“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
It’s been nearly a century since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 – painting a glossy, wealthy image of the 1920s Jazz era – and now, as we enter that same decade 100 years later, it seems a revival of Fitzgerald’s world is at the height of fashion, with nearly every NYE party on 31st December seemingly featuring flapper dresses and pinstriped suits.
But why has the allure of the Gatsby age been so longstanding in the popular imagination? And what relevance does it have to us now, nearly a century later?
The 1920s represented a decade of change. After the first World War left Europe in a state of decline, America experienced an upsurge in its global power. The sense of freedom that accompanied this manifested itself in the Jazz age. Despite the Prohibition, Jazz culture was booming, welcoming in a new style of music and dance that was influenced by traditionally black “Blues” music, this hinted at the beginning of a movement toward more racial integration in America. The period saw women given the right to vote and the birth of the mass media. This particularly paved the way for an increased popularity in theatre, film and music, which boosted international exportation, as well as rapid technological advancement. The 1920s seemed a time of prosperity and wealth, the American Dream coming to be realised in its fullest sense, as many Americans began to own their own cars, radios and telephones for the first time.
But is this all we can take from Fitzgerald’s novel? Do we simply read Jay Gatsby as the nobody that became “somebody”: the embodiment of the American Dream? After all, Gatsby doesn’t make his fortune in pursuit of self-fulfilment – instead, he grows his wealth in order to achieve a reunion with his old love Daisy, a seemingly unrequited love so intense that he would die for it, and in fact does. After playing the character in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 film adaptation, Leonard DiCaprio names Mr Gatsby a “hollow” man. Nothing motivates him except his obsession with a woman who is already married with a child – and yet we ignore this when repeatedly revering Gatsby as the “heroic lover”.
In Fitzgerald’s novel, the American Dream is realised and yet nothing is truly improved – almost as though he could, in some way, anticipate the fall of the Jazz era, four years prior to America falling into The Great Depression. It’s no wonder the novel didn’t garner much popularity until after the Second World War.
And it is also no wonder that in a world of Brexit and Trumpism that this image of past prosperity is making a return. But what did the Gatsby era hide? Because the 1920s also saw the KKK terrorise America; this decade witnessed the biggest terror attack the country faced until the 1990s. Gang violence emerged from the seedy underbelly of booming new cities and in the Jazz Era, racism was still rife both at home and in the State.
Fitzgerald’s novel portrays wealth in a way that is honest, highlighting its power to corrupt – it makes Tom and Daisy into “careless people” who ultimately “retreated back into their money”. The isolated world of wealth in The Great Gatsby begins to reveal the cracks in society, to show what’s hiding underneath. In a similar way, the rise of right-wing populism in recent years has underscored the progress seen in many social movements, such as the Black Lives Matter campaign, and the increasing diversity in the LGBTQ+ community.
The 1920s should provide a lesson to us all now more than ever. Our decade of change should be one of frugality rather than luxury, we need to address our material waste and work on our global sustainability in a bid to reverse the effects of climate change and improve more than simply our own quality of life. We need to find unity out of ignorance.
Perhaps, The Great Gatsby didn’t resonate with its American audience until after the Second World War because perhaps it wasn’t until then that true progress was felt. Do we read Fitzgerald’s work for escape? Or have Fitzgerald’s somewhat “hollow” protagonists become timeless characters of fascination, their lives applicable and resonant to our own? How we read them is continuously changing, as societies’ priorities shift and we find new connections to this bygone age. It is undoubted that the Gatsby era has and will stand the test of time, we just need to be conscious of why we return to Fitzgerald’s world, to make sure we’re not swept away… “boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
– Molly Rymer