Straddling the line between realism and modernism, Gatsby does a wonderful job of combining the Darwinian tragedy of realism with the nostalgia for an unbroken world of modernism. Both Gatsy and Nick Carroway, the narrator, were in the war, and they along with the other men in the novel are in pursuit of dreams from before which cannot be recovered. Nick tries to tell Gatsby that he can’t repeat the past, but Gatsby refuses to believe him: “‘Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” (111).
In the novel, narrator Nick Carroway befriends his neighbor Jay Gatsby (née James Gatz), who attempts to reconnect with Nick’s cousin Daisy, his long lost love. Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan, a college chum of Nick’s, who’s cheating on her with Myrtle. Nick has a vague job working with bonds in the city, Gatsby and Tom both have extraordinary wealth, while Myrtle’s husband runs a gas station. Gatsby’s life in particular is one of unfathomable wealth and celebrity, with frequent lavish parties at his house attended by people who don’t even know him. These parties show a hollowness to the kind of wealth he has amassed in his attempt to win back Daisy.
I hadn’t read this book since high school, and was surprised that I still enjoyed it. In high school, I was enthralled by the images of Daisy and Jordan in white seemingly floating over chaises and sofas. There’s a definite demarcation of gender in this book, as the women are there as beautiful prizes to be competed for by the men. Men are of the world, and can’t seem to help but interact with the seedier sides of life which bolster their wealth—whether Gatsby’s underworld dealings or Tom’s involvement with Myrtle.
In addition to the modernist themes of nostalgia, there’s also a real suspicion of technology and scientific advancement. Tom’s espousal of the terrible racist theories which he claims are “scientific” are one example of this, but even more so are the ubiquitous cars. While cars are an integral part of the key climax scene—when Gatsby hits Myrtle with his car and kills her—they are a dark presence throughout. In one of Gatsby’s party scenes, the hilarity of the party gives way to the drunken reality of the cars leaving, as one partygoer hits a wall with his car and knocks out his tire, and another partygoer has his hand run over. Cars may get people from one place to another faster, but it’s not clear that they have any idea where they’re going, how to get there, or what they’ll do when they arrive.
Ultimately, Myrtle’s husband kills Gatsby for revenge, and the novel ends with Gatsby's father, Mr. Gatz, and Nick being the only real mourners at his funeral. Still, despite the characters’ cynicism throughout and the sad ending which Gatsby comes to, the novel ends on a romantic note, with Nick brooding over Gatsby’s life, ending with the beautiful lines:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms father…And one fine morning---
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (182)
I love those lines. Despite the failure of the American dream, despite the hollowness of pleasure, the message seems to be that we persevere even with knowledge of our futility; it is this faith which enables us to persevere.