“Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry “Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!”
That’s how The Great Gatsby begins. And these four short lines aptly sum up the one obsession that drives Jay Gatsby, the hero of the book.
The Great Gatsby (1925) is a magnum opus novel by American author Scott Fitzgerald. By many readers, it is considered worthy of being called The Great American Novel. Through a swiftly paced plot involving a small set of brilliantly envisioned characters, Fitzgerald weaves out a satire of the American era that was called the Roaring Twenties. The time when American economy experienced a boom, and with it rose the glittering waves of cinema, art, culture, music and automobiles. Many new millionaires rose up, eager to sparkle their horizons by splashing their wealth. But behind all this glitz hid many shadows. And the sparklers that people chased often ended up being mere chimeras.
The book is narrated by a character named Nick Carraway. He is the neighbour of the Great Gatsby. Nick too is a young and good looking man. He too has a love interest in the book. But he is not the hero of the book. The whole novel is dominated by Jay Gatsby and his passionate quest to attain the unattainable.
Jay Gatsby is person who is obsessed to attain a destiny that’s grander than what his family background can afford.
Victor Hugo says in Les Misrables, “Nothing proceeds more directly and more sincerely from the very depth of our soul, than our unpremeditated and boundless aspirations towards the splendors of destiny. In these aspirations, much more than in deliberate, rational coordinated ideas, is the real character of a man to be found. Our chimeras are the things which the most resemble us. Each one of us dreams of the unknown and the impossible in accordance with his nature.”
Jay Gatz or Jay Gatsby too dreamed of the impossible. As a child, he disciplines his every hour to gain knowledge, poise and success. As a youth, he is fascinated by the finery and splendour of people with wealth. A few years later, he is a millionaire with a grand mansion, expensive cars, wardrobes full of costly clothes. He has fabulous wealth, and he displays it fabulously. Nobody knows how the wealth was earned. The writer gives us nothing but allusions as explanation of this sudden prosperity. And all these allusions point to dark secrets. But the young, handsome, insanely rich Jay Gatsby is glittering.
Every week there is a party in his mansion. Grand parties where celebrities are invited and where many others come uninvited. All these guests come for the party, not for Gatsby. And he knows it. Very few of them can actually recognize him or care for him. He knows it. Most of them mock him and suspect his past. He knows it. And while his mansion is raided by these uncaring guests, he stands alone in a corner and waits for his golden girl.
This is Daisy. A girl he met when he was only a penniless soldier. Daisy, at that time, was young, beautiful and belonging to a wealthy family with long established name. A girl with a voice whose very murmurs drew people to her. She is a princess living in a golden abode. And as Jay Gatsby puts it, her voice is ‘full of money.’ Jay feels himself wedded forever to her after their first kiss.
He lost her at the hands of wealth. Now he wants to pull her back with his greater wealth. And that is his obsession. That is his chimera. That is the pinnacle of greatness he aspires to.
But as the author says, “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.”
Gatsby does not realize the futility of his sparkling greatness. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And one fine morning ——”
For Gatsby, Daisy is that green light. But she has been married to Tom Buchanan for over five years. Even if Tom has no belief in marital fidelity, he has given her a reputed family name, a settled family life, and a child. And no matter how attracted she is to Gatsby, Daisy cannot say she never loved her husband.
Tom and Daisy represent the inherited money and well established family name. But “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made… .”
The novel calls Jay Gatsby The Great Gatsby. That itself is satirical. Jay may have risen up to be among the shining stars. But they care only for his acquired glitter, not for him. Nick, his neighbour and the narrator of the book, tells him with genuine feeling, “You are worth the whole damn bunch put together.” But nobody cares to know the real Jay. People drive in hordes to enjoy his parties. His business acquaintances drive their profits from his efforts. But the moths hovering around wealth are but shallow friends. Especially if the wealth is earned by dubious means. And in the end, his aged father and the young neighbour are the only ones who are by his side. Even the girl for whom Jay had worn the ‘gold hat’ cares not to attend his funeral.
Commenting upon this book, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1924, “That’s the whole burden of this novel — the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory”
The Great Gatsby is not a long book. It is only about 47,000 words in length. But it is not a very easy book to read and understand. I feel that it is one of those books whose greatness becomes obvious in retrospect and leaves you marveling at its many paradoxes. I mean, while I was reading it, I did not feel as if I was reading something grand. But once the book was finished and I looked back at it, then the feeling of having read something beautiful struck.
I recently wrote in a post that I’ve met many great people in the pages of fiction. Now one more awesome person is added to that list. The Great Gatsby.
I found this movie trailer while looking for the cover image of Great Gatsby. The glimpses in it seem quite close to the book.