Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires

As I have proceeded through this my earthly journey these last few months, my current line of work has allowed me to observe various classrooms, including, of course, English classrooms. I found myself one day in the midst of a very well-behaved room of young men and women who were currently reading through a portion of the classic American novel The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though I certainly had my own literature with me that day, I decided to take the plunge once again myself, having read the novel some six years ago when I was in high school. Every piece of literature is picked up with some level of preconceived notions. Unless we can somehow bypass an illustrator’s interpretation or happen to have a novel with no front cover, we will always bring something to the table. And the only thing that was resounding throughout my head as I flipped to page one of this novel was a vague memory of disgust.

To be fair to Fitzgerald, most of the last two years of my high school memories were full of that descriptive noun, and upon this second read, I found the novel to be far better than when I was a naïve young boy. Fitzgerald’s “masterpiece” (still not sure I’d call it that) is extremely well-written, has a very relevant message for us today, and includes the many literary gems that everyone wants in good literature such as imagery, foreshadowing, symbolism etc. In short, I find I spend far too much time in the shallowness of negativity that leaves only the “mere lees… this vault to brag of”, and I will proceed in praise of this work which I find is easier in the end anyways. For the moral argument I believe Fitzgerald is calling our attention to is our death knell of materialism. (SPOILER ALERT!) Gatsby’s fateful death and the aftermath is Fitzgerald’s own way of writing what Tolstoy beautifully penned in his short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” — in which the answer is the same as Fitzgerald’s: about six feet.

Among Fitzgerald’s first titles he tried out when he was writing this novel includes the title of this post “Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires.” The significance of this peculiar title comes, of course, from the valley of ashes which lie halfway in between Nick Carraway’s house and New York. This valley is described in some detail.

[It is] a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the already powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

Notice here the diction that so points forward to the death at the end of the novel: ashes, grotesque, forms, dimly, crumbling, powdery air, grey, crawls, invisible, ghastly creak, comes to rest, leaden spades and obscured sight. Fitzgerald is aware from the beginning of this novel to the end that Death is the central focus he wants his reader to take away from the story. When I first read the novel, so many years ago, I could not see past the vain relationships, feeling that Carraway’s little tryst with Jordan should be the focus of the novel and Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy nothing but an old fancy he desperately needed to end.

These relationships are important to the novel, but they cannot be the focus. The conclusion the reader will reach if they are his focus is that Fitzgerald was insisting on the moral justification of adultery in certain cases and that true love is nearly impossible to find this day and age. Whether Fitzgerald was arguing those things or not is hard to determine, though I would not put so harsh a label on him with so little evidence because, in the end, this novel’s focus is on death and that unfortunate reality for so many wealthy people in the world: you take nothing with you.

But the relationships are important, and Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy is key in displaying the novel’s core theme. The best way for Fitzgerald to show that wealth is simply a fleeting pleasure that burns with us in our death is to fit that truth into a love relationship that hinges on wealth. Gatsby’s entire existence in the novel is a mystery in terms of how he accrued his wealth, where he came from, what his real name is etc. But what the readers know is that his insatiable search for a married woman he once loved is as shallow as his bank account after his death. This is displayed well by the middle of the novel when the two meet.

We learn, for instance, that “Gatsby bought [his] house so that Daisy would be just across the bay” and that he desires for Daisy to see that house — a large one. His elaborate parties were thrown in hopes that she would show up, be drawn to the glitz and glammer of all that Gatsby had become, see his house, experience his wealth, and leave her husband. This seems to be working quite well in fact, especially when Carraway reflects on Gatsby’s statement that Daisy’s voice is “full of money.”

That it was. I’d never understood before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

While Gatsby intends to win Daisy over with his wealth, the whole intent of the man can perhaps be best displayed later on in the same chapter as he confronts Tom, Daisy’s husband, with his life’s thesis statement.

“She never loved you, do you hear?” he cried. “She only married you because I was poor and she was tired of waiting for me. It was a terrible mistake, but in her heart she never loved anybody except me!”

