Sunday, March 13, 2011

"OMGWTF, Gatsby!"

It's been a few years since I read Gatsby, and I've found that I've absolutely loved coming back to it.  It really is such a beautiful, lyrical read, and I keep underlining passages that pull at me.  Most of the book, I want to read out loud, I want to have it read to me, I want to fall asleep to Fitzgerald's long descriptions of Gatsby's parties and wake up to the Valley of Ashes.  I could read most of the book every day of my life, I think.  But not all of it.

I've realized, upon this reading, how very much the dialogue drives me nuts.  Take, for instance, this conversation between Catherine and Mrs. McKee at Tom's flat in New York in Chapter II.

"When they do get married," continued Catherine, "they're going West to lie for a while until it blows over."
"It'd be more discreet to go to Europe."
"Oh, do you like Europe?" she exclaimed surprisingly.  " I just got back from Monte Carlo."
"Just last year.  I went over there with another girl."
"Stay long?"
"No, we just went to Monte Carlo and back.  We went by way f Marseilles.  We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started, but we got gypped out of it all in two days in the private rooms.  We had an awful time getting back, I can tell you.  God, how I hated that town!"  p.34

I read passages like this and just go crazy.  Their livelihoods revolve around gossip and social interaction, and their analysis of life events is surface-level and shallow.  I mean, I'd hate to throw something like this into the mix as a means of comparison, but I really can't help it.  Gatsby's dialogue is better (except when he's around Daisy), but the majority of characters in this novel are always crying out, nodding their heads, and gazing off distantly.  It's absurd to me.

Of course, I took a step back and gave it another thought.  I realized that this was F. Scott Fitzgerald and it's an exceptionally short novel, and if he wanted to put something in his work then there sure as hell was a good reason for it.  So I'm caught between two theories on this.

One, that Fitzgerald really wants to set this mood of emptiness and idiocy in his work and includes these trains of dialogue as a way of drawing the reader into the sense of emptiness and lack of substance.  It's a true reflection of the idle rich and communicates Fitzgerald's commentary on the lack of substance or meaning in the upper crust.

Two, their dialogue is actually ripe with meaning beneath the guise of being utterly inane.  While on the surface, it seems like nothing these people are saying to each other matters, but underneath lies a current of meaning and social commentary.  This is actually compelling and fairly ironic, that people with so little to say could say so much.  They're a bunch of beautiful people with simple lives and no responsibility, so what could it mean that Fitzgerald might employ their empty dialogue to communicate his deeper meaning?

Do you feel lucky?

We talked about Lily's excessive gambling in class, and discussed how she gambles away a good deal of her livelihood that could be spent on the lavish lifestyle she wants so badly.  She does have a decent amount of money; if she were to save wisely, she could easily provide for herself and be comfortable as a single woman.  However, Lily's eyes are on the prize, so to speak, and she instead relies on luck to get to where she wants to be.

This idea of luck is pervasive in House of Mirth.  You can see it not only in all the characters' gambling tendencies, but also in the way Lily approaches suitors and marriage.  In the novel-- and hinted in her past as well-- Lily turns down certain men under the idea and hope that there's an even better, richer, more socially powerful man on his way.  It's this approach towards gambling that has brought Lily here in the first place, to the state of being in her late twenties and without the security of marriage.

I started to wonder how this could be, how Lily could be so flagrant with her disregard of consequences when gambling with her future.  She loses big in stocks and loses frequently in bridge-- why can't she learn from these mistakes and apply them to the grander scheme of her life?  I wonder if Lily has ever really fallen hard, really felt the consequences of her gambling approach to life.  With the suitors, a failure with one certainly wouldn't feel permanent, because there are so many suitors out there and she is just so young and pretty. 

What Lily fails to really get a grasp on, I think, is the actual weight of the chips she gambles with.  These are her beauty, her youth, and her future.  The people she associates with are either young, fun, and single, or old, secure, and married.  I feel like Lily believes that one can be only either young/fun/single, or old/secure/married-- never a mix of these two spheres.  It doesn't once truly occur to her that she can be old and single, and so she doesn't realize how much weight lies in the chips she holds.  Even when they're gone, their "goneness" feels impermanent and fixable.

