Friday, May 17, 2013

F Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

As promised, I recently re-read The Great Gatsby and eagerly watched the Colbert Report's discussion of the book last week. As this was proclaimed to be Bibliofilly's first official read-along, I would love to hear from any of you who also chose to re-read the book, in anticipation of the release of Baz Luhrmann's film or for any other reason, or who have recently read it for the first time - let's light up the comments section!

Like many people, I first read The Great Gatsby in high school.  For some reason, along with vague images of Gatsby’s flashy parties, the other thing that really stayed with me was that sign on the highway between Long Island and New York, Doctor T. J. Eckleburg’s outdated optometrist’s sign, the two giant eyes raised across the road watching cars coming and going – “God sees everything!”. I remembered also the general feel of the book, the glamorous portrait of 1920s America, with cocktails and champagne fountains and flapper dresses (of course Fitzgerald is critical of this scene, yet the book portrays the glamour of it all so beautifully that this, ironically, is what remains indelibly fixed in the reader's imagination). And I knew that there was a car accident, and something to do with a mix-up involving two different cars.

But otherwise I had forgotten the details of the plot. And I had forgotten what a wonderful book this is – though that should really come as no surprise, given that The Great Gatsby has become such an American classic.

Nick Carraway, the narrator, is ex-military, home from the Great War, working in bonds in the city (New York), and settled in West Egg, Long Island, an unfashionable neighbourhood popular among the nouveau riche. His own unremarkable house is situated next door to a waterfront mansion owned by the mysterious Mr Gatsby, a wealthy man who throws lavish parties throughout the summer. Nobody knows very much about Gatsby, though anyone who is anyone attends his parties. Rumours about him abound, many unflattering – that he was a German spy, that he has killed a man – but this seems only to heighten his glamorous allure.

Unlike Gatsby, Nick has a foot in the door of respectable society, having friends across the water in fashionable East Egg, an equally wealthy suburb populated by established families with old money. Whilst visiting his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan at their house in East Egg, Nick meets the beautiful golf pro Jordan Baker. And when Nick is finally invited to one of Gatsby’s parties, he finds Jordan there. Together Nick and Jordan become confidantes of Gatsby, who tells them a secret he has studiously kept for five years: he is in love with Daisy Buchanan, and has set out deliberately to accumulate his wealth in order to impress her. The location of his mansion is no mistake. From the waterfront of his home he can see the glow of the green light positioned at the end of the Buchanans' dock, a symbol of Daisy's proximity to him. 

With Nick’s help, Gatsby and Daisy are reunited and a love affair begins which is complicated by Daisy’s peculiar marriage to Tom, who is also engaged in an extra-marital affair, and by Gatsby’s stubborn streak. It is not enough for Gatsby that Daisy express a willingness to leave Tom for Gatsby - he wants her also to explicitly deny that she has ever loved anyone but Gatsby himself. Daisy's reluctance to do this causes a stasis whereby she finds herself torn between the two men until tragedy strikes on an unusually hot summer’s day and Gatsby’s wealth and history is revealed for what it is – something less certain, less concrete than the stability that Tom has always offered. In spite of Gatsby’s extraordinary effort to lift himself up to the echelon of society to which Daisy has always belonged, it becomes clear that he will never truly belong there. Whereas Tom does belong, has always belonged, and will effortlessly continue to belong - and this matters to Daisy. She is portrayed as a rather flimsy character, someone to whom material things and physical comfort matter above all else. But, as Jennifer Egan pointed out on the Colbert Report (did any of you watch it?), Gatsby himself is marred by the same flaw - his admiration for Daisy is squarely founded in his desire to obtain the status she represents, he is fixated on her because she embodies a position in society that he has no hope of attaining without her, no matter how much wealth he manages to accumulate. 

Gatsby personifies the American dream, and although he is ostensibly wildly successful in achieving it, Fitzgerald shows that this success is shallow, ephemeral. Gatsby's parties are attended by hundreds of people, but none of them know Gatsby, or care about him. Gatsby's wealth is extraordinary, but beneath the marble bathrooms and beautiful shirts, beneath the extravagant veneer, lies emptiness.   

