05/16/2013 11:54 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

Empathy, Gatsby, and the Great American Tragedy


Hollywood adaptations of great novels tend to unnerve devoted readers. The effort seems hubristic and slightly profane, akin to painting a second Sistine Chapel or adding a chorus to King Lear. Perfection, by definition, can't be improved upon, and it seems suspect even to try.

So it is that a sense of foreboding preceded the release of The Great Gatsby. After months of delay, Baz Luhrmann's $100 million re-imagining finally opened, last weekend, and while the faithful of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel nervously waited to see if the star-studded, 3-D spectacle vandalized the story they love, we can be sure how Fitzgerald would have felt. By god, he'd be thrilled.

The failure of Gatsby -- and when it was first released in 1925, there is no other word to describe its reception -- sent Fitzgerald into a personal and profession tailspin for which his alcoholism and turbulent marriage had well prepared him. Fitzgerald had established himself as the enfant terrible of the literary world and the voice of a lost generation with the publication of This Side of Paradise when he was only 23. But five years, two short story collections, one play, and another novel later, the prolific Princeton dropout had yet to write a work that lived up to his ability and promise.

Until Gatsby, that is. "I feel I have enormous power in me now," Fitzgerald wrote his editor, Max Perkins. "This book will be a consciously artistic achievement + must depend on that as the 1st books did not."

He didn't disappoint himself. "[M]y novel is about the best American novel ever written," Fitzgerald announced when he had finished the first draft, an opinion that would be shared by almost no one until years after his death. In between, The Great Gatsby was published to lackluster reviews ("The story is obviously unimportant," H. L. Mencken wrote) and disappointing sales. Fitzgerald was heartbroken. An adaptation of the novel for Broadway and a silent movie, both in 1926, did little to redeem its fate. It would take ten years for Fitzgerald to write another novel, Tender is the Night, the last one he would complete. When he died of a massive heart attack in 1940 -- as a struggling screenwriter in Hollywood, no less -- the warehouse still held copies of Gatsby's second printing.

That the forgotten novel now ranks among the essential works of American literature is a precarious inspiration to struggling authors but a lovely reply to Fitzgerald's remark, "There are no second acts in American lives." More telling than true, the observation comes in The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, which was posthumously published together with Gatsby and sparked renewed interest in the work. At roughly the same time, another American classic, Moby Dick, was also being rediscovered. But while the salvaging of that novel was overseen by academics, Gatsby was raised from the sea floor of obscurity by readers who were astonished by the story they somehow had missed. Between the 1941 and 1949, there were 17 new editions or reprints. The rest, of course, is history.

If Fitzgerald's novel continues to add to its admirers, it is due in no small part to the quintessential American experience that foregrounds it: the anxious struggle for distinction in a land of shifting hierarchies. "Civilization's going to pieces," Tom Buchanan declares early on. Buchanan is Fitzgerald's brutal portrait of American aristocracy, the preemptory, polo-playing blue-blood whose voice carried "a touch of paternal contempt in it, even toward people he liked." He's prompted to the remark by The Rise of the Colored Empires, a pseudoscientific tome that has convinced him "[i]t's up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things."

The declaration comes two chapters before Gatsby has a chance to deliver his first line, and it provides the novel a deeper and more comprehensive sense of existential dread than that provoked by the predictable tension between Old Money and New. Surely, that tension was on Fitzgerald's mind when he set out to write the novel -- it haunted him at Princeton and helped inspire his earlier work -- but by keeping it from being the essential drama of the novel, he saved it from a conventional storyline with a stock character as its Jazz Age arriviste.

For the mysterious Jay Gatsby is not only, or even essentially, a social climber who lies about his past. This is how Tom sees him -- "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" he dismisses him -- but to say no more than this is to make his deception seem trivial and to overlook the fact that his own undoing is not that he stumbles on his way to a private club but that he sets out alone toward some alien summit.

That summit is "the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world," Fitzgerald's description of the creative aim of the novel and the dazzling world that Gatsby establishes for himself. The outward flourishes of that world are the unforgettable parties, the "many-colored, many-keyed commotion" for which Gatsby plays composer and conductor, host and honoree. Perhaps we have become too accustomed to exercises in over-the-top hospitality to fully appreciate how unbecoming they appear to the likes of Tom, but Tom's mistake is regarding them as a funhouse reflection of his own world and a feeble attempt to invade it.

They are neither. The novel's narrator, Nick Carraway, describes the world of Gatsby's parties as "complete in itself, with its own standards and its own great figures, second to nothing because it had no consciousness of being so." The line seems a nod by Fitzgerald not to the absence of social hierarchy in American life, but to its tendency to splinter and proliferate. That tendency is underwritten by a belief in the limitless potential of every individual to be the center of his own world. The echoes of that faith, egalitarian and egomaniacal, may be heard in Huey Long's vision of a nation with "every man a king" or in the prayer Carl Sandburg ascribes a pauper, "Let every man be his own Jesus -- that's enough."

