Even admirers have their own debates: The book is good, but great?
Great — but not the greatness of assurance and cut-gem perfection. It’s the greatness of a vastly open, unstable, slithery text. Within the scaffold of its tidy, three-act structure and its carefully patterned symmetries, sprouts an unruly blend of stiff moralism and wild ambivalence, its infatuation with and contempt for wealth, its empathy alongside its desire to punish its characters.
One of the pleasures of writing about a book as widely read as “The Great Gatsby” is jetting through the obligatory plot summary. You recall Nick Carraway, our narrator, who moves next door to the mysteriously wealthy Jay Gatsby on Long Island. Gatsby, it turns out, is pining for Nick’s cousin, Daisy; his glittering life is a lure to impress her, win her back. Daisy is inconveniently married to the brutish Tom Buchanan, who, in turn, is carrying on with a married woman, the doomed Myrtle. Cue the parties, the affairs, Nick getting very queasy about it all. In a lurid climax, Myrtle is run over by a car driven by Daisy. Gatsby is blamed; Myrtle’s husband shoots him dead in his pool and kills himself. The Buchanans discreetly leave town, their hands clean. Nick is writing the book, we understand, two years later, in a frenzy of disgust.
Fitzgerald was proud of what he had achieved. “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written,” he crowed. The book baffled reviewers, however, and sold poorly. “Of all the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about,” Fitzgerald wrote to the critic Edmund Wilson.
That matter remains unsettled. The book has been treated as a beautiful bauble, fundamentally unserious. In a 1984 essay in The Times, John Kenneth Galbraith sniffed that Fitzgerald was only superficially interested in class. “It is the lives of the rich — their enjoyments, agonies and putative insanity — that attract his interest,” he wrote. “Their social and political consequences escape him as he himself escaped such matters in his own life.”
This interpretation has been turned on its head. Both new editions make light of the book’s beauty — it’s the treatment of the grotesque that is so compelling (Morris compares the characters to the “Real Housewives”). Both make the case that the book’s value lies in its critique of capitalism. Lee describes Fitzgerald as “a fan of Karl Marx,” and writes that “Gatsby” remains “a modern novel by exploring the intersection of social hierarchy, white femininity, white male love and unfettered capitalism.” For Morris, too, there is no romance between Gatsby and Daisy but “capitalism as an emotion”: “Gatsby meets Daisy when he’s a broke soldier, senses that she requires more prosperity, so five years later he returns as almost a parody of it. So the tragedy here is the death of the heart.”
The evidence exists, in Fitzgerald’s complicated way, as we look at the text and the biography. He was rived by bitterness and profound envy toward the rich. “I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich and it has colored my entire life and works,” he wrote to his agent. But this was the same man who, as a child, liked to pretend he was the foundling son of a medieval king. The same man who fell in love with Zelda because she looked expensive.
So much waffling, according to critics who want less equivocation, less moonlight and stronger moral stances. Except for those critics who find the moralizing heavy-handed and crave subtlety. What other waves of analysis await us as the new narratives rush in? How can one story sustain them all? As we’re borne back, ceaselessly into this one text, it becomes clear that courting admiration might be one path to literary immortality, but courting endless interpretation might be the safer bet. After all, there’s great honor in being a supporting character.