I completely missed the Gatsby craze of last year. Of course, I knew about it, but for whatever reason, it remained out of my sphere, something to do eventually. I’ve never read the book before or seen any film adaptations, and the net benefit is being able to read the book with a fresh perspective – only prejudiced by the fact that I cannot not picture DiCaprio and Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy. *sigh*
(Might I also point out that Daisy is supposed to be brunette and Jordan is supposed to be blonde? Details, anyone?)
Now that that’s squared away, let’s talk about the book, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read it in four days, which for me these days is a pageturner. Expectations were middling – I tried very hard to read This Side of Paradise a couple of years ago and gave up early. On the other hand, The Great Gatsby (1925) is hyped as a great American classic, and a portrait of the Jazz Age, and a stirring, “cautionary tale” against the evils of a capitalist system. But is it really?
The trouble with any book written in first person is that it asks you to look inside the head of the narrator. Our narrator is Nick Carraway, and he is unable to fulfill the role of oracle, in regards to the lessons one is supposed to learn from The Great Gatsby. He is not altogether against capitalism, he doesn’t exemplify jazz himself, and he is hardly a socially progressive figure, being nearly as racist as the somewhat hammy antagonist, Tom Buchanan. He can be insightful, sensible, and even witty, but overall Nick runs contrary to what most modern readers want to find in this book. That is just something to keep in mind before looking to The Great Gatsby for relevancy.
The plot follows Nick and his adventures into high society after he meets his cousin Daisy, her husband Tom, Daisy’s friend Jordan, and Nick’s own illustrious neighbor, Jay Gatsby.
He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
Gatsby is famous in the extended neighborhood for hosting enormous parties at huge expense. As a host, he is more than generous, but as a human being, he remains enigmatic, holding on persistently to some dream from his former youth. His wealth alone prevents anyone from asking too many questions, and Nick alone feels a sense of obligation to try to understand him. It isn’t long, however, before Gatsby’s dream consumes him entirely, threatening to pull him down, and Daisy and Nick along with him, to irrevocable, real-world consequences. In the age-old irony, he dedicated his past for his future, and now he can’t escape the ideals that were his driving force.
I can’t help but think this is “how Gone with the Wind should have been.” The world of Gatsby feels very real, the characters are alive and have solid motives, and the origins of the madness they succumb to seems fairly well-rooted in reality. I say “madness” because that’s what it is – very much an original first-world problem. The vanity and the extravagance are all shocking and ugly, and yet you can’t help but have some sympathy for Gatsby. He’s as dubious a character as Rhett Butler, maybe more; the difference is, he has more heart.
It’s too simplistic to say that this story is all about money, or all about obsession. Maybe the Brothers K is still on my mind, but there is a spiritual emptiness in the Roaring Twenties as portrayed. As Daisy senses, it’s all wrong, and it’s not liberating. The most peaceful moments in Gatsby’s world are quiet and simple, like the beauty of looking out over Long Island Sound, and the memories of innocent first love. This is really the most American aspect of the book, to shed artificiality and arrogance and to find your true self in “the outdoors.” I’d argue, too, that the book is not so much against wealth but against ill-gotten wealth and the idolatry of self, of which nearly every character is guilty.
I could go on musing a long time over this book. It was gorgeously written, and quite depressing. I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars because I doubt I’d recommend it to anyone, yet I personally found it worthwhile and would read it again someday.