Opening line: ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’
This is not a book review, but this is a blog post about The Great Gatsby, both the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Baz Luhrman’s recent film adaptation. I reread the novel earlier this year, read about it in detail in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and saw the film last Friday for my birthday.
Seeing the trailer was like getting an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties: pure excitement. It will be grand. It will be breathtaking. It’s Gatsby. I told F. I wanted to dress up to go to the cinema; F. obliged and wore a suit, and I did up my hair 20s’ style. Although the frame story was new, it made sense with Nick’s character and the story; and the movie left out a line I thought was really symbolic (though I could have missed it). The soundtrack threw me off at first, but it really helps show today’s audiences just how hip Gatsby’s parties were. Overall, I think the film was really well done, an excellent adaptation.
But I left the cinema feeling like I had watched a train wreck. F. felt similar. Having never read the book, never had to study it in school, he asked me, “What’s so great about Gatsby?”
I told him that that’s the first question high school teachers always ask about the book. As I was answering — a mixture of the classic response that The Great Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream, that Gatsby is the hero because of his striving, a rags to riches story, that it’s tragic because the green light he reaches for cannot live up to reality — I was reminded of The Atlantic’s article, The Sublime Cluelessness of Throwing Lavish Great Gatsby Parties. Seward claims that people who throw Gatsby-themed parties miss the point of the novel. They also miss the irony of throwing such a party: the novel condemns such decadence, after all. But what draws us to Gatsby? Why do we dress up in 20s clothing and reach back to that riotous jazz age?
The answer I think is two-fold, and is how we the readers are like Gatsby’s guests. Firstly, people like to feel special. We like to rub shoulders with people we think are important, as if some of that importance rubs off onto us and makes us special and important, too. Why do you think so many people went to Gatsby’s parties? Hundreds of people went, everybody went, including the mayor and senators, movie stars and models, bankers and bootleggers. And yet most of the people there were normal people out for a good time, drawn by the promise of booze, music, and seeing or even talking to or dancing with celebrities. Even more appealing is Gatsby’s mystique itself: no one knows him, few have met him. The aura of mystery around the host makes us feel even more special. Like Gatsby’s guests, we yearn for this association with greatness. This may be one reason we throw Gatsby-themed parties, when we’re so excited about the glitz and glamour of a film about the great American novel.
And we are like Gatsby’s guests in another way. How many Americans really know about The Great Gatsby? Yes, it is included in most, if not all, schools’ English curriculum. I myself have had to read it twice for school: first when I was 17 years’ old, and again when I was 19. The first time I read it I really didn’t like it. I didn’t get it or appreciate it. The second time around was better, probably because it was in the context of Western Civ. But it was reading it this year and watching the film on my 28th birthday that I really got it. Nick Carraway is 29 and 30 during the course of the novel; Gatsby is 32. As teenagers, we just don’t think of 30-year-olds and older as going to parties, dancing, getting drunk, falling in love. 30 is old. Not only that, but jazz and the foxtrot, those are “old-timey” things. How can you expect a teenager to really “get” the world of The Great Gatsby? And so this makes us, the readers and consumers of the novel, even more like Gatsby’s guests. We all know about him, but none of us really know him. The real story gets lost in essay questions about green lights and allegory, but I doubt few teenagers really resonate with the story of a thirty-year old who, in his words, still has a life ahead of him to become a great man, and who throws these lavish parties in order to attract the attention of the woman he loves. As a result, we are complicit in spreading rumours about Gatsby, throwing and attending The Great Gatsby parties with the same excitement guests poured into Gatsby’s mansion.
What’s so great about Gatsby? Why do we love it, even if we don’t understand it? Because his mystique makes his parties more fun to go to; like his guests, we want to feel special and included in a secret. Brooks Brothers and Tiffany & Co. can use The Great Gatsby-themed adverts because not only do we yearn for the glamour of the jazz age, but also because they’re tapping into the fact that most of us are ignorant of Gatsby’s true character, as his guests are, even as they party in his home.
For further reading: