The Untitled Life

2 06 2005

The Untitled Life

Almost a wish,

And more the dream,

To be alive,

And to be seen.

On life, Fitzgerald poses the question of whether or not such meaning can be found in a chaotic world where everything exists without spirit; life is but the prelude to the nothingness of the coming train of death. Were we to apply such a meaningless view of existence to a complete world view then there would be no moral rationale against suicide, which would then be viewed not as a denial or escape of existence but an acceptance and compliance with it. We continue to exist, our fallen numbers replenished by the second, but for what? Are we but creatures sent to tread on this planet? This is not the case; underneath the unchanging firmament of an existence without purpose there exists a path towards meaning.

In the Great Gatsby the central characters Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby level a crusade for some degree of meaning in this world. Though both seek meaning in their lives, each is the antithesis to the other, joined by friendship, but separated by class. Carraway believes in pragmatism, to “draw up the girl beside me” (Fitzgerald, 85). In essence, to passively live in the now. Nick Carraway sets no goals, lives on the moment which in turn begets him substantial joy and pleasure by following the lives of others such as Tom, Jordan, and Gatsby. However there are several moments in which his pragmatism falters. His inability to understand that past, present, and future are interwoven is a direct and logical outcome of a completely dogmatic approach to pragmatism. On the reverse side of Carraway lies the Gatsby who believes in the existence of as well as the attainability of ideals. Gatsby believes in the potential for perfection; the dream be it money, self-sufficiency, social class, or love not only exists, but can be had.

We are Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald transforms the reader’s perspective through the emphatic connection made between Gatsby and the reader through Carraway’s carefully chosen words. “I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known” (Fitzgerald, 64) – Nick Carraway never lies, he only provides his perspective. However distorted that perspective may be is up for questioning, but he does intend to provide us with an accurate telling of what occurred. When we see Gatsby through Carraway’s eyes he does not distance the reader by providing a fact-by-fact account but instead the narrator both subtly and overtly sympathizes with Gatsby. We pain for Gatsby. There is a profound connection to idealism that Fitzgerald draws from within our core beliefs as both Americans as well as in a larger sense as human beings. Fitzgerald draws out the social belief that our society is founded on and holds it to the light and exposes its falsity. Tocqueville commented:

“Among democratic nations new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition… As each class gradually approaches others and mingles with them, its members become undifferentiated and lose their class identity for each other. Aristocracy had made a chain of all the members of the community, from the peasant to the king; democracy breaks that chain and severs every link of it.” (Tocqueville)

According to Tocqueville, democracy leads to classless society. From this idea of a classless society, Social Darwinists of the late 1800’s had espoused a belief that because we are all under equal environmental conditions at birth, success is achieved on the basis of effort. Out of this epoch came the Horatio Alger stories that bolstered this belief that upon steadfast dedication to work, one could reach the top rung of society.

The Great Gatsby does away with such fantasy. Placing the idealistic view created decades earlier in a realist’s context of social class systems that eliminate the façade of social mobility reduces Gatsby to nothing. Gatsby’s idealism is represented by his consummate desire to have Daisy avow a perfect love for him and never with Tom Buchanan as well as his infinite desire to “climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” (Fitzgerald, 117). Perfection he desires is not only in love of Daisy but in love of her social class. Daisy is the unwilling ideal that represents his light in a dark moor of questionable social advancement. Whereas shady business deals and his Oxford and military service past have gotten him to the upper echelons of middle class society, he remains a noveau riche, with the shallow “sophistication” of Daisy seemingly his only path towards crossing the social divide. The inevitable question is: why? Because for Gatsby, crossing into the upper class proves that dreams are worth having, that the American dream is real, that absolute success in life is achievable.

