“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, as Shakespeare had his character Malvolio say in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare is a master of words, and often cloaks wisdom in the guise of fools. Malvolio is a foolish character, who, it can be argued, has greatness thrust upon him, in his mistaken belief that Olivia, the royal heroine, is in love with him. He is a court hanger-on, set up by others to make a fool of himself, capering round in yellow stockings and crossed garters, because he’s been told this will make Olivia hot for him. He is humiliated, and in the process, becomes tragic because he exposes himself to ridicule and is all but destroyed in the process. In the end, disillusioned, he swears vengeance on “the whole pack of you”, and even Olivia admits he has been “most notoriously abused”. His greatness is in his folly and lack of self-awareness, which exposes him to the shallow ridicule and pranks of an effete mob of courtiers, turning the satire back on them and making him a scapegoat. But at least Malvolio has a fictive life beyond the ending; he is not destroyed.
Gatsby, the anti-hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel The Great Gatsby, is Malvolio without crossed garters. He wears, not yellow stockings, but a pink suit. He lives in a vast mansion with only his servants, and populates it with the trendies and hangers on of the rich and famous in wild, extravagant parties. He is nobody from nowhere, who has constructed a false identity for himself, made his money through some sort of illicit trade, and is flaunting his extravagant lifestyle, not because he enjoys it, but because he wants to impress and attract his lost love, Daisy, who is married to a man of family (old wealth), and who jilted him five years ago because he was poor. And in the end, he is destroyed, and the narrative perspective shines the spotlight on the cast of fools who idolised and then betrayed and deserted him.
Fitgerald has written a complex story, which has many gaps in it; in many ways, he was ahead of his time, when in 1925, he published this satrical/lyrical/tragical story of a man undone by a dream of love and trapped by the illusion that money can buy you your heart’s desire. This has become the iconic novel of the roaring twenties, the prelude to The Great Depression, which burst the bubble of wealth. The interesting backstory to this novel is that much of it is autobiographical, based on Fitgerald’s own dance of death and love affair with wealth and fame and the wild, mad Zelda, his wife. Like Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, he longed for, but saw through the illusion of wealth and fame, in a love/hate affair which ultimately destroyed him. We don’t know what happens to Carraway in the novel, though in the film, the story of the doomed love affair of Gatsby and Daisy is framed by Carraway’s rehabilitation for chronic alcoholism and depression in a clinic; his psychiatrist urges him to write his story, and that is the story of Gatsby.
Much more could be said about the novel, and Luhrman’s filmic remake of it. I am undecided whether this book is great, but I”m sure it’s not as great as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But it’s unfair to compare Fitzgerald with Shakespeare. There is beauty and pathos in the novel, and much of the prose is meltingly lyrical. For instance, when Carraway describes his first meeting with Daisy’s husband Tom, in their mansion, and Tom takes him on a tour of the establishment:
We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, makeing a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
What troubled me about it, though, each time I put it down and turned out the light, was that I couldn’t care much about what happened to the characters. There’s a sort of faded, distanced, disillusioned tone to the narration that holds it all at arm’s length. Whereas, in the movie, for all its absurd, over-the-top effects, the central story of the three main characters went to my heart.
Have you seen the film or read the book? I’d love to hear your responses.