Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lois Tyson: Enemy of Senator McCarthy

The Great Gatsby touches on many issues of economic inequality and socioeconomic status. The juxtaposition between the valley of ashes and the Eggs, as well as the differences between East and West Egg; the distinction between the characteristics of old money, new money and no money; and the depiction of Gatsby's rise to wealth from his humble origins. Lois Tyson's Marxist reading of the book examines these and other elements, both for how they support and contradict Marxist theory. While the substance her points are made of is valid, I think that the ways in which she says it runs counter to Marxism are inconsistent and overblown, as are some of the ways in which she thinks it is a pro-Marxist work. Rather than focus on my thoughts on Marxism itself, I'll try to keep to looking at her reading.

I think the point Tyson makes that I agree with the most is on Tom Buchanan's extensive commodification of everything around him. Tyson writes, "Tom relates to the world only through his money: for him, all things and all people are commodities... Tom uses his money and social rank to 'purchase' Myrtle Wilson and the numerous other working-class women with whom he has affairs" (70). That point could easily be expanded upon by examining the abusive and one-sided relationship that Marx says exists between the bourgeousie and proletariat. Further, it is a prime example of what Marx called the "community of women," wherein women--theirs, their peer's or their worker's--are passed around and treated as property among the bourgeousie. I also appreciated the look at the effects of capitalism beyond the obvious within the novel--how wealth hurts the rich similarly to how poverty hurts the poor. Finally, I appreciated her examination of the American Dream. Pointing to Fitzgerald's description of the almost apocalyptic valley of ashes, she writes that "the only way out of capitalism's 'dumping ground,' as George and Myrtle both finally learn, is in a coffin" (73). But Tyson says that, to a Marxist critic, the book is not communist enough.

As a Marxist critic, Tyson begins, well, criticizing the novel. While there are minor points she made earlier that I disagree with, the bulk of my problem with her reading comes from this section. "The Great Gatsby's most obvious flaw, from a Marxist perspective, is its unsympathetic rendering of George and Myrtle Wilson, the novel's representatives of the lower class" (75). Soon after, she writes that "the novel is also flawed, from a Marxist perspective, by Nick's romanticization of Gatsby" (76). While describing Marxist theory, she describes different types of ideologies, saying "[u]ndesirable ideologies promote repressive political agendas" (56). This seems, at bottom, an attempt to square the circle; criticizing at the same time the idealization of one character and the lack of idealization of others is, if nothing else, hypocritical in and of itself. But when her definition of undesirable ideologies is applied, it becomes apparent that her ideology (or at least the one she adopts for this reading) is repressive. In actual communist regimes, the path toward acceptance of government as pure and holy, opposing the Western, imperialist, capitalist enemies of the people is well worn. Surely, I don't need to go into what happens when that happens, especially when it leads to criticism and even censorship of potentially dissenting voices. Tyson also makes the dubious claim that Fitzgerald's "lush" descriptions of the manses of the wealthy are pro-capitalist. On its face, this may seem accurate, but there are two important points she does not discuss. First; a description of reality is not an ideology. The rich patently do live in extremely luxurious circumstances, and the language in which it is described does not change that. Second; Fitzgerald's naturally poetic and eloquent descriptions do not simply make such luxury more desirable, but add to the juxtaposition with his equally rich descriptions of poverty. As such, these descriptions make the injustices of capitalism more clear. A book describing the luxury of the rich is not inherently pro-capitalist, especially if those luxuries come off more as hollow excess, decaying from within.

There are other, smaller points I agree or disagree with--I like her examination of Daisy's commodification of life, I disagree with her seeing the Buchanans' possessions as having use-value while Gatsby's do not (they do for other people, and his striving towards a specific goal is still a use, not merely sign-exchange value)--but those are the major points which particularly stuck out for me. Ultimately, I think that a stronger case can be made for The Great Gatsby as a pro-Marxist text, though the romanticization of Gatsby and his achievement of some part of the American Dream are a counter to that strong communist vein.

Now, for my readers and admirers: Is the portrayal of Gatsby inherently pro- or anti-capitalist? Are the flaws of the rich and poor, as Fox News might say, "Fair and Balanced?"

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