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  • Good morning, Hank; it's Wednesday, September 7th.

  • Today, I'm going to introduce you to everything I find interesting about The Great Gatsby

  • without massive spoilers. It's going to take a few minutes, but I'm going to go as quickly

  • as I can because life is fleeting... is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby.

  • So, right at the beginning of the second chapter of Gatsby, we get two of the great metaphors

  • in American literature. First: the Valley of Ashes. The narrator, Nick, writes about

  • this huge valley of ashes outside of Manhattan. This was real, and in 1922 there was this,

  • like, ever-growing depository of the burned waste of people who lived in and around New

  • York. And in the novel, George Wilson, this gas-station owner, lives in the Valley of

  • Ashes with his wife, Myrtle, with whom Tom Buchanan is having an affair.

  • Anyone who's even read five pages of the Great Gatsby will no doubt remember Tom Buchanan

  • as one of the worlds least likable people. Yeah, so right there in the Valley of Ashes

  • there are also the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, whose irises are like one yard high. They're

  • just these disembodied, unblinking eyes that see everything below them. Like, they don't

  • have arms to catch you or legs to chase you down; they can't punish you or kill you, but

  • Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's eyes see everything. But more of that in a minute.

  • So Tom and his mistress and her sister and Nick and this random other couple end up in

  • an apartment in New York, just getting drunk and utilizing servants and creating more ashes

  • for the valley and generally having, like, the worst time ever.

  • One of the crazy things about The Great Gatsby is there's always some debaucherous party

  • going on, and no one is ever having any fun. Like, everybody in that room just wants more

  • money and more class, and they wanna, like, find a way to get a better life, except for

  • Tom Buchanan who has what they all want except that Tom Buchanan is, like, an unbearable

  • ass-face. Tom Buchanan makes Paris Hilton look like charming and grounded.

  • And that's one of the criticisms you hear about The Great Gatsby: that no one in the

  • book is likable. I don't think that's fair to Gatsby, or to Nick and to a certain extent

  • I don't think it's fair to Daisy, but more importantly I don't know where people got

  • the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business

  • of creating merely likable characters with whom you can have some simple identification.

  • Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go all like ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.

  • Sorry, I spend all my time with a baby.

  • Right, so shortly after that horrible party, we go to an awesome party at Gatsby's house.

  • I mean, there's still a lot of stuff being created for the Valley of Ashes, but at least

  • Gatsby's party has Gatsby, and even though Gatsby has this incredibly annoying habit

  • of saying "old sport" all the time as a way of trying to sound upper-crusty, he's a pretty

  • charming guy: he has a smile that makes you feel that he is "irresistibly prejudiced in

  • your favor." To quote Nick.

  • But the one thing we know about Gatsby for much of the book is that no one knows anything

  • about him. Like, there's talk that he might be a bootlegger or a killer or own a chain

  • of drug stores; no one really seems to know even though everyone's at his party, drinking

  • his booze, running around his mansion.

  • I should mention that the first party at Gatsby's house also contains the greatest drunk driving

  • scene in the history of American literature in which a drunk guy gets in an accident like

  • three seconds after getting in his car, and even though the wheel has fallen off the car,

  • he keeps trying to drive it. And I think, at least in the novel, that had become the

  • American Dream by the 1920s. The dream was to, you know, have a leisurely and debaucherous

  • life where you had enough money to buy fancy new cars and enough whisky to crash them.

  • But we learn pretty quickly that Gatsby isn't like the people who go to his parties. He

  • hasn't acquired, like, wealth and social status so that he can enjoy them; he doesn't drink;

  • and, as he repeatedly points out to Nick, he's never even used his own pool. He's worked

  • to get this money and build this social status because he is in love with a woman who lives

  • across the bay, whose dock has a green light at the end of it. And that woman is Daisy

  • Buchanan, Tom Buchanan's wife.

