Imagine this. You are a seventeenth century scientist and inventor named Alexander Hartdegen, a man that is determined to prove that time travel is possible. Recently, while in the midst of asking the girl you love, Emma, for her hand in marriage, you were stripped of your money by an unknown assailant; tragically, because your fiancée would not give up her ring, she was murdered, leaving you determined to go back in time and change the past. Your determination soon becomes a four-year obsession until you reach a singularity: achievement. With the time machine that you have created, you go back in time, saving her from the attacker… but not from a fatal collision with a horse-drawn carriage. Now, you feel the answer to the question of why the past cannot be altered lies in the future − 802, 701 years in the future to be exact. What you discover is a frightening new world in which the human race has been subdivided: the Eloi, an apathetic people with no memory of the past, and the Morlocks, muscular and animal-like creatures that support the world’s infrastructure and prey on the Eloi. Eventually, you come face to face with the so-called Über-Morlock, who says, “You built your time machine because of Emma’s death. If she had lived it would never have existed, so how could you use your time machine to go back and save her? You are the inescapable result of your tragedy, just as I am the inescapable result of you”. This leads you to travel to the end of all time in which the Earth is falling apart. Staring at this utter desolation, you return to the time of the Eloi to alter the future (“Plot Summary“). The aforementioned experience is commonly known as time travel, the concept of moving backwards and / or forwards to different points in time, in a manner that is akin to moving through space (“Time Travel”). In the nineteen twenties, many things occurred that would give reason for one to aspire for the realization of this notion. Reminiscent of the concept of time travel, The Great Gatsby illustrates the present reconstruction of a past that never existed. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, offers clues to the origins of past reconstruction, events that could have been sidestepped, the effects of toiling for something that will never arrive, and a comparison between the worlds of fiction and reality in regards to repeating the past.
Since the beginning of time, human beings have made mistakes, and the following are various ways by which one may make an attempt at correcting these errors, both in the mind and the tangible world. Before one may understand past reconstruction, however, an individual must first comprehend the concept of time. Time, which many people define in terms of numbers, similar to those on a clock, is difficult to understand (Bonsor). It is a basic component of the measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the durations of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify the motions of objects (“Time”). Now, one may begin to understand the ways through which an individual may reconstruct the past. “Recollective memory” is experienced events and episodes, and episodic memory, which concerns a particular time and place, is used for personal memories, such as sensations, emotions, and associations of a specific moment in time (“Memory”). An example of this would be Jay Gatsby’s time with Daisy Fay in Louisville in nineteen-seventeen.
“The officer looked at Daisy while she was speaking, in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at some time, and because it seemed romantic to me I have remembered the incident ever since. His name was Jay Gatsby, and I didn’t lay eyes on him again for over four years − even after I’d met him on Long Island I didn’t realize it was the same man” (Fitzgerald 75). This refers to Jordan Baker’s recollection of her time as a young golfer, in which she met Daisy Fay and Jay Gatsby for the first time.
The next type of past reconstruction is called time dilation, which is a phenomenon whereby an observer finds that another’s clock is slower than their own; this can occur within one’s own mind, thus causing one to feel as if time is rushing past them and that they can never catch up (“Time Dilation”). “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter-to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….” (Fitzgerald 180). This refers to Jay Gatsby’s endeavor for Daisy Buchanan, in which he seeks her love; Daisy is never satisfied, however, so Gatsby must aim astronomically higher each and every day. Another way through which one may repeat the past is via Age Regression hypnotherapy, in which the patient returns to an earlier stage of life in order to explore a memory or to get in-touch with some difficult to access aspect of their personality. “After you had gone home she came into my room and woke me up, and said: ‘What Gatsby?’ and when I described him-I was half asleep-she said in the strangest voice that it must be the man she used to know. It wasn’t until then that I connected this Gatsby with the officer in her white car (Fitzgerald 77). This refers to Jordan’s memory of the dinner at the Buchanan household, in which she asks Nick if he knew Gatsby. Daisy later confronted Jordan about the discussion, and she realizes that it is the same man from nineteen-seventeen.
