Discussing 'Gatsby': Money, happiness, capitalism and metaphors of consumer culture

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Can money buy happiness? The question, posed by Cornell economist Robert Frank to hundreds of incoming freshmen in a panel discussion in Barton Hall on Sunday, Aug. 20, was provoked by his reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece "The Great Gatsby."

The book is the focus of the 2006-07 New Student Reading Project, a campus and community conversation about literature that raises issues relevant to today's world.

Frank, the S.C. Johnson Professor of Management and Economics at the Johnson Graduate School of Management and an authority on the economic and social effects of income disparity, noted that today's economic conditions, with "the gap between the rich and the rest of us getting wider," mimic those of the Roaring '20s, the era of excess that suffuses the book.

Becoming filthy rich is still no guarantee of happiness -- in literature or life, Frank stressed. By the book's end, self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby has failed to win Daisy, the woman of his dreams, despite his great wealth. Indeed, he dies unhappy and unnoticed by the world at large, Frank noted.

Studies show that in the real world, too, while wealth can protect from disasters, "only caring about money for its own sake is associated with unhappiness -- not happiness," Frank said.

So what will lead to happiness? "People who have found something they like to do are most likely to be happy," no matter what their economic gain, said Frank.

Associate professor of English Douglas Mao, another panelist, drew laughs when he observed that the book's protagonists engage in "loudness, gossip-mongering and vulgarity, all of which I know you'll avoid during your four years at Cornell." He also spoke of "Gatsby's" relation to earlier novels of manners and of Fitzgerald's effective ploy of winning over readers by allowing them to feel superior to his characters, with their displays of flagrant bad manners. But there is "tension between [the reader's] urge to disapprove of bad behavior and the attraction to it," he asserted.

And Amy Villarejo, associate professor in film and director of Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, delighted the crowd with descriptions of Hollywood interpretations of "The Great Gatsby" from the 1920s to the present. She also screened a recently rediscovered preview of a long-lost 1926 silent film -- with a scene showing crowds of hedonistic celebrants diving into Gatsby's pool for the gold coins he has tossed in; and excerpts from a 1949 movie that emphasizes the book's gangster elements, and from a 1974 version of the book starring Robert Redford, with a "lifestyles of the rich and famous" veneer. Together they offer a "brutal commentary on inter-war America and [a move toward greater] social stratification," she said.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, one student posed the question: "Can labor unions counteract the rampant capitalism we see in the book and the world today and the resultant hijacking of public-sector needs?"

Labor unions play an "important" role in ensuring that workers receive a fair wage "but have less capacity to reduce wealth inequality [than] the government," Frank responded.

Another student asked if the book's description of a faded sign with oversized eyes advertising an optician's services in a blighted neighborhood symbolized God's fading presence.

"This is exactly how these metaphors of consumer culture and spectacle get figured," responded Villarejo.

The panelists were introduced by Provost Biddy Martin, who got a wide show of hands when she asked how many freshmen in the audience had previously read the book.

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Linda Myers