All it Takes is a Dream | Daily News

All it Takes is a Dream

I have never owned a copy of ‘The Great Gatsby’, though I have read it twice. The first was a brand new book no one else seemed to have read, that I borrowed from my university library as an undergraduate in my early twenties. The second was ten years later, when I yet again borrowed a tattered copy, this time from a public library in New York. Like Somerset Maugham, I hardly ever read a book twice, unless I had to write a paper on it to pass an exam. But with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’ things were different. I read it again for the second time because I found it thrilling to read a book about New York while living in New York. And also because in the interval of ten years I had forgotten the story entirely, except for one fleeting image of a rich man dressed in pink, who throws wild parties.

The second time I read it, I was happy to realize I was correct about the image of the rich man. ‘The Great Gatsby’ is indeed about the rich people of New York who lived in the 1920s in what was called the Jazz Age. What puzzled me though, was the fact that I had entirely forgotten the romantic story that makes up the heart of the ‘Great Gatsby’. How and why, are questions for which I’m still searching for answers.

Or, it could be that I know the answer already, but refuse to acknowledge it. It could be that I deliberately forgot the love story because it has a sad ending. After all, the story does end sadly for Jimmy Gatz.

Jimmy is the poor Midwesterner who meets and falls in love with Daisy Fay, the belle of Louisville while he is stationed at an army base waiting for overseas deployment. She promises to wait for him but her devotion wavers as the months of his deployment drag on and she eventually marries the wealthy Tom Buchanan. After the war, Jimmy Gatz transforms into rich Jay Gatsby. He becomes rich through nefarious means and buys a house on Long Island Sound directly across the bay from the mansion that Tom and Daisy occupy.

He throws huge, lavish parties where “the bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter” (to quote from the e-book that I own) and where “in his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars”. Not surprisingly, that first time I read the book, the opulence of these scenes, described with poetic lushness by Fitzgerald’s prose, failed to fire my imagination. So too, the sheer romance of Jay Gatsby who hopes that his lost love, Daisy, would wander into his mansion with the other party-goers. It all seemed so unreal.

Especially when the two eventually meet through the agency of Nick Carraway, a distant cousin of Daisy’s, who has rented a house next door to Gatsby after coming east to make money. The story ends in tragedy with Gatsby’s dead body floating on a mattress in his pool, shot in a case of mistaken identity, and with Daisy and Tom retreating back into the impregnable sanctuary of their vast wealth and carelessness.

Perhaps, like how I felt when I read it while at university, when the book came out in April 1925, the critics too failed to see the magic in ‘Gatsby.’ In one review the writer complained: “The boy is simply puttering around. It is all right as a diversion for him, probably … But why he should be called an author, or why any of us should behave as if he were, has never been satisfactorily explained to me.” One anonymous reviewer spoke for most of its first readers in describing it as “one of the thousands of modern novels which must be approached with the point of view of the average tired person toward the movie-around-the-corner, a deadened intellect, a thankful resigning of the attention, and an aftermath of wonder that such things are produced”.

The irony is, the ‘aftermath of wonder’ does occur. For me, it happened the second time I read it. For American readers, it happened in the 1950s. Sadly by then, Fitzgerald was dead. He had died at the age of 44 believing he was a failure. Today, almost 90 years later, ‘Gatsby’ is regularly named as one of the greatest novels ever written in English, and has annually sold millions of copies globally.

A handful of scholars and critics even call it “the great American novel,” which, however, is an elusive distinction as many other American novels too, hold this title. Still, ‘Gatsby’ stands unchallenged as the purest expression of America’s promise of success.

The book shows that a poor and uneducated, young man from North Dakota can reinvent himself as a war hero, Oxford graduate, intimate of politicians, owner of the finest luxuries and the best party host in New York thanks to the liberal surroundings America is made of. In other words, in America of the 1920s, all it takes is a dream - and money to become rich and powerful.

This is why Malcolm Cowley called ‘Gatsby’ a “romance of money.” Money is at the heart of the book and is what gives its hero the foolish idea that he could buy the love of Daisy Buchanan. Money is what brings the narrator Nick Carraway to New York, and what ultimately drove him back to his safe, traditional Midwest.

And money gave Daisy and her boorish husband Tom the right to be “careless people” who “smashed up things and creatures ... and let other people clean up the mess they made.”

Clearly, what sank the novel in 1925 is the source of its success today. “The Great Gatsby” challenges the myth of the American Dream. It anticipates the disillusionment and emptiness found in the standard version of the Dream that became prevalent, if not accepted, in a later era, in America and elsewhere in the world where markets opened up and money began to reign supreme.

This is why “The Great Gatsby” is a novel of the present, albeit dressed in white flannels and straw hats of the 1920s, but with a hero that feels right at home in the 21st century.

Like most writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a prophet. Apart from the ‘Great Gatsby’ he also gave us this paragraph in one of his essays.

“..the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

If there ever was a remedy for our times, this is it.


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