So I’ve done a couple of these that could be considered a bit of a stretch — the last one being Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat.” I included it because I really enjoy fiction that parallel’s an author’s personal experiences, be it in combat against man or combat against nature. There are just details and moments that add to the richness and often weight of a story when it’s coming from someone who has experienced those exact things themselves.
You might see this one and think, “Eh, it’s still a bit of a stretch. I read ‘The Great Gatsby’ in eighth grade and I don’t remember one mention of war or physical conflict in the whole thing.” It might seem like I’m reaching, but I promise you I’m not.
The First World War was catastrophic. You can read the numbers — American losses were staggering. The machine gun became an effective weapon of war for the first time. Chemical warfare was abundant on the battlefield. Trenches were brimming with disease and despair alike. There were battles where entire swaths of units were simply wiped off the face of the earth.
As I mentioned in the first entry of this series, a lot of people read books by author, but I would recommend reading on a timeline. Read several books prior to World War One–Henry James’ “Pandora” for example, or Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.” You have high society concerns, like who to marry or what the upper class will think of you if they find out your dirty little secret. After WWI hits, that all abruptly stops. T.S. Eliot writes “The Waste Land” and Hemingway would begin to write “In Our Time” and “A Farewell to Arms.” The world is broken, and you can almost feel the cracks in the very fabric of society. The entirety of western civilization had been ripped off its high horse and told, “You have achieved nothing. You are not the pinnacle of society. You are simply animals scraping in the dirt, just like you were a thousand years ago and a thousand years before that.” To make it all worse, The Great Depression hits about 10 years later. Now you’re getting books like Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men.”
And in the midst of all that, you get “The Great Gatsby” published in 1925, and there is little to no mention of war. To me, that speaks volumes. It would be rare to find a young, able man in that time that was not intimately involved in the war, let alone one without extensive combat experience. As people were often drafted together geographically back then, whole populations of young men were wiped out in various towns.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was an infantry veteran, and though he left the service just prior to WWI, he would know many who fought and died in the war. He would have been able to have understand the gravity of such a conflict at the time, at least better than most civilians. I have no doubt that he struggled with these guys going to war without him, a war that he had trained for but never participated in.
Despite that harsh reality permeating his mind, Fitzgerald’s characters in “The Great Gatsby” are lost in debauchery and haughtily barreling through high society like life is some kind of big joke. You feel almost drunk reading the story, in between its more sobering moments. People are partying hard daily and slamming back drinks like it’s the end of the world. And that’s just it — it was the end of the world. To them, anyway.
I can recall two brief mentions of the military throughout the book, though there may be more here and there. All of them are generally mentioned on the side as background information or as an ancillary detail. The story focuses on young people who would have all suffered immense trauma that would at least warrant a line here or there, but it deliberately gets nothing. So much nothing that I would not classify it as, “Oh he was just focusing on other things for the sake of the story,” or “Maybe they just weren’t crybabies back then.” First of all, read the book — there are plenty of crybabies. The silence on the subject is absolutely deafening.
And I believe that deafening silence in “The Great Gatsby” was a deliberate choice by F. Scott Fitzgerald, aimed at illustrating the carefree, fickle nature of the roaring ’20s. Of course, it wasn’t the central theme of the book but it certainly served its purpose. “The Great Gatsby” is a tragic tale about the death of the American Dream, about how it’s just all an illusion. I believe Fitzgerald’s choice to hide the topic of war served its purpose in that regard, the way many veterans try to hide their problems with our modern forms of debauchery we see today. While I disagree with his overall theme, I also think it’s important to realize that sometimes these books are a form of catharsis for people who are feeling this way and struggling with the same things.
The characters in “The Great Gatsby” could face these difficult, residual emotions head on, like many characters from novels of the time tried to do. I am reminded of Nick Adams, navigating through his life after war in “In Our Time.” Or they could just sit back, party and embrace ignorance. After all, Daisy Buchanan said it best: “the best thing a girl can be in this world [is] a beautiful little fool.”
Featured images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, compiled and altered by Luke Ryan.