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Everyman in the Jazz Age
on 1 May 2013
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with inventing the term "The Jazz Age" to describe the 1920s, and he is often regarded as the greatest chronicler of that age in fiction. Today the "Roaring Twenties" are often regarded as a brief, prosperous, carefree and hedonistic interval between the war-torn 1910s and the economically depressed 1930s, the age of jazz, of cocktails, of Art Deco, of flappers and of the Charleston. Like all attempts to summarise a whole decade in a single phrase, or even in a single sentence, however, this one can never be more than a half-truth. The decade was certainly a time of relative prosperity in the United States (less so in Europe), but it was also an era haunted by memories of the Great War and its attendant bloodshed and by a sense of foreboding about the future. The era's much-vaunted hedonism can be seen as the reaction of a largely urban, well-to-do minority against the Puritanism of the not-so-silent majority. This was, after all, the decade of Prohibition and of ultra-conservative forms of religion, exemplified by the notorious Scopes trial in which a schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching evolutionary theory.
Jay Gatsby, the central character of this novel, is a quintessentially Roaring Twenties figure. Originally a North Dakota farmboy named James Gatz, he served with distinction in the United States army during World War I and then went into business, becoming a self-made millionaire, wealthy enough to afford a luxurious mansion where he hosts lavish parties. Gatsby's mansion is on the North Shore of Long Island, an area with so many wealthy residents during this period that it became known as the Gold Coast. The sources of his millions are originally obscure; at times Gatsby claims to be the son of a wealthy San Francisco family, at others he makes vague references to the drugstore business or to oil. Eventually, however, it emerges that he has made his money though bootlegging, and possibly other illegal activities.
The story takes place during the summer of 1922, in New York and on Long Island, and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a trainee bond salesman and a neighbour of Gatsby's in the village of West Egg. (Fictitious, but based on the real Long Island community of Great Neck). The plot revolves around the web of relationships between Nick, Gatsby (who becomes a close friend), Nick's cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. The Buchanans live across the bay from West Egg in the neighbouring village of East Egg. Their marriage is an unhappy one, and Tom has taken a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, the wife of an unsuccessful garage proprietor in a run-down area of New York, named by Fitzgerald the "Valley of Ashes". Myrtle and her husband George will play important roles in the novel's denouement.
One of the novel's themes is the American class system. Some Americans would claim that theirs is a classless, or at least a meritocratic, society, but Fitzgerald shows that America also has its forms of class distinction, perhaps more subtle than those that exist in Europe but no less real. Gatsby's lie about coming from an established San Francisco family is only partly inspired by an understandable reticence about the real sources of his wealth; part of the reason is that, in a society which maintains a sharp old-money/new money distinction he has no wish to be regarded as a parvenu. Even so, he makes his home in the "new-money" enclave of West Egg, East Egg being the preserve of traditional "old-money" families like the Buchanans. His modification of his original, German-sounding, surname "Gatz" may have been motivated by wartime anti-German prejudice, but another factor may have been that an Anglo-Saxon surname carried more cachet in high society. He makes use of characteristically upper-class expressions such as "old sport", which annoy the genuinely upper-class Tom Buchanan.
"The Great Gatsby" is a novel of its time in that it analyses 1920s New York high society and in its allusions to the literature and theatrical productions of the period and to contemporary events such as the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919 or the notorious Rosenthal murder case. Fitzgerald makes use of genuine buildings in and around New York, such as Pennsylvania Station or the Plaza Hotel. Automobiles, a relatively modern invention in the twenties, are frequently mentioned, and play a key role in the plot. It is not, however, a celebration of the gay Roaring Twenties; its tone is one of pessimism rather than of hedonism or gaiety. Jay Gatsby is at heart a melancholy figure, who derives little pleasure either from his wealth or from the extravagant parties he throws.
In other respects this is a very traditional work. Fitzgerald writes a poetic literary prose, eschewing modernist devices such as the "stream-of-consciousness" style associated with contemporaries such as William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf. The plot centres upon that very traditional device, the love triangle. Daisy is not only Nick's cousin, but, it turns out, Gatsby's former girlfriend; the two were at one time very much in love, even though she ended up marrying Buchanan instead.
The reason for Gatsby's melancholy is not so much disillusionment with his opulent lifestyle, although that plays a part, as nostalgia for the past, for a time some five years ago, before he made his millions but when he and Daisy were in love. His one great obsession is with returning to that time. When Nick objects "You can't repeat the past", he replies with a defiant "Of course you can!" His melancholy is heightened by his realisation that Daisy's marriage has been a failure and that in breaking his heart she has also broken her own, and he cannot help wondering whether her life, as well as his own, would have been happier had she married him rather than Buchanan. (Having had a similar experience myself, I can certainly identify with Gatsby on this point).
"The Great Gatsby" is today widely regarded as a literary classic; it is even one of many novels to have been hailed (in that overused cliché) as the "Great American Novel". In my view its reputation is well-deserved. Fitzgerald combines a fluent prose style with sharp social observation and perceptive psychological analysis. He succeeds not only in capturing the essence of an era but also in creating a flawed but compelling hero who serves as a timeless everyman. There is not enough space in this review to discuss many aspects of the book, but I will close by saying that I found very helpful the introduction and notes by Professor Ruth Prigozy in my edition. (Oxford World Classics).