“The Great Gatsby” is the most American of our great novels. Jay Gatsby’s story illuminates our culture like no other.
When Mr. Gatz turns up for his son’s funeral, he shows to Nick Carroway, the narrator, Jay’s boyhood list for self-improvement. It included early rising, exercise, elocution practice, and reading “one improving book or magazine per week.” “ ‘Jimmy was bound to get ahead,’ Mr. Gatz says. ‘He always had some resolves like this or something.’ ” And “get ahead” Jay does, reinventing himself as a man with a patrician background and making money enough to buy a mansion on Long Island, where he throws fabulous parties to which Jazz Age New York society flocks.
But these weren’t Gatsby’s goals; they were his means to pursue a dream, prompted and given material form by Daisy, a Louisville belle he met when he was stationed at a nearby Army base before being shipped out to World War I. While he’s overseas, she marries an extremely rich man from Chicago. During the present of the story, those two are renting a mansion across the bay from Gatsby’s, and he sends his yearning across the water to the green light blinking at the end of their dock. More than Daisy herself, that green light epitomizes the American Dream.
In the beautiful closing paragraphs of the book, Fitzgerald has Nick imagine how Long Island must have appeared to the first Dutch sailors: “a fresh green breast of the new world ... [F]or a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent ... face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with his capacity for wonder.” But always there is the desire to possess the wondrous, and that means monetizing it. For the hungry soldier Gatsby, the wonder of Daisy was inseparable from her wealth. The enchantment of her voice, he tells Nick, is the sound of money.
Getting rich isn’t the whole of the American Dream, but wealth is its sine qua non and sole substantial component, so the Dream is inescapably corrupted. After the war, Gatsby gets rich by racketeering, and New Yorkers have turned the green breast of the new world between his mansion and Manhattan into a slag heap. These matters don’t trouble Gatsby, consumed as he is by the Dream. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out ... And one fine morning —”
The Jay Gatzes of our era are losing faith in the American Dream. High time! It’s one thing for immigrants living in a slum and working low-wage jobs to want their kids to attend college and enter a profession. It’s another to expect each generation to have more material wealth than its predecessor, or believe the Kardashians epitomize the good life.
Last week I wrote of the social defeat to which our opioid epidemic attests, and held that it will spread unless we reject our current economic system and the values it inculcates. We must realize that in herself, Daisy is as fatuous as her life is trivial, that the American Dream is a will-o’-the-wisp drawing us into a secular Slough of Despond. Meaningful activity and meaningful connection aren’t components of a dream. They’re the bases of meaningful life. Together let’s pursue them.
Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.