As America’s most famous novel about the Roaring Twenties, The Great Gatsby helped create an image of the 1920’s as a ten-year party ranking high in the list of eras to visit given time-traveling capabilities. The decade is now synonymous with fringed flappers, bobbed hair, and glamorous bootleggers, thanks in part to Fitzgerald’s detailed, albeit inebriated, eyewitness accounts. But don’t let all the booze cloud your thinking; as Fitzgerald tells it, people in the twenties were quite the unhappy bunch.
Just take a look at our narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick presents himself as a neutral observer, but as the story progresses, his dear-diary-style criticisms reveal how little he respects everyone around him (except Gatsby, of course). Fed up with “the whole damn bunch of them,” he eventually dumps his girlfriend, packs up, and heads west to escape the wild party scene. To be fair, however, Nick might not be the best litmus test for happiness, considering the mad showdown he witnesses at the end of the novel. Let’s have a gander at the other main characters in The Great Gatsby – before the ships, “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” really hit the fan.
At the top of the social totem pole are Tom and Daisy Buchanan. From an outsider’s perspective, the two are living the American Dream: they’re a rich, good-looking, respected couple with a dream house and a bouncing baby girl. Incidentally, they also have an abusive, joyless relationships perpetuated by a serious cycle of dependency.
Tom’s the kind of guy who can’t be bothered to show up to the birth of his own kid but refuses to give up having a wife – whom he cheats on, by the way. On the other side of this winning combination is Daisy, the kind of woman who could have any man she wanted but lacks the self-respect to apply that to anyone worth having. When Daisy turns Gatsby down and Tom throws him to the wolves, we pretty much decide that the two deserve each other.
Jordan Baker seems to be the only person in society’s upper crust who isn’t concerned with keeping up appearances. She’s worldly and hard to fool, which contrasts sharply with Tom and Daisy’s need to deceive themselves and others. Recognizing the game that’s being played doesn’t mean Jordan’s above it, however; it just makes her cynical, dishonest, and bored. So much for the truth setting you free.
Since living at the top obviously doesn’t make you happy, let’s look at the theme of dissatisfaction in Great Gatsby among characters at “working class” end of the spectrum. George and Myrtle Wilson’s relationship can be described as a mirror image the dynamic between Tom and Daisy. George is a smart, hardworking guy who genuinely cares for his wife. His reward? Myrtle sleeps around with Tom because George is too poor and effeminate for her taste. Yeah. Nothing says “real man” like an adulterer who beats you up. And since the relationship ends in a gruesome manslaughter-murder-suicide, there’s isn’t a whole lot of suspense in the maybe-life-will-pick-up-some-day department.
This leaves just one character to consider: Jay Gatsby, the Man Himself. Is Gatsby happy? A more appropriate description of the guy might be “optimistic.” Or better yet, “he’s got hope up the wazoo.” The problem with optimism, though, is that, rather than qualifying as happiness, it anticipates future happiness. Or, in Gatsby’s case, future happiness that depends on recapturing past happiness that was interrupted by the present state of everyone being miserable.