The last thing that the narrator Nick Carraway tells us about Jay Gatsby in F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is that he believed in “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. Well, that orgastic future appears to be here, at least for the novel. When Justin Bieber describes a party he has thrown as “some Great Gatsby shit”, there is no doubting that the novel has arrived in the 21st century.
Clearly Bieber was referring to the Baz Luhrmann film, which, with its Prada wardrobe and Jay-Z soundtrack, launched its own mini fashion industry when it was released at the beginning of 2013. In the past few years the novel has been adapted into a six-hour stage production, a musical and a ballet – and Sarah Churchwell has pored over the real-life New York scandals that may have inspired Fitzgerald in her book Careless People.
It says something about the imaginative power of the novel that it can withstand being translated into so many different media. Ironically, however, the disappointing thing about the most visible of these adaptations – Luhrmann’s version for the big screen – is how dependent it is on its source. Luhrmann relies heavily on Nick’s highly distinctive voice, in the form not just of a voice-over but by inventing an ill-conceived frame narrative (the film begins with a traumatised Nick visiting a psychoanalyst, who gives him the entirely predictable advice to write his story down as a way to cure himself) and, worst of all, by having some of Nick’s best-known lines appear on the screen as he writes them down.
That’s not to say that the film should have left out the novel’s most memorable passages. But the challenge of adapting a work of art is to find a form commensurate to it.
Luhrmann’s music video aesthetic does allow him to get certain things right: the party at Myrtle’s New York apartment, “the world and his mistress” enjoying themselves at Gatsby’s expense, Wilson’s gas station in the Valley of Ashes. But whereas Fitzgerald’s Gatsby “turned out all right in the end” despite the “foul dust [that] floated in the wake of his dream”, the dream and the dust, for Luhrmann, are one and the same.
What saves Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is what Nick calls his “romantic readiness”. In celebrating Gatsby’s capacity for wonder, Nick can plausibly lay claim to possess it – and by celebrating it in Nick, the reader, too, can plausibly lay claim to possess it. We may not believe Gatsby when he famously insists that the past can be repeated, but we recognise the force of his desire.
This transferability of desire is aided by the particular quality of the book’s prose. Fitzgerald’s extravagant images have a life beyond Gatsby; the magic of the novel is that every reader feels at times as if Nick were talking not just directly to them, but for them. It’s not that we think we can have Gatsby’s or Nick’s life, nor that reading The Great Gatsby will allow us to participate vicariously in the Roaring Twenties. But what we do have a claim to is the language in which this world is described; that, one day, if we stretch out our arms farther, we might have an experience commensurate with the words Fitzgerald has given us.
Because we think of Nick as our proxy, however, we tend not to talk back. No other major novel has provoked such little major criticism. By contrast, it is striking that books devoted to Fitzgerald’s contemporaries such as Woolf, Joyce and Conrad appear almost monthly. While the critics ignore Fitzgerald’s novel, novelists return to it repeatedly; a writer in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire even jumps out of a window because she realises that she will never write anything as beautiful as the end of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s influence shows no sign of waning: a recent article in El País observes that The Great Gatsby has replaced Ulysses as the model for a new era of Latin American novelists; Nick’s personal confidences are somehow appropriate to a younger generation searching for a more intimate style in the wake of magical realism.
Why, then, has it proved so hard for critics to write about The Great Gatsby? I teach the book almost every year, and begin my lectures by listing a few of the titles of undergraduate term papers on the novel available for purchase on the internet: “The Great Gatsby and the American Dream”, “The American Dream in The Great Gatsby”, “The Fall of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby”, “Distortion of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby”. There are many, many more.
Saying that the novel is about the American dream, I tell my students, is as helpful as saying that Madame Bovary is about adultery; what’s needed is a different vocabulary, closer to the one we find in the novel itself. But because Fitzgerald’s language feels too intimate for literary criticism, my students either avoid writing about the novel or turn in papers not so different from the ones I parody in my lectures.
