Thursday, May 13, 2010

America's Crash: The Prediction of the Great Gatsby

Warning: For those who have not read The Great Gatsby, this post contains nasty spoilers!!

During the 1920s, the United States was experiencing a high of thrills, prosperity, and immorality. With the “war to end all wars” behind them, and wealth and material pleasures plenty for the taking, Americans lived in an artificial bubble of happiness and comfort. Wasteful spending, illegal alcoholism, and partying became the common pastimes of many people. In the middle of these “Roaring Twenties”, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a novel, The Great Gatsby, which created an accurate portrayal of the lifestyles prevalent in his day. He also revealed that behind all the fun, Americans were experiencing inward loneliness and emptiness; and he warned the country what could happen if their wasteful lifestyles continued. His prediction bore an eerie similarity to what actually happened four years later. 
The first time loneliness is revealed is in the namesake of the book, Jay Gatsby; a character well-known in his community of West Egg, New York for hosting huge routine parties. Yet despite the frequent presence of guests at his house, rarely do any of the guests come to see him personally. Many are not even invited, and most of them come just as a thing to do, a place to go; not because of any real connection to Gatsby. When the teller of the story, Nick, is at one of Gatsby's parties, he notices Gatsby “standing alone on the marble steps and looking from one group to another with approving eyes” (Fitzgerald 56). Fitzgerald's usage of the word “alone” emphasizes Gatsby's reserved nature. The fact that he stands all by himself, merely observing his party instead of participating in it, indicates how much he is apart from the crowd. 

As Nick leaves the party, and after most of the guests are gone, he looks back at Gatsby. “A sudden emptiness seemed to flow now from the windows and the great doors, endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host, who stood on the porch, his hand up in a formal gesture of farewell” (Fitzgerald 62). By applying the words “emptiness” and “isolation”, Fitzgerald reminds us yet again that Gatsby is distant from his own parties. Although Gatsby is wealthy and continually having company, it appears that he feels isolated, lonely, and empty. 

Gatsby's loneliness is pronounced the most after his death, at the end of chapter nine. The man who hosted parties with countless guests has a funeral with less than ten people. Even some of his alleged closest friends seem to abandon him. None of them show up except for Nick. 

Nick himself experiences loneliness as he walks through the busy, fast-paced streets of New York City: “At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others” (Fitzgerald 63). The comparison Fitzgerald uses here is interesting: the people of New York City are surrounded by other people, yet they experience “a haunting loneliness” (Fitzgerald 63). The reason they feel this way is because everyone around them, for the most part, are strangers. When Nick hears “laughter from unheard jokes” (Fitzgerald 64) from other people on the street, he “[feels] a sinking in [his] heart” (Fitzgerald 63) because he knows he cannot join in with the joy being shared by these strangers. These quotes show how even people in a big, crowded city can feel lonely: because the presence of so many strangers is intimidating, and only strengthens any preexisting feelings of isolation. 

In addition to uncovering society's loneliness and emptiness, Fitzgerald gives a grave warning of what could be ahead. It is foreshadowed in chapter three when at the end of Gatsby's party, a drunk driver trying to leave crashes in a ditch. Just as this crash followed the indiscriminate wealth and immorality of Gatsby's party, a series of successive crashes follow the excessive and immoral lifestyles of each major character. Some crashes are literal, and other are figurative; but each leave the characters changed. 

The first crash comes for Tom, the husband of Nick's cousin Daisy, who is having an affair with another married woman. At the same time, Gatsby is pursuing a romantic relationship with Daisy, who he had once fallen in love with. Despite the fact that Daisy is married, Gatsby still desires her. In fact, the entire purpose of his huge parties is to get her attention. When the immoral ambitions of these two men bump heads, it causes heated conflict between Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby. There is a temporary crash of Tom and Daisy's relationship.

The second crash is a literal one: while Daisy and Gatsby are in a car together, a woman runs out into the street, and is hit and killed by their car. Later, they discover it had been the woman Tom was having an affair with. She had thought it was Tom in the car and was coming to tell him something. The woman's husband, informed by an angry Tom that Gatsby was responsible for the death, sneaks to Gatsby's house and murders him. He then commits suicide. Gatsby's terrible decisions literally led to the death of three people, including himself. 

Nick also has a minor crash of his own. After getting caught in the middle of the messy situation with Tom, Daisy and Gatsby, and actually aiding Tom and Gatsby's sins instead of trying to stop them, he looses some of his reputation. Jordan, a woman he is half in love with, ends her relationship with him because she is convinced that he is no longer honest or trustworthy.

Four years after The Great Gatsby was published, the Stock Market crashed. America's decade of excessive spending and wastefulness brought the exact consequences that Fitzgerald had predicted. The “Jazz Age” had ended; the Great Depression began. The American people would have benefited from heeding Fitzgerald's warning, but they would have benefited even more if they heeded the Bible's warning: “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4). If more people in America had turned their lives to God, they would have found true contentment and happiness, and they would never feel alone again: “For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you' ” (Hebrews 13:5). 

In The Great Gatsby, lifestyles of materialism, extravagance, and immorality were coupled with loneliness and emptiness, and eventually led to a variety of devastating crashes. Just as in this novel, the way Americans lived in the 1920s was unsustainable, and it caused a literal economic crash that would leave them shaken until World War II. Today, there are lessons that can be learned from the events after the Roaring Twenties: indiscriminate wealth will never lead to prosperity; no peace is eternal unless it comes from God; and only when people turn their lives to God will they find real meaning and fulfillment that lasts forever.