by Erika Koss
“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
American fiction is rife with characters who feel “within and without”—from My Antonia’s Jim Burden to The Grapes of Wrath’s Tom Joad; from The Age of Innocence’s Newland Archer to A Farewell to Arms’s Lt. Henry. This may, in fact, be the legacy of the “Roaring Twenties” to us, still on the cusp of this 21st century. The insider/outsider feeling is not only felt by immigrants or newcomers. Perhaps more perniciously, for those born and raised with a promise of the American Dream, this teeter-totter between Fascination and Disdain more closely resembles Vanity Fair – a place that promises but delivers neither contentment nor peace. Increasingly, the white picket fence becomes farther to most Americans, much farther out of reach than Gatsby’s green light. Perhaps Nick Carraway has rightly noted his “cardinal virtue” to be honesty. Or, as he put it another way: “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
“So we drove on toward death in the twilight.”
Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Broccoli noted that the Great War “triggered disillusionment, moral reevaluation, social experimentation, and hedonism . . . Although Fitzgerald joined the parties and chronicled them, he wrote in judgment.” Serving stateside during World War I, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about disenchantment and its consequences throughout his greatest works. The nihilism of this Lost Generation is evident from his autobiographical first novel, vivid in This Side of Paradise’s concluding page, when Fitzgerald said they had “grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” By the time Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, God and faith were so absent, they are never even mentioned.
“He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.”
Is it possible to desire a thing so fully—to imagine it so vividly—that its reality cannot persist? Nick believes that Gatsby wants to “recover something,” but more than his innocence has been lost. Jay Gatsby’s years of longing for Daisy, the house that he builds, the parties he throws – “all is vanity” since he can never again “gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” both felt and represented in that first kiss. His innocence is lost. That kiss becomes the first step toward his mysterious death in the swimming pool. In The Great Gatsby, it is no cliché to say the imagination is a powerful thing.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The debate will go on: Is The Great Gatsby our most perfect American novel? Perhaps. But, without a doubt, this short novel delivers a cultural critique of an era that is paradoxically gone forever and ever-present. If we vicariously live through The Great Gatsby’s flawed and fragile characters, do we notice something of ourselves? Jay Gatsby’s dream, Daisy Buchanan’s regret, Tom Buchanan’s jealousy, and Nick Carraway’s judgment may feel all too familiar if we’re brave enough to confront what is stored up in our ghostly hearts.
A native Californian, Erika Koss was formerly the Director of of the Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Maryland, where, for seven years, she lived less than one mile from F. Scott’s and Zelda’s graves. She worked at the National Endowment for the Arts on the founding creative teams for Poetry Out Loud and The Big Read (where The Great Gatsby was one of the first four books). She now works at Northeastern University as an Assistant Dean in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. She lives near Boston with her two sons.
Don’t miss Erika’s first Gatsby post for R&S, “What’s So Great About The Great Gatsby?”