Such a transformation is impossible because ideals cannot exist within imperfect human constructs. Daisy dismantles Gatsby’s dream through an admittance of the existence of imperfect love: “Oh you want too much … I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past” (Fitzgerald, 140). After Gatsby recognizes the impossibility of completing his dream, Tom debases Gatsby with “magnanimous scorn” (Fitzgerald, 142) stating that “his presumptuous little flirtation is over” (Fitzgerald, 142). Tom Buchanan exposes the illegitimate business practices of Gatsby, reducing his dreams of being the perfect person to shattered glass fragments. When we see Gatsby in Tom’s harsh, unforgiving light, we see that to achieve the American dream, even to a man with “an incorruptible dream” (Fitzgerald, 162), shady business tactics become, while impure, rationalized, accepted, and necessary. His idealism was impossible for several reasons: (1) the upper social class that “conspire[s] together” (Fitzgerald, 153) to absolve itself from crimes pushes the fault inevitably to the lower classes, (2) materialism is not the idealist’s game – making money in the 1920’s as it does today requires illicit business tactics (for example Kenneth Lay of Enron) which compromise the perfection of the achievement, and (3) ideals are intrinsically something that imperfect beings cannot completely accomplish, thus leaving the idealist constantly unsatisfied even in love. The solemn shots fired at Gatsby implicate a resounding no to any notion that idealism is functional.

Neither is Carraway’s pragmatic approach to life. Carraway’s skilled ability to “draw up the girl beside him” though “unlike Gatsby and Tom Buchanan [he] had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” (Fitzgerald, 85), leaves him continually empty through three failed relationships. “But I am slow thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires” (Fitzgerald, 64). His inability to allow for impractical emotions like love fails him, forces him to live not only an incomplete life, but also a deluded life that leaves him susceptible to falsities to compromise for the dysfunctional society he witnesses. He holds on to some sense of idealism, such as his undying faith in the sanctity of Chicago and the middle-west. However there are is no indication that the west is any less rigid and amoral; if anything the shady call intended for Gatsby indicates the opposite that the corruption is already there. Carraway’s pragmatic approach is thrown asunder by an overlapping idealism, much like how Gatsby’s ends-justify-the-means business practices undercut the viability of a perfect Gatsby.

Carraway and Gatsby are both proven to be failed by their world views because neither pragmatism nor idealism can reconcile the meaninglessness of the world with a realist path towards the full potential for human beings. Idealism sets the bar to an ideal, out of reach by imperfect human beings, and thus delivers a crushing blow when it becomes realized that we fall short. Pragmatism, conversely, doesn’t set a goal at all, but rather to simply enjoy the moment. The question therefore is to mediate the realization of world without inherent meaning with a rational world-view that provides people with meaning in their lives.

“…I know of no other country where love of money has such a grip on men’s hearts” (Tocqueville)

What Carraway and Gatsby require is a complete redefinition of joy in life. Joy is not derived from materialism, happiness is not contingent upon social class, and elation is not drawn out of shallow lovers. Gatsby needed to realize not that the American dream is simply impossible, but that it is a dream not worthy of fulfillment. Carraway on the opposite side needed to realize that the mired socioeconomic troubles of the east are paralleled across America, that there is no harbor from this monstrous inequality. Rather, Nick needs to confront his life; in essence to seize the day, carpe diem. In order to live a meaningful life, Nick Carraway must realize that drifting through life is inadequate; life is not a spectator sport. An existential approach here would be more in order for both of them: to find joy and meaning not from existence alone, but from the actions and decisions they make. Both need to face reality and embrace it. It is not a meaningless world where materialism provides us meaning because it gives us a quantitative measure of success, but rather we are born into a meaningless start where our actions, our goals, our commitment to life can provide us with a more tangible meaning. Nick needs to embrace his mistakes, to seek out love and let it find him; Carraway must breakaway from the social institutions from within and not solely from the exterior of which there is no real escape. Detach oneself from any sentiment of superiority based on class, and definition of success based on money, any joy from wealth and you have indeed shaped your own American dream.

 

Works Cited:

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2003.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. “Of Individualism in Democratic Countries”. Democracy in America. 24 May 2005. .

Tocqueville, Alexis de. “In Search of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America”. Democracy in America. 24 May 2005. .

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