The Great Gatsby

7 July, 2009

The Irish Times magazine on Saturday 4th July featured a great literary quote, from F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby:  “I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.” 

How true that is.  But it’s not clear to me that it is snobbish to hold that view.   The idealism and optimism of youth (“Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope”) must inevitably give way, not necessarily to cynicism, but to the caution and pragmatism of more mature years. 

So much of our legislation and administration is dependent on the hope or expectation that citizens will not exploit the system unfairly or illegally; in the belief that we are all equally and sufficiently decent human beings, we place too great an emphasis on passing laws and we devote insufficient resources to enforcing them.  So many times we see, as a political response to some particularly egregious example of wrongdoing, the bringing into force of additional legislation or regulation, when proper enforcement of existing laws would have avoided the problem in the first place.

I read The Great Gatsby relatively recently, and the above quotation jumped out at me from one of the first pages of the book.  While I’m at it, here are two other bits I think are worthy of quote, also from early in the book:

“…personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures…”

“Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red and white Georgian Colonial mansion overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens–finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.”


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