F. Scott Fitzgerald’s most famous novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), is about many things that have to do with American life in the “Roaring Twenties,” things such as the abuse of alcohol and the pursuit of other pleasures, including that elusive entity, the “American dream.” Mainly it is the story of Jay Gatsby, told by Gatsby’s friend and neighbor, Nick Carraway, a bonds salesman in New York. Three other important characters are Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan, and Myrtle Wilson. Nick is distantly related to Daisy, whose wealthy husband, Tom, went to college with Nick. Myrtle is married to a mechanic but is sleeping with Tom. Fitzgerald’s novel seems to affirm the Biblical adage that the love of money is the root of all evil, for his characters value money inordinately. And this attitude is a central moral concern of the novel. Fitzgerald’s characters erroneously believe money can buy them love, friends, and happiness.
Gatsby tries to buy Daisy’s love throughout the book. In the first part of the book Gatsby throws a number of large parties, hoping Daisy will come to one of them so he can pursue her. Unsuccessful, he manipulates Nick into arranging a meeting between himself and Daisy. Nick has Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby to tea. Subsequently, Gatsby invites them to go for a ride with him. Thereafter, Gatsby tries to drive a wedge between Daisy and Tom, but though she claims to love him, her love is as superficial as the image Gatsby has created with his money. Money itself is neither moral nor immoral, but the use Gatsby puts money to involves moral issues about the sanctity of marriage that go far beyond the mere fact that he is rich and uses his money to gain want he wants.
Gatsby also tries unsuccessfully to win friends through his parties. Gatsby is lonely and he tries to fill his loneliness with his parties. In effect, he tries to buy friends with his lavish entertaining. And, although his parties are successful in the number of guests (invited and uninvited) and in their apparent enjoyment of the parties, Gatsby makes no significant friends through these entertainments. Instead, people speculate as to how Gatsby got his money and as to whether or not he is a killer. Indeed, he has got his money illegally–through bootlegging and other immoral ways.
The Failure of Crace’s Quarantine
The Failure of Crace’s Quarantine
Quarantine is the latest installment in a sub-genre of literature where the central conceit is to tell a story from the point of view of the minor characters in a famous tale, with the more renowned stars of the originals taking in subordinate roles. Quarantine he tells the story of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, but with Jesus shunted to the periphery, in favor of several other pilgrims. In particular, the novel focuses on a trader, Musa–dishonest, loutish, and brutal–whom Jesus almost incidentally brings back to life from an apparently fatal illness. In turn it is only Musa, despicable as he is, who realizes that there is something extraordinary about this young man from Galillee.
The novel is only partially successful, in large measure because this structural technique falls flat. While Crace succeeds brilliantly in evoking the harsh atmosphere in which the quarantine takes place, the narrative comes to a screeching halt whenever Jesus is absent. Musa is simply too unpleasant a character for us to care what happens to him and none of the others really grab our attention. Nor can their stories hope to compete with the action we know to be taking place away from center stage.
Crace’s demystification of Jesus is not very effective either. On the one hand he portrays Jesus as merely an overly pious youth, estranged from his family because of his bizarre behavior, and says of those who undertake this desert ordeal :
This was the season of the lunatics: the first new moon of spring was summoning those men–for lunatics are mostly men. They have the time and opportunity–to exorcize that part of them which sent them mad. Mad with grief, that is. Or shame. Or love. Or illness and visions. Mad enough to think that everything they did, no matter how vain or trivial, was of interest to their god. Mad enough to think that forty days of discomfort could put their world in order.
The fact that Musa turns out to be such an unsuitable candidate for resurrection, defrauding his fellow travelers and finally even raping one young woman, is probably intended to be an ironic comment on the nature of “miracles.” And the torments sent by Satan to test Jesus are revealed to be nothing but petty annoyances foisted upon him by Musa.