Now that the notion of past reconstruction is understood, one must then establish events that could allow for the hypothetical use of the previously mentioned techniques. During the nineteen twenties, several events occurred that could have been circumvented. These happenings range from fearful American citizens to a treaty outlawing war, and even the publishing of a novel. Although each affair may seem trivial at this time, each event helped to shape the world as it is today. The first of these events, the Red Scare, was a widespread fear of anarchism and communism that occurred from 1917 to 1920. It was fueled by anarchist bombings and spurred on by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, and was characterized by illegal search and seizures, unwarranted arrests, and the deportation of hundreds of alleged communists and radicals. In regards to The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway is a symbol of order and sensibility among the anarchy of East and West Egg (“Nick = Order and Sensibility”). For instance, Nick observes the lives of people surrounding him, but he does not involve himself within their problems, nor does he seem to engage in any tribulations of his own (“Nick = Order and Sensibility”). Also, he is the only person within The Great Gatsby that realizes that Gatsby, the Buchanan family, and even Jordan Baker live faux, superficial lives (“Nick = Order and Sensibility”). The focal point of the Red Scare was a series of bombs that were left at the homes of prominent politicians, judges, law enforcement officials, and even a church. Most of these explosives were fiascos, but the press, public, and prominent business men burst into an outpouring of patriotism, of which often involved violence against communists and foreigners. For the most part, the Red Scare was simply an overblown case of xenophobia that the United States was experiencing.
Another similar event is the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, a hate group that rose to great prominence all across the Untied States. At times they controlled the governments of many Midwestern states, even electing a Klansman as governor of Indiana. At the peak of its political power, KKK membership surpassed four million and included several notable Supreme Court justices and possibly two presidents (“Ku Klux Klan”). To put this amount into perspective, there was one in every twenty-seven adult white males participating in Klan activities around 1923. “Civilizations going to pieces,” broke out Tom violently [….]. “Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard […] the idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged” (Fitzgerald 13). During the dinner at the Buchanan household, Tom Buchanan speaks out against foreigners in a xenophobic manner. The Ku Klux Klan also supported a prominent reform that gave them the upper hand politically early in the decade; this reform is commonly referred to as Prohibition.
The Prohibition, a key component of the Progressive movement, which was strongest in the south and rural north, was fiercely campaigned by the Anti-Saloon league. The league, which was founded as a state society in Oberlin, Ohio in 1893, used pressure politics to lobby for Prohibition in the United States during the early twentieth century (“Anti-Saloon League”). By concentrating on legislation, the Anti-Saloon league triumphed nationwide; their aim for Prohibition was fused into the constitution via the passage of the eighteenth amendment in 1919 (“Anti-Saloon League”). This reform allowed for organized crime to mingle its way into common society through bootlegging, or illegally producing and selling alcohol. This is commonly tied to Jay Gatsby, for many assume that bootlegging was how he became significantly wealthy. “I found out what your ‘drug-stores’ were.[…] He and this Wolfshiem bought up a lot of side-street drug-stores here and in Chicago and sold grain alcohol over the counter” (Fitzgerald 133). This refers to Tom’s confrontation with Gatsby when they were at the hotel, bickering over Daisy. Another reference to Gatsby’s alleged bootlegging business is when Tom is talking to Nick in the process of waiting for his car. “A lot of these newly rich people are just big bootleggers, you know” (Fitzgerald 107). This refers to Tom Buchanan’s discussion with Nick Carraway about Jay Gatsby, particularly in reference to his new-found affluence.
Then, because the Great War had failed in ending war, or more specifically, political disagreements, the Kellogg-Briand pact was created to outlaw warfare. It was an
international treaty that was signed on August 27, 1928 by sixty-two nations, of which include Afghanistan, Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Ethiopia, Finland, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Liberia, the Netherlands, Norway, Panama, Peru, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey (“Kellogg-Briand Pact”). The United States also signed the pact, but added that the treaty must not violate America’s right of self-defense. It failed in its purpose but was significant for later developments in international law (“Kellogg-Briand Pact”). “I participated in that great Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless” (“Trimalchio: An Early Version of The Great Gatsby” 6). This relates to The Great Gatsby in that after witnessing unspeakable tragedies during the war, Gatsby and his peers turned to lavish living to escape them. Along the same lines, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf, a novel that foreshadowed World War II, which caused the Kellogg-Briand pact to fall short (“Mein Kampf”). For the most part, however, the pact did do some good; it created the legal basis for the creation of the notion of crime against peace, which was significant during the Nuremburg Trials after World War II (“Kellogg-Briand Pact”).
