We: The Gatsby Generation
Updated: Oct 1, 2018
I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s snappy, artistic language when I first read The Great Gatsby in my first year of sixth form, studying literature ‘properly’ for the first time under my brilliantly eccentric, yogi of a literature professor who famously (although the fame only reached the ears of a few literature students) rewrote the fairy tales for his daughters to have feminist morals. Can you tell I liked him?
At barely seventeen, I thought Gatsby was just some big party. Re-reading it now at nearly twenty-one and only a year away from diving into my own adult life post-graduation, I understand Nick Carraway’s excited apprehension a lot more than I did at seventeen. Fitzgerald's Gatsby deals with our ideals, plans and (the big one) façade: three things I think my current generation is wildly infatuated with. Jay Gatsby’s glistening party lifestyle is ripe, thriving, abundant, excessive, loud and bright but constructed on the feeble attempt to be good enough and to attract Daisy back to him, and so it is vulnerable:
“What thoroughness! What realism!... if one brick was removed, the whole library was liable to collapse!”
One owl-eyed man notes this upon investigating Gatsby's library and being amazed that it is filled with actual, real books rather than cardboard copies.
This feeling of panic and the ability to fall is evident in Gatsby as it is in my generation - and maybe every generation when we get to what-I-now-think-of-as the cusp of adulthood. People ask us about our plans and our careers and our relationships. Some people are travelling the world and every photo on their Instagram is of some other brilliant seascape somewhere thousands of miles away. Some people are getting engaged and it’s all rings and weddings and party planners but behind the smiles, their eyes are blank and you can hear their brains whirring: do I want this? We’re all running around like excitable children trying desperately to squeeze the most out of every inch of existence and terrified of not squeezing hard enough. Like Daisy, we are aching to show that we have “been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” In other words, we’re all scared of becoming the Tom Buchanans of the world who “reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savours of anti-climax.”
Terrified of that anti-climax, we are the new Gatsby Generation.
One thing I utterly dislike about modern interpretations of Gatsby is that people seem to think the 1920s were civilised. The Roaring 20s, as the name suggests, coincided with prohibition, flapper girls, the beginnings of women’s liberation in America, the beginnings of integration (at least in New York) of black and white people, the rise of the cocaine, the binge-drinking and organised crime empires. If you think the Gatsby brand is bound up in bow ties and polite conversation, you’ve utterly missed the point. (A sure-fire way of knowing who has only ever watched the 2013 Baz Luhrmann film and never been to a good house party.) I admit the Baz Luhrmann film is enjoyable, easily digestible and snappily and artistically investigates the use of colour in Fitzgerald’s writing – which is enormous, significant and profound but probably something I won’t get on to today.
However, an issue I have with the film is Daisy.
In the film, Daisy seems rather simplistic as a character; she’s adorable, husky-voiced and creepily flirtatious with Nick who SHE IS RELATED TO. She’s also married to the world’s most unlikeable thug, Tom Buchanan, so our sympathies are on the whole well-placed. However, the film seems to miss Daisy’s flaws entirely – it falls for her virginal ‘good girl’ act and ignores her complete lack of interest in her daughter, her playing with Gatsby’s emotions and with Nick’s emotions when it’s made abundantly clear he already isn’t entirely mentally stable, and her nicely glazed over rejection of Gatsby at the end of the novel after which she continues her dysfunctional marriage with Tom. In the words of my generation, she’s pretty problematic.
But all of this – these issues I see in my own generation’s perception of the Gatsby brand is because we have fallen for the façade in the same way we create our own personal facades day by day: on social media, in our heads, to our friends. Think about it – how many times have you ever said, “I’m fine,” to somebody when you definitely were not at all fine? How many times have you thought “that’s an overshare” or “I’d better not show them that aspect of me”? We are all guilty of it. We live in the façade now just as Nick and Jay and Daisy and Tom and Jordan and Fitzgerald and Zelda lived in it back then. We are not that different.
The ultimate similarity I find in my own generation and those young twenty-somethings in Gatsby is that many of us are scared to live whether it is in success or failure. James Gatz epitomized this in his transformation from “Mr Nobody from Nowhere” to the “Oxford man” who “keeps [his house] always full of interesting people, night and day. People who do interesting things. Celebrated people.” In James Gatz’s/Jay Gatsby’s case, he is terrified of not being enough. His parents and mediocre childhood weren't good enough for him but then he is never good enough for Daisy or for himself, no matter how much money he gains or how many people come to his extravagant parties. He is terrified of being no more than those “ash-grey men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air” in the Valley of Ashes. While he epitomizes the American Dream to some extent (the working-class boy who rises to fame and fortune), he is also deeply unhappy and constantly in search of his better self, never allowing his real self to be good enough. If this sounds familiar at all, think of how many twenty-somethings and teenagers struggle with self-esteem and mental health disorders. Do the numbers seem to be rising? This is the downside, I think, of being brought up on the idea that we can do anything and be anyone - because now we want all that is unobtainable and spend our lives kicking ourselves for not having it.
Nick understands this way of acting. He describes Gatsby’s smile as:
“one of those rare smiles with a quality of reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life… it understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Much like Gatsby, Nick has been running all his life. Nick ran from his home out West where there is some mention of rumours of a failed engagement following him. He runs from himself, blanking out certain passages of the text from our eyes, such as when he spends time alone with the photographer in New York and all we are told is that the photographer ends up in his underwear. Nick runs from romance with Jordan, despite it seeming like he may finally have found somebody he is himself with. Then, when he loses Gatsby, he runs back West and avoids the East altogether. In this light, Nick seems to be attracted to Gatsby entirely because of the evident façade he portrays. His very falsity of character is the reason Nick knows he can be whoever he wants to be in Gatsby’s presence; your actual identity is pretty much irrelevant. I think that is something a lot of us can empathise with: the ability to pick and choose who we want to be, the ability to delete those photos or memories that we don’t want to acknowledge and present ourselves ‘appropriately’ depending on our chosen audience.
As we go into the 2020s, it amuses and concerns me that we are not that different from the twenty-somethings of a century ago. We’re all “simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” We’re all living in hope and fear and apprehension. We’ll be fine as long as we don’t have affairs and drive yellow cars.