10 Books of Summer: The Great Gatsby- The Few Honest People
“Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
We’re always taught as children that ‘honesty is the best policy’, but as we grow up, we begin to question this, start to realise that not all lies are detrimental to those around us- and some are even beneficial. This, however, does not excuse the blatant dishonesty and deceit going on in The Great Gatsby.
I wouldn’t even know where to start listing all the instances of dishonesty in this book. It’s everywhere. Daisy’s and Tom’s marriage is steeped in it. Gatsby’s life as a bootlegger is wrapped in a life as a drug-store owner wrapped in a life as an old money man with no family left (Inception- no wonder Leonardo di Caprio played him in the most recent adaptation). There’s a lot of reality and people’s illusions also getting in the way here- Gatsby’s ideal of his and Daisy’s life together falling to pieces when she isn’t the idol he’s created, and his visions of himself when he was younger compared to the harsh reality of his upbringing. Tom thinking his marriage is getting along just fine, the people at the party who seem to live in a miniature world of their own where everything is bright and happy all of the time. So maybe the world that these people live in plays a part- convinces them that it’s okay to lie and cheat- as long as you get away with it.
Even Nick- who believes himself to be honest- says that he finds it hard to despise dishonesty in a woman (this wasn’t misogynistic, maybe a little sexist in an ‘aw it’s so cute’ manner but hey it was the twenties). But he is amazed at how easily Jordan lies about things, off-hand, without a second thought. It’s not like it’s pathological, it’s just, if a lie suits better, why bother telling the truth? He sees Jordan’s lies as harmless, but like her driving, he worries about when it’s going to get into trouble.
This maybe ties in with the carelessness- that as long as you’re not caught, it doesn’t matter what you do. Maybe the dishonesty has grown up with the irresponsibility- complete ignorance of the old values that the parents of the bright young things stood for. Maybe they too were told by their parents that honesty was the best policy and see this as an old-fashioned, ridiculous concept. After all, it’s amazing how much these people drink without even thinking about Prohibition. Tom Buchanan calls Gatsby a dirty bootlegger, but he’s still drinking himself. Nobody ever sees that their breaking the law, their lying might be wrong, might have consequences. It’s a funny world they’re living in.
What’s funny about Gatsby is despite his many layers of untruths, the web which has been spun around him- the layers and layers (the rumours, his own invented backstories #1 and #2 and the truth), is a terrible liar. As they cross the bridge and Gatsby tells Nick his life story, Nick knows that Gatsby is lying. Anybody would know he was lying. Even reading it on the page we are rolling our eyes- imagine if someone said that to you in real life? The thing is, at the end of it all, Nick thinks, “well, maybe it is true.” Gatsby is charming- his smile can change the world. In the end, his lying skills don’t really matter, because people want to believe him. They want Gatsby to like them and they want to like Gatsby. Maybe, though, his ineptitude at lying marks him as an outsider, as a person raised by shiftless farmers in North Dakota. No matter how much Dan Cody brought him up, no one ever taught Gatsby, maybe, how to lie as a gentleman.
Nick Carraway is an honest man, or so he says. But he lies twice in the book. The first time, he lies about Tom having a mistress. Which is a bit silly, really, since everybody knew- what was the point in him lying, or even Tom lying about it, but as a useless exercise? Tom’s affair with Myrtle is a funny thing. Perhaps it was acceptable at the time for a man to have a mistress, but Tom is so careful to pretend that he doesn’t, even though it’s painfully obvious. Even their funds must have some strange discrepancies in them considering the amount of money he spends on Myrtle. And yet, the charade- that’s really all it is- continues, and Nick perpetuates it because he doesn’t see what else he can do, not without causing a fuss. Nick Carraway is in a dangerously happy state of homeostasis. He doesn’t want to upset it by actually getting involved in the affairs of his relatives.
The second time Nick lies is about Daisy driving the car. This is bittersweet- Gatsby and Wilson are both dead, so maybe it’s best to let the matter lie without hurting anyone else. It was, after all, an accident. But to watch Daisy roam free and unencumbered by the death of Myrtle Wilson seems a little bit nauseating. What were Nick’s motives for lying at that point? Was it for love of Daisy? Probably not his, but what about Gatsby’s love of Daisy, and Nick’s love of Gatsby? Gatsby died with the thought of Daisy calling him forefront in his mind. Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to see her with Tom, but seeing her in jail would probably be a lot worse.
So maybe, just maybe, that lie was a good one, and the moral thing to do. Even if it besmirched the name of Jay Gatsby, maybe James Gatz would be happy for it.
How did you feel about lies and deceit in the book? There are so many secrets involved, and so much goes in to protecting them. Do you think that life would be easier if all was laid bare? And do you think lives are really this complex, behind closed doors? Do you know someone insanely good at lying- and have you ever thought about their motives?
You said, “In the end, his lying skills don’t really matter, because people want to believe him.”
And I think this is the most important thing not only about the society in this book, but about writing in general. In terms of the society, these characters want to believe their lies. Tom wants to believe the lie that his marriage is fine, and because of this he lives carelessly in terms of respecting his wife. Gatsby wants to believe that Daisy, after everything, loves him back, and because of this he won’t even see the possibility that he doesn’t. In this way, the lies don’t harm the liars because they have built up their own world out of their imaginations and never consider reality long enough to have to accept it. For them, they’d be destroyed if their secrets were laid bare to themselves.
When we write, we write for readers that will believe our lies. But they have to want to believe them. Even the painful stories, they can believe that kind of story because they want them to go to their rightful end. They might rant to their friends they hate how their favorite character died, but if they believe, they’ll feel it was a right ending instead of feeling cheated.
Did anyone feel cheated by the ending of Great Gatsby, with lies left un-tied?
I think that part of the reason while I disliked The Great Gatsby so much when I first engaged with it was because I just couldn’t believe. I didn’t have the desire to believe in what was happening for some reason, and it threw me out of the book. So many lies and for no reason! It’s the lack of consequence that the lies have for almost all of the characters which pushes their lies out of ‘okay’ and into ‘absurd’. Gatsby isn’t allowed this same sense of guiltless deceit, he’s questioned at every corner and when he isn’t, he can feel his own lies so keenly that he tells them terribly.
There’s this sense of ‘what else can I do’ that permeates through the novel until there’s so little blame placed on the guilty parties – yes it cheated me for nothing to happen to Daisy and Tom, but then I didn’t expect anything to happen. There’s a vicious run of rich-bashing that happens in the novel, this ultimate sense that the rich are terrible, frivolous and so very haughty. They were ignoring prohibition already by importing their alcohol from overseas, but because Gatsby does so for profit – for the poorer element – he is a parasite. A joyously hopeful, ridiculously doomed, parasite.
The final lie though, that lets Daisy live free, is one of the most harmful ones because she’ll never learn. She’ll continue with her life knowing she killed a woman and knowing that it didn’t matter – nothing happened to her. I think that’s the prime example of how lies have greater influence that we don’t see, even in the novel we don’t see it, we just know that’s how it’s going to be.
Is that the mark of a successful novel? Knowing what happens afterward?