Driving back from Panera’s, Rosemarie and I fell to talking about Gatsby. I’ve never read the novel – at least, all the way through – but within the past several months we’d watched both the Redford and the DiCaprio movie versions.
Rosemarie described the reaction of a friend of ours. “I don’t understand it,” she said, “she loves Gatsby more than any other movie ever.”
“And some people praise it for presenting a faithful picture of that segment of American society in the twenties,” I said. “That might be appropriate praise of a history book, or of a sociological study, but for a novel I think that’s pretty dim praise.”
“Well, even allowing for that,” said R, “I thought the Redford film was way better than the DiCaprio version.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And it wasn’t just Redford versus DiCaprio. Remember how you exclaimed about Mia Farrow? And I did too?”
“Un-huh,” said R. “Who was Daisy in the DiCaprio version? I can’t remember her name.”
“Neither can I.”
“Well, anyway, we don’t like any of the people in the story, do we?”
“Except Nick who’s telling it to us.”
“I’m not even sure about him. Look, why is he telling us the story at all? He admires Gatsby for being able to hope in a supposedly hopeless situation. And he wants us, I suppose, to understand what he finds admirable about this. But, given the circumstances in which he exercises it, I don’t find anything admirable in Gatsby’s hope. Gatsby exemplifies that old saw about repeating the same actions in the hope of a different outcome; he believes with all his heart that he can restart his romance with Daisy from scratch and make it come out differently. Gatsby faces the same lesson as Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
“But Nick finds this admirable. His moral outrage is directed against Tom and Daisy Buchanan. I share that outrage. They deserve it richly.”
“Ok, I’m with you,” says R, “they’re scum. Go on.”
We passed the old quarry on Grove Street. For ten years, every time we drove that route, I had promised myself I’d stop with the camera and get what I could out of images of the old buildings, the rock-crushers and their conveyor belts, the rotted wooden offices, the heaps of sorted gravel. Two months ago operations had ceased, the buildings demolished, the machinery silenced. The camera was now useless.
Thinking of this, I had fallen silent. “You’re not sure about Nick,” said R, as a reminder.
“Oh, yeah. I’m not sure. I guess I’d want to sit down and have a long talk with him.”
“Summon him up from literary limbo?”
“Something like that. From what I can tell, he admires Gatsby for some qualities that simply aren’t actually admirable.”
“And these are…?”
“I said that already: for hoping – no, imagining – that he could re-enact with Daisy the whole sequence of events from four or five years ago, and produce a different outcome.”
“Well, but come on, that’s not the way it looks to me at all. Look, I think Nick is judging the Buchanans’ use of their wealth compared to Gatsby’s. Isn’t Nick just pointing out that Gatsby at least had a recognizably human motive for achieving his wealth, and for the uses to which he was putting it, while the Buchanans had none at all?”
I had to think about that, and did for a minute.
“Um, maybe so. But that’s pretty thin ground…” I paused again; R had just opened her mouth to say something when I continued: “…actually I don’t think that even reaches the status of a moral judgement. It’s more like what I’d call a vaguely psychological estimate of somebody’s well-being.”
“You mean like Gatsby had goals while the Buchanans had none?”
“Something like that. Anyway, if that’s what Nick admires, Nick is almost as rootless as the Buchanans, isn’t he?”
Rosemarie chuckled, evilly. “Now I can just imagine someone commenting like who are you to judge Nick?”
“Oh, come on. You know damn well I wouldn’t even bother to respond to a remark like that. I’m identifying the questions I’d have if I could have a talk with Nick. I’d want to dig deep into his state of mind at the end of the story. What I’m saying now – which our hypothetical commenter construes as my, um, condemnation of Nick – is nothing more than the starting point for an imaginary conversation.
“I can easily imagine that conversation – and my subsequent sense of where Nick is at morally – taking any one of several different paths. And since Nick can’t be here, I can’t possibly have a final position.
“Your proposed commenter is jumping the gun.”
That was weeks ago. I still don’t like the story; I can’t muster any compassion for Gatsby himself, the Buchanans are repulsive, and Nick is a sentimental fool.
I suppose I should be able to say more than that. I can’t for the life of me make any sense out of the notion that The Great Gatsby is a great novel.
I’ll be sure to let you know if I change my mind.