Last fall, J and I drove down the California coast to San Simeon and spent an entire day at the famed Hearst Castle. While we wound our way through the magical estate, I started to think about William Randolph Hearst and Orson Welles' stinging and mythical portrayal of him in Citizen Kane, which still overshadows the truth of his life. To most of us, he was always be that great and lonely man in a very big house.
Another mythical character who fits that description is Jay Gatsby (aka The Great Gatsby), who dies all alone in a swimming pool no doubt similar to Hearst's Roman Pool. But why was Gatsby great? Was it simply his wealth? Was it his showmanship? His dream? His love? Why has his story endured? Why is myth more powerful than reality?
Those who grew up in the U.S. more than likely read F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece for the first time in middle or high school. Having attended a French immersion school, where it was not required reading, I didn't read it until my mid-20's. When I finally did, I kicked myself for not doing it sooner. But it wasn't too late. I was still young enough to appreciate its core of hope and nostalgia as two sides of the same dream.
The world the characters inhabit is an insular one, a hive of privilege and glamour and above all, secrets. Everyone has secrets, though everyone seems to know all of them except for Gatsby's. He is both an outsider and the ultimate insider, the secret within the secretive hive. Having hyped himself as the new king bee, the mysterious honey that attracts the busy bees from all corners of the hive, he lures both Daisy and provokes Tom to unmask him and reclaim his throne.
Hearst Castle's Casa Grande in San Simeon
Hearst Castle's Dining Hall in San Simeon
Hearst Castle's Roman Pool in San Simeon
Though an iconic character, it's not Gatsby who fascinates me, but rather Nick's fascination with Gatsby. Nick, who lives in his guest house, is at first the only invited guest into his lonely life. He is the only one Gatsby trusts to see inside because he needs him, not only to lure Daisy but to legitimize his status as king bee.
Gatsby's story endures not only because of its rags-to-riches background (much like other American classics such as An American Tragedy) but because we see this world through the eyes of the go-between narrator who is us. Like Nick, we are first cautiously attracted to this world, hopeful that Gatsby might transform it with his naive dreams, but ultimately repulsed by the carelessness and callousness with which it crushes them.
Yet, like Nick, we remain hopeful as we have glimpsed life through the eyes of the ever-hopeful Gatsby, a man who seemed truly capable of forging his own destiny despite his humble beginnings and the odds against him. Though dimmed, his is a light that will continue to endure as long as the American Dream endures—supported by Nicks everywhere, however weary we become the farther we get from it.
"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
With an ending like that, how could it be anything but great?