I find myself thinking a lot about hypocrisy and irony as I contemplate The Great Gatsby and its place in American literature. Hypocrisy seems to me to be one of those characteristics that bothers people more than almost any other. It’s like it’s the great American vice, not in the sense that Americans do it more than other cultures, but in a sense that Americans seem to detest hypocrisy more than any other action or situation. A stringent totalitarian might be hated, but not nearly as much as a stringent totalitarian who doesn’t live by the same strict rules he enforces for others.
Among the novels my American literature students read are The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby (though this year is my first year teaching Gatsby, so it’s a new adventure for me). Hypocrisy was at the heart of what The Scarlet Letter was about–Dimmesdale’s public face was one of holiness, but secretly he was the most guilty sinner. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain took the hypocrites and made them look ridiculous, to make sure we didn’t miss it. He mocked the hypocrites, yes, but even more so he seemed to be mocking those of us who actually believed those hypocrites, those of us who fall for the hypocrisy of the king and duke and get lulled into accepting the reasoning of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons.
Inherent in hypocrisy is irony–the way a person seems is incongruent with the way they are. In The Great Gatsby the first thing I see is irony, as these glittering rich people strike us as amazing: Gatsby’s fantastic parties; Tom’s profound wealth that allows him to turn garages into horse stalls and spend his time playing polo, the most exclusive and privileged game in existence, the game of royalty; and Daisy’s lounging on sofas and periodically having her daughter pop in to say hi. But undercutting their amazing glitter are their miserable lives (I’ve constructed a reflection for students opining that everyone in the novel is a total jerk). It’s ironic, but are they hypocrites? My first thought is that they were hypocrites, because they’re living like they’re awesome but they’re not. But then I realize they aren’t even pretending to be morally upright people. They just have so much wealth and privilege that they’re able to lead these miserable lives and no one is going to mess with them. Ironic? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe not.
Tom is one character that makes me confused. He is a hypocrite of sorts, since he’s an adulterer. What adulterer is not a hypocrite? He’s just not very good at it, since though he’s technically hiding this affair from Daisy, everyone knows about it (Nick tells us people are mad at him for not hiding it more when he goes into the city, so there’s a sense in which there must be a code of decorous hypocrisy Tom is breaking). Tom is so cruel and confident about his playing around that he seems less like a hypocrite and more like a privileged bully. Of course, you could say that he’s a hypocrite for getting all upset when he discovers Daisy loves Gatsby, but that seems not like hypocrisy and more like . . . the actions of a control freak. After all, he seems not to be bothered by the idea of it having happened once he is confident Daisy won’t actually leave him.
Yet isn’t Gatsby a hypocrite? He’s a rich cool guy, but he’s built his wealth from some sort of illegal activities, which seem at least to include some bootlegging. But again, like Tom, he’s not so much acting one way when he’s really another as he’s just not emphasizing his bad way. He was “an Oxford man”–technically true, but obviously misleading, as all he did was go to a few classes and never graduate. Is that hypocritical? Not in the pure sense like Arthur Dimmesdale or the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, but it certainly contains an element of hypocrisy, since he is living a kind of lie.
It seems like we could do this for just about everyone: look at their lives and quickly see the places where they are either liars or the places where they don’t live up to anyone’s standards. But in each case but Nick’s, no one really made any great claim to being better, morally, than they are.
Nick seems different because early on he insists, “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (59), but Jordan calls him on it at the end of the novel, saying, “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride” (177), implying that she discovered he’s nothing of the kind. That seems to be the most clear representation of hypocrisy in the book.
The kind of irony, or hypocrisy, that is looked down upon in the book is Gatsby’s. He has presumed to be wealthy and important, but he’s not. He’s fake: fake in acquiring his wealth through crime, fake in being popular, as he throws parties for people who don’t actually know him, fake in his claims of being an “Oxford Man,” fake in suggesting his family is wealthy, fake all the way down to his name. He’s “new wealth,” living in West Egg, trying to get the attention of East Egg but really just drawing their scorn (see the time Tom and his friends on horseback invited him to lunch and couldn’t believe Gatsby thought they really wanted him to come). It’s sort of hypocrisy in that he’s ultimately different from what he portrays, but it’s more like he’s looked down upon for aspiring to be something different than he is.
But the book doesn’t seem to suggest that we should view him in the same way. We might think less of him, but not for aspiring to a new life. We might actually think less of him for trying for a life that isn’t worth having–after all, who really wants to be like Tom and Daisy?–and for thinking he could make Daisy transform into the form of his ridiculous dreams of the past, but those are different reasons for criticism than the other characters have of him.
So I’m left with in incomplete interpretation of the book and a sense that this particular great American novel is not so much about hypocrisy as it is about irony. In a sense it’s almost post-hypocrisy: what happens when people stop even aspiring to or claiming a moral high ground and instead act on their selfish impulses. When the hypocrisy is gone all that is left for us to see is the irony. We’re on the outside, looking in at the lavish privilege and parties of the rich, aspiring to be them, just like the poem “Richard Cory,” and ironically, when we get close enough to see the reality, those folks are 1) empty, hollow, and miserable, and 2) not willing to allow access to those who aren’t them, who aren’t the old wealth of East Egg. The disconnect of the irony is between the beautiful exterior (that their wealth provides them) and their corrupt interior (that makes up their personal lives).
And that confuses me the most, because my saying that triggers a saying from the Bible where Jesus criticizes a group of Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). The Pharisees tend to have this cultural place as the ultimate or first examples of hypocrisy. They’re the purest archetypal version of the hypocrite, and his description of them is precisely what I stumbled into using for the characters of The Great Gatsby: clean on the outside, filthy on the inside. So maybe this is a book about hypocrisy after all.
I don’t know. If you have an opinion, help me out here.
Thanks for reading.