Great Gatsby: The Age of Wonderful Nonsense
Imagine you were a young woman in the 1920s. World War I is finally over, and you are lucky enough to have survived the horrors of the war, you returned home, live your life to the fullest. You are part of enormous social and economical changes; you gained the right to vote, you date, wear make-up, indulge in reckless parties, the consumer culture thrives; ideals and morals greatly shift. You are now able to dress, talk and walk like your male counterparts.
You drive cars, smoke, and even drink in public. In other words, you are liberated in any possible way and part of a new rebellious generation. You are the so called Flapper of the Jazz Age.
Altogether, one might nowadays jump to the conclusion that it must have been an exciting, breathtaking, and thrilling time in history. Indeed, the two quintessential documents of the Roaring Twenties; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, do show this incredible side of the period.
However, they also bear witness to the fact that there is as well, another, more gloomy and dark side to it. There is more to this than meets the eye. The term the Lost Generation was coined in order to explain that it was more difficult than expected to return to normalcy. Moreover, the young men and women who experienced the war become morally lost and could no longer rely on tradition. They lived meaningless lives and the empty pursuit of pleasure was just an escape from reality. They were emotional cripples, who suffered trauma and were no longer able to
trust, love or respect each other:
They found themselves expected to settle down into the humdrum routine of American life as if nothing had happened, to accept the moral dicta of elders who seemed to them still to be living in a Pollyanna land of rosy ideals which the war had killed for them. They couldn’t do it, and they very disrespectfully said so. (Allen)
Both Hemingway, and Fitzgerald document the enormous economical and social changes which take place and introduce the reader to typical Flapper characters in their works; Lady Brett Ashley, Daisy Buchanan, and Jordan Baker represent the common attitude of the time. At first glance, the reader often judges them to be rather shallow, careless, foolish, bored, seductive, craving sensation, even neurotic women. But, if one looks deeper into their personalities; one can see that there is more behind that and it becomes clear that such a narrow view and judgment of their characters is far too simplistic and that they , actually , do care. Certainly, Fitzgerald and Hemingway constantly provide the reader with details which make it hard to deny that these women are not indifferent, unworthy, selfish.
One finds out that Daisy seems to be totally indifferent to her little daughter, not being at all a devoted and caring mother. Still, the words she says after giving birth to her baby girl are somehow intriguing:
“Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ’All right’, I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” (Fitzgerald 17)
In fact, here Daisy shows that she is vulnerable to emotions, she is not shallow, indeed, she has been hurt and suffered in the past. Her wish for her daughter to become such a “fool” sounds harsh, cruel, but it is a desire to protect her from experiencing the bitter pain that Daisy herself seems to have known too well.
Jordan Baker seems to be just as unable to feel and express strong emotions, as Daisy. She is beautiful, charming, and charismatic. Nick observes that she is “incurably dishonest”, still he somehow is attracted to her and she makes him curious:
The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something—most affectations conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning—(Fitzgerald 58)
This quotation suggests that Jordan is not a stock character, there are reasons why she behaves the way she does, and we cannot judge her for her cold cynical attitude because she ,obviously has gone through pain in her life and just like Daisy wants to shelter herself from further pain or disappointment. The reader wonders what could possibly have happened to a woman who is ready to go out on a date just hours after the tragedy of Myrtle being killed. It is evidence that she is deeply affected.
Furthermore, Daisy is characterized by Nick as a careless person who smashes things up and then retreats behind her money. We are able to see it best when she chooses to leave town together with Tom, immediately after the accident, not saying a word and leaving Gatsby behind, even though he took all the blame on him. Still, Daisy loved Gatsby. After he went to war she stopped socializing and waited for over a year for him to come back. If she never cared for him, or never had any true feelings, she would not do so. In addition, the reader sees the way she looks at Gatsby after their reunion; she admires him verbally and cannot keep her hands off him. Now, why then she chooses to marry Tom and leave Gatsby behind? :
Backed against the wall, she ultimately chooses Tom, though she knows that neither can meet her needs by himself. Tom cannot satisfy her expectations of romantic devotion, and Gatsby, who made his fortune illegally, cannot meet her need for stability and social respectability. Daisy’s insistence that she loved them both is honest—she loved Gatsby in a romantic way, and she loved Tom in a more practical way. (Fryer)
Daisy craves for stability and a certain structure in life, something Tom as being “old money” can, and Gatsby and his “new money”, never will be able to offer her.
Hemingway’s typical Flapper character, Lady Brett Ashley is an independent, charming, strong woman who cuts her hair short and has an almost magical power over all male characters in the novel. The Sun Also Rises seems to be an endless hedonistic party. They do nothing but indulge in alcohol, sex, food, bullfighting, siestas. Life is sheer bliss. However, nobody seems to be happy. Brett has been a nurse on the Italian front and the war took the life of her first love. It is hard to even imagine what kind of scenes she was exposed to every single day on the battlefield. The war and the formation of her character must be connected:
….she survives the colossal violence, the disruption of her personal life, and the exposure to mass promiscuity, to confront a moral and emotional vacuum among her postwar lovers. With this evidence of male default all around her, she steps off the romantic pedestal, moves freely through the bars of Paris, and stands confidently there beside her newfound equals… But stoic or not, they are all incapable of love, and in their sober moments they seem to know it…together they form a pair of honest cripples. (Spilka)
Brett and the others are all young people who no longer believe in anything, and how could they? The hedonistic society is the only escape for them, the only way not to think about the horrible images which are burnt into their memories.
Brett is very much aware of the fact that she is able to ruin the young and energetic bullfighter Pedro Romero. She does not want to be “one of those bitches who ruins children”, here she finally seems to be moral, she admits that she cannot live with a man, without destroying him. Exactly this kills the illusion that she and Jake would have become true lovers, if only he had not been wounded and had not lost his manhood in war. The closing lines are proof for this disillusionment:
“Oh, Jake, “Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”… “Yes, I said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so? “ (Hemingway 287).
These lines confirm that Jake realizes how this is a lie, and to consider that it could have happened, is simply, absurd. They would still be this emotionally impotent people. Love is dead for their generation and it was inevitable to become that way after the shocks of the war.
All in all, yes, it is true that the 1920s were exciting, breathtaking, thrilling times, but there is more to this than meets the eye- the Lost Generation and their shattered dreams, moral values and beliefs. Many would claim that the Flapper attitude, their reckless lifestyle and behavior, was unbearable and tend to blame women such Daisy, Jordan or Brett because they were given all these privileges their unliberated mothers and grandmothers never were. They should have been happy to have survived the war and focus on more positive goals instead of living empty lives.
The truth is that they all are disillusioned and desperately crave for a sense of security. Perhaps they deserve more pity than blame. And, even though these women seem to be superficial, they are, actually caring. The perception of the world became a different one and their behavior is a natural impulse in order to protect themselves. Finally, the opening words of The Great Gatsby express in a wonderful way that one should never judge people until one has walked a mile in their shoes and look at the other side of the coin from time to time.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “ just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had. (Fitzgerald 1)
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.
Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the Nineteen-Twenties. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1931. 94.
Spilka, Mark. “The Death of Love in The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway.” A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Robert P. Weeks. New York: Chelsea, 1987. 127-138.
Fryer, Sarah Beebe. “Beneath the Mask: The Plight of Daisy Buchanan.” Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Ed. Scott Donaldson. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. 153-166.
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