“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
Are destinies inherited?
A poignant tale on materialism and moral decay in 1920s America, The Great Gatsby recounted the exploits of peasant-born romantic Jay Gatsby as he built up a bootlegging empire and held extravagant parties in a grand bid to win back the heart of young debutante Daisy Bucchanan. Daisy, frustrated with her philandering husband, did begin an affair with Gatsby. Later, in a mad rush of events, her husband discovered the affair, a nervous Daisy accidentally killed his mistress while driving Gatsby’s car, and Gatsby valiantly took the blame for the death. In spite of their mutual infidelity, Daisy and her millionaire husband had an intimate rapport that enabled them to smooth over their differences and get out of the situation together in no time. Conversely, Gatsby, whose ineptitude at grasping the social nuances of the old rich made his ingratiation of himself into their circle no more than superficial success, was mercilessly left to die at the hands of the mistress’s revenge-seeking husband.
Crime was also a plot driver in Hello Monster, which wondered if psychopaths are born or made. As it explored the question, it delved into a case in which a man was wrongly convicted of the murders of his wife and daughter. His son grew up to avenge him, killing, one after another, the actual murderer and officers in charge of the investigation. Father and son eventually met as fellow convicts in prison, the novel’s famous last line (quoted above) narrating in the son’s mind.
Whether we define success in moral or material terms, three factors have frequently been viewed as instrumental to individual accomplishments: innate qualities, acquired character traits and resources. Of these, whether and how exactly innate qualities like inborn sense of morality and natural talent affect success remain subjects of dispute. Even more controversial is the potential use of gene engineering techniques to alter such characteristics. In any case, since innate gifts lie beyond our control at present, it is perhaps far more worthwhile to devote attention to other factors.
Acquired character traits and resources, on the other hand, are largely amenable to various interventions. Parental and social upbringing, for instance, may cultivate in a person qualities like compassion and perseverance, which in turn spur him to develop skills capable of compensating for deficiencies in innate talent. Where parenting and educational practices are flawed, due to lack of time, knowledge, materials, facilities and/or other necessities, various corrective measures have been proposed to give disadvantaged children a fighting chance for success. These include mentoring of at-risk youths, increased government spending on financial aid and school infrastructure, incentives to attract educators of high caliber to low-performing academic institutions, and a “Thirty Million Words Initiative” training low-income parents to enhance their children’s cognitive capacities through enriched conversations. There are even schools revamping the social environments of underprivileged students through extended school hours, longer school terms and boarding arrangements, which keep them adhering to strict disciplinary regimes for long periods on end.
Less forthcoming, however, are remedies for the shortage of resources equipping children with the skills to navigate the upper echelons of society. While schools customized for underprivileged children may have boosted their academic performance in certain cases, education by itself cannot guarantee the quality of jobs available to one or how far he may advance in his chosen profession. Research suggests that about half of all job vacancies, most of which are high-power positions, are never publicly advertised. To secure one of them, the job seeker would do well to tap into his social network. To flourish, he would likely need to understand the mode of thinking of movers and shakers and speak their social language—the area where Gatsby faltered. Even though Gatsby fervently tried to mimick the mannerisms of the rich, and in fact succeeded in channeling a special type of charisma (in Fitzgerald’s words, “He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it […] It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.“), it felt theatrical and vulgarly overdone, never quite the same as the effortless and understated elegance possessed by the long-term wealthy. Segregating impoverished children from the rest of society may exacerbate this kind of disadvantage. It goes without saying that education systems designed for the poor should ideally factor in time and spaces, perhaps in the form of inter-school projects, that allow pupils to bond with peers from other backgrounds in an organic manner from an early age.
