Gatsby can teach us all about social responsibility

We still have much to learn from F Scott Fitzgerald's seminal work, writes Deborah Williams

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in a scene from "The Great Gatsby." AP Photo
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The Great Gatsby is one of those books that people say they know, even if they've not read it. It's like Moby Dick or 1001 Nights – you can nod sagely over the dinner table at "white whale" or "Shaharazad" even if you've never cracked the spine on either book (or downloaded it, as the case may be).

Gatsby has been on my mind lately because this month I will be co-leading a literary conversation that will be held at a restaurant, and Gatsby, along with three other F Scott Fitzgerald stories, will be on the menu for discussion. The prime draw for the evening will be the fabulous food on offer – our bookish conversation will be just a sort of intellectual amuse-bouche. And, as you might imagine, because it's Abu Dhabi, many of the people in attendance will live here but will probably hail from somewhere else in the world.

When we chose Gatsby as the centrepiece of the evening, I worried that it might be a novel that can't escape its own country: the saga of Jimmy Gatz, immigrant's son, transforming himself into Jay Gatsby, wealthy sophisticate, is commonly thought of as the perfect illustration of the rags-to-riches ideal that fuels the so-called American dream. Having the freedom to reinvent yourself is, at least in part, why so many immigrants thronged to the United States in the 19th and early 20th century. Even now, in our cynical era, that dream has traction: we need look no further than the fact that a man of mixed race, with a "funny name" and raised by a single mother of humble circumstances, has been president of the US for the past seven years.

Gatsby is also, of course, a romance. Gatsby reinvents himself to win the love of the beautiful Daisy, whose voice "sounds like money". And, as the description of Daisy suggests, the novel contains a meditation on wealth, like so much of Fitzgerald's fiction. Fitzgerald is commonly thought to have coined the phrase "the rich are different from you and me". Although that's not the exact phrasing, one of the abiding themes in his writing is the wistful peering of the have-nots into the world of the haves.

The more I think about Gatsby, however, the more it seems like the perfect novel for a city where it is not uncommon to see a Maserati pull up next to you at a traffic light, and where so many people come from somewhere else, hoping for a fresh start.

When I first moved to Abu Dhabi from New York, I was stunned by the visibility of wealth here. There is tremendous wealth in New York too, of course, but I didn’t bump up against it as much, whereas in Abu Dhabi it’s almost impossible not to see the economic extremes.

Gatsby's narrator, Nick Carraway, who is not wealthy but gets invited to all the parties, observes the potentially corrosive effects of living in limitless luxury. Nick says that Daisy and her (unloved) husband Tom are "careless people" who "retreat back into their money" whenever there is a problem, while Gatsby, the newly minted millionaire, is destroyed by his sense of obligation. You could say, in fact, that the novel asks us to think about what happens when wealth gets uncoupled from responsibility – and certainly that's a question that all of us, regardless of where we live, can take to heart. Granted, we can't all exercise our social responsibility by giving massive endowments or charitable contributions. But unlike Daisy and Tom and their friends, we can choose to be aware of our privilege rather than be oblivious.

Yes, upon reflection I have to say that Gatsby might be a perfect book for Abu Dhabi. But if you want to know how it ends, you're going to have to read it for yourself. You'll get no spoilers from me. (Also: Moby Dick is about much more than just a white whale.)

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi