Few books live in my nervous system the way The Great Gatsby does. Having loved and taught the book for many years, it occupies a hallowed space, an untouchable cloud of perfection in my soul. Though I re-read it every year, along with my students, it’s the only book I can think of (another one that comes close is Of Mice and Men; perhaps Invisible Man as well) whose freshness only grows, as if your experience with the novel is happening in reverse. Somehow the more I read Gatsby, the more I haven’t read it. The newer it feels.
If you’re wondering, I’m not really here to write about the new film. Not broadly, anyway. A lot of ink is being spilled about it at the moment (on places like…The Internet) and I just don’t trust myself to add anything that would seem fresh, except to say it’s excellent and worth two and a half hours in the dark wearing a weird pair of glasses. It’s visually sumptuous, acted with immense care and skill, and with the exception of an added frame story for why Nick is telling the story (he’s cracked up and telling it first to a shrink in an asylum and then as “novel” therapy), quite true to the book, both the final draft and earlier iterations of the same story that F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on for years before the final manuscript was accepted. Next time I see Baz Lurhmann, I’ll slap him on the book for trying to do justice to Fitzgerald’s characters.
I’d like to focus at the moment on The Great Gatsby‘s most misunderstood and under appreciated character, that great galoot Tom Buchanan. A couple of things got me thinking about Tom. One was Joel Edgerton’s fantastic portrayal of Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s just released 3D triumph. Edgerton’s performance is a marvel, though in the shadows of Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire’s quiet and dopey Nick Carraway, not to mention Lurhmann’s star power as a director and the natural hype that stems from adapting the great American novel, Edgerton’s performance is one you’re pretty much guaranteed not to hear much about. But that’s too bad. Because though DiCaprio is stunning and probably worthy of the Oscar nod he’ll likely earn for his work as Gatsby, Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is the performance that’s still on mind the next day. The other thing that put TB on my brain (sorry…I can see that abbreviation is not going to work) was an article in The Daily Beast that discusses the nearly century long discussion about Tom’s far more famous and thought about wife, Daisy Buchanan. I highly recommend Katie Baker’s article, which you can read here, that takes on the deep and consistent maligning Daisy has experienced by the critical establishment over the years. It tries to contextualize Daisy’s behavior/character and the accompanying commentary and does so rather brilliantly.
One can’t really defend Tom Buchanan all that well. You’ve got to hand it to Fitzgerald for writing a basically indefensible human. But what I’ve always felt compelled to defend is not Tom himself, but to defend him against both Nick’s, and most readers, defense of and love affair with one James Gatz, turned Jay Gatsby,who is often read as Tom’s foil and masculine opposite. The softer side of man. The soft treatment Gatsby gets in the novel, and from many readers, has always bothered me a little. Partially because it’s different from how I see Gatsby (otherwise known as the right way), and partially because I think it’s different from how Fitzgerald saw Gatsby. In a novel so brisk, it’s easy to miss how complex and nuanced Fitzgerald’s characters really are.
Given what we know, at best, Jay Gatsby is a liar and a criminal. Though we never know the exact source of his riches, they almost certainly come from a host of illegal activity that everyone except Tom ignores and, in keeping with the loose morals of the age, seem entirely unconcerned with. But Gatsby’s character has such a strong pull on our romantic tendencies that we are endlessly drawn back to his inherit gorgeousness, as experienced by Nick Caraway. Gatsby’s got love in his heart and we love him for that. It seems that if a man is doing it for love, it doesn’t really matter what he does.
Ironically, it’s Nick’s fault that we idolize Gatsby at Tom’s expense. Because our story teller is so enamored by one and so repulsed by the other, we feel dirty feeling sympathy for Tom and are, in some ways, denied the chance. Mostly (no coincidence in a novel about class) it’s because Nick’s upbringing is closer to Gatsby’s than to Tom’s that Nick is so taken with Gatsby. (And because Nick may want to sleep with Gatsby but never says so.) Tom represents an honest expression of what Gatsby so badly and nakedly wants but will never have, that for many the only way to deal with Tom is to hate him and cast him aside.
And, to be fair with those who will likely disagree with my assessment, Tom Buchanan doesn’t deserve much better. He’s an entitled jock douche bag who cheats on his wife, beats his mistress, hates blacks, is snide and crass, and in a round about sort of way, has Gatsby killed to get him out Daisy’s way. So why defend him? Because Gatsby isn’t much better. In fact, I’d argue that Gatsby’s capacity for self-delusion and manipulation of virtually everyone around him are perhaps the novel’s most grotesque, and most enduringly sad, characteristics. It’s only because Tom is the one who’s there to call Gatsby on his bull shit that we hate him so much. The confrontation scene at The Plaza on the hottest day of summer, by the way, is Edgerton’s best moment in Luhmann’s film. Gatsby and Daisy truly love each other and we want love to happen and so when Tom shits on it, then plays the class card to humiliate and enrage Gatsby and direct his wife back home, his tactics are so brazen, so practiced and predictably classist that we can’t get over it. It’s deeply ironic that in a book full of liars, Tom is perhaps the most honest of the bunch, and it’s his capacity for truth telling that wins him Daisy back.
Fitzgerald wanted to make it hard on us, but I think, at least for most people, he failed. I’ve taught the book for years and class after class of junior readers loathes and despises Tom so much it’s become an annual Buchanan hate fest. Fitzgerald didn’t want us to like him, but I’m sure he wanted us to feel conflicted about out hate. To question its fairness. To wonder about Tom’s worth as a man compared to Gatsby’s, not solely at the expense of it. That’s why he makes Gatsby so cold and uncaring about Myrtle’s death. That’s why, you see, he gives Tom the scene in Wilson’s garage. Tom sees Myrtle’s body lying upon the table and he’s genuinely heartbroken by her loss. He begins to shake. To lose control. And a man who we’d never believe even knew how to cry fights back tears and seeds of rage sprout from his pain that eventually lead to Gatsby’s death and Wilson’s suicide. I don’t know if Gatsby has a scene that unguarded in the whole novel.