We live in a world unlike any before it. We have access to more information than people sixty years ago ever dreamed of. With a few key strokes and a click, I could find out the weight of the moon or how many different species of tree frog live in the Amazon. In seconds, I could be chatting with a friend in Kathmandu or Berlin; I could even see them if I wanted to. The possibilities are endless. But as with everything else, there is another side to this utterly accessible fount of knowledge. I could also, with the same minimal effort, find out where you (yes, I mean you, reader) live. I could find out where you went to high school, your phone number, the names of your children. We now find ourselves overexposed. Our secrets, our personal lives, seep through our fingers like sand. I won’t, of course, do any of this, but what I’m trying to emphasize here is the endless opportunity afforded by technology to observe and be observed without anyone being the wiser. What do people see when they steal these glances into our lives? Or, technology aside, what does the common observer see in whatever brief, seemingly meaningless, interaction we share? Even more importantly, what do the people we welcome into our lives as friends, neighbors, lovers, infer about who we are from what they see?
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby is famous for many things, but what interests me most about it is the idea of observation. Daisy and Tom Buchanan consider themselves the focus of other people’s voyeuristic envy because they are rich and beautiful. Gatsby uses other people’s assumptions about him as a tool to build himself up, to make himself exceptional. The ghostly eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg float above the as yet unacknowledged wreckage of the main characters’ champagne-soaked lives, objectively and passively observing it all. But Nick Carraway is the quintessential observer, the self-professed honest man and withholder of judgment, and it is through his eyes that we come to know and understand the fascinating dreamer, Jay Gatsby.
I’m inclined to reserve all judgements, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me…. [although] the intimate revelations of…men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope (19).
The above is the first thing we learn about our narrator, Nick Carraway. As the reader, this is supposed to soothe our sense of doubt as to the reliability of the narrator but, in this case, whether we trust his relation of Gatsby’s story or no, his is the only point of view we have. Anyhow, as Nick puts it, “life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all” (21). However, other than Nick’s description of himself in the first couple of pages, we learn very little about him throughout the rest of the book. All we know is that he is of a different sort than the drunken glitterati that inhabit East Egg, who only cross the water to take advantage of Gatsby’s wild parties. But though they flock to his mansion and make up wild stories about who Gatsby is and how he came into his money, they have little interest in Gatsby himself. No, it takes Nick Carraway, an unfashionable outsider from the Midwest to reveal Gatsby’s character to us. Slowly, we follow along as Nick pierces through Gatsby’s façade, the debonair man who spends money like its air, only to find a man stuck in the past, who has in fact built up the present solely as a means to reclaim the past.
Imagine being so unable to let things lie, to let go of things that have moved beyond your control, that you assert all your willpower towards ripping that thing, whatever it may be, out of the past in order to bring it into your present reality. This is exactly what Gatsby does with Daisy Buchanan. Through Nick, we learn that every step Gatsby has taken in his life since before World War I, has been with the single goal of getting Daisy back. He buys a house directly across the water from her, so close that he can see the light shining on the edge of her dock.
There must have been moments…when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams–not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart (89-90).
Nick watches, interfering relatively little, as Gatsby reunites with Daisy, as they reignite their relationship. As the observer, Nick sees the difference between what Gatsby feels for Daisy and what she feels for him. To Daisy, Gatsby is a nostalgic plaything from the past, but nothing with the power to alter her present. Nick tries to understand what it is about Daisy’s voice that is so alluring, so “indiscreet”. It isn’t until that last fateful trip into New York City that he realizes what it is: “her voice is full of money” (108). Perhaps it is because he is not part of Daisy’s wealthy, insulated world that he can see her for what she, and everyone like her, is. It is the same group into which Nick places Gatsby, until he gets to know him better. For the rich and famous of East Egg, wealth and beauty is the end all be all, the highest attainment of society, but for Gatsby, the wealth was only the means, and Daisy was the end who failed him.
After Gatsby’s violent death, the people who came to his parties disappeared, like flies who, after a carcass has been picked clean, fly off in search of another feast. At his funeral, the only people in attendance are his father, who is never mentioned before, as it turns out his father is just a poor, normal man who knows no Gatsby, but only a Jay Gatz who was his son. The other person is Nick Carraway, the faithful watcher. Nick, who had seen Gatsby first as an eccentric neighbor who threw lavish parties for strangers, then as a lovelorn man holding on to the dream of his past with tooth and nail, and finally as a man who lost his grip on the past but who kept his eyes ever on its receding beauty, until the present swept him up in the bitter chaos of a misplaced bullet. Nick is the only one with any sympathy for Jay Gatsby, the man. Although he chooses to go back to the Midwest after Gatsby’s death, it is obvious that he has been changed by the events he was a part of. In the end, if we must be observed, I suppose we can only hope that our observer is like Nick Carraway, someone who is compassionate to our threadbare fantasies and who, once we are gone, takes a memory of us with him, and is changed by it.
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…