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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

28/06/2013

Australian director Baz Luhrman’s film version of The Great Gatsby has recently been released in New Zealand cinemas. It was with this in mind that I thought I would delve back into the enigmatic Gatsby’s 1920s world of status, glamour, lavish parties and casual affluence.

The Backdrop

The Great Gatsby is set in the roaring 20s in a wealthy suburb just outside New York (the emergent capital of western high culture and civilization). The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, an aspiring bond salesman from an apparently established family in the eastern United States, who in moving west to seek his fortune, happens to find himself living adjacent a mysterious neighbour who holds lavish parties for the upper strata of West Egg village (the suburb outside New York where the characters live).

The enigmatic Mr Jay Gatsby’s reputation precedes him and early in the story the characters speculate in earnest as to how he could have gained his fabulous wealth and what had motivated him to move to the village (and indeed take his place in the upper echelons of New York high society). Nick Carraway’s curiosity is piqued when he meets with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom who are established within this high society.

The Insiders

Nick Carraway is rather voyeuristic in observing his fellow actors in a detached fashion. Tom and Daisy appear on the surface to be ensconced within their new surroundings, an established part of West Egg’s rarefied society. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the superficially appearance of civilised marital tranquility for Tom and Daisy is merely a farce, first when Tom’s mistress is introduced then in Daisy’s later fascination with Gatsby. Tom Buchanan represents the conservative white male gentry of the era, he is physically strong and his blood runs a deep blue, having been educated at Yale where he also  displayed prowess as a football player.

Early on he expresses great concern for his position and fear of social change after reading The Rise of the Coloured Empires. He wishes to maintain his preeminence within high society and likes to show his position which he demonstrates in beating his mistress.

The Outsider

To Tom Buchanan, Jay Gatsby represents the antithesis of that which he holds dear, Gatsby is an enigmatic figure with a mysterious background who holds lavish parties and dresses in garish suits seemingly to ingratiate himself with the West Egg high society. The speculation around Gatsby and his mysterious background is of intense interest for Tom Buchanan who must find a label with which to brand Gatsby. If he is truly an Oxford man then he can be labelled as such and accepted but Tom remains suspicious.

Suspicion grows into contempt when Gatsby reconnects with Daisy and expresses his unrequited love for her. Tom is more upset when Daisy reveals that she has reciprocated such feelings.  Gatsby meanwhile has always been obsessed with Daisy, not solely for her feminine charms, but what she represents which is acceptance into high society.

As more of Gatsby’s character and background is revealed, he appears more and more as a tragic figure, who is fated to be left ousted from his own party. I felt they were certain dramatic parallels in Jay Gatsby formerly Jay Gatz. I was reminded of Othello who inevitably is unacceptable as a moor in 16th century Venice.  Gatsby also reminded me of the  character Don Draper, the mysterious advertising executive in the recent TV series Mad Men who had stolen a fellow soldier’s identity in the Korean war to escape the stigma of his unprivileged past.

Conclusion

I enjoyed rereading The Great Gatsby and I am looking forward to watching the film version. The tragic figure of Gatsby including his sad end speaks to the apathy of the figures involved and the social climate within the rarefied air of exclusive suburbs in New York city.

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