The Meh Gatsby

Kathryn Schulz confesses:

I know how I’m supposed to feel about Gatsby: In the words of the critic Jonathan Yardley, “that it is the American masterwork.” Malcolm Cowley admired its “moral permanence.” T. S. Eliot called it “the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.” Lionel Trilling thought Fitzgerald had achieved in it “the ideal voice of the novelist.” That’s the received Gatsby: a linguistically elegant, intellectually bold, morally acute parable of our nation.

I am in thoroughgoing disagreement with all of this. I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. Books being borderline irrelevant in America, one is generally free to dislike them—but not this book.

Her biggest criticism? The lack of love:

Indeed, The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable. They function here only as types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent: OLD MONEY, THE AMERICAN DREAM, ORGANIZED CRIME. …  Of the great, redemptive romance on which the entire story is supposed to turn, [Fitzgerald] admitted, “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.”

Lisa Hix takes issue with the book’s portrayal of flappers:

Narrated by a man, the cautionary tale seems to warn against the wiles of The New Woman—the feminist ideal of an educated and sexually liberated woman that emerged in the 1900s.

So instead of intelligent, independent women telling their own stories of rebelling and rejecting their mother’s values, you have male war buddies sharing how vapid, spoiled socialites carelessly wrecked their lives. In “A Feminist Reading of the Great Gatsby,” Soheila Pirhadi Tavandashti points out the pattern:

“The novel abounds in minor female characters whose dress and activities identify them as incarnations of the New Woman, and they are portrayed as clones of a single, negative character type: shallow, exhibitionist, revolting, and deceitful. For example, at Gatsby’s parties we see insincere, ‘enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names,’ as well as numerous narcissistic attention-seekers in various stages of drunken hysteria.[“]

Hix emphasizes that what may be remembered as merely a fashion trend was in fact a complicated, “full-blown, grassroots feminist revolution” that we are still feeling the effects of today:

[The flapper] rejected the notion that women should be submissive and keep to their “separate sphere” of the home. She proved that women could work and live independent from men—and party just as hard.

Meanwhile, Zachary M. Seward sighs at how high school teachers commonly interpret the classic:

[They] use the book to teach their students how to strive, filling in the blank, “My green light is _____.” In the novel, Gatsby’s infatuation with social class is represented by the green light on the dock of the Buchanan estate across the bay from his house. And if there’s one line that neatly, almost overbearingly, conveys the novel’s jaundiced view of the American dream, it’s this one: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

At Boston Latin School, however, the green light is just good old American ambition. “My green light is Harvard,” a 14-year-old Chinese-American immigrant told a reporter visiting her English class. On the wall of the classroom, students had written their own “green lights” (pdf) on a large piece of green construction paper in the shape of a lightbulb: Pediatric neurosurgeon … Earn a black belt … Make it to junior year… Become incredibly rich.

Previous Dish on Fitzgerald and his novel here, here and here.