How Great Is Gatsby?

Not very, argues Jonathan Povilovis. From his lengthy critique, which questions its status as “The Great American Novel”:

Jay Gatsby disowned his family and made millions illegally, which for many is just cause to hold up self-righteous noses and applaud the fact that his funeral was under-attended—the bastard deserved it. But even if you’re happy to think that the ‘20’s were corrupt no matter how you look at them, so who cares how Gatsby got rich; or even if you’re left-leaning enough to see that Tom Buchanan did even less to earn his fortune than Gatsby did his, tossing the legalities aside, there’s still something unsettling about this whole narrative. What scares the hell out of me is not that I still want to cheer for Jay Gatsby even though he’s done some bad things—I don’t care that I don’t care that he’s simply done bad things. I care that he did them all for a person. He wanted to be with Daisy, the woman he loved.

What this means is that Gatsby is a man with very serious desire. He not only broke laws but also went to (literally) absurd lengths to lie, to falsely present himself to Daisy (and everyone else) in order to gain her love. But unfortunate for him and critical for us is that the way that Gatsby went about trying to [get] Daisy’s love excludes the possibility that he could earn it, because earning love takes more than just serious desire: it also takes some serious integrity. In other words, real love requires that you submit to a pretty high standard set of ethical rules, including a level of honesty and vulnerability between you and your lover, often requiring you to relinquish some of those more selfish desires; but this is not the kind of love that appears center stage in Fitzgerald’s novel.

Update from a reader:

The faulty logic in Povilovis’ essay is quite stunning. Where would we be without the lessons of the flawed character?

Would that line of reasoning not discount the importance of virtually every 20th century protagonist worth a damn (along with Shakespeare’s and so on, back through the Greeks and Romans).  Aren’t the flaws the entire point?  Isn’t it the sad bittersweet irony what makes the novel achingly “great,” and elevates the tragic mythology to a deeper level of metaphor that can speak on many levels – as a sweeping symbol of our flawed “great” country to the day-to-day struggles we each face in that quest for our own version of greatest above our personal baggage and the weight of our choices.

While Jay Gatsby was not in fact “great” in the most meaningful sense, there is a deeper meaning in his aspirations and yearning for that illusive mantel, as there is for Nick Adams and Lady Brett and Don Corleone and Tony Soprano and Walter White and Macbeth. Povilovis’ complaint seems to miss the point of literature entirely.

Another adds, “I’d rather have Atticus Finch as a father, but when I read a book, maybe I want to peer into the heart of darkness.” Another reader:

I don’t think Povilovis is suggesting The Great Gatsby isn’t a great novel; I think he’s saying Gatsby is a disturbing hero because of the great effort he makes to reinvent himself for this woman he loves, which is all founded on a lie.

But that tale of reinvention is why Gatsby endures.  Here is a man who (spoiler alert) cuts most of his ties with home, assumes a new identity and breaks the law, all to grab the money and power to make himself acceptable to Daisy.   And all his success, which American Gospel says should bring him contentment, fails him.  It doesn’t win him Daisy (Fitzgerald doesn’t seem fully convinced Daisy is actually worth it) and it can’t get him respect or acceptance in the class he’s muscled his way into.  As H.L. Mencken wrote of Rudolph Valentino, a year after Gatsby was published, he had achieved “a colossal and preposterous nothing.”

In some ways, Fitzgerald wrote a shorter and more lyrical version of the novels Theodore Dreiser had been sledgehammering out for years, about the seduction of material wealth and how the burning American desire for more can masks a rootless and more troubling anomie. But Dreiser, great and brave as he was, didn’t have the sympathy for his characters that Fitzgerald did.  Dreiser could outline the facts of the tragedy; Fitzgerald could break your heart.

Gatsby, by all rights, shouldn’t be borne back to the past; he should have carved out a new life and new identity for himself, made a tidy living, and found respectability.  That’s an American ideal: You can move away from your roots and start anew.  But like so many of us, he can’t pull himself away from the dreams of his past, and in the end, his enviable wealth fails him.

Gatsby’s story is one of destructive desire.  That is the story of many American dreams, and that’s what makes Gatsby great.

Meanwhile, Colin Marshall relays Gertrude Stein’s letter to Fitzgerald about the novel, which includes these comments:

I like the melody of your dedication and it shows that you have a background of beauty and tenderness and that is a comfort. The next good thing is that you write naturally in sentences and that too is a comfort. You write naturally in sentences and one can read all of them and that among other things is a comfort. You are creating the contemporary world much as Thackeray did his in Pendennis and Vanity Fair and this isn’t a bad compliment. You make a modern world and a modern orgy strangely enough it was never done until you did it in This Side of Paradise. My belief in This Side of Paradise was alright. This is as good a book and different and older and that is what one does, one does not get better but different and older and that is always a pleasure.

Recent Dish on Fitzgerald and his novel herehere, and here. And go here for the recent debate over The Godfather as a great American novel.