Sunday, May 5, 2013
My favorite line from The Great Gatsby is: "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars." It is of course one of the most famous lines. Evoking ephemeral, romantic images is one of Fitzgerald's great gifts to literature.
As you may know, I am an American Literature teacher and it is Gatsby season. In five days the new movie comes out. My students are so worked up over this novel. But this novel has, this year, come full circle for me. After ten years of teaching it, I feel I have a deeper understanding of the work, the author, and its place in the canon because of its relevancy across generations.
Over the past year, I read The Paris Wife, Tender is the Night, and most recently, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald. And what I come away from it all with is that truth is as diaphanous as dreams. What is truth? Can there be one truth? Or is truth different for different people? Can a truth change?
Scott was my first literary love. And as I have read and taught Fitzgerald's works, though I often ask my students to examine the novel through a feminist lens for at least one lesson, I have always laughed at his portrayal of women. How absurd they are. Daisy is vapid, Myrtle tragically trashy, Jordan haughty. All of them careless. The men treat them as objects and yet are so utterly wounded by the ultimate betrayals and downfalls of these women, and we somehow end up feeling bad for them. The men. Especially Gatsby.
Like Daisy and Myrtle, I had always believed it was Zelda who had ruined Scott, or at least had been the unstable one. Scott Fitzgerald was to me Jay Gatsby, a sad romantic whose dreams were never quite as real as he strove for them to be, mostly due to alcohol and his wife's need for a high life style he could barely provide. Interestingly, in Z, Therese Anne Fowler takes the opposite argument. In her notes, she acknowledges that there are two camps. One that claims Zelda ruined Scott (fueled mostly by the tales of Ernest Hemingway who infamously believed Zelda was jealous of Scott and trying to undermine his work). Then there is the camp that believes it was the other way around, and if anything it was Hemingway for all his over the top manliness that was jealous of Zelda's relationship with her husband.
Could the truth I had been fed for so many years by the male literary establishment, be so misconstrued? Granted the two feminist point of view books are fiction. But so is Tender is the Night. So is The Great Gatsby. So is For Whom the Bell Tolls. Both Scott and Hemingway unapologetically used the very real events and conversations of their lives the people they knew in their writing, sometimes barely fictionalizing it at all. So, where does the line between fiction and truth lie? Is there even such a thing?
I say there is no such thing as truth. Truth is a fabrication. All of life is a story, one we write for ourselves and one others write with us in it. What is real to one person, might not even exist for another. What an individual imagines can be their whole world, made true only by their undying belief. Could Daisy love Tom and Gatsby both? Could both Zelda's story and Scott be true? Can our dreams be as true as our realities? And if we die still believing in our own truth, who is to say we anything less than what we imagined?