The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…. 

 

gatsbyIf I didn’t feel obligated to read this book for Jazz Age June, I probably would have stopped reading it at some point–not because it was boring, badly written or uninteresting. It’s because it made me feel empty, just like the characters the book portrays. I am a visceral reader and an emotionally affected reader. I just didn’t want to feel so void of the life force as I turned page after page. But The Great Gatsby is so well-regarded as an anthem to the Jazz Age, the quintessential look at the Roaring Twenties, that I felt it right to finish. And I suppose, in the end, I am glad I did.

The book is narrated by Nick Carraway, who moves into the house next door to Jay Gatsby in West Egg, Long Island, New York. Gatsby is a mystery, both as to his present life and his past. Almost everything anyone knows of him can be contradicted by what the next person thinks he knows. Is he an Oxford man or not? Did he fight in the war or was he really a German spy? “He’s a murderer, you know.” “No, he could never have killed anyone.” His car is huge, his house is huge, his Saturday night parties fill his home to the brim with people he doesn’t know and he feeds them only the best food. But his business dealings are shady and probably illegal and no one really knows how he makes so much money.

Nick has a cousin, Daisy who lives with her husband Tom across the bay in East Egg. Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, whose husband owns the gas station in West Egg. Gatsby and Daisy were in love with each other five years ago, before he went off to war and so she married Tom, but both have carried a flame for each other ever since. Some of the more touching moments of the novel have to do with Gatsby’s nervousness in seeing Daisy for the first time in all these years, but their affair ends with a tragedy that almost feels like karma.

It’s funny how reading has gone for me this year. Several times I have read books back to back with main characters with the same first name, similar themes or similar odd word usage. This book and recently The Glimpses of the Moon have much in common theme-wise (and first name-wise) when it comes to relationships. I am not a prude and am all for finding true love, but in both these books the idea that marriage vows have meaning is certainly put to the adultery-test. And the bit of comical hypocrisy when Tom, who is having an affair with Myrtle, becomes incensed when he suspects Daisy is seeing Gatsby, is not lost on me.

There isn’t much narrative to the novel, except for the narrator, Carroway. He’s come to New York after college to start his accounting career and finds himself involved in the myriad dramas of the people around him. He is the moral one, the “good man,” the voice of the adult while the adolescents break the rules to their peril. They act like they’ve been shut up for years and finally found the way out of the chains of the straight and narrow prison that held their thoughts and feelings in check. Without restraints everything they do is in excess and through a restless lens. I couldn’t help but feel this emptiness in their motivations and that their hearts were devoid of the spark of life.

This novel supposedly illustrates the effect of the new found prosperity and personal freedom of post-war America in its loosening of boundaries between people in all aspects of life; the notion of the self-made and re-made “man” that is grander than anything before it. But with this freedom Fitzgerald shows that people can act with incredible selfishness and indecency leaving human wreckage in their wake.

I found this a profoundly depressing book. Even though Nick is the shining light in an otherwise morally bankrupt universe, I am still left with a void. I find it hard to believe this book is the ‘quintessential social commentary’ of America in the 1920s. If that were really true how did we survive the decade!

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Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1925
Pages: 182

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1920)

It was not the custom in New York drawing rooms for a lady to get up and walk away from one gentleman in order to seek the company of another. Etiquette required that she should wait, immovable as an idol, while the men who wished to converse with her succeeded each other at her side. But the Countess was apparently unaware of having broken any rule, she sat at perfect ease in a corner of the sofa beside Archer, and looked at him with the kindest eyes.

 

AgeinnocenceThis the fourth book I’ve read by Edith Wharton after Ethan Frome, Summer and The House of Mirth. I see similar patterns in all of them, but each one is from a fresh perspective, from the particular protagonist.

Wharton seems to be interested in the struggle between a person’s freedom versus society’s demands; between the ability to dream a new reality for yourself and what your class says you can and cannot do. In each of the aforementioned books the main character is caught in what they want for their life and their inability to get it. There is always interference and it is then that their conscience kicks in or their chance to choose is lost. And then they resign themselves to their fate. This is my perspective, anyway.