All innate gifts, acquired capabilities and resources come to waste, though, when a person has no desire to make full use of them, and this brings into focus a fourth factor—aspirations. A study conducted by Ivy League professors shows that a great majority of high-achieving, low-income students do not apply to any selective college, even though such institutions are often cheaper than the non-prestigious colleges they enroll in, due to availability of generous financial aid. One plausible reason, they imply, is that these students are unlikely to have encountered older schoolmates or teachers who have attended competitive colleges. To attract such high-achievers to top universities, interventions like sending financial aid information to them, fine-tuning educational counseling processes and recruiting college alumni as evangelists for the schools are now being explored. An additional point educators may wish to consider is that the lack of predecessors admitted to elite institutions, while unfortunate, is a fact they can actually use to prod high schoolers to step up as trailblazers for their communities, imparting their students valuable life lessons in the process.
The absence of role models has a negative impact on career ambitions too. It is thought that parental influence plays a huge role in career choices, those of low-income urban youths included. This may have wider ramifications than the reported one of poor students not being privy to insider industry knowledge shared by parents in high-paying occupations to their offspring. It can mean that children from lower socioeconomic strata inherit an interest in the more accessible topics and activities their parents are passionate about, whereas those in affluent families develop enthusiasm for more sophisticated subjects. As such, chances are, a disadvantaged girl proficient in numbers becomes a preschool mathematics teacher, while a wealthy girl with the same strength enters a private equity firm. Although both professions are equally respectable, it is only fair that people choose the lower-paying one out of actual free will, as far as reasonably practicable, rather than out of information deficits. One solution would be to encourage more firms in relatively complex sectors to organize observational internships and sharing sessions for younger students, communicating, for instance, the joys of seeing one’s prediction on a company’s future comes true or the intellectual thrill of deconstructing legal cases with less-than-satisfactory outcomes.
A more tragic problem probably lies with aspirations serving as the very purposes of living. After all, notwithstanding the high importance of academics and jobs, it is not impossible to lead a meaningful life with little or no education and poorly paid work. 95-100% of survey respondents in poverty-stricken countries believed their lives had meaning whereas only two-thirds of those in Japan, France and Spain thought the same of themselves. For all their ambitiousness, the younger convict and Gatsby were drawn back into the past arguably also because they did not emerge from the miserable circumstances of their childhood with dreams of a truly elevated quality. One sought bloody revenge, the other hankered after a shallow woman for her aura of wealth. Meditating on the latter, Fitzgerald thought material symbols like roses “grotesque,” as their deadly attraction power are built on artificial meanings shrouding the hollowness of the objects. The two characters did not share their families’ possibly modest aspirations but they ironically adopted the morally empty and corrupt ones of their rivals (i.e. the wealthy elite and the bloodthirsty).
That is, perhaps, a reflection of the lopsidedness in human thought and discourse on aspirations, wherein material and status-related goals seem to be more often clearly delineated and discussed than philosophical and spiritual ones. When adults ask children what they want to be when they grow up, the question is usually mutually understood as preferred vocations, instead of the type of character they want to develop, the problems they wish to solve, the principles they would like to live by and who they will live for. Some people come to question their purpose in life all the same, and some children proclaim ambitions of becoming parents, to the good-natured amusement of grown-ups. Yet these instances appear to be less frequent than academic and career-oriented discussions. In the end, many probably just drift on aimlessly, until a random target magnetizes them, for better or worse. The revenge-seeking drama character, one would speculate, succumbed to negative influences that formed part of his childhood experiences, and Gatsby to an unworthy object of love made all the more tempting by his own experiences as the son of poor farmers, because nothing in those experiences actively conferred on them a will to resist such influences. That would be one other avoidable manner in which fates are shaped by families.
While Fitzgerald expressed sadness over men’s failure at escaping from their past, including that of the nation as a whole at abandoning the rigid social structures of Europe, he seemed to see value in bygone days as well. The narrator, Nick Carraway, analyzed events through the lens of traditional values he grew up with in Midwestern America and, scornful of the decadent life he witnessed on the East Coast, moved back there after Gatsby’s death. Freeing oneself from the shackles of the old where necessary, while learning and preserving precious aspects of one’s heritage, is thus a balancing act worth mastering.