Great Expectations

What Gatsby’s really looking for


I recently reread The Great Gatsby, for obvious reasons. (And no, I haven’t worked up the stomach to see the movie yet.) Here’s what I discovered: it’s about the American Dream. I know, I know, but the real question is, what is the American Dream about? What is Gatsby really after? It isn’t money, and it isn’t Daisy, and it isn’t money as a way of getting Daisy. Don’t believe that Tin Pan Alley sentimentality—all the crap that Gatsby spouts about “the secret place above the trees” and “the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star”—which even Nick refers to as “appalling.” Money is a way of getting Daisy, but Daisy is a way of getting something else.

Gatsby wants to arrive. He wants admission to the inner circle. He wants acceptance into what we’d later call—in the twilight of their power, once we could afford to laugh at them—the WASPs, our homegrown aristocracy. He wants what Tom and Nick, who graduated from “New Haven,” represent. He’s from the West; he wants to make it to the East—a dichotomy Fitzgerald maps onto the local spaces of his two Long Island towns, the famous Eggs. Money’s not the point; it’s only a prerequisite. Gatsby is already fabulously wealthy by the time the novel starts. But he can’t cross over anyway, and not because Daisy is married. That would be a incidental obstacle, as everyone makes clear, if only she were willing.

The problem is he can’t pull off the act. Wolfsheim buys it—“I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he told me he was an Oggsford I knew I could use him good”—but people like the Buchanans can tell the difference. Gatsby’s downfall comes when Daisy finally goes to one of his parties and sees how vulgar they are. Since he doesn’t have access to the aristocracy, he substitutes the world of celebrity, that simulacrum of it that emerged around this time (and that’s replaced it altogether now). “She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented ‘place’ that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village.” (West Egg, as everybody would have understood, was a thinly veiled version of Great Neck, which was being colonized by showbiz types like Sid Caesar and the Marx Brothers. Gatsby’s association with Jews, the ultimate crass arrivistes, goes deeper than his gangster friend.) It’s not that Gatsby’s money’s dirty; it’s that he hasn’t had a chance to wash the newness off it yet. The process takes at least a generation. Daddy gets rich; Junior goes to “New Haven,” to learn how to act like the rich.

We talk about money, in America, but we’re thinking about status (which we never talk about). For all of our well-known materialism, I believe we love money as much as we do just because, in the absence of a real aristocracy, it’s always been our route to status. There’s only so much you can buy. I sometimes wonder if the drive for endless accumulation is nothing but an evolutionary anachronism, a vestige of the time when resources had to be stockpiled, because you never knew when they might become scarce. But then I remember about status, of which it’s never possible to have enough. That is the secret American hunger: a legacy, no doubt, of our colonial past, the long centuries during which we looked across the ocean—east—for affirmation. We want to get from nowhere, which is where we are (Gatsby is from North Dakota, more or less synonymous with nowhere), to that ever-elusive somewhere, full of orchids and ease and gold and girls.

Five pages from the end of the book, Fitzgerald delivers his sociological punchline: “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” Even the novel fails to make it East. Even Tom and Daisy feel like frauds. There is no arrival, it seems—or not, at least, for such as us.

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William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


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