Vanishing Happiness in the Suburbs

I was recently assigned to write an English paper about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Naturally, I chose to focus on the most architectural facet of the novel that I could find — the role of the suburbs. Check it out after the break. (Note: the paper I actually turned in had proper citations.)

Vanishing Happiness in the Suburbs

by Izzy Kornblatt

The advent of suburbia as depicted in The Great Gatsby both symbolizes and embodies the terrible thing that is the realization of the coveted ‘American dream.’ This great irony — that the American dream may not even be the right dream to have, let alone one that is achievable — pervades The Great Gatsby, lurking in Gatsby’s oversized mansion, in the ash-heaps between the two Eggs and New York City, and in the constant focus on cars over more human forms of transportation.

The American dream grew out of the mindset of a newly free nation breaking all of the rules of colonialism: early American leaders were entranced with the idea that the people of the new nation could achieve the same incredible success that the nation itself had experienced. Thus, America defined itself by the promises it offered and opportunities it afforded. Fundamentally, this philosophy is based on a deeply held optimism in the resourcefulness and stalwartness of the human race. As Thomas Jefferson put it,

I join you … in branding as cowardly the idea that the human mind is incapable of further advances. This is precisely the doctrine which the present despots of the earth are inculcating, and their friends here re-echoing; and applying especially to religion and politics; “that it is not probably that anything better will be discovered than what was known to our fathers.”… But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened to listen to these impostures, and while the art of printing is left to us, science can never be retrograde.

That fundamental belief is sound and compelling; it is in its execution in real, everyday life that the dream’s failures begin to emerge. The Declaration of Independence famously summed up the fundamental rights of citizens of the new nation this way: “life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness.” What, exactly, is the “pursuit of happiness”? How can we pursue such an emotion? To this question, many Americans, including most of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s characters in The Great Gatsby, internally answer that we can do so by attempting to accrue wealth and material objects. But neither Gatsby’s massive house nor the McMansions of today really provide their owners with happiness; instead, they serve to distract from the far more elusive search for a a healthy balance between the physical and the emotional. The opulence of Gatsby’s world is brutal and ugly because it is founded in a misguided dream of material splendor and suppressed emotions.

The earliest presentation of excessive wealth in The Great Gatsby is Gatsby’s house. The house, arguably quite comparable to the modern McMansion, is a manifestation of wealth and gluttony gone wild. When he first sees it, Nick Carraway is clearly wowed by its luxury, but he does not present a clear positive or negative opinion on it:

[Gatsby’s house] was a colossal affair by any standard – it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Vile in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden.

The massive house as an imitation is a powerful image: Gatsby spent much of his life living a rags-to-riches fairytale and yet his crowning achievement — this massive house — is nothing more than an imitation of a French hotel. And this is not the only time that Gatsby’s house is compared to a hotel. When Gatsby shows Nick and Daisy through his house, Nick notes how empty it is without Gatsby’s many party guests:

And inside, as we wandered through Marie Antoinette music-rooms and Restoration salons, I felt that there were guests concealed behind every couch and table, under orders to be breathlessly silent until we had passed through. As Gatsby closed the door of “the Merton College Library,” I could have sworn I heard the owl-eyed man break into ghostly laughter.

Gatsby’s great house is just a vapid showpiece of grandeur. Gatsby purchases the house to see and impress Daisy, but in the end the only moment that Daisy is actually emotionally affected on the tour is when Gatsby begins to take out his many shirts, carelessly throwing them across the table for her to see. This is the only moment when the manufactured materiality of Gatsby’s house is broken and there is actual evidence of a life and a person living it: Daisy begins to cry. By the end of the novel, Nick has come to a conclusion about the mansion, referring to it as “that huge incoherent failure of a house.” The house is the pinnacle of Gatsby’s pursuit of the American dream — it is a distraction from the more important parts of life.

