'They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….’ (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, Penguin Modern Classics edition, p. 170)
The Great Gatsby is one of those house novels (Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Brideshead Revisited are others) which have left a luminous trail across popular reading and film cultures. In the case of Gatsby, this often takes the form of a party-going romanticism – the ‘green light at the end of the pier’ reading. In that light it is, like its dȍppelganger, Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, one of those tales which turn on the pathos of love and loss, conspicuous consumption here romanced as evanescent beauty. But in our current moment we might want to look again at Fitzgerald’s novel as a critique (stemming from an economy hurtling on its way towards the great crash) of the cultural meanings of immense and unaccountable wealth. We need to read the novel socially (economically, indeed) as well as psychologically. Or rather to re-engage with its insight into the way in which psychological and sociological phenomena inter-react within a context of acute disparities of wealth. Gatsby is not simply an uncomplicated celebration of the poignancy of partying, for the wealth it appears to celebrate has broken free from ordinary human needs. ‘Such beautiful shirts’ sobs Daisy Buchanan as Gatsby introduces her to his house and possessions, ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such – such beautiful shirts before.’ Unconstrained wealth enables Gatsby’s self invention as celebrity and seduces his observers. It is to such disconnected wealth (the - puppy bought – and abandoned again - on an impulse; servants with ice buckets at beck and call) that the unfortunate Myrtle Wilson aspires. But the apparent celebration of such wealth is shadowed from every side: from the evasiveness of Nick’s narration, to the suggested criminal sources of Gatsby’s millions, to Tom Buchanan’s pig-headed readings in the ghastly white supremacist tracts of the period.
It is this much more ambiguous Gatsby that speaks perhaps to our own epoch: an international elite of unimaginably wealthy bankers and bond traders holding civil society to ransom, government by millionaires and private sector lobbyists taking whole populations hostage, and driving a chariot through the ruins of the social democratic state. In such circumstances, we need the economists, the muck-raking journalists, Wilkinson and Pickett’s statistics, Tony Judt’s wonderful Ill Fares the Land. We need informed polemic, but we need something else as well. We need the imaginative and narrative tools for thinking what happens when the arrogance of extreme wealth threatens to capsize whole societies. Which is why it is important that Fitzgerald’s parable is neither polemic, nor allegory. As a novel, it invites reader collusion. There is a sense in which readers (yet more uninvited tourists) join the list of Gatsby’s party-guests, and perhaps the realisation that we are not immune to seduction is necessary in order to see where Fitzgerald is leading us. The wretched Myrtle is not, he suggests, the only victim of a fatal crash. Egregious wealth - wealth which exceeds any ordinary definition of human need, and whose cancerous energy invades and warps whole societies - insulates its holders from basic actualities and from the consequences of their actions. Their playthings are replaceable. Temporarily frustrated, those who – not many years before Gatsby – President Theodore Roosevelt had labelled ‘malefactors of great wealth’ dust themselves down and carry on – in our own time with active collusion and subsidy from the despised public resource. Deregulation is the name for more than an historically short-lived fiscal regime. It might perhaps also name the condition where a miniscule elite no longer recognises the sanctions of the ordinary safeguards, rules, and reciprocities – that informed sense of the co-ordinate presence of others - that we inadequately bundle together as morality. 'They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….’ Fitzgerald’s novel is many things. But among them it is a riff on the resonance and implications of ‘vast carelessness’.
Reflection by Ben Knights, November 2011
Until 2011 Professor Ben Knights was Director of the national English Subject Centre.