I don’t know why women got the reputation of being so sickeningly sentimental when fiction is riddled with men’s obsessions masquerading as romance. The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, Great Expectations’s Estella, Love in the Time of Cholera’s Fermina Daza, The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Esmeralda; these stories may be borne of different cultures, worlds, styles, but all share the undeniable fact that their authors still nursed some undying, unquenchable, consuming, cherished, self-indulgent love for a woman long lost.
I was engaged once, and today, most of the time, I have no idea that this man even exists. I will see some old friends soon, one of whom is related to him, and only after thinking for quite a while about seeing said friend did I even remember he had a brother, and that I was going to marry him. As harsh as that sounds, it’s just true, and it doesn’t mean I was not once absolutely, resolutely, passionately, joyfully in love with him. I was in love again soon after him — maybe too soon — but he has not been. He is 28, drifts from job to job, picks up one interest and drops it for another, and has not had a girlfriend since 2007.
“…I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
I know a dozen men between the ages of 24 and 29 who still dream of a love who has left. (I know zero women.) They dream of her smell, they ponder unachievable presents and futures, they brutalize themselves over that one time they ordered the wrong appetizer, slammed the door too hard, kissed her the wrong way. She is beautiful, she is funny, she is magnificent, she does everything in the manner you know you want, you need; she is perfect. They fixate on who she is, and tend to ignore what they valued so much about her in the first place. Not that she was beautiful, but that they were blessed; not that she is funny, but they had fun; not that she is magnificent, but that they were glorious; that she brought them new things they had not known, and that, as far as they can tell today, March 17, 2011, they have never been as happy as that day in 2008, and never will be until they have her again.
“I spent my Saturday nights in New York because those gleaming, dazzling parties of his were with me so vividly that I could still hear the music and the laughter, faint and incessant, from his garden, and the cars going up and down his drive.”
Of course, in my humble, perhaps naïve, perhaps inexperienced, perhaps anomalous, perhaps fortunate opinion, they do not crave her so much as they crave how they used to feel. Moreover, they don’t crave the reality of what they felt, but its fantastically overdeveloped successor, that spectre that taunts with “what ifs” and “maybe somedays.”
“He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
These men build kingdoms to impress one who has forgotten them. They brush off this world, look past fresh opportunities, and fail to notice anything that would not fit into their imagined paths back to their old love’s heart. They imagine her; they imagine what she wants; they imagine a way to live that gives her what she wants. They pursue this Holy Grail, and sometimes, thank goodness, succeed.
Jay Gatz isn’t such a bad guy. He, like all of us, finds a woman onto whom he can project perfection, whom he can construct to be worthy of his love, and creates a life in which he believes this woman will belong. That said, the poor guy is obviously fucking deluded as shit. The ever-admirable Nick Carraway sympathizes with Gatsby while recognizing that Gatsby might not be so clean, and demonizes the Buchanans to the extent that you’re reminded this must be fiction, or how could he see his own caste’s haggard faults with such acuity? What an indictment, those famous words: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”
Tom clearly is a douchenozzle. I don’t think punching your wife in the face is considered couth in any culture. And maybe Daisy is “careless,” too. But in the end, Tom and Daisy maintain their partnership, seem to be generally happy with themselves, and carry on with their life. Why should we consider Gatsby any less careless? He, after all, is the one who does not see reality, who pays tribute to a false prophet, who schemes for a decade to inject himself into a narrative that is not his. He is the one who is so idealistic/idiotic that he thinks true happiness is found in another person, and not something he can build for himself. He throws bacchanals that bring hundreds of strangers joy (even if Nick judges them so harshly, you know that some of those people are so happy) purely on the off-chance that Daisy will show up. If he’s so damn careful, and his broad strokes are so damn deliberate, why can’t he tidy things up and swim through the wall? If carelessness is The Great Gatsby’s great sin, I’m not sure that any of the five main characters emerge unscathed.