The resurgence of Gatsby on Wall Street

Gatsby mania is back with a new film adaptation of the novel, a music hall version of the book in London, last year’s off-Broadway play and several new books on the protagonist and the author. Perhaps the reason for the buzz around “The Great Gatsby” is that the book is such an accurate reflection of modem America.

Bad guys are often the most interesting fiction characters. Psychologists who claim to know about these things tell us that male readers can’t help admiring fictional bad guys because they have the minerals to go after what they want without being hung up by laws, social rules or moral constraints.

They see. They want. They take. Simple as that.

Female readers can’t help admiring bad guys either, but for different reasons. Deep down, psychologists insist, every woman is attracted to men who seem able to give them superior children. In our rarified social world, “superior” means children who can make themselves rich and celebrated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby is one of the classic bad guys of American fiction. He runs a successful bootlegging operation- so successful that he’s able to buy a bay-front mansion on the upscale north shore of Long Island, just east of New York City, staff it with servants and a yellow Rolls Royce, and throw enormous parties every weekend – all while circulating artfully mysterious stories about being the lone survivor of an aristocratic West Coast family.

Gatsby is different from most bootleggers. For one thing, he isn’t a standard urban-slum ethnic type like AI Capone. Instead, he grew up in a small Midwestern town and experienced the kind of semi-rural near-poverty that was the lot of so many WASPS in those days.

He burned with a desire to “improve himself’ borne of the popular copy book maxims of the day that promised upward mobility and the American Eden. He took a critical step toward achieving his goal when he became an Army officer during the First World War.

As a handsome young military officer whose down-market penury was hidden by a well-tailored uniform and Army paychecks, Gatsby found it easy to gain entry into the aristocracy’s social world in the small southern city where he was assigned for training. That’s how he met Daisy, the beautiful, callow, capricious daughter of an upscale local family who became the love of his life and personification of all his ambitions.

After Gatsby was posted to France just in time for the Armistice and found his return to the United States delayed by red tape, restless Daisy let herself be married off to the smirking son of an aristocratic Chicago family. It left Gatsby emotionally shattered and driven to make himself as rich as possible by any feasible means so he could “buy back” Daisy from what he convinced himself was a mere “marriage of convenience.”

Hence the lucrative bootlegging business, the mansion right across the bay from the one where Daisy  and her husband live and Gatsby’s made-up stories about his aristocratic background. But all to no avail. His pursuit of the American Dream fails and he is ultimately killed.

If the media is to be believed, Wall Street sharks like Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff- one of the few who’s actually been sent to prison- are currently America’s leading bad guys. They manipulate other people’s money to serve their own ambitions, oblivious to how the resulting economic disaster has affected ordinary Americans.

Wall Street trickery helped drive America into an economic abyss from which we can’t seem to emerge, despite a Gatsby-like stock market rally. The result is disillusionment with the American dream and its promise of social and economic mobility.

“The Great Gatsby” is a reflection of our own time. The richest one percent received the preponderance of income during the Jazz Age, and the same income inequalities exist in America today. The party of the Clinton-Bush (rhymes with tush) boom years ended long ago, replaced by the Great Recession- just as the Jazz Age obsession with conspicuous consumption ended with the stock market crash in 1929.

The novel stands as an endorsement of Balzac’s comment that “behind every great fortune is a great crime.”

originally published: June 15, 2013

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