From a psychoanalytic perspective the importance of the last line in The Great Gatsby, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” (180) is that it confirms destructive cycles of human behavior. According to psychoanalysis people are caught in vicious cycles of repetitive destructive behavior because they repress within their unconscious those unhappy early childhood psychological traumas. And as much as The Great Gatsby is a novel about love and relationships it’s also a novel about the individual struggles of each character to keep repressed their core issues and fears. Tyson says “romantic love is the stage on which all of our unresolved psychological conflicts are dramatized, over and over” (48). But a deeper understanding requires a closer look into the human psyche.
Classic psychoanalysis claims that our unconscious is created when we are very young while in the act of repressing unhappy events. “The unconscious is the storehouse of those painful experiences and emotions, those wounds, fears, guilty desires, and unresolved conflicts we do not want to know about because we feel we will be overwhelmed by them” (Tyson 12). And because we store our greatest fears and core issues at our deepest levels we are blind to how they affect our every action and behavior.
It’s his fear of intimacy coupled with a deep rooted sense of low self worth that drives Gatsby to attain wealth and social status. His love for Daisy is a mix of genuine love and an unconscious need that will satisfy the social requirements of having a beautiful wife from a wealthy family. But Gatsby’s fear of intimacy has kept him at a distance from all those people who attend his lavish parties and marvel at the splendor of his estate. Gatsby is both surrounded by people and alone. He wants more than anything to be successful, to erase from his memory his poor and simple born station in life. He’s living a singular dream of reinventing himself from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. That’s why Nick says Gatsby “paid a high price for living too long with a single dream” (Fitzgerald 161). And Gatsby knows you can repeat the past, if able he would wind back the clocks and marry Daisy in Louisville like he wanted to 5 years earlier. Gatsby even says to Nick “’Can’t repeat the past?’ he cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’” (110). This recognition, that people always make the same mistakes, always stumble over their own destructive behavior because of unrecognized, deep rooted psychological wounds and issues, is why Fitzgerald, appropriately, ends the novel with “ceaselessly into the past” (180).
The goal of a Marxist interpretation of literature is in identifying ideology, which is the direct result of cultural conditioning within any given socioeconomic situation. For Marxism the “economic conditions are referred to as material circumstances, and the social/political/ideological atmosphere generated by material conditions is called the historical situation” (Tyson 54). Consumerism itself is an ideology within a capitalist, free market economy. The ideology of consumerism states “I’m only as good as what I buy” (60). That’s why in The Great Gatsby Tom and Gatsby are working so hard to show off their possessions, their commodities, both human and material.
Tom is incredibly wealthy and successful; he’s from a very rich family. Gatsby, however, is from a poor family but makes a fortune through criminal activities. But for both men it’s not enough to have money, they have to use the sign exchange value, the social status value of a commodity, to flaunt their wealth. Their huge mansions, cars, hydroplanes, gardens, libraries, even Tom’s wife Daisy, are all commodities in the capitalist system that they use to show their might and power. Tyson says, “For Marxism, getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities” (53).
In Marxism class divisions are extremely important and are categorized as the underclass, lower class, middle class, upper class, and aristocracy (55). Tyson says “differences in socioeconomic class divide people in ways that are much more significant than differences in religion, race, ethnicity, or gender” (54). And it’s the inequitable division of commodities and resources that’s at the heart of the unfairness. For a few to be rich many must be poor, and because that rule holds true Marxism critiques capitalism as a failed ideology whereby the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Marxism complains that capitalism is a failed system that results in the constant struggle to gain and maintain economic and political power. It results in the poor, like Myrtle Wilson living in the valley of the ashes, having to “rent her body to Tom Buchanan” (Tyson 75). Here Myrtle can be viewed as a commodity- she’s trading her exchange value for hopes of marrying Tom and moving up in the socioeconomic ladder.
For Marxism the endless conspicuous consumption provides commodities whose worth is “assigned to objects by human beings in a given social context” (Tyson 69). Change the social context and the worth of the commodity changes. Therefore the commodification of objects is dependant of social circumstance. That’s why the cycle never ends, having any specific amount of possessions will never be enough, because new and better products are always introduced into the marketplace, and new and beautiful women can always be found.
Originally published at www.happinessfootprint.com on April 6, 2012.