Retreating to classical literature with its enduring Truths is my custom when what I see, read or hear unsettles my stomach and troubles my heart. Like sipping an old Port wine or watching a baby toddle, I find comfort in the simple truths that so many would like to debate.
Perhaps one of the greatest opening lines in any classic novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s start to one of the top five books of the 20th Century, The Great Gatsby.
They go like this:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all of the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
And so Fitzgerald creates his famous reliable narrator, one who will dispassionately tell the story that we, the readers, will believe.
Nick Carraway’s father’s lines above alert us that this story will have characters that annoy, shock, and amaze us; still, we should suspend judgment, perhaps, until the last words of the book.
And then we can judge for ourselves.
There are those who would argue that Truth, and thus judgment, is a subjective term and yes, culturally, historically and religiously, we know that one’s truth may be another’s lie.
But in the big picture, say in the bones of The Great Gatsby, some of us know the following:
It was wrong for George to kill Gatsby and wrong for Gatsby to have an affair with Tom’s wife, Daisy. It was wrong for Daisy to have no relationship with her child, and wrong for Myrtle, George’s wife, to have an affair with Tom, Daisy’s husband. It was wrong for Gatsby to lie about his poor past and wrong for the Buchanan’s to flaunt their wealth.
It was wrong for Jordan, one of the minor characters, to lie about her golf game and wrong for Gatsby’s friend, Meyer Wolfsheim to rig the 1919 World Series.
It was wrong for Fitzgerald to stereotype Jews, blacks, and women.
The last lines of the story are these:
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.