Warning: This post contains spoilers from The Great Gatsby. On the other hand, the book is 88-years-old. Perhaps it’s time to get on that.
I can’t go quite as far as Kathryn Schulz. I don’t “despise” the Great Gatsby. I don’t mind Fitzgerald’s moralism. I’m comfortable with the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy being something of a black box. I love the writing and, for that matter most of the book. What I can’t stand is the finale.
The book’s denouement is a series of ever-more insane coincidences. Gatsby and Daisy hit a pedestrian. The pedestrian proves to be Tom’s mistress. Tom persuades her husband that Gatsby was driving the car. The husband kills Gatsby then kills himself.
That’s fine for fiction. Dark Knight Rises wasn’t very believable, either. But it’s a problem for a book with Something To Say. The end of the Great Gatsby doesn’t feel inevitable. It feels unlikely. And thus its lessons don’t mean much.
Reenter the world of the book. Gatsby and Daisy are driving home after the confrontation with Tom. Imagine Myrtle doesn’t run into the street. Gatsby and Daisy just arrive after an emotional, but otherwise uneventful, car ride. Perhaps Gatsby apologizes for trying to persuade Daisy to say she never loved Tom. Perhaps he doesn’t. Maybe Daisy waffles for a few days and leaves Tom and all ends happily for Gatsby. Maybe she doesn’t leave Tom, but Gatsby gets some closure and moves on with his life, luxuriating in being an insanely rich dude who throws great parties. Maybe he meets someone he ends up loving more than Daisy. Maybe he ends up with Daisy but then he goes to jail for bootlegging.
All of these endings are vastly likelier than the ending we actually get. And so the ending we get actually doesn’t tell us that much about America in 1925, or about the conflict between old and new money, or about the decadence of wealth. The book is held up as saying something universal. For me, the unbelievable coincidences that drive the ending means it can only ever say something specific. All things being equal, it’s better to avoid being in the car when your love runs over a pedestrian who happens to be the mistress of the guy you’re cuckolding. That’s good life advice, but rarely applicable.
The counterargument here is obvious: Plenty of other famed books rely on coincidence, or deus ex machinas, to reach their inevitable conclusion. But that’s precisely my problem with the Great Gatsby: Absent its ending, its conclusion is very different. The ending doesn’t repeat the book. It contradicts it.
As Nick Gillespie writes, most of the Great Gatsby perceptively sketches a moment in which new money, new immigrants, a new economy, and new social mores were overwhelming the old order. The old order triumphs in the book, but only with the help of authorial providence. Absent that car ride, Gatsby’s story might have proven a happy one. And 88-years-later, when the film is being made by a guy named Baz Luhrmann in a country run by a guy named Barack Hussein Obama, we know who really won, and it isn’t Tom. F. Scott Fitzgerald had it right, at least up until the end.