The astonishing thing about The Great Gatsby is that it is so short. Fitzgerald has presented a full and rich plot in a mere 170 pages, and around it has built an analysis of the American psyche at a particularly important juncture in its history. Those self-indulgent and curiously conflicted years after the First World War helped to define what America has become. The moralising legislature which introduced prohibition made criminals of the smallest of individuals, suffocating them with a Protestant guilt entirely disproportionate to their actions, while men of ill intent made fortunes on the backs of others’ misery. The gaiety of the lives of the beautiful people masked a malevolence which still runs deep, while for the majority of Americans sobriety did not make of them better citizens, just more unhappy ones. Such is the futility of enforcing morality. Money, greed, chance, need, they all of them combine in the great human dumbshow and the winners trample over the losers in that eternal race for riches. Because, for people like Jay Gatsby, money is the one, true religion.
All of this Fitzgerald lays bare in his 170 pages. The characterisation is rich and convincing, the casual racism of Tom, the obsessiveness of Gatsby, the flightiness of Jordan Baker, and it all combines into a compelling narrative. But the true brilliance of the novel is the way that Fitzgerald presents us with this fraudulent and compromised society, with these flawed and weak human beings, and yet still manages to instil a sense of grandeur. Flawed, all of them, indeed, but not wholly worthless, and in the heedless aspiration of Jay Gatsby – for money and for love – there is almost a nobility. His world, and the worlds of those like him, are based entirely on expectation and a trust in the future and what riches it will provide. There is no thought of failure, and yet, as Nick Carraway reminds us, failure is ultimately what awaits us all. The future will always elude our attempts to capture it and so we will ‘beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’ They say that the great genius and tragedy of mankind is our awareness of our own mortality, but that is only true to an extent. While the game is in play, while we are fashioning our lives, we are not aware of the end of it all, because there is no end, only an everlasting future of aspiration. Anything otherwise would be too crushing. This is what Fitzgerald depicts so brilliantly with Jay Gatsby and this is why his end, unlamented and unmourned, presents such an ache. “I thought there would be more,” he might have said. For isn’t that the greatest fear? When it is all over and done, and our life’s work is presented on an easel before us, ready for our inspection, and we stand back to take it all in, to assess the end result, compare it with those early dreams, only to realise that it isn’t, not at all, what we had hoped it might be.