Yet it is precisely the intimacy of Fitzgerald’s language that makes The Great Gatsby not just a great American novel, but a true innovation in the form of the novel. Nick Carraway’s friendly and familiar voice has predecessors, both British (David Copperfield, Esther Summerson) and American (Ishmael, Huck Finn). But whereas the first-person narrators of the 19th-century novel are usually the hero of their own story, Nick is closer to what the Hungarian critic Georg Lukács called the “mediocre heroes” of Walter Scott’s novels: on the periphery, witnesses to greatness rather than great in their own right.
The 20th-century novel is full of mediocre heroes; indeed, it might almost be said to be defined by them. Yet what distinguishes Nick from Molloy or Slothrop or Josef K is that these heroes feel estranged from their lives, as if they belonged to someone else. For Nick, however, it is imagining someone else’s life that gives him ownership of his life.
Nick’s life by proxy is echoed in the novel’s plot: Gatsby woos Daisy through Nick; first Myrtle and then Wilson mistake Gatsby for Tom; Nick is mistaken for Wilson and then for an associate of Gatsby’s by Wolfsheim, who tells Nick that he “had a wrong man”. No wonder one of the first things Nick tells us is that the founder of his family sent a substitute to the civil war.
One could say, rearranging Wolfsheim’s odd comment, that there is no such thing in The Great Gatsby as a right man, because life is always a matter of identifying with someone else: the reader identifies with Nick, Nick identifies with Gatsby, and Gatsby, being the Platonic creation of himself, identifies with himself. “What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling [Daisy] what I was going to do?” he explains to Nick. Gatsby’s preference for describing events over experiencing them aligns him with Nick and with Lukács’s mediocre heroes, closing the circle of identification. Everyone wants to identify with the great Gatsby – even Gatsby.
Ever since another Hungarian critic, Béla Balázs, noted that the characters in a film “see with our eyes”, the notion of identification has been central to how we think about film, which makes Luhrmann’s failure to explore this question all the more disappointing. Another, very different adaptation – the theatre group Elevator Repair Service’s Gatz – makes clear just how central identification is to the workings of the novel. (“Adaptation” may not be the right word, as the play, in what the scholar Barbara Fuchs calls “an act of perverse, extreme fidelity”, includes every word in the novel, every “he said” and “she said”, every description.) Fuchs notes that, transferred to the stage, the intimacy of the novel becomes almost threatening as characters struggle over who gets to speak their words, thoughts and desires. The technique gives identification bodily form, makes public the intimate relation between reader and Nick, and between Nick and his story.
The play is set in an office, and is set in motion when a bored worker picks up Fitzgerald’s novel from his desk and begins to read. As he reads, the office clock stops, showing the same time throughout the six-hour-plus production. The conceit nicely dramatises the shared suspension of belief involved not just in reading any novel or watching any play, but in the novel itself.
A broken clock also appears in Luhrmann’s film. Finally reunited with Daisy after five years, Gatsby momentarily loses his extraordinary self-possession and knocks over an antique clock, smashing it. The moment is obviously symbolic, the broken clock representing how time has stopped for Gatsby. What makes the stopped clock in Gatz different from the smashed clock in Luhrmann’s film is its coexistence with another temporal order: the play that is taking place before our eyes. For it is not simply that James Gatz’s belief in Gatsby, like Nick’s belief in him and our belief in Nick, requires a continual refusal of time, but that this refusal is precisely what constitutes our sense of time moving forward. This is how I have always understood Fitzgerald’s celebrated last line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The older we get, the more we live in the past, because the more past there is for us to live in.
The same idea is expressed in the preceding paragraph, the one describing the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”. “Before” here signals the sense both of something having happened already and of something being ahead of us, a future more and more made up of the past. Capturing this sense is a matter neither of painstakingly re-creating the look of the Twenties, nor of updating the novel with a hip-hop soundtrack. It involves reimagining a work whose extraordinary prose has in turn helped form the imagination not just of writers, but of readers in search of a language to understand their own dreams and desires.
Stuart Burrows is an associate professor of English at Brown University