Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Great Gatzby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, and their literary contemporaries belonged to the “lost generation” of Americans who came of age in the late 1910s. When young American men should have been going to university, beginning careers, and getting married they went instead overseas to fight in the Great War, leaving behind young women who waited anxiously for their return. Entire industries sprang up overnight to supply the war effort, fueling a period of economic growth which abruptly ended with the Treaty at Versailles in 1919. A brief recession occurred in the United States largely due to the lack of a plan for a post war economy on the part of President Woodrow Wilson (term, 1913-1921). The laissez-faire policies of President Warren Harding, elected in 1920, spurred a heady period of economic growth as munitions factories retooled to make consumer goods. Suddenly, America found itself in a hyperactive state of flux, a period which came to be called “The Jazz Age”, when social mores and women’s fashions finally broke free from Victorian era strangulation, and money seemed to grow on trees. Harding’s policies in service to an unregulated economy set the stage for the stock market crash 1929, but only a handful of “Chicken Littles” could see that the sky was going to fall.

Jazz, a fusion of African rhythm, Ragtime, classical music, Negro spirituals, and other influences, provided the soundtrack for the social and economic evolution taking place in the United States in the 1920s. With freedom and full citizenship a birthright, Blacks began migrating en masse to big cities such as New York and Chicago to work in factories, bringing their musical traditions and creative energy with them. Automobiles completely replaced horses for transportation, widening horizons for movement and spawning new industries and career opportunities. Prohibition drove liquor sales underground adding an element of danger and exclusiveness to the increasingly hedonistic party scene, while enriching the so-called “rum runners”. The stock market soared, leading to speculation and a sense that the party would go on forever.

New York – Wall Street – was the center of the universe and the sons of old money families flocked there to learn the stock and bond businesses. Their summers were spent on Long Island in grand homes facing the water, attending lavish parties where contraband liquor flowed freely and women danced to the new music with abandon. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald (1896-1940) found himself a part of this milieu when his success as a writer catapulted him into New York society. He was simultaneously enamored of and disgusted by his new friends, who were beautiful and charming as well as deceitful and shallow.

The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, is a searing portrait of elite society during the Jazz Age, with echoes from Fitzgerald’s own life. An upper class Catholic, Fitzgerald attended but did not graduate from Princeton University. Despite his literary gifts he was a mediocre student, and dropped out to enlist in World War I. As a youth, he had met and fallen obsessively in love with a southern belle named Zelda Sayre who refused to marry him until she was confident in his ability to keep her in the style to which she was accustomed. This Side of Paradise, published in 1920 made Fitzgerald wealthy enough for Zelda and the two were married in New York city. The marriage was stormy due to heavy drinking and Zelda’s latent schizophrenia as well as her insatiable material needs. Fitzgerald “prostituted” himself by writing for magazines and Hollywood producers so as to stay two steps ahead of his creditors. While he, himself, did not resort to criminal activity in order to keep his wife happy, he understood the temptation and toyed with the idea in the person of Jay Gatzby.

Fitzgerald struggled to understand the nature of love in his own life and recognized the corrupting influence of money and social position. Nick Carraway narrates the story of Jay Gatzby, a mysterious man who throws parties worthy of Bacchus in his waterfront mansion in West Egg, Long Island. East Egg was the realm of the old money aristocracy and while Nick belonged there, he chose to live in a bungalow next door to Jay Gatzby. Prohibition notwithstanding, Gatzby never seemed to run out of liquor for the constant stream of party guests who came through his door. Nick was too well bred to invite himself and so he waited for an invitation from his mysterious neighbor whom he had only observed at a distance, staring across the bay at East Egg.

Another important theme in The Great Gatzby is the uniquely American phenomenon of the overnight success. Like or not, established old money aristocrats found themselves in the company of vulgar new money people and had to devise ways of being civil while keeping a distance, even when friendships would have been financially advantageous. East Egg rarely ventured into West Egg, but Gatzby’s parties were reputedly so awash in liquor that the temptation was too great to resist. Eventually Nick receives an invitation to Gatzby’s home and discovers that none of the guests know their host; they don’t even know what he looks like. In a telling bit of social commentary, a guest referred to as “Owl Eyes” observes that the books in the library are real, indicating that Mr. Gatzby might in fact be an educated man, unlike most “new money”. The source of his wealth is the subject of much gossip and when the truth comes out it reveals how love can devolve into obsession and madness.

Women in the 1920s liberated themselves from corsets and heavy garments and began revealing their legs, arms, and décolletage. Dresses were cut to exaggerate dance movement and the lively young women wearing them were dubbed “flappers”. This was all very scandalous to the older generation and marked the beginning of profound social changes which eventually led to working mothers and the freedom to divorce. Men had always been able to indulge in sexual affairs with little consequence; keeping mistresses was not uncommon in the highest echelons of society, and wives had no choice but to tolerate their husbands’ infidelities. Inspired by the likes of Isadora Duncan, Georgia O’Keefe, Martha Graham, and Imogene Cunningham, women began appreciating their natural bodies and pushing the limits of sexual mores by taking lovers and posing in the nude for artists.

