The Great Gatsby is an outstanding work of fiction which perfectly encapsulates an age of excess, wedged between war and austerity, after the horrors of Flanders and before the Wall Street Crash.
Gatsby is a self-made man. He has changed his name and believes he has altered his past, but is obsessed with winning the love of the woman, Daisy, who was once beyond his reach. In order to entice her into his world and prove to her that he has made good (for as she said, ‘rich girls don’t marry poor boys’) he builds a dream world, a mansion built on sand, a world of parties and high life, but with its foundations in bootlegging. His lies are more than just a desperate plea for acceptance though; Gatsby’s inherent need for love endears the reader to him and places him on a moral high ground, way above Tom Buchanon, Daisy’s husband. Both are in contention for Daisy’s love (or at least her attention). Gatsby, for one fleeting summer, thinks he has it, but it falls down all too soon, like a sandcastle on his beach.
The genius of Fitzgerald’s vision is the introduction of Nick Carrraway who can, like Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, record without judging. It is through the eyes of this observer that we can see the beauty in this almost Arthurian quest of a misguided lover and moment in time.
We see Gatsby’s dream come crashing down but, in the interim, we see the 1920s in all their glory. We see parties and golf tournaments and train rides and fast cars and hydroplanes and illegal liquor and jazz; and the echoes of piano music through empty halls and beautiful shirts flung high in an attempt to impress.
We look back at this world from almost a century ago now and find ourselves thinking that, in fact, it all seems so modern. Perhaps it is because Fitzgerald has explored what happens when a man, and a society, over-reach themselves, which is all too topical in the current economic climate.
1920s America was one of excess and extremes. But before champagne dinners were replaced by soup kitchens, Gatsby’s parties became the stuff of legend.