Letter: A Gross Misreading of 'Gatsby'
To the Editor:
The publicity churned out for the latest movie version of The Great Gatsby encouraged me to reread the novel. I finished the night before I read Ernest Hebert’s scathing commentary, which left me wondering if we had read the same book.
In disparaging Fitzgerald, I think, Hebert misrepresents the book’s overriding message. It’s a book about the rich and is told from that perspective. He was writing neither a paean to the working class, nor a book that showed the superiority of the upper-class characters. Fitzgerald may or may not share his characters’ and narrator’s view of working-class people, Jews and African-Americans, but he certainly gives the careful reader no flattering portraits of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Jordan Baker or the other presumably well-to-do people who attended Gatsby’s parties. Gatsby is a climber and a crook; Jordan a cheat and a poseur.
Speaking of Tom near the end of the novel, the narrator says, “I couldn’t forgive him or like him but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — 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.” That characterization made me think of the financial titans who rule America today. In fact, the slice of American society in the 1920s portrayed by Fitzgerald doesn’t look so different from that same slice of 21st-century American society.
I didn’t come away from the book thinking Tom and Daisy were romantic or even enviable. I thought them both despicable. The message that Hebert accuses Fitzgerald of propagating (“You don’t have to have a job or even a work ethic to be a success in America. What you need is looks, money, trendy tastes, and a touch of cool.”) is much more effectively and subliminally propagated by modern-day culture. Fitzgerald neither romanticized rich people nor degraded American literature. He merely wrote a novel that in many ways remains contemporary nearly 100 years after its publication.