The final event that occurred in the nineteen twenties that shaped the years to come was the great stock market crash of nineteen twenty-nine. This crash, which occurred on October 29, 1929, led to the Great Depression in the thirties. This collapse happened for several reasons; two of which are installment buying and an exponentially expanding economy (“Stock Market Crash”). Installment buying is when a buyer cannot afford to pay for an item in full, so they pay for it over the lifetime of the product; it is more commonly referred to as purchasing on credit (“Stock Market Crash”). The economy during the nineteen-twenties expanded rapidly because employment was high and therefore more people were able to buy new-fangled things such as radios,
telephones, toasters, and automobiles; the companies that paved the way for these advances saw their stocks soar six-fold from 1921 to 1929 (“Stock Market Crash”). This is easily represented through Jay Gatsby’s overspending through his house, automobiles, and lavish parties. “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music […] Laughter is easier minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word”(Fitzgerald 40). This explains how people buried their sorrows through over-the-top social gatherings. During the summer of 1929, however, the economy began to contract until the stock market eventually plummeted twenty-three percent, leading the United States into the Great Depression.
In The Great Gatsby, there is an underlying theme of unattainable goals, goals that somehow involve a nonexistent past. A key question that one may ask is “What exactly is an unattainable goal?” Well, for an aspiration to be unattainable, it must be impossible to achieve within one’s own lifetime. For example, a run of the mill, uninvolved high school student aspires to be a major league baseball player, national football league star, and a professional basketball player simultaneously; that is an unattainable goal. “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her; If you can bounce high, bounce for her too, Till she cry ‘Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover, I must have you'” (“Fitzgerald title”). This represents Gatsby’s desire to do anything so long as his ‘perfect’ Daisy continues to love him; she is really a fickle and shallow person. Another example in relation to the novel is Nick Carraway’s dream of becoming a bond salesman. “What you doing, Nick? […] I’m a bond man” (Fitzgerald 10). This refers to Nick’s conversation with Tom Buchanan about his career. Also, unattainable goals can have serious health effects if one is unable to disengage from them. These include psychological distress, and other various physical health problems (Wrosch). A common quote within the Pendragon series of novels goes something like this: ‘losing hurts the most when you think you’ve won’. This refers to Gatsby’s death at the end of The Great Gatsby; he died because of his unattainable goal, Daisy Buchanan.
Furthermore, one must differentiate between the worlds of science fiction and reality in regards to repeating the past. Within the realms of science fiction literature, time travel is virtually the only way through which one may correct the past. As previously mentioned it is the concept of moving backwards and / or forwards to different points in time in a manner that is parallel to moving through space (“Time Travel”). There are two methods by which this journey may occur. The most commonly used method is an instantaneous movement from one point in time to another via a mechanism of some sort; for example, the De Lorean DMC-12 in the Back to the Future film series (“Time Travel”). H.G. Wells contrived another method, which said that we are moving through time at a constant speed and time travel is “stopping or accelerating one’s drift along the time-dimension, or even turning about and traveling the other way” (“Time Travel”). An example of this is the wizard Merlyn: he lives back in time because he was born ‘at the wrong end’, and must live his life backwards from in front (“Time Travel”). Jay Gatsby wishes that he could return to the past and change Daisy’s mind, in which he could make use of a time machine. In reality, however, time travel is not currently possible. There are currently only two singularities by which one may hypothetically ‘experience the past’; of which are time slips and déjà vu. A time slip is an alleged paranormal phenomenon in which a person or group of people travel through time via supernatural means (“Time Slip”). Many time-slip witnesses report that their surroundings feel unreal; this is sometimes accompanied by feelings of unease and depression (“Time Slip”). The other method by which time can seem to repeat itself is déjà vu, which is the experience in which an individual feels as though an event has already occurred (“Déjà Vu”). “And if you want to take down any addresses here’s my little gold pencil […] she looked around after a moment and told me the girl was ‘common but pretty'” (Fitzgerald 105). This refers to Tom Buchanan’s many affairs, such as the one with Myrtle, which is commented on quite often in the novel. A similar experience is called staircase wit, which is remembering something when it is too late, such as a clever comeback after a conversation has already ended. “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night” (Fitzgerald 180). This makes a reference to Jay Gatsby’s eventual realization that his dreams have passed him by.
Within The Great Gatsby, readers may notice that the novel offers inklings toward the foundations for past reconstruction, happenings that could have been averted, the consequences of unattainable goals, and a contrast between time travel in both fiction and reality in respects to repeating the past. During the nineteen twenties, memories allow people to return to cherished times. Also, there are many political events that foreshadow the future. In addition, unattainable goals play a large part in the lives of young people during this decade. Finally, past reconstruction can be compared and contrasted through the realms of science fiction and reality. Like Alexander Hartdegen, Jay Gatsby hopes to revive a past that cannot be changed. In addition, he dies just like Alex’s dream perishes when he meets the Über-Morlock. In the end, however, the past is the past, the future the future, and the present somewhere in between.