What proceeds from this highly awkward conversation (with Nick, Jordan, and Daisy all being in the room listening in) is a fight between two men about how they care for a woman all the while displaying how little they are thinking about her. Tom claims Daisy has foolish ideas in her head, while Gatsby is altogether stuck in the past, intent only on winning a petty little fight which culminates in Daisy’s exclamation: “Oh, you want too much… I love you now–isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past…. Even alone I can’t say I never loved Tom.” And Gatsby is cut to the quick.

This tragic display of love gone awry simmers from this point in the novel. Gatsby waits all night outside Daisy’s house but receives no recognition from her that night. We only see Daisy and Tom holding hands and talking in earnest about the evening’s events. As Gatsby waits outside like an idiot, we see the novel’s protagonist at his lowest point, yet we feel some glimmer of hope as we picture the estranged couple holding hands, ignoring their chicken and ale and conspiring together. The scene is a light in a very dark chapter much like the green light of their house was to Gatsby — leading us to believe that a marriage may just be saved, however thin that hope may be. But the contrast of our protagonist turned villain is also striking.

[Gatsby] put his hands in his coat pockets and turned back eagerly to his scrutiny of the house, as though my presence marred the sacredness of the vigil. So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight — watching over nothing.

Fitzgerald’s story is of a materialistic society that has lost touch with reality, and he beautifully weaves it inside a disastrous love story of a man who believed his money could buy back the past. The love relationship can be an analogy to life itself, as love, romantic or platonic, is what many consider part of the engine that keeps the human spirit running. A split in a long relationship is a chasm nearly as hard to revive as the man in the morgue, and Gatsby’s impending death would be a reflection of the near-death he caused between Daisy and Tom. The irony is that while Gatsby’s story ends in sorrow, Daisy and Tom have a chance at a renewal or rebirth of their relationship. One man’s death leads to the life of others, though, of course, we are not told what happens with Daisy and Tom’s relationship.

Gatsby’s death from the perspective of the characters involved in the novel is pure accident — something straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy. The mix-up of who was driving and responsible for Mrs. Wilson’s death leads to what should be Tom’s death but is Gatsby’s instead, and from the perspective of Carraway the good guys die while the villain gets off scot-free — and I believe we can all feel some sympathy with Carraway’s words to Gatsby that he is “worth the whole damn bunch put together.” On the one hand, we see Gatsby as a naïve lover who is more in love with an idea, a past event, than the woman herself, yet we always see him far and above Tom’s character, the unfaithful husband. Like most good tragedies, the love-struck fool must pay the price for his obtuseness, and the evil men are victorious.

Yet, while in terms of the novel this outcome is an injustice, a broader context shows us that Gatsby’s character had to die, if not for the redemption of one marriage than for the display that was his funeral. As Carraway seeks to generate interest in Gatsby’s funeral, he is met over and over again with false promises and no-shows. This is such a sad, stark contrast to the liveliness that was a Gatsby party, and his wealth and obscure fame bought him only one friend at his funeral. The absence of Daisy rightfully strikes Carraway as the coldest of rejections to Gatsby’s life, a life devoted to her, and further draws that line from millionaires to their ash heaps.

This novel ends with two condemnations of the wealthy. As Carraway happens to see Tom one last time, he leaves his readers with one final thought on his feelings about such people.

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…

An apt description of a people so willed by money they will do anything to keep it. But Carraway’s thoughts as he leaves Gatsby’s big deserted house are far more telling considering our judgement on Gatsby and his materialism.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually 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 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 æsthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

As he reflects on his old friend and remembers the lively parties, the house that he once believed was on fire it was so lit up with life, he contemplates this country’s rich history and how such dreams could turn into nightmares: how men could be so fragile with the ash heaps that they own as to turn that good into a will to crush his fellow creatures; how men could be so bent on one constant, yet fleeting goal so as to sell all their worldly goods for it, only to see it vanish away like a vapor. While Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby contains a love story, it is a testament to what happens when man’s greedy materialism runs amok, when men have so long been in their ash heaps and the only wealth they are creating is wilting daisies for the enjoyment of others.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. — Ecclesiastes 5:10-17

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