Daisy Buchanan, the object of Jay Gatzby’s obsession, is an unflattering example of a young society woman during this time. Driven by narcissism and materialism, Daisy married a rich man with a good pedigree, Tom Buchanan, rather than the poor but ambitious man with whom she had been passionately in love. Gatzby, refusing to accept Daisy’s rejection, spent several years reinventing himself in order to be worthy of her. The fact that Daisy is married and has a child is of little consequence to Gatzby; he knows they are meant to be together. Daisy’s husband, Tom, keeps a mistress in town but that doesn’t stop him from being jealous of the romance between his wife and her mysterious lover. Nick, in his narration, makes the point that while aristocrats look beautiful, they often do not act that way, leaving others to clean up after them. The Buchanans did not concern themselves with the feelings of others, all that mattered was getting what they wanted, when they wanted it. Their false sense of entitlement and superiority was a birthright.

Jay Gatzby, despite his efforts to become worthy of Daisy, ends up a tragic figure who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the woman he loves. The narcissistic Daisy coldly accepts this as if she deserves it, leading one to ask at what point did Gatzby’s love become madness? F. Scott Fitzgerald was likewise tragic: his marriage to Zelda was a torture chamber of codependence and he died young from alcoholism, believing himself to be a sell-out and a failure. Zelda had always suffered from delusions that she was a great writer, dancer, and artist; in truth she was a beautiful but overindulged dilettante with an enviable pedigree. Her behavior was erratic but the smitten Fitzgerald blamed himself for her unhappiness until, at some point, he realized that his wife was mentally ill and had her committed to a mental institution. For the rest of her life, Zelda cycled in and out of psychiatric hospitals, publishing a single novel which was poorly received by both the public and her husband, who accused her of plagiarism and character assassination. Whatever sympathy Fitzgerald once had for Zelda’s fragile mental health was obliterated by his scathing critique of her talents in the wake of her “tell all” book. The failure of Save Me the Waltz devastated Zelda; however, the book was resuscitated after her death when literary scholars recognized how underappreciated Fitzgerald’s work was, and provides a valuable counterpoint to his version of their life together.

The Great Gatzby is an enduring classic which is required reading of most high school students. It is important both as a historical document and as a great work of literature because of how it brings us into a time and place that was uniquely American, a window into our national character. F. Scott Fitzgerald, captured the essence of human nature within the world he was describing: the delusions, hypocrisies, and character defects which prevent all of us from transcending ourselves. By the time Jay Gatzby saw the truth about himself and Daisy it was too late, but he took a bullet for her just the same. Disillusioned and dispirited, Nick did what Fitzgerald wished he could have done: returned to the middle west of his youth to search for lost innocence.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Les Misérables

by Victor Hugo

A man steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven hungry children. For this crime, a French court sentences him to five years in prison. While in prison, his sense of outrage festers and he breaks out repeatedly, only to be recaptured and sentenced to additional time for each escape. While serving his time the man, Jean Valjean, exhibits almost superhuman strength in his ability to lift and carry great weights. His prison guard Javert, a man of questionable heritage, becomes obsessed with bringing Valjean to his knees. Nineteen years after stealing the loaf of bread, Jean Valjean walks out of prison a free man. Javert, however, cannot let go of his need to crush his mighty nemesis and devotes the rest of his life to this pursuit.

Les Misérables is an intricately crafted novel that is both epic in scope and hugely entertaining; hidden inside the story is a treatise on how the human condition depends on the will of the people to improve their collective lot. Literally translated, the title means “the impoverished” or “the wretched”. In 19th century France, following the fall of the Bastille and the Reign of Terror, the poor found themselves, once again, at the mercy of the rich, forced to steal food and then being mercilessly prosecuted for trying to survive. Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and his contemporaries believed that wretched conditions created criminals, in contrast to the prevailing view that one’s basic nature and potential were determined at birth. Outsized punishment for desperate acts of survival fueled the still simmering rebellion which had brought down a series of leaders as France struggled to govern itself. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the government wavered between attempts at forming a republic and reverting to a monarchy, and this instability provided a charismatic Italian artillery officer the opportunity to stage a coup d’état. During his reign, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte restored to France a false sense of glory by waging wars of aggression. Hubris led Napoleon to believe he could conquer Russia, leaving France weakened for the next many decades.

