick admires his fidelity to that first love and his ability to keep it pure and undefiled, even as he wades through the muck to pursue it, even if the object of that love isn’t, in the flesh, worthy of such devotion.
[Photo Credit: Heather.Dyan]