As for Fitzgerald's creation, Nick says, "The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself." He was a creature of "creative passion" in whose brain a "universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out," an empire of the imagination waiting for him to realize.

Of course, such ambitions signal someone whose relationship to the human world is tenuous at best, a person little bothered by the settled limits and social expectations that shape, constrain, and inspire our behavior. And, indeed, it is only when Gatsby is forced to engage this world that he hazards his "incorruptible dream."

The gamble comes after Daisy has failed to visit him at home. "I think he half expected for her to wander into one of his parties," Jordan Baker says of Gatsby's self-appointed queen, who has inconveniently become Tom's wife since she and Gatsby first met. Both disappointments precede the action of the novel, which commences once Gatsby is compelled to pursue Daisy beyond the gilded gates of his confectionary kingdom.

Thus, Gatsby spends most of the novel far outside his comfort zone, attempting to pass himself off as a member of Tom and Daisy's social set. The circumstances provide a special challenge for the performer who would inhabit him, for as the novel demonstrates time and time again, Gatsby is a terrible actor. His proffered past is a crazy quilt of incredible triumphs. His "elaborate formality of speech" -- must everyone be old sport? -- "just missed being absurd." Nick says his mansion, "a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy," is a "huge incoherent failure." And Tom rejects the idea the Gatsby is an "Oxford man" by noting he wears a pink suit.

In short, Gatsby never fools anyone. He is not to the manor born.

Fitzgerald was circumspect in how he portrayed Gatsby's awareness of this failure. In a passage he removed from an early draft, Gatsby confesses "the truth" to Nick. "I'm empty," he says, "and I guess people feel it. That must be why they keep on making up things about me, so I won't be so empty. I even make up things myself."

Fitzgerald was wise to remove this passage. It changes his protagonist, giving him an appreciation of others that would lead us to expect more of him as an actor and as a man.

The Gatsby we know doesn't understand other people, not in a way that lends itself to assimilation and sympathy. He has spent his life fixated on his destiny, and the attention he pays to others (which, as a celebrated host, can be substantial if decidedly superficial) has always been in service of that aim. They are extras to be arranged according to the Lindy Hop of his imagination, not men and women to be engaged and understood. The lives of others have never meaningfully shaped his inner world, and their lived experience never permeates his. He looks on them at a strict psychic distance, if he bothers to look at all.

This condition, an almost complete lack of empathy, is Gatsby's tragic flaw. It insulates his "incorruptible dream" from the contaminants of contrary opinion even while it rushes him headlong toward romantic overreach.

That moment comes in the climactic scene of the novel, when Tom and Gatsby face off. "Just tell him the truth," Gatsby orders Daisy, "you never loved him -- and it's all wiped out forever." The declaration, not that Daisy no longer loves Tom but that she never did, is required of Gatsby's reverie. It is not enough for him to have won her back, he must never have lost her in the first place.

It is a terrible request, so gratuitous and cruel that, for a moment, we pity Tom, one of the great villains in all of American literature. Daisy likewise recoils. "Oh, you want too much!" she cries, a fitting rebuke to Gatsby and those like him who selfishly pursue their dreams without any regard for others, even the ones they love. They fail to recognize that the integrity of our most intimate relationships requires, at last, a brittle quality. If you pull too hard, they break.

This is Gatsby's great mistake and the one that costs him Daisy. We all make such mistakes, especially in the sweet narcissism of youth. They force us to make peace with the idea that our ambitions must be pursued alongside others in a community no one alone creates.

The lesson is indispensable, for it helps to ensure the human world is humane and habitable, but Gatsby never learns it -- not, at least, until it's too late. He is blinded by his "extraordinary gift for hope," the quality that endears him to Nick and to so many readers who recognize, beyond the glamour and gaucherie, the spirit of self-creation and a belief in boundless opportunity.

We seek these traits in ourselves. They see us stare down the Tom Buchanans of the world, often in the aim of displacing them. And yet, no matter how far they take us, if they lead us to believe that our ambitions are the only ones, they can ultimately be our undoing.

This is a paradox at the heart of the American Dream, a contradiction that Jay Gatsby so achingly embodies. Fitzgerald understood this, for the first image of Gatsby in the novel -- gazing at the green light, arms outstretched and empty -- is finally a warning. Better the solicitude that sustains a commonwealth than a land of lonely kings.

John Paul Rollert teaches business ethics at the Harvard Extension School and leadership at the University of Chicago Law School. He is currently writing a book on empathy.