F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby is a beloved American novel—a short novel—almost like a long poem. The writing is delicate, sensitive; the narrator is reflective, sad, moral, demure—not really part of the action; an innocent, bemused witness. The trope is similar to Watson observing Sherlock Holmes—a trope lifted from Poe’s invention of detective fiction: the teller of the tale tells the reader what is just beyond the teller’s comprehension.
The theme and lure of Gatsby is America’s freedom—freedom that’s wicked: wealth of a dubious nature—beautiful wealth growing from the soil of crime. And love of a dubious nature—the freedom of adulterous love.
Nick Carraway is us—when we are young, and try our first novel: what’s this big, grown-up, world all about, anyway? Ugly, seedy, wrong. But the author will make it beautiful. Or, sublimely ridiculous, that so amid the tragedy you can (holding the understanding author’s hand) almost—laugh. And Gatsby is also us—that’s what finally makes Fitzgerald’s book great; we identify not just with the narrator, but with Gatsby.
Fitzgerald succeeds in making his story beautiful, as well; before he was destroyed by alcohol, F. Scott Fitzgerald had high ideals; Fitzgerald rhapsodized over the poet, Keats (who also won highest accolades from Poe as “always a poet of beauty”) and The Great Gatsby achieves a beauty, as we see in the very last line of the book:
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Oscar Wilde had a sharp wit—he was plying the same trade as Fitzgerald: making the tragedy of life palatable with a mind that greatly understands.
Wilde, like any genius, fights for happiness—genius is a defense against all the meanness of the world.
One can see him winking when he says:
Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much.
Christ told us to forgive our enemies—and the pleasure-seeking brute in us protests—“forgive our enemies? That’s no fun!”
The admonition to forgive our enemies robs us of energy in a desire for justice, and cheats us out of the pleasure of defeating our enemies.
But not so fast, Wilde says. When you forgive your enemies, “nothing annoys them so much.”
And here, in a single stroke, Wilde restores the passion and the energy of justice—while remaining true to Christ’s suggestion.
The Great Gatsby does this, and a certain kind of fiction does this—it presents “enemies”—characters, whom, if we met in real life, we would fear, or hate—and the author attempts to make it possible, even as we shudder at their wrong, to forgive them.