I first read The Great Gatsby when I was 26, and at that time I hadn’t touched a fiction book in over ten years. Wow. Right? Looking back, it’s supremely tragic that I wasn’t introduced to literary fiction sooner, or Led Zeppelin for that matter. I had a very Disney-esque, sheltered childhood—unfortunate in a Rapunzel sort of way. But anyway, The Great Gatsby was my first high, a gateway drug, per say, that grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me into the realization that fiction beyond the feel-good, happily-ever-after world of Little House on The Prairie and The Babysitters Club existed. I loved it so much that I rationed the pages daily so the experience would last as long as possible.
The Great Gatsby is the great American novel for all the reasons critics say it shouldn’t be. It does in fact emphasize style over substance, as do far too many people. Joshua Rothman’s review in the The New Yorker of the novel vs. Luhrmann’s new movie is spot on. The Great Gastby is “lurid, shallow, glamorous, trashy, tasteless, seductive, sentimental, aloof, and artificial… What’s most appealing about “Gatsby” might be its mood of witty hopelessness, of vivacious self-destructiveness. When Daisy says, of her daughter, 'I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,' you can’t help but be drawn in. Perhaps she’s right: look around, and you can easily see the advantages of being rich, attractive, and ignorant… Fitzgerald understood the pleasures of giving in, and he saw people as desperate to give in to nearly anything—a drink, a person, a story, a feeling, a song, a crowd, an idea. We were especially willing, he thought, to give in to ideas—to fantasies.”
But where Rothman suggests “It might seem as though, if we were to live out our fantasy lives, we would become more creative and expansive; we would be unfettered, alive, and truly ourselves,” I don’t think the masses rationalize it quite that deeply, nor does any creative productivity result from being in said environment in the novel. And in fact, the only creative character—Carraway (the writer) is unproductive due to excessive partying and social demands, all the while hoping to see everyone else’s desire fulfilled and for them to at least recognize, if not mend, the error of their selfish ways. Yet no one ever does, leaving Nick surrounded in flat characters, and again I agree with Rothman…
“The flatness of the characters in “Gatsby” is, I think, part of what makes it so insightful.” A flat character, or two, can enrich a story because there are so many ‘flat’ people in everyday life. People who are lacking empathy, common sense, critical thinking skills, who don’t learn much, if anything, from their life experiences, and who care more about possessions and money, popularity, partying, and spending more time consuming mind-numbing drugs and alcohol than working towards personal development and character-enriching accomplishments are the masses. Wanna argue? Chew on this: it’s estimated that nearly forty percent of all patients in U.S. general hospital beds (not in maternity or intensive care) are being treated for complications of alcohol-related problems. The CDC reports excessive alcohol consumption costs the U.S. $224 billion a year and most of the costs are due to binge drinking. So a writer who has truly studied human nature can insightfully incorporate a flat, drunk character or two or three or dozens in a realistic story.
Dynamic characters, in contrast, are compelling, not because they represent the masses, but because they represent the few and unique that stand out in the crowd. In disagreement with the critics, I don’t think The Great Gatsby “examines only the thinnest wedge of American life.” I suggest the opposite. It examines the masses. Even ‘poor’ Myrtle wanted nothing more than to drink and party all day. Having to live in a slum and work at her husband’s gas station doesn’t give her any more depth than all of the rich people on the other side of the pond partying around the clock, and this isn’t an oversight on Fitzgerald’s part. It is one of the truest depictions of human nature ever written. Setting aside the CDC alcoholism statistics, no doubt the Hilton’s and Kardashian’s bank accounts, Dos Equis beer, and knock-off designer handbag sales will back me up. I dare say the majority of Americans are lurid, shallow, (wannabe) glamorous, trashy, tasteless, seductive, sentimental, aloof, and artificial. Luhrmann’s depiction is very true to Fitzgerald’s vision in this regard, so I enthusiastically admit to loving both the book and the movie.