They both inhabit worlds of opulence and glamour, but the characters in F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel and the popular reality TV show also tell us something about celebrity culture and the American class system, says Sarah Churchwell.

While promoting Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the actress Carey Mulligan declared in an interview with Vogue that Daisy Buchanan, the character she plays, is “like a Kardashian,” referring to the family in the American reality TV show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Mulligan went on to explain: “[Daisy] feels like she's living in a movie of her own life. She's constantly on show, performing all the time. Nothing bad can happen in a dream. You can't die in a dream. She's in her own TV show."

The comment attracted a great deal of attention, and Mulligan later clarified it, saying that what she meant was that, like the Kardashians, Daisy is always obliged to look perfect, that this is part of her “business.”

It’s arguable that this interpretation may help to bring Daisy to life on the screen, or may fit into Luhrmann’s larger vision of the story. But as a reading of the character in F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel, it leaves something to be desired. In fact, it is almost exactly back to front. Daisy, Fitzgerald tells us, is a “careless person”: that is her great shortcoming. The old-money world of East Egg is a world of effortlessly doing and saying the right thing, because you are privy to the rulebook. Daisy represents the “leisure classes,” which meant just that: such women were expected to be ornamental, but they were also profoundly suspicious of the vulgarity of anyone who tried too hard.

Daisy does not have a “business”  – that is for the likes of Jay Gatsby. Neither is she a celebrity, nor a performer – indeed, in an early draft of the novel, Fitzgerald shows that Daisy was profoundly unimpressed by mere movie stars. At one point in the draft, Gatsby tries to convince Daisy to share her hairdresser with a movie star at his party by telling her “impressively” that it will make her “the originator of a new vogue all over the country.” Daisy responds, “Do you think I want that person to go around with her hair cut exactly like mine? It’d spoil it for me.”  Daisy carefully guards her status, but that is the only effort she takes, and she would have been horrified to have been likened to a Kardashian.

Sensuality and superficiality

There are, however, two characters in the novel who do merit the comparison. The first is Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, who aspires to Daisy’s position in life. Myrtle is in her mid thirties, “and faintly stout,” Fitzgerald tells us, “but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” She is not beautiful, “but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.” Myrtle puts on “an elaborate afternoon dress of cream colored chiffon, which gave out a continual rustle as she swept about the room,” and then airily dismisses it: "It's just a crazy old thing," she says. "I just slip it on sometimes when I don't care what I look like."

Myrtle tries very hard to appear effortless; but the cracks constantly show. When she throws a sordid little party at her apartment, Myrtle becomes “more violently affected moment by moment,” as she minces, flounces and raises her eyebrows at the shiftlessness of the lower orders, trying to pass herself off as a woman of taste and refinement – but her vulgarity cannot be disguised. Myrtle’s living room, Fitzgerald tells us, was “crowded to the doors with a set of tapestried furniture entirely too large for it so that to move about was to stumble continually over scenes of ladies swinging in the gardens of Versailles.”

This pretentious chintz, the upholstery of the wealthy, is the 1925 equivalent of a sofa suite furnished entirely in Burberry check. Fitzgerald also reveals what kind of woman Myrtle is through what she reads – a gossip magazine called Town Tattle (a kind of cross between Tatler and Hello!), and the titillating bestseller Simon Called Peter, which was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day. Myrtle never succeeds in attaining the wealth and power she seeks, so she is a failed Kardashian. But the sensuality, the tastelessness, the opulence, the brashness, the superficiality – these are the qualities of Myrtle, not of Daisy.

The high life

However, the real Kardashian in The Great Gatsby is Jay Gatsby himself, the man who came from nowhere and turned himself through a sheer act of will into someone who everyone wants to know about – and who may not have anything of substance behind the act. He is the centre of the novel’s network of gossip, the one everyone stares at and talks about. He is the one who earned a fortune in a very short time, and was willing to do whatever he needed to do to get it. Daisy leaves Jay Gatsby at the story’s end when she discovers just how vulgar his culture of upstart celebrities is – she definitively, and violently, rejects the world of the Kardashians, the world of showbusiness and flamboyance, of new money and relentless self-promotion.

The historical irony, of course, is that the point of the novel is the difference between the two worlds, the brash new money of Jay Gatsby’s West Egg in conflict with the effortless old money of Daisy Buchanan’s East Egg. In trying to bridge the gap between the two worlds, Gatsby is destroyed. In the 1974 film adaptation starring Robert Redford, Daisy tells Gatsby: “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” It is not a line that appears in the novel, for the very good reason that Jay Gatsby is rich by the time Daisy says this, rendering it a profoundly stupid thing to say to him. He isn’t poor, so that isn’t the reason that Daisy rejects him. The problem is not money, but class: that’s what Gatsby can’t purchase.

The Great Gatsby is partly a novel about the rise of celebrity culture, about the empty worship of hedonistic pleasure and material luxury, our desire for the so-called “high life.” And the triumph of the Kardashians is precisely a measure of how right Fitzgerald was about the age he foresaw. The age of the Kardashians is an age in which Jay Gatsby survives, and flourishes – and Daisy Buchanan withers up and blows away, an idea destroyed by the very culture she so despised.

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