In Les Misérables Jean Valjean represents the voiceless underclass while Javert represents the abuse of power, under the guise of maintaining law and order, in service to authoritarian rule. Jean Valjean is no angel: upon his release from prison, he steals from a priest and is cruel to a little boy. The priest, representing the Christian notion of forgiveness, enables Jean Valjean to redeem himself by thwarting Javert’s prosecution of the theft. Javert knows that the priest is covering for Jean Valjean and reports the theft anyway. Humbled by the priest’s kindness, Jean Valjean devotes his life to atonement by doing good in the world. In order to live in peace, he changes his name to Monsieur Madeleine, becomes a successful businessman and prominent member of society, and lifts many out of poverty by providing jobs at his factory. None of this matters to “blind justice” in the person of Javert who discovers the true identity of “M. Madeleine” in an ironic plot twist. Javert gleefully arrests his quarry, but once again, Jean Valjean escapes, this time with money in his pockets. While on the lam, Jean Valjean rescues a little girl from servitude at the hands of her foster family and the two bond as father and daughter. Jean Valjean places the child, Cosette, in a convent for her safety while he stays one step ahead of Javert. Meanwhile, other characters and events conspire to bring Jean Valjean and Javert together repeatedly over the next few years.

While Javert pursues Jean Valjean, the Emperor Napoleon becomes desperate to hold onto power. Following France’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Russian General Kutuzov in 1812, the emperor’s former European allies turned against him and formed the so-called Sixth Coalition, putting as many as one million soldiers at the ready. Napoleon, by contrast, had fewer than 500,000 loyal troops remaining. This disadvantage did not stop him from attempting to retake parts of Germany which France had once controlled. The battle at Leipzig resulted in Napoleon abdicating the throne and being exiled to Elba, a small Italian island in the Tuscan Archipelago. A few months later, Napoleon escaped Elba and returned to France where his followers awaited his return from exile. King Louis XVIII left Paris as Napoleon returned in a blaze of glory. Given his outlaw status, a Seventh Coalition of nations established a strong military position along the border shared by France and The United Kingdom of the Netherlands (present day Belgium and The Netherlands). Rather than wait for the Seventh Coalition forces to invade France, Napoleon went on the offensive and quickly found himself surrounded on three sides by British, Dutch, German, Austrian, and Prussian forces. Three days later, on June 18th, 1815, the Battle of Waterloo ended with Napoleon’s final defeat.

Fifty thousand men died at Waterloo, a geographically small area, and the battlefield was literally an enormous pile of rotting bodies. While looting the bodies, Monsieur Thénardier, Cosette’s former guardian, discovers an injured colonel. M. Thénardier claims to be one of Napoleon’s soldiers and promises to help the colonel but instead moves out of sight. A short while later, Jean Valjean discovers the same unconscious colonel and carries him out of the battlefield. M. Thénardier gets credit for the rescue, however, and this leads to the colonel’s son Marius tracking down the wicked Thénardier family in order to give them a reward. By chance, Marius also meets up with Jean Valjean and Cosette who coincidentally all find themselves in the same place at the same time. Marius overhears the Thénardiers plotting to kill Jean Valjean and Cosette, with whom he has fallen in love, and reports this to local police inspector, who is none other than Javert.

Meanwhile student groups in Paris, outraged by the oppressively conservative Orléanists who seized power following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, stage a rebellion to support creation of a republic which would provide justice for the poor. Marius is part of this movement and believing that Cosette has left Paris, throws himself into the fray. Jean Valjean, none too pleased that Marius and Cosette are in love, can’t decide whether or not he wants Marius to survive the fight, but in the end does the right thing by carrying the injured young man to safety through the sewers of Paris.

The sewers serve a number of purposes in Les Misérables. First, to Victor Hugo and his contemporaries, sewers were a modern day marvel which enabled cities to grow and thrive by carrying away the human waste responsible for cholera epidemics. Sewers are an acknowledgement of the ugly reality of human existence: that everyone’s body produces foul waste regardless of social status. Jean Valjean, fugitive from twisted justice, must enter this fetid underworld conduit in order to save Cosette’s lover and himself. In the same way that blind justice is often unjust, sewers can carry away good things along with waste. Binary thinking, in other words, denies the complexity of humanity.

A prolific writer and poet, Victor Hugo, studied a number of political and philosophical themes throughout his life including good and evil, the “social contract”, equality, justice, utilitarianism, and morality. Les Misérables brings these ideas to life and demonstrates how public will in the form of representative government is the best way to advance the human condition and provide “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Governments “of, by, and for the people” acknowledge both our flaws and our aspirations and, when functioning properly, protect us from ourselves. The people of France followed America’s lead in attempting to create a state based on “liberty, equality, and brotherhood”; unlike forming a new nation where none existed inside of one hot summer, France struggled for more than a century to achieve political stability. While misery and injustice still exist in France, as in the United States, the overall human condition has vastly improved in these two countries.

As we have seen in Japan, however, the human condition can change in a day. We Americans take our government for granted, often vilifying it, even though it is a reflection of ourselves – good, bad, and ugly. State governors who disdain the federal government, are usually first in line for handouts when disaster strikes, and then quick to criticize the assistance as too little too late. Considering the alternatives to our imperfect more perfect union, certain politicians doth protest too much methinks.

Copyright 2011 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved