Cocktails, Jazz and Flappers: Revisiting ideas of Sophistication and Class in the Gatsby Party

Gatsby Party
Gatsby’s Party in full swing; a screenshot of Baz Luhrmann’s attempt at The Great Gatsby in 2013.

While in recent years I’ve focused more on forms of broad culture such as comedy and its relationship with politics, my undergraduate and Masters specialised in American literature, finding myself falling in love with the works of Sinclair Lewis, Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway. However, nobody comes close to my love for F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, and what it has to come to represent in the popular imagination.

Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has come to represent a number of things to many different people. The American Dream, American self-renewal, and the hedonism and excess of the Jazz Age. A number of icons within the work have helped shape these ideas, such as T. J Eckleberg, the deity-like billboard overlooking Wilson’s garage store, or Jay Gatsby’s gorgeous yellow car. For many the novel reflects our current economic situation, or timeless “universal longings” that Fitzgerald himself poured into his writings, revealing questions of attainability, aspiration, fantasy and tragedy through the life of Northern Dakotan James Gatz and his powerful dream. But for many people, these ideas pale in comparison to the enduring image of the parties. For decades Gatsby’s parties have been the most seductive element of the novel, with its descriptions of beautiful people and beautiful surroundings, moths and cocktails and jazz music. The Gatsby Club at Glasgow University Union, The Candlelight Club in London, and the Gatsby club in New York, all testify to the insatiable demand for Gatsby and the glamour of the roaring twenties captured in his parties.  Ideas of the Gatsby Party have come to be frequently defined by a certain aestheticism within popular culture, visually embodying all the glitter, excess, vacuity, and, perhaps all the cruelty, of Fitzgerald’s work. However, with these ideas have appeared ideas that perhaps at at a closer viewing do not deserve to be there, such as ideas of Gatsby’s parties being sophisticated and cultured, or being entirely an upper-class phenomenon. Considering the continued popularity of the Gatsby Party across cultural differentiations in the Atlantic basin, I began to consider popular representations and how they should be revised.

For all the popular ideas of Gatby’s parties as being the height of sophistication, they are really testaments to poor taste. Excluding Myrtle Wilson’s apartment party in New York, there are two remaining parties in the novel, both held at Gatsby’s mansion. The first one, Myrtle Wilson’s party, is a critique of upper-class imitations. The apartment is decorated with excessive amounts of tapestried furniture, embroidered with pretentious patterns of “ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles.”[i] Amongst those invited are Mr McKee, who informs Nick he is in the “artistic game’”, and his wife Mrs McKee, a shrill woman who bores Nick endlessly with her discussions of how many times his husband has photographed her. Away from the hopeless Valley of Ashes and her destitute husband George Wilson, Myrtle transforms into a débutante, parading around the apartment in a false upper-class accent and discussing the importance of good breeding. As Nick notes, dressed in the new dress Tom had bought her, “her laughter, her gestures, her assertions become more violently affected moment by moment…”[ii] The party is a tragicomic display of urban pretensions, with the guests desperate to profess their social standing to each other.

Although this scene is seen as quite separate from the actual Gatsby parties later on in the novel, it serves as an important precursor in showing the latter’s limitations, and displays Fitzgerald’s initial examinations of the social and cultural anxieties inherent in the novel’s parties. The second much larger party in the novel, where Nick arrives at Gatsby’s mansion for the first time, is where we are introduced to all the popular ideas of the Gatsby Party we still associate it with ninety years later. With its fantastical descriptions of yellow dresses, blue lawns, moths, cocktails and hot jazz, the scene has come to define almost entirely all our ideas of the Gatsby Party. This scene resists being as overtly critical of the party-goers as the other parties in the novel, which has a great deal to do with Nick’s narration and his own awe at the excess and opulence of the occasions. As The Guardian‘s Sarah Churchwell noted in her fantastic article on The Great Gatsby last month, it is only the first party at Gatsby’s mansion, “with Nick as lyrical witness to its glories”, that “features the magical prose that lingers in reader’s minds”.[iii] Although this scene lasts a scarce fifteen pages of the entire novel, Nick’s gorgeous narration of Gatsby’s party has stayed with readers for generations.

However, once we are removed from the initial intoxication of Nick’s narration of the party, questions of social class in Gatsby’s parties allow for some interesting interpretations of the parties’ much-lauded sophistication. Descriptions of the seemingly sophisticated masses that crowd his mansion and gardens are shown to range from reputable celebrities and artists, collections of opportunistic and tasteless New Money cliques, and ordinary middle-class characters like Nick himself. In a telling remark from the first Gatsby party, Nick notes the number of faces he recognises from his commute to work on the train, undermining the exclusively upper-class reputation Gatsby’s party are commonly given.[iv] In this sense, Gatsby’s clientele exemplifies the malleability of American social mobility in the 1920s, where with the bursting of financial opportunities, many were able to come into huge amounts of wealth very quickly. This created an interesting melting pot of social interactions between upper-class and middle-class sections.

However, as Gatsby’s clientele displays, this does not necessarily create good taste. Fitzgerald uses Gatsby’s parties to criticize the upper-class imitations of a large portion of the new money clientele, accepting Gatsby’s hospitality whilst paying him “the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.”[v] The utter indifference his visitors have to Gatsby whilst at the same time abusing his hospitality every weekend says a great deal about how non-unified this collection of social groups actually is. The novel finally confirms his clientele’s indifference with their lack of presence at Gatsby’s funeral, more annoyed that he won’t be throwing any more wild parties as they turn up expectedly at his mansion gates. In fact, it is because of the lack of upper-class uniformity in Gatsby’s parties that leads to its consistent neglect for the host, a lack of self-preservation. As Nick notes of the only East Egg visitors (the richer of the two Eggs) at Gatsby’s first party, instead of revelling in the fun like everyone else, “this party had preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside- East Egg condescending to West Egg”.[vi] It is this lack of social fusion that East Egg recognises as essential, the financial protection found in shared interests that stops Gatsby’s parties from being considered upper-class, but rather a mixture of classes. Furthermore, the mixture of classes in Gatsby’s parties is in itself a rejection of any real sense of sophistication, an attribute usually born from inclusion or recognised group representation. Compared to the cold, exclusive characteristics of the Buchanans and the other East Egg elites, Gatsby’s free-for-alls at his mansion and the “amusement park” mentality of his visitors is seen as extremely crude in comparison, and therefore bearing little real sophistication.[vii]

Shot of Gatsby Party (1974 movie)
Screenshot of Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby as he hosts his second, less successful party with Daisy. From The Great Gatsby (1974). Screenshot found in Devon Pack’s movie review.

However, it is with the subsequent and final party at Gatsby’s mansion, and Daisy and Tom Buchanan’s visit where we realize the parties’ stark social and cultural limitations. As Churchwell notes, “The third and final party is at Gatsby’s mansion, but Fitzgerald uses it to shift the story’s mood definitively from enchantment to disenchantment: Daisy and Tom attend, and their contempt for Gatsby’s world exposes its tawdriness, its tinsel wrappings.”[viii] The Buchanan’s arrival at Gatsby’s party, as Nick comments, brings with it an unusual oppressiveness: “There were the same people, or at least the same sort of people, the same profusions of champagne, the same many-coloured, many-keyed commotion, but I felt an unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness that hadn’t been there before.”

Confronted with the presence of the Buchanans, Gatsby’s parties are suddenly made answerable to external forces, no longer encapsulated and assured within itself but made aware of its subservience to its neighbour East Egg. Noting that perhaps he had “grown to accept West Egg as a world complete in itself, with its own standards and its own great figures, second to nothing because it had no consciousness of being so,” Daisy’s disenchantment with the tackiness of Gatsby’s garden parties destroys the illusions Nick had cultivated at the first party.[ix] Displays of drunkenness that had once been amusing when Gatsby’s parties answered only themselves were now horrifying in Daisy’s presence. All the boorishness and recklessness of Gatsby’s guests, which before had seemed measured against its own standards, now seemed infantile and vapid compared to the East Egg manners of Daisy and Tom. As Nick notes on the contrast between the first and second party, “I’d enjoyed these same people only two weeks before. But what had amused me then turned septic on the air now.”[x]

Much like Myrtle Wilson’s pretensions exhibited in New York, Gatsby’s parties reflect a similar imitation to Daisy, a cheap confectionery of upper-class America that fails to impress her. “She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented ‘place’ that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village…that herded its inhabitants along a short-cut from nothing to nothing.”[xi] The gaudiness of the parties and their acclaimed sophistication is destroyed by Daisy’s visit, representing the sharp divide between Gatsby’s clique and the American regency of the Buchanans. More importantly, it shows both Gatsby’s and his guests’ limitations in traversing the social constructs of American society, especially when they are compared to the security of Old Money families like the Buchanans. In this respect it is telling that in all the time Gatsby has lived across the bay from Daisy she never once heard of his parties until Nick’s arrival, let alone been tempted to visit one of them. When they finally do, and Nick walks with them through the party, Tom remarks that neither himself nor Daisy recognise a single person.[xii] This says a lot about the social contrast between Gatsby’s crowd and the Buchanans, and really allows us to rethink Gatsby’s parties as a source of sophistication and high-culture.

Without necessarily condemning it, in most representations of The Great Gatsby, especially cinematic adaptations, there has always been a strong focus on the party element of the novel, and to a certain extent I can understand why. If you remove the party element of The Great Gatsby in a cinematic reproduction, the gorgeousness of the prose and the subtleties of Nick Carroway’s narration would be lost and the result could be no more interesting than a period drama, a Long Island episode of Downton Abbey with a reckless yellow car and a mourning garage repairman to spice things up at the end. Also, 1920s revisions have always been plagued with stereotypes and generalisations, and Fitzgerald’s novel has become the literary icon for the age. Therefore with the parties being inarguably the most seductive element of the novel, they have always been what stay with audiences.

Compared to other 1920s novels such as Sinclair Lewis’ portrayal of American middle-class office life in Babbitt (1922), a novel which vastly outsold The Great Gatsby, it is Fitzgerald’s novel that has always been a far more seductive option for continued adaptation and imitation. And in adapting Fitzgerald’s novel, most versions have either overemphasised the party element entirely, or whilst trying to keep a critical edge to the scenes, have found this lost in translation amongst the cocktails and jazz. To what extent continued adaptations of The Great Gatsby will ever effectively portray a more critical edge of Gatsby’s parties is up for grabs. However, as Churchwell concludes on representations of the novel, “Gatsby is about the superiority of imagination over reality”, which makes anything outside the novel hard to transfer.[xiii] There is a sense this is unlikely to change anytime soon, and that for a long time adaptations will focus on Gatsby’s parties to an excessive degree, containing themselves to the most approachable but least rewarding quality of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

[i] Fitzgerald, Francis Scott, The Great Gatsby. Reprinted by The Penguin Group, London, in 2009, p.31.

[ii] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.33.

[iii] Churchwell, Sarah, What makes The Great Gatsby great? Published by The Guardian on May 3rd, 2013, p.g 6. URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/may/03/what-makes-great-gatsby

[iv] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.43.

[v] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.60.

[vi] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.46.

[vii] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.43.

[viii] Churchwell, What makes The Great Gatsby great? p.g 6.

[ix] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.100.

[x] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.102.

[xi] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.103.

[xii] Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.101.

[xiii] Churchwell, What makes The Great Gatsby great? p.g 8.

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