  • Daisy and Gatsby had fallen in love years before, but then Gatsby went off to war and

  • she got married and now she lives across the bay and the green light and he just wants

  • to reach it. So he asks Nick to manufacture a reunion. All right, and at that reunion

  • everything is yellow. Like, Gatsby's car is yellow, and Gatsby's tie is yellow, and Daisy

  • Buchanan's dress buttons are yellow. At one point Nickwho's third-wheeling it big-time

  • at this reuniondescribes the smell of flowers as "pale gold." It's not an accident.

  • In this very chapter Nick refers to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock that Gatsby's

  • always looking out at and reaching for as an "enchanted object." And that seems to be

  • a reasonably good definition of symbolism. Symbols are enchanted objects, and yellow

  • or gold is an enchanted color in this novel. But not just in this novel, but also, like,

  • in our lives, like "golden opportunities," or a "golden age," or "golden youth." God

  • knows the characters in this novel aren't the first people to ever conflate wealth and

  • beauty. But one of the interesting questions in The Great Gatsby is whether Gatsby really

  • loves Daisy or if he loves her because she's golden, you know? Because, as he once famously

  • says, her voice is "full of money." Gatsby hasn't come by his money honestly. He has

  • no class or family background. Tom Buchanan calls him, "Mr. Nobody From Nowhere." And

  • maybe Gatsby can never be Mr. Somebody From Somewhere, but Daisy Buchanan would certainly

  • help with her family connections and her legitimate money.

  • We see this too when the book flashes back to the Midwest, when Gatsby and Daisy first

  • fall in love. Is Gatsby falling in love with Daisy or with her family's mansion? But regardless,

  • before Daisy and Gatsby can run off into the golden sunset, there is the small matter of

  • her being married to Tom.

  • And the fascinating thing is that by the novel's climax, it's not enough to Gatsby that Daisy

  • loves him. He needs Daisy to say, "I never loved Tom. I only ever loved you." Because

  • for Gatsby, it's not enough to get Daisy back. He has to get the feeling he first had when

  • they fell in love back, that feeling of purity and innocence. He has to reclaim his past.

  • And that dream- or more specifically the foul dust that trails in the wake of it- is more

  • than about two characters in a novel; it is the American dream and the world's dream.

  • There will never be enough money and fame and love for us in this world because every

  • time we get what we thought we wanted, we realize that we want more because what we

  • really want is to go back in time to some place when we felt safe, some time before

  • we discovered violence and corruption, when we were happy and pure and innocent.

  • We want to go to the Golden Age. But for Gatsby, the relentless pursuit of that dream leads

  • to only more violence and corruption until there's this penultimate moment of violence

  • that is witnessed by the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. And then Gatsby finally gets to

  • use his pool.

  • Hank, the last chapter of The Great Gatsby is, to me, one of the saddest passages in

  • American literature. It shows how muddied innocence and guilt are, and it shows the

  • vast and intractable unfairness of the society that was supposedly founded on equality.

  • At one point Nick recalls people who would go to those great parties and sneer most bitterly

  • at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby's liquor. Let me submit to you that those of us who

  • would sneer at Gatsby do so on the courage of his liquor because we all share his ambition.

  • We all believe in that green light that has long eluded us, that if we can only, "run

  • faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And then one fine morning--" And still the foul

  • dust trails in the wake of those dreams.

  • Hank, I have two non-rhetorical questions for you today which we must discuss here in

  • comments because Your Pants have been hacked: First, to what extent do you think Gatsby

  • is a hero? I mean I know he's the titular character of the novel, but to what extent

  • do you think that his quest is heroic? And secondly, is your quest heroic?

  • Hank, I'll see you on Friday.

Good morning, Hank; it's Wednesday, September 7th.

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B1 US gatsby daisy nick valley likable green light

The Great Gatsby: Living the Dream in the Valley of Ashes

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    Cindy Peach Wang posted on 2015/09/24
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