The Great Gatsby – Musings and Memories

Curled up in my oversized chair, I plied the pages of The Great Gatsby… at times smiling over some witticism, at other times choking back tears. The tragedy of false hopes, shapeless dreams, and empty materialism was getting to me. Was this novel really that “great” (pardon the pun), or was I just getting older and sentimental?

I hadn’t planned to read it this year, but when Stephen said he was rereading it for the Classics Club challenge, I jumped at the chance of a readalong. It was a revisit for both of us. I first read The Great Gatsby in 2015, nearly seven years ago. At the time, I gave it a middling 3.5 stars.

“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

My ties with the story go back further, though, to the release of the 2013 film. I mostly ignored the hype, except for my would-be boyfriend sending me Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” It was fitting, though perhaps not in the way he intended… I never cared for the lyrics, but the melody haunts me still.

When I finally got around to reading Gatsby, I thought I had matured. I was impressed, but with a sense of detachment. These were selfish characters, vastly removed from me in their lofty 1920s microcosm of parties, alcohol, and general debauchery. The book was interesting, even touching, but I didn’t love it. I certainly didn’t learn from it.

After all, what did I have in common with Daisy, the southern debutante who falls for a poor soldier but marries the comfortably wealthy, shockingly cruel Tom Buchanan? Or Jay Gatsby, the title character, whose mysterious mansion across the water from Daisy’s is the site of endless parties and frivolity?

Nick, the protagonist, comes to West Egg, New York—home of the nouveau riche—with much the same feeling of detachment. He soon discovers his neighbor Gatsby has moved to the area with the dream of winning back his young love, Daisy. Gatsby believes that now he is a “somebody,” with wealth and prestige, he can reverse the past and be reunited with her. Too little, too late…

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.

Eventually I watched the film and hated it. Well, the second half was pretty good, but the first half was so crass as to make it nearly unwatchable. In spite of any book quotations, the movie, in my opinion, completely missed Fitzgerald’s poetry. Because nobody writes heartache like Fitzgerald. The substance of The Great Gatsby delves deeper than the surface-level bawdiness and riches which the film emphasizes (arguably, given the sudden popularity of 20s-themed parties). The novel, rather, pushes that aside to expose the things every human being wants—being loved, understood, and needed.

I should have first read it as a cautionary tale. As a murder mystery, a dark comedy, and a tale of horror. That’s how I read it this time. Every strained scene, every painfully oblique conversation added to a general feeling of dread, even though I knew what was coming.

Gatsby’s futile desire to rewrite the outcome of his past is symbolized by the green light coming from Daisy and Tom’s house. He stares towards it at night, dreaming of his happy reunion. In short, he’s crazy… drunk on nostalgia. I can say that with conviction because in the years since that first reading, I carried my own “green light” which failed as spectacularly as Gatsby’s, though thankfully not with such dire consequences. Still… if I had “gotten” the novel the first time, could all of that have been prevented? Maybe.

But the book does not try to sermonize. It’s simply Nick Carraway’s recollections of a tragic friend and neighbor.

I’ll just end by saying I felt more empathetic towards Daisy this time. There was much more to her than “spoiled rich girl.” Her fidelity to Tom, her lack of drinking, and most of all, her ultimate decisiveness lent a weight to her character I didn’t notice before. Not saying she’s particularly likeable, but we can be quick to take Jay’s side while forgetting that a woman in this time period, in spite of her wealth, was in a position to make few choices. On some level, I understood her forging ahead in life and owning up to her decisions. Jay should have respected her more than he did.

5 stars this time, and recommended.