Thoughts on Gatsby, and the virtue of James Gatz

By Kevin Daley
Opinion Editor

I recently dedicated considerable time and energy to planning a function I was ultimately precluded from attending. “Throwing a party and not showing up?” mused a friend. “Very Gatsby.”

“The Great Gatsby” has long held its rightful place of esteem in the pantheon of American literature. Critics bemoan author F. Scott Fitzgerald as the drunken scribe of the Roaring 20s (as if that were a bad thing) but even decades later, “The Great Gatsby” seizes the American imagination. Many view it as the preeminent text of American literary modernism. I’m of the opinion that Fitzgerald is one of the few people ever to say anything interesting about class in America. One can draw many conclusions from the ballad of Jay Gatsby, an archetypal character of Shakespearian proportions, but in light of the film’s imminent release I will tout just one of them.

I should concede that I am doing the novel a terrible disservice. “The Great Gatsby” is a nuanced and complicated book, and your humble editor will discuss only one of its elements. Jay Gatsby is in reality the assumed identity of James Gatz, the scion of Midwestern irrelevancy, a criminal who made his fortune on bootlegging, a hopeless romantic desperate to win the affection of Mrs. Daisy Buchanan. Their relationship is a complicated path, but one to which Gatz clings because love makes everything simple. We must forgive him his lies. Jay Gatsby may be a character Gatz plays at, but he’s really the standard to which James Gatz the man holds himself, the ideal to which he aspires.

Gatsby pretends at grandeur, sporting English oxfords of all pastels, tells stories of refined birth, elite schooling, and wartime bravado with his “elaborate formality of speech.” He hosts extravagant, even decadent parties, each of which is truly an affair to remember. Within the confines of his towering Gothic mansion on Long Island’s Golden Coast, Gatsby’s dreams know no bounds.

And perhaps playing at a character isn’t all bad. Diana Vreeland, the legendary editor at Vogue during the 1960s (and a personal hero), observes “The West is boring itself to death!” Perhaps, but certainly not Jay Gatsby. His ambition is limitless and he settles for nothing. Contentment is for other people. The lesson? Never be boring. Have a penchant for dramatic flair. Say something (but only something worth saying.) Be thoughtful. Have manners. Be interesting. Have style because you’re really nothing without it (and as DV says, “I’m not talking about clothes.”) Be as Mr. James Gatz and aspire to a higher vision of yourself.

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