Punishing Wealth: The Great Gatsby’s Critics in 2013

Why is the opulence of The Great Gatsby so controversial? Thanks to Baz Luhrmann’s production, the book has a new set of critics with a common refrain: Gatsby-esque affluence is bad news.

“Did anyone actually read The Great Gatsby?” asks Zachary M. Seward in Quartz, citing the perennial popularity of Gatsby-themed parties before complaining that “so many people seem enchanted enough by the decadence described in Fitzgerald’s book to ignore its fairly obvious message of condemnation.” In her article in Vulture, “Why I Despise The Great Gatsby,” Kathryn Schulz laments Gatsby-inspired consumerism before dismissing the book as an emotionless vehicle for condemning “the degeneracy of the wealthy,” in which Fitzgerald is “more offended by pleasure than by vice.” For Richard Lawson writing in The Atlantic, Luhrmann’s movie is true to the novel in scorning decadence, but “the excesses… are swaddled in so much visual pop and frenetic beauty that the criticism barely registers.” Extravagant wealth is part and parcel of Gatsby, but it can also tempt you to miss the book’s point, according to these critics.

That is a difficult line for a film-maker to walk, because viewers respond in varying ways to dazzling displays of wealth. Inevitably for some, the take-home message of Gatsby is to buy champagne, shirts, and beads. It’s not Fitzgerald’s fault if, as Jared Bland writes cynically in The Globe and Mail, “we remember only the roar of the party, not the ugliness towards the evening’s end.”

Gatsby’s latest critics share a basic assumption that the book has, as Seward put it, a “fairly obvious message.” It doesn’t. Gatsby and its “symbols” (like that green light) are not easily interpreted. If there is an obvious message in Gatsby, it’s that Tom Buchanan is loathsome, not for his debauchery but for his brutishness and his political views, which go hand in hand. Tom’s recommendation of a thinly-veiled The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy by Lothrop Stoddard, a pseudo-scientific justification of racism published in 1920, reveals him to be a eugenicist. “What was that word we—“ Daisy wonders aloud, as Fitzgerald makes clear the hypocrisy of Tom’s unnamed ideology. That modern critics could skip over Fitzgerald’s indictment of a wealthy man’s politics, instead viewing the book as a simplistic critique of wealth itself, says less about Gatsby than it does about the year 2013, in which austerity is just beginning to lose its cultural prestige.

Fitzgerald knew that he had tempted readers to view Gatsby’s characters as vapid dilettantes. He later regretted that he “gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.” In at least one part of the novel, though, Gatsby and Daisy’s intimacy comes through to the narrator, Nick Carraway, and readers:

“Suddenly he came out with a curious remark:

‘In any case,’ he said, ‘it was just personal.’

What could you make of that, except to suspect some intensity in his conception of the affair that couldn’t be measured?”

Without saying much about Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship, Fitzgerald challenges readers to give Gatsby credit for loving Daisy as herself, for “just personal” reasons, rather than superficial ones. To the extent that you see Jay Gatsby as shallow, the book is shallow. But Fitzgerald asks the reader to take seriously Gatsby’s “curious remark”—to entertain the notion that Gatsby loves Daisy as a person, not a symbol. Paradoxically, Gatsby’s loss of this love drives him to be inauthentic—a dirty word in American culture—and he is punished for his artificiality, not his wealth.