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Bar News - July 19, 2013

Representations: Gatsby Revisited: Seeing Romance and Crime Through Older Eyes


I snuck away from home a while ago, when wife and child were both asleep, and I saw Baz Luhrmann’s new movie, The Great Gatsby. Ten dollars and two hours later, I found myself wishing I had stayed home. It wasn’t very good.

It got me thinking about the novel itself, though, in a way I had not done before. It got me thinking about Gatsby as not just a character, but also as a criminal, and how Fitzgerald’s treatment of crime was both too easy and too romantic.

Too easy because he links Gatsby (and his bootlegging) to the ethnic “other” of his day (Wolfsheim, the gangster, an ugly and outlandish character), without appreciating how crime syndicates actually worked back then; and too romantic, because he uses that criminality to serve as the basis of Gatsby’s charm.

Bootlegging was a strange crime, after all. The Volstead Act raised the outlaw to accepted status, not only among the poor and dispossessed (where the bank robber and the vigilante have always been popular; it did not take many years after this novel, for the Depression to make heroes of John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd) but among the middle class and educated, too – which fact lets us imagine our own selves at Gatsby’s parties. Our law-abiding personalities fit right in. And while you can draw a rough comparison between the speakeasy culture of the 1920’s and the drug culture of today, which likewise invites ordinary people to ignore a moralizing law, Fitzgerald’s version wins every time. His parties were better. We have eating chips and watching television. He had singing and dancing.

Different books with similar themes treat these matters with more gravity, though, and the distance between these books only stresses the simplicity of Fitzgerald’s imagination.

Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy came out in 1925, the same year as Gatsby. Based on an actual murder case from upstate New York, it tells of a poor factory worker who falls in love with a wealthy young woman, while also entangled in an affair with a fellow wage-earner. Dreiser was an older writer, who had made his mark in another day and time. Compared to Fitzgerald, his prose is dreary, but he treated poverty and class far more seriously than Fitzgerald ever pretended to.

Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage from 1915 concerns a young man’s love for an unsuitable woman, how that love harmed him, and how he eventually transcended it. Maugham’s hero is a doctor, working in the charity wards of one of London’s great hospitals; in a reversal of sorts for this theme, he falls for a lowborn waitress.

Maugham sees love in a complex but clear-eyed fashion, with satisfaction in its joys, sympathy for its sorrows, and respect for the destruction it can so easily cause.

And an earlier work beckons, too: Dickens’s Great Expectations of 1861, which details not just the love story of Pip and Estelle, a poor boy and a rich girl, but also the life narrative of Magwitch, a common criminal, who ends up playing a key role in Pip and Estelle’s affair. Magwitch is no foreigner; he is as local as they come. Dickens understood crime as a native growth, not as any exotic import. And Magwitch’s criminality can’t be masked with charm or good looks, either. It’s ugly, it’s real, and it stems from the cruelty of society itself, that treats its neediest with fear and contempt.

Fitzgerald knew his Dickens well. The Beautiful and the Damned borrows from Bleak House, too. But he chose to write a romance, instead of an epic, and in so doing, he accepted the limits of that genre. Which goes back to why I had not thought about Jay Gatsby in a while, before I went to see this film. It was not from lack of affection, as this story has always been a favorite of mine, but rather because it’s a story that benefits from being read when young. The older I get, the easier it is for me to smile, shrug, and walk away from that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

It is indeed a pity, though, that no great movie has ever been made of this novel. If you are in the mood for seeing classic American literature on screen, then, you should rent George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun instead, adapted from An American Tragedy, and starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, both at the top of their games. It even has a trial scene.

Michael Davidow is a staff attorney at the NH Public Defender office in Nashua and the author of Split Thirty, a novel about politics and advertising.

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