Each year when the weather starts to get a little bit warmer, seats in my classroom change from the stick straight rows of a prison to the circular invitation of conversation. The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel to teach. Every time I reread it, it speaks to me in a different way, and, at the same time, I rekindle a friendship that I had started the year before. I feel like many people have this relationship with The Great Gatsby - their own love affair for their own reasons. Maybe you find Gatsby attractive, or tragically alluring; you love to hate Tom or Daisy. Or perhaps you can’t help but let your eyes twinkle over at the thought of the lavish parties and decadence. But these are not the things that we talk about in class. Or at least these are the things that I avoid because I have grown tired of them.
Inevitably one of the first things that I tell my students to do when they start reading The Great Gatsby is to put the parties into context. Having a large group of people swigging liquor is not so surprising to the 16-year-olds in the 21st-century that sit in front of me. So I tell them to picture a large beautiful party with big piles of marijuana or large trays of cocaine. I always receive a muffled snickering of embarrassment and then wide-eyed thrill and eagerness for the taboo. This, what I tell them, is the feeling that you should have when you read those scenes because this is the feeling that the young “flappers” felt as they defied they Victorian parents. Fitzgerald himself was a destructive party boy, one that even Hemingway grew weary of many a time when he was intoxicated.
Similarly, we talk about the little things Fitzgerald places in each chapter. Daisy’s completely vacuous conversation about the butler’s nose and her own daughter. We revel over the sentence that explains how Tom lives perpetually in a state of anticlimax. We contextualize the ball that Jordan seems to be trying to hold upon her head as the balance that many women had to bear at the time: that tenuous metamorphosis from the Victorian to the modern woman, explaining why she has to have mannish characteristics.
The anemia of Wilson, the mercurial qualities of Myrtle and Tom. The strained Rococo decor in Myrtle’s apartment. The parallel between TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and Nick’s seemingly fractured perception of self as both participant and voyeur, as well as the necessity to show that one owns, but does not read (nor have the obligation to) a multitude of important books. The beautiful exchange of power present in saying either “It’s so hot” or “You always look so cool.”
The beauty of The Great Gatsby is in the details, and that it why I believe that Baz Luhrmann has created the most accurate film version of the novel. Once I saw in the trailer that Luhrmann had taken the art style of the time - Art Deco - and modeled his set design after it, I knew that the film was going to be smart and thematic. Many elements in the book either reference a piece of historical context or roister in the delicious language of Fitzgerald. Either way, the portrayal of the novel on the screen is an honest portrayal of feeling; however, I believe the feelings Lurhmann evokes from the viewer are a nostalgia for the novel’s classic scenes mixed with the viewer’s own unconscious need for hope and excitement.
Lurhmann needed the viewer to feel the transgression of the time - the novelty of Art Deco, the hypocritical taboo of Prohibition, the sensuality and invigoration of Jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. And most of all the overwhelming excitement and ostentatiousness of Gatsby’s parties. Critics keep giving Lurmann a hard time for the piles of confetti and set list of Jay-Z, but he couldn’t have made a better decision. Luhrmann isn’t trying to portray The Great Gatsby as we may have read it; he is trying to portray The Great Gatsby as we should feel it. These days wet are so desensitized to celebrities and costumes and glamour that Luhrmann would need an over-the-top confetti-laden circus to convince us that his parties were something an entire society would flock to. Moreover, jazz is not something to wow the younger crowd of the 21st century like it would have wowed the children of the Great War. But Hip Hop is. And dub-step. And who better to compile the modern transgressive music of NYC than Jay-Z - a producer who not only already samples jazz riffs in his songs, but also experience a Gatsbian transcendence to wealth within the confines of the very same city. Not to mention the brilliant decision to use Lana Del Rey on the soundtrack - the modern poster girl for Wastelandia.
Speaking of which, no one has attempted to portray Dr TJ Eckleberg or the asheaps as thematically perfectly and historically accurately as Luhrmann does. The asheaps in the book as well as other portrayals seem to initially represent the disintegration of a moral backbone or reinforcement of the wasteland characters in the novel, but, considering the historical fact that these asheaps were there as a product of the expansion of suburbia into what we now know as Queens - what would become notable for its blue collar, working class community - the meaning of the asheaps gets distorted, but better. It prepares us to believe that Gatsby’s former self has more honor and ethical backbone that his new self as well as poses the ever important question of how one’s identity is cultivated. The latter question seems to be most incredibly answered in Luhrmann’s movie.
Anyone who has read the novel more than once recognizes the bittersweet and yet admirable hopefulness Gatsby has for transforming into the man Cody had groomed him to be and then the millionaire he thought would win over Daisy. If he could do that (as his childhood diary also whispers to us) he could have done anything. But the incredible ‘rout’ that Luhrmann seems to be pulling on us is his adaption of the narrator Nick and his commentary on all the Nicks of the world, and all the Nicks in The Great Gatsby world. At the end of the novel one is left with the smokey exhaust of the fleeing villainous wealthy. We can no longer, as Nick can no longer, stand the reality of the city and must retreat home to our roots for spiritual re-evaluation. The city wasn’t what we thought is was. We let “the combination of liquor and jazz” lead to our downfall, as Roxie Hart once said. Parties become piles of trash, morning brings cold-calls and legal or illegal deals. The American Dream is an illusion, as illusory as the beautiful fluttering characters on the silver screen. In a way, Luhrmann want the modern viewers to view 1920s Americans viewing The American Dream. It was vacant. It was an illusion. It played its siren’s song only to mutilate your former self, once captured, into a stalker of the glamorous. Gatsby also, in his own way, stalks the wealthy. So we must all retire from our romance with fiction in order to rejuvenate our souls and create our own identities, independent from pop culture. Nick writes the novel to begin with to purge his soul of the vile acts he has experienced. Because Nick recognizes the emptiness where once hope was inflated and retreats home, what better way to portray the rehabilitation one would need after being ‘infected’ with The Jazz Age than an asylum? In a way, all the characters in the end search for asylum from the mess they’ve made. Gatsby and Wilson, sadly are the family-less nobodies whose only asylum, realistically, is death.
He smiled understandingly–much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistable prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Chapter 3, GG
Two of my favorite elements to discuss are the laundry list of names that Nick posts at the beginning of Chapter Four, and the description by Nick of Gatsby’s smile. The movie and the book work together in a mechanistic and beautifully historical way. The Dawn of Cinema (all of the celebrities and Jewish producers and industry people, namely the nouveau riche swarming to Gatsby’s parties) and the Age of the Machine collide insouciantly with the idea of The American Dream that permeates the novel. The World’s Fair and gadgets galore make anything seem possible - to create or manifest from thin air. Likewise, the cinema had become an obsession. And as if that weren’t enough, Lurhmann takes the most beautiful written passage of a perfect smile-cum-life altering connection to Gatsby, and presents imaginal perfection of description paired with context. Rhapsody in Blue simmers in the background as the partygoers wait for the finale, as we wait for the first view of Gatsby, whom everyone already knew was Leo DiCaprio. The persona lingering upon Leo’s extensive resume, paired with the rumors of Gatsby in the story embroils the excitement for first sight of his face. Then, Gershwin crescendos as the fireworks explode and we, and Nick, see Gatsby’s perfect smile shine brighter than all of the explosions behind him, then, just as the fireworks and song, disappear.