I guess what I'm getting down to is that I feel like Lily has trouble with absolutes, with final endings and permanent changes.  She just doesn't believe that they exist.  This is something I've struggled with in my own life as well, an obliviousness to the idea that my actions may have permanent results.  I really connect with Lily here; I think we both ignore the idea "foreverness" as a sort of self-preservation tactic.  It's a lot easier to take gambles here and there if you're not quite in touch with the reality of losing.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Why read the book when you could play the video game?

Leave it to the internet to combine two of my favorite things: F. Scott Fitzgerald and video games.   That's right, it's The Great Gatsby for NES.  Who's excited?  I know I was.  In fact, I was so excited that I sat and dragged my poor little Nick Carraway through an untold number of "Game Over, Old Sport!"s in front of anyone who cared to see on the first floor of Miller.

I realized two things as I sat there, engrossed in my 8-bit adventure.  The first: I'm not all that great at video games.  Which is all right in any other setting, but I just wanted to find Gatsby in the garden!  Owl Eyes told me he would be there! 

The second: I gained such an odd sense of self-satisfaction, sitting there playing some silly NES game in front of my fellow library patrons.  At a table behind me, one guy was paging through an 8-book stack of history journals.  To my left, a girl was scanning hopelessly through her O-chem text.  And I'm sure somewhere else on the 1st floor, someone was writing a blog for this class with true academic and literary relevance.  But there I was, dodging waiters with martinis without a care in the world.

Maybe it's a little twisted, maybe it's not 100% accurate, but maybe that's what it feels like to be idle rich.  Not only did I have the luxury of a free evening amidst all the laborers and midterm-takers, but I was showing it.  I had it blatantly on my screen that I was done for the night, that I had time to waste and by God, I was going to waste it.  Looking back, I realize that I was actually pretty proud of it, pretty excited to show off my academic security.  All I wished for in the world at that point was to have a cut lawn, an uncut book, and a glass of scotch.  I guess that's part of being part of the idle rich-- with such a lack of real accomplishment, it must be brutally tempting to show off the only thing they do have: their lack.  What good is doing nothing if you don't have anyone to do nothing in front of?

(A side note to the fine patrons of Miller 1st floor: please accept my humblest apologies.  In all honesty, I had two lesson plans to type, half a book to read, a Moodle response due, and a paper to annotate.  Rest assured knowing that my show of academic security and confidence was nothing more than that: a show.  I'm just as doomed for that upcoming midterm as you, friend.  Or as they say, "Game Over, Old Sport!".)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keeping a Free Foot

While reading The House of Mirth, I was drawn to the relationship between married couples vs. the interactions of the young and single.  We had a class discussion about married women being able to flirt, but the single ladies having to be reserved and stick to a certain code.  I was thrown off guard by this apparent power imbalance between romantic couples during this time period.

We talked recently in my Child Development class about power struggles in relationships.  In most relationships you will have throughout your life, there's going to be someone with more power and someone with less power.  The healthier the relationship, the less dramatic the imbalance and less power discrepancy between the two groups.   I found one passage in particular that really threw me off, when reading for this kind of interaction.

When Lily goes to the station to pick up Mr. Trenor, they drive back home and have a conversation about why Mrs. Trenor would have sent Lily.  She argues that she's the "safest person" for him to be with, and to this he replies, "It's because you wouldn't waste your time on an old hulk like me.  We married men have to put up with what we can get; all the prizes are for the clever chaps who've kept a free foot."

I'm trying to determine where the power lies in married couples.  Is it in the male, who has acquired the beautiful piece of feminine art and may now show her off to his society?  This passage made me question this belief and wonder about the power of the female in a married position.  Not only may she flirt with other men now, as we mentioned in class, but Mr. Trenor references the Mrs. as a sort of "ball and chain" by pointing out his lack of a "free foot".  She has a power over him, and I think that power is drawn from keeping him from occupying the art-collector role of the younger, single men in society.  In the idle rich lifestyle, this pleasure in the female form is one of the only pastimes, and it drives much of their interaction-- gossip, dinner parties, tableaus.  But what good is a husband, who has already acquired his essential piece of art?  And now his wife has access to his funds and is able to throw the elaborate dinner parties, plan travels abroad, and exert control over their husbands.

I believe this ties closely in to how and why Lily operates the way she does.  She wants that power, that freedom afforded by a wealthy marriage, but is not willing to play by the rules and constraints of being a proper, single lady.  I guess that's what makes Lily an especially compelling character to me, that she should life her life in such a binary of having the power to be manipulative and successful on her own, yet tries to fit herself into the box of matrimony that society has prescribed for her.