I noticed something funny when watching the much-ballyhooed “Great Gatsby.” The moral had changed.
I will preface this with a spoiler alert, since as I boarded the escalator down from the theater someone accosted me and said, “Did you just watch the Great Gatsby? I’m seeing it in 3D. Please, don’t spoil it.” I wanted to say, “Tell that to Baz Luhrmann,” but it seemed imprudent to do so. I had no idea that there remained anyone in the continental United States whose high school had left this particular touchstone un-turned, but just in case, here be dragons.
The story of James Gatz, alias Jay Gatsby, as far as I remember, was a symbolic tale of striving for, and failing to reach, the American dream. If you didn’t notice the symbolism (every inch of the text drips with it, from the names of the female characters — Myrtle and Daisy — to the god-like eyes of T. J. Eckleburg gazing down on something Fitzgerald literally refers to as the Valley of Ashes, evidently taking a page from the John Bunyan Book of Really Subtle Place-Names) you began to think that Gatsby was just oddly obsessed with green lights. As he throws elaborate, booze-and-jazz-soaked parties in his giant castle of a house in West Egg, he gazes wistfully across the water to Old Money East Egg, where a green light burns on the end of his lost love Daisy Buchanan’s dock. When he manages to lure her to his side of the water, he laments that “The colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever… His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
The whole point of the green light and the dream and even Daisy was that they were unattainable. Throughout the book, Gatsby pursues something I like to call the Sims Decorator Philosophy of Social Climbing. If you remember the computer game The Sims, there were numerous ways of making your Sims content with their surroundings, but generally the most effective was to cheat, obtain a lot of money, and buy the most expensive sets of everything. The resulting houses looked grotesque, but the Sims did not notice. It was a simple matter of making sure you had the fanciest most expensive things — they had to be automatically tasteful, because they were the most expensive. “Everything at that end of the price scale goes together,” you said, gazing at the ocelot carpets that ran up to the velvet drapes.
But of course taste is something entirely different than price. Look at Snooki’s wardrobe.
In the Great Gatsby, this sort of blind spot pulls Gatsby up short. Told that he’s an Oxford man, the Old Money Tom Buchanan scoffs. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
One of the novel’s great ironies is that Gatsby is doing all sorts of horribly showy things in order to insinuate himself into a world that turns up its nose at that kind of display. You don’t win over the Old Families by throwing nightly firework parties across the bay and startling their polo horses. And Gatsby never seems to grasp this.
That’s why the movie was such a bizarre experience.
It’s all about the parties.
“Party like Gatsby!” people are proclaiming on Tumblr. Scratch the Internet and you will find people announcing that their New Life Goal is to Make Lots of Money and Throw Big Parties Every Weekend Like Gatsby Did. The funny thing is that this wasn’t Gatsby’s goal. He wasn’t even enjoying the party. He was only doing it to get something whose desirability now eludes us.
There’s been a bait-and-switch where now what we aspire to is the noisy, pink-suited, yellow-convertible-driving, fireworks-booze-and-jazz, Brooks-Brothers-Presents-Gatsby-Wear garish existence of Gatsby. We want to be noisy and splashy and wake up in the morning covered in confetti like Ke$ha and brush our teeth with Jack because tonight we’re going to die young so dance dance like it’s the last last night of your life and a little party never killed nobody. No wonder the soundtrack makes so much sense. East Egg? Weird racists playing croquet on horses. West Egg is where the party is, and we want to be where the party is.
Most of us read the story in which Taylor Swift showed up uninvited at a Kennedy funeral and thought “How on earth would they not want TAYLOR SWIFT there?” She, after all, is a celebrity. They are just people with a last name that’s been around for a while. Having a last name that’s been around for a while is almost a defect, American-dream-wise. How are you possibly going to be able to pull yourself up out of nothing if you’re already a Carnegie?
Somewhere along the line, our aspirations shifted. Who needs to be an Oxford man? Gatsby is a party promoter! These days, the American dream isn’t at the end of Daisy’s dock. It’s Gatsby’s party house with a giant pool. What a shame that he was only doing it to get the attention of those square polo-players across the bay.
The movie is off to a good start monetarily and looks likely to continue as a meme through the summer — the Internet’s mild obsession with Leonardo DiCaprio certainly won’t hurt — but it’s fascinating to see what a shift has taken place. Why was Gatsby sad? He had everything we want.