The Age of Innocence tackles marriage and after only a few pages in it is obvious that this particular courtship is not going to go well.

It is an opera night in 1870s New York City and the well-known Swedish opera singer Christine Nilsson is performing. Newland Archer is scanning the audience and rests his eyes on the box across from him where May Welland, his soon to be announced fianceé is sitting with her mother and aunt. He has the vantage to observe her unnoticed.

His thoughts at first are to his love and what he will make of her and how she has been raised to be molded by her husband. “…he contemplated her absorbed young face with a thrill of possessorship in which pride in his own masculine initiation was mingled with a tender reverence for her abysmal purity.” He is interrupted when a friend points out a young woman who has just entered the Welland box and whose foreign dress is causing a stir. She is Madame Ellen Olenska, May’s cousin, who has come from Europe having run away from her husband and has come home to get a divorce.

At first, Ellen is shunned by many of her American relations who fear the disgrace divorce would cast on their reputation. When Newland’s law firm takes on the handling of the divorce, he is asked by the family to intercede with Ellen and encourage her not to file. Later he is asked to dam this breach between Ellen and the family due to his marriage to May, which leads to a disaster as the two fall in love.

As Newland navigates the thorny rules and rituals of courtship and marriage, he exposes the faults and farce of the new state he is entering into. He catches himself musing on what he expects his wife to be; while not quite equals, he wants something that is more free than what he sees in his circle. But the way women are raised, how can this be?

He reviewed his friends’ marriages—the supposed happy ones—and saw none that answered, even remotely, to the passionate and tender comradeship which he pictured as his permanent relation with May Welland. He perceived that such a picture presupposed, on her part, the experience, the versatility, the freedom of judgment, which she had been carefully trained not to possess; and with a shiver of foreboding he saw his marriage becoming what most of the other marriages about him were: a dull association of material and social interests held together by ignorance on the one side and hypocrisy on the other.

Would his marriage become like so many others where the husband “had formed a wife so completely to his own convenience that, in the most conspicuous moments of his frequent love-affairs with other men’s wives, she went about in smiling unconsciousness…”

Newland reasoned that the things he loved about May–her frankness, her grace and loyalty were an artificial construct.

He felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.

Wharton pulls no punches here.

Ellen, through her life experiences, possesses the sexual and intellectual freedom that Newland desires in a woman, a wife. And yet she is not free. Even if Newland wanted to leave May, the lack of a divorce would stand in the way of their marriage. Ellen sees the futility of living in limbo and announces she is going back to Paris, presumably to her husband. And what Newland and men like him don’t understand, is that women like May see through the bars of their gilded cage; they understand what marriage really is and only pretend to ‘smile in unconsciousness.’ Sick at Ellen’s departure, Newland tells May he wants to take a trip. Without missing a beat she tells him she is pregnant and that she told Ellen so a few weeks ago.

“You know I told you we had a long talk one afternoon—and how dear she was to me.”

“But that was a fortnight ago, wasn’t it? I thought you said you weren’t sure till today.”

“No; I wasn’t sure then—but I told her I was. And you see I was right! she exclaimed, her blue eyes wet with victory.

In the final chapter decades have passed. May has born three children and after 26 years of marriage has died. Newland thinks of his life with her as deep and real. Ellen, though, lives only in the past. And at the very end of the novel when circumstances take the turn that both had wished for long ago, Newland makes a remarkable decision.

It would be easy to dislike a character like Newland Archer, but Wharton makes it impossible. He is honestly trying to assess the promise of his life against the social conventions of his time; exposing the hypocrisy of  the status quo and the values they hold dear.

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My Edition
Title: The Age of Innocence
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Barnes and Noble Classics
Device: Paperback
Year: 1920
Pages: 307
Full plot summary

Challenges: Classics Club