Gatsby and the folly of hope

On the classic’s anniversary, The Express Tribune reflects on the treatment of dreams



“By capitulating to life, this world has betrayed nothingness...I resign from movement, and from my dreams. Absence! You shall be my sole glory...Let ‘desire’ be forever stricken from the dictionary, and from the soul! I retreat before the dizzying farce of tomorrows. And if I still cling to a few hopes, I have lost forever the faculty of hoping.”

In his 1949 book A Short History of Decay, Romanian thinker and perpetual pessimist Emil Cioran railed at length against man’s tendency to dream — “his need for fiction over evidence and absurdity” — when confronted by the arbitrariness of life. “Idolaters by instinct, we convert the objects of our dreams and our interests into the Unconditional.” This kind of ‘idolatry’ peppers F Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, The Great Gatsby.

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Much has been made of Gatsby and its commentary on society and the illusory nature of the American Dream. This illusory nature, however, extends to all aspirations in the novel. So much so that the book can even be seen as a cautionary tale against ‘dreaming’.

Case in point, take Jay Gatsby whose life revolves around using his dreams and ambitions to defeat the ‘tick of the clock’ — the irreversibility of time.

At the heart of the novel lies Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy Buchanan. For Gatsby — who loathes his impoverished past and invents an entirely new concept of self in a bid to escape it — Daisy represents all the luxury and sophistication he has always longed for. Gatsby falls in love with Daisy and lies to her in order to convince her — and perhaps himself — that he is good enough for her. When he misses his chance to be with her, ironically because of his own ambitions, he dedicates himself to winning her back — to reclaim the past.

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“You can’t repeat the past,” Nick, our narrator, remarks before Gatsby at one point. “Can’t repeat the past...Why of course you can!” is the response he gets.

Events, however, prove Gatsby wrong. Before his life is abruptly cut short by the jilted husband of the mistress of his own arch nemesis — Daisy’s husband Tom to be precise — he catches a glimpse of his dream being just that, fiction.

That Gatsby dies is not the tragedy in Fitzgerald’s story. Gatsby’s death, in fact, could even be read as him being emancipated from materialism by the very arbitrariness of life; a kind of moksha in the Hindu sense.

The tragedy is the very hollowness of Gatsby’s dream of a future, or even a meaningful past, with Daisy. Did Daisy, who for Gatsby was perfect in every way, ever have any real connection with him? Or was Gatsby simply a temporary relief from the boredom imposed on her by society’s demands?

More so, did Gatsby really love Daisy or did he love what she represented? In his own words, her voice was “full of money”.

This hearkens back to Cioran’s lament against ‘idolaters’ who convert the objects of their dreams into unconditional truths.

Obsessions which mirror Gatsby’s, plague minor characters in the novel as well: Myrtle, Tom’s mistress, whose desperate search for a life away from poverty is what kills her, and her husband George, who deeply loves her despite her greed and materialism.

Others, like Jordan Baker — briefly a romantic interest for narrator Nick — constantly twist the truth, creating even more fictions.

Even Nick himself may not entirely be reliable when recounting his encounters with Gatsby. His account is dotted with “probably” and “perhaps”, and “possibly” and “I suspect”. Is Nick reinventing Gatsby to fulfil his own spiritual needs?

At one point, he does compare Gatsby to Jesus, calling him a “son of God” who “sprang from his Platonic conception of himself”.

In the end, however, Nick does allude to the folly of losing touch with reality and chasing “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” He admits that “it eluded us then”, but that we will continue to “run faster” and “stretch out our arms farther”. “[And] so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2015.

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