Friday, June 7, 2013

Believe in the Green Light

     So, it's no secret that The Great Gatsby is my favorite novel, and I think it has a LOT to offer in the way of themes. It deals with the idea of understanding other people complexly instead of turning them into symbols or concepts (which I dealt with in some depth here) and how that affects love; it famously deals with the ideas of materialism and self-indulgence and hedonism and what they do to human nature; it has a lot to say about the importance of living an active life and "engaging as deeply in the miracle of human consciousness as possible", as John Green says, rather than living passively. But I think the main theme has to do with what The Great Gatsby has to say about hope. (Warning: Spoilers abound.)
     There is an old discussion (and you can find it in a lot of older QBA essays too, if you look for it) about whether it is better to live at the extremes of emotion or at a medium. In other words, is it better to hope, to want things so strongly that you experience euphoria when you get them and misery when you don't, or is it better to go through life distanced and removed from everything so you always exist at some moderate level of apathetic contentment?
     A lot of people have entered this discussion. Here's the wonderful spoken word poet Sarah Kay saying that she's learned that being happy is worth being sad. On the other side, Shakespeare's most famous "romance", Romeo and Juliet, is actually practically a satire extolling the dangers of living at the extremes of impulsive desire and misery. And in the middle, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, the character Paul D shares his wisdom that one should love everything just a little bit, so that when it leaves there's more love left for the next time.
     Fitzgerald doesn't give a straight answer to the question, of course; he argues for both sides. (As Fitzgerald himself said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.") Gatsby symbolizes hope, pure unadulterated hope, even in the impossible. The first description we get of him, in fact, is that he had "an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again." Fitzgerald unravels the dichotomy of the theme in the very first chapter: on the one hand, "Gatsby turned out all right at the end," but on the other, "it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men."
     On first reading, one might consider The Great Gatsby the story of the tragic end of Gatsby himself. He does, of course, wind up dead in a pool after being abandoned by the love of his life to whom he has dedicated his entire being and shot for another man's crime. On the other hand, he spent his whole life hopeful, idealistic, certain of an impending happiness, even if it was a belief in a long-lost past and a never-coming future that carried him through his life with that faith. So, one might consider that Gatsby lost a physical battle but won an emotional one, meaning that the novel might not be a tragedy after all. Seems like the score for hope vs. detachment is all tied up at present.
     Maybe we could look at Nick's character arc to figure out what Fitzgerald thinks; after all, contrary to popular belief, Nick is in fact the novel's protagonist, not the title character. Nick starts off sick of "reserving judgments", which is a matter of "infinite hope", as he says. Throughout the course of the novel, though, he embraces Gatsby's ideology more and more; he pursues Jordan when his living vicariously through Gatsby becomes insufficient, when he feels like taking a risk, abandoning his role as "the tired" to become "the pursuing". He compliments Gatsby for the first time just before Gatsby's death, saying he's worth the whole damn lot of the passive, jaded, disillusioned generation of his party guests. Jordan even says that she was wrong about his being a "careful" person, and that he is actually "careless" as well; he takes his chances by the end, he risks his happiness. On the other hand, he recognizes the miserable reality of Gatsby's life at his funeral, and he becomes disenchanted with Gatsby's hopeful nature as well, and moves back west, unable to deal with the reality which contrasts so strongly with Gatsby's dream. Nick seems to have believed, for a time, in the power of hope, but he eventually finds himself unable to escape the reality of the world. The reader generally identifies with Nick pretty strongly, because we also are often caught up in the promise of a better tomorrow but eventually unable to fool ourselves any longer, unlike Gatsby whose optimism is endless and who can fool himself indefinitely.
     I believe, personally, that Fitzgerald's genius is not in which answer he gives to the debate, but in the fact that he reaches a different conclusion altogether: Hope is inevitable. He suggests, I believe, that the argument of whether it is better to hope or not is a moot point, because it is not a choice we can make. He seems to say that hope is inherent to the human condition, that it is impossible for humans to escape from desire and still live meaningful lives. Put another way, in the words of a friend of mine, "Humans always want things. It's very intrinsically human." No character in the whole story is without desire. Gatsby wants to relive some beautiful, if imaginary, moment in the past through Daisy, Daisy wants reciprocation in a relationship which translates loosely to a need for adulation and connection, Tom wants to achieve the level of dominance and glory he once had, Nick wants to believe in hope. (We really understand what Nick wants once we realize that Gatsby is to Nick what Daisy is to Gatsby, at least when Gatsby and Nick first meet: a larger than life ideal to aspire to, a figure to believe in. Nick's arc spans everything from accepting the hope that Gatsby symbolizes to facing Gatsby's reality, the reality that he is just a man, and a naive one at that.) Not one of the characters really gets what they want, but that doesn't stop them from wanting it, and it is notable that the only one who is really happy until the end is Gatsby, the only one who never gives up hope on his desire, despite its impossibility. Once we realize that hope is inevitable, we can learn how to be happier, how to deal with misery, and how to keep faith through it all. We can learn to believe in the green light as Gatsby did, bring what it may.

Believe in the green light.
- Adarsh Nednur

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