The Great Gatsby : Not A Love Story
The Great Gatsby is a lot of things — a sharp look at the divide between the haves and the have-nots; the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ money in American society — but it’s not a love story. That various movie versions have depicted it as a glamorous tale of star-crossed lovers meant for easy consumption by status-anxious audiences doesn’t change that fact.
According to Andrew Turnbull’s biography of the author, Fitzgerald once said of the book that “the whole idea of Gatsby is the unfairness of a poor young man not being able to marry a girl with money. This theme comes up again and again because I lived it.”
In 1916, Fitzgerald either overheard or was directly told at a party that “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.” At the time, he was dating Ginevra King, a beautiful Chicago socialite who served as some of the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan, as well as characters in some of his earlier stories.
Despite whatever images of Fitzgerald persist now — the Princeton man, the observer of society, a symbol of the ‘Lost Generation’ — he was not of the classes that he wrote about. He may have been solidly upper-middle class, but he was still an Irish Catholic in a WASP world. Moments like the one noted above were a constant, humiliating reminder of that.
Fitzgerald channels some of that here, as he describes Jay Gatsby looking at Daisy on her porch before he goes to war. Even with a cold she seems to him to be nearly otherworldly:
“Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”
Turnbull again quotes Fitzgerald towards the end of his life, when he wrote of his insecurities among the monied, “That was always my experience — a poor boy in a rich town; a poor boy in a rich boy’s school; a poor boy in a rich man’s club at Princeton.… I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich, and it has colored my entire life and works.”
Gatsby is about the kind of nostalgia that represents a yearning for a past that never existed. It’s about life in the conditional; the subjunctive: the “if I had…then we would have” speculations of a dreamer whose dreams led him to trespass outside of the iron boundaries of class and power in early America. Gatsby’s crime isn’t that he is ‘new money,’ it’s that he mistakenly believes that it’s only money that separates him from the Tom Buchanans of the world. More so than that, however, Gatsby believes in the one thing that has little import in the world of the Buchanans: love.
It’s not that Daisy doesn’t love Gatsby or that Gatsby’s affections aren’t genuine. It’s that both have very different understandings of the relationship between love and marriage. In a flashback that happens while Gatsby is away at war, Fitzgerald describes Daisy’s restless need for stability: a need to see where her life is going:
“She wanted her life shaped now, immediately — and the decision must be made by some force — of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality — that was close at hand.”
Her life is shaped by the arrival of Tom Buchanan. Buchanan brings money and unquestionable practicality. Love is no longer wrapped up in Gatsby’s passion, but becomes an ambiguous affection: a social nicety given lip service, but not really performed. These are not star-crossed lovers torn apart by circumstance. Daisy’s choice is made. That she has an affair with Gatsby and entertains the idea of leaving Tom is just another luxury, afforded to her by her status. In The Great Gatsby, adultery is only punished in the lower classes. Myrtle Wilson, whose affair with Tom Buchanan ironically becomes Gatsby’s undoing, dies. Tom Wilson kills himself. And, of course, Jay Gatsby is murdered by Tom Wilson after attempting to take the blame for Myrtle’s death. Tom and Daisy go unscathed. Their lives will go on. Their reputations will be untarnished. Their marriage will continue. Fitzgerald understood that the spectrum of morality changes within the confines of class.
Jay Gatsby’s dream is impossible. He seeks acceptance in a world that is entirely insular. While Daisy Buchanan may socially trespass into his world, he is barred from living in hers. He dreams of inclusiveness in a society that is fundamentally exclusive, set up to keep people out, except as novelties or hangers-on. While he may wear the right costumes and have some understanding of the codes in place, he remains an outsider looking in… and he always will be.
Oscar Wilde once wrote that “society often forgives the criminal. It never forgives the dreamer.” Nowhere in American literature is that as sharply true than in The Great Gatsby.