The separation between the Eggs and New York City, and between the two Eggs, symbolizes the growing gap between the lives of the characters of The Great Gatsby and the reality of hard work and daily challenges. This gap, a trademark feature of American suburbia, discourages normal interaction and forces those who live the American dream to exist in arguably a far worse state than those still working to achieve it. This physical separation is most clearly embodied in the decrepit space around George Wilson’s auto shop between New York City and the Eggs. Nick describes it this way:

A fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

This stark and fascinating image gives the reader a glimpse into the world of the halfway-between — the place one only sees in brief blurs from car windows. The ‘ashes’ form a world uninhabited by people: a world that separates the wealthy and the poor, the grounded and the nebulous. This world of separation, and the suburbia just beyond it, was the topic of a 1971 essay by then-New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable. The essay focused in particular on a new suburban corporate headquarters for the American Can Company in Greenwich, CT.

Back in New York, there is slush and crime in the streets. Disturbing questions enter one’s head. What part of a workforce does a commuter’s country-club plant set in Greenwich’s restrictive zoning serve? What does it do for larger considerations of regional planning? After how much captive pastoral beauty does one crave the lively, bad vibes in the city? Defectors are few, according to American Can’s low turnover figure. After all, you can get out of your car or leave the cafeteria with its lovely lake views and humdrum food for a scenic walk to the carefully preserved swamp or sewage plant. And you can breathe the air, which is fully conditioned and artificially controlled in a sealed building all year round.

Huxtable’s lyrical prose captures dead-on the striking contrast between the too-well-kept lawns of places like the Eggs or American Can’s new headquarters and the gritty, real-world city. The gap between the two, metaphorically expanded in The Great Gatsby but physically present in reality nonetheless, defines the destruction of society that is inherent in the realization of the American dream.

The use of cars to get from the Eggs to New York City and back accentuates the isolation of suburbia and the abandonment of traditional forms of community, embodied in the walking and public transport favored by city-dwellers. The road that links the Eggs and New York is harsh and even dangerous for pedestrians; cars, the ultimate isolators, become the only method of transport for Egg-dwellers to get to New York. While a train does lead into the city, The Great Gatsby’s characters make use of it rarely: the only time any of the main characters aside from Nick uses it is when Tom meets Myrtle. Tom and Myrtle’s relationship is of the old, city-based sort. Not only does it literally occur inside of New York City, but it relies on emotion over material and bridges social divides. It is edgy and refreshing. Cars, on the other hand, serve only to divide people and further reinforce a highly materialistic culture. Nick’s first time describing Gatsby’s car is particularly telling:

[Gatsby’s car] was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hat-boxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of wind-shields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory, we started to town.

For Gatsby, the car is not just the instrument through which the isolation of the Eggs, and the rest of suburbia by extension occurs, but also a physical manifestation of splendor. It is a mansion on wheels. And when Tom and Nick and Daisy and Gatsby go in two separate cars to New York City and back, it becomes clear just how damaging cars can be. Daisy may be directly responsible for Myrtle’s death, but the car is the instrument that allows the death to happen. The car isolates her from her surroundings, and easily plows over vibrant, vulnerable life with its hurtling steel frame and spinning rubber tires.

In the massive size of Gatsby’s house, in the separation between the Eggs and New York City and in the impersonal isolation of the automobile, F. Scott Fitzgerald tells the tragic story of the American dream gone wrong — of the harms of wealth and materialism. The Great Gatsby presents a cynically dystopian view of the sourest parts of American culture. Happiness, it tells us, comes from the grit of chance encounters and exposed emotions, what Ada Louise Huxtable called the “lively, bad vibes in the city.” The suburban, materialistic realization of the American dream is an abomination. The reader is left wondering: what value does the American dream actually have? In The Great Gatsby, its value is visible only in small fragments and precious moments. In Gatsby’s former relationship with Daisy; in Tom’s few good moments with Myrtle, the dream is still alive. It is alive when intangible emotions are not lost in the face of materialism. It is alive when serendipity is present. It is alive when the pursuit of happiness actually is the pursuit of happiness, rather than the pursuit of wealth. It is dead in the suburbs, and alive in the city.

Photo credit: Fizzy Thoughts


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