Throwing Great Gatsby parties ignores Fitzgerald’s critiques

The novel The Great Gatsby is an American classic but here is an argument that a number of people have misinterpreted the point:

Gatsby parties are common, but this one stands out for its extravagance—the expected outlay was $20,000—and the particular irony of its locale. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby after dropping out of Princeton, once called the school “the pleasantest country club in America,” which is one of those great insults that sounds like a compliment to those being held out for criticism.

So it is with Gatsby parties, as well. It spoils neither the book nor the new film adaptation, which opens in US theaters on May 10, to say The Great Gatsby is a critique of the American dream. It peels back a gilded veneer of success to reveal the hollow, rotting underbelly of class and capital in the early 1920s. Jay Gatsby’s weekend-long parties are lavish indictments of the whole, hard-charging scene that propelled him to sudden, extraordinary, unscrupulous wealth—”a new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about,” as Fitzgerald writes toward the end.

Yet so many people seem enchanted enough by the decadence described in Fitzgerald’s book to ignore its fairly obvious message of condemnation. Gatsby parties can be found all over town. They are staples of spring on many Ivy League campuses and a frequent theme of galas in Manhattan. Just the other day, vacation rental startup Airbnb sent out invitations to a “Gatsby-inspired soiree” at a multi-million-dollar home on Long Island, seemingly oblivious to the novel’s undertones.

It’s like throwing a Lolita-themed children’s birthday party.

Perhaps all of this suggests Americans haven’t changed all that much since the 1920s: many still desire to move up and have the ability to spend money in lavish ways. This argument makes me think of Veblen’s concept of “conspicuous consumption,” the behavior of spending money in such a way to show others that you can afford to waste that money. Isn’t that what the Gatsby parties are about? Having a good time doesn’t necessarily require much beyond the people involved but having a lavish and memorable experience, particularly one that is noticed by others, requires more resources.

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