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Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “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.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby’s death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.

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