Reviews of The Great Gatsby talk about how it captures the spirit of the jazz age. I think it is better to say it captures the spirit of America, a people striving for a survival and a sense of purpose within a system of class. But deeper still, The Great Gatsby, like the American story, like all human stories, is ultimately about love and wonder. Is there a deeper mystery to existence than what we find in the brute and harsh economic gears? And how can we find some sort of love when our own sense of identity is wrapped up in the American mythology of rags-to-riches?
The characters are first and foremost thrown into a class system — rich, poor, or middle class — and this struggle to maintain and advance their standing forms the defining paradigm of existence. Gatsby manages to advance from rags to riches. Tom and Daisy are born into wealth, which places on them the burden of maintaining their societal status. Nick is from the Midwest and represents the middle class. In all cases, the characters are, by default, thrown into the class struggle. To work, by hook or by crook, to make it. What complicates this, however, is love.
Gatsby loves Daisy. But, of course, love is not that simple, even though Gatsby has gone from pauper to prince. Daisy returns his love, but there are forces greater than love conspiring against the two.
Nick, the narrator of the story, becomes slowly disenchanted with it all, with the whole system. Because there is no serious contemplation of the natural world throughout the novel, this paragraph, this musing of Nick’s, took me a bit by surprise. Nick is starring off into the night, and he becomes transported to the past, when the island was still wilderness:
“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailor’s eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
Given the lack of reflection on the natural world, this quote at first appears out of place. Upon reflection, however, it appears to be the authors intent to place a bit of perspective on American civilization and in doing so, it becomes a powerful existential statement demonstrating de-humanizing disconnect that results when industrial capitalism turns us away from being able to realize these “transitory enchanted moments” that come with the wonder of opening one’s self to the natural world.
But it is more than just the wonder of nature. The economic mechanics of modern American life, the struggle within the class system, it keeps us from connections with others and with ourselves. The characters of The Great Gatsby are never quite able to connect with one another in the way that they want. They are never able, either, to fully conceptualize the ways in which they wish to connect with each other. “At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner–young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.”