I had forgotten how sad this book is, and how poignant that last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Nick ultimately recognises how superficial was Gatsby's popularity, how temporary and insignificant his new money and garish lifestyle. Like Tom and Daisy, and in spite of his ultimate disregard for them, he retreats back to the safety of the solid West, where he grew up "in the Caraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name".  Although Tom and Daisy are painted as the moral villains in this tale, Fitzgerald's story asserts that it is they who will continue to garner respect. It doesn't matter what they have done - they represent the establishment of real America, and their kind will continue to exist even as countless Gatsbys come and go. And as for Gatsby himself, when the party is over - it is well and truly over.

Critics have often said that The Great Gatsby, at its heart, is a scathing critique of the American dream, of new wealth, of people who throw money around for show. But I think it's more than that. Fitzgerald critiques the American dream, yes, by showing that it doesn't work, but he is more critical of America itself - a society able to revel in the temporary wealth and new success of men like Gatsby, but equally able to turn its back on those people once the shine wears off. A society in which men like Tom Buchanan can effectively get away with murder because of the good name they were granted as a birthright. 

This is not a novel in which the characters are well developed - other than Nick they are caricatures, and they are intended to be. By playing Tom and Daisy out against Gatsby, like players on a chess board, Fitzgerald is able to show us just what he thinks of the America of his day - and it's not a positive outlook. 

The fact that this has gone on to be regarded as a 'Great American Novel' is therefore interesting. I don't think it is taught in schools as a cautionary tale. Instead the 1920s era portrayed by Fitzgerald seems to be embraced and lauded as a result of the book. This puzzles me. I would be interested to hear from any American readers of this blog about how they have been taught to regard The Great Gatsby - as a celebration of American society, or a critique of it? 

Overall assessment: 5 out of 5. What can I say? It's a classic for a reason. Luhrmann's film adaptation and the continued interest in Fitzgerald's novel over time make sense when one considers that the critique of society central to the text is as relevant today as it was during Fitzgerald's day. The America of today is a place where anyone can suddenly make it big, in so many different ways - by selling their soul to reality TV, by releasing a sex tape, by filming themselves being hurt doing stupid pranks. And the nation embraces every five minutes of fame and success the ordinary person enjoys, even as it rejoices in smashing that same celebrity in the next breath. The rise and fall of personal wealth is fodder for gossip magazines, just as Gatsby's rise and fall would be if it occurred today. 

Pros / favourite passages:  Fitzgerald's writing is almost painfully beautiful. It reminds me, in its spareness and dry humour, of John Fante's writing in Ask the Dust (although really, I suppose, it would be the other way around). There are so many passages worthy of reproduction, so here are just a couple:

Nick, the narrator, on himself: "Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known." 

On Gatsby's reunion with Daisy: "As I went over to say good-bye to I saw that the expression of bewilderment had come back into Gatsby's face, as though a faint doubt had occurred to him as to the quality of his present happiness. Almost five years! There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams - not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart."


  1. I love this book and, having studied it at school, re-read it every few years paying attention to my handwritten notes in the margins containing insights from my English teacher (who was excellent). I didn't watch the Colbert Report's discussion but couldn't bear to see this entry going un-commented. My study of the Great Gatsby was certainly in the light of the failure of the American Dream and I must admit to being having overlooked the possibility for it to be construed as a celebration of the 1920s Golden Age. Fitzgerald's prose stays with me even 15 years after my first reading, in particular the final sentence you have identified and the description of the light at the end of Daisy's dock. I have also found myself (somewhat flippantly) recalling Nick's realisation that he had moved on from his pre-Jordan romantic interest when assessing my relationships over the years ("I'd been writing letters once a week and signing them: "Love, Nick," and all I could think of was how, when that certain girl played tennis, a faint mustache of perspiration appeared on her upper lip" - essentially the moment when something about a person that was once able to be romanticised ceases to anything more than it actually is). I can't wait to see the film, but admit to being a little scared to do so...

    PS - congratulations on the birth of your daughter, she looks adorable.

  2. Thank you Mr Mason-Dixon! I very much appreciate you jumping in to ensure this post is not left empty of comments. I agree with you - I don't think the book allows for an interpretation that celebrates the 1920s. I just think that a lot of people choose to imagine this is what it stands for, because they are so keen to enjoy Gatsby-themed parties! I do think, though, that Fitzgerald was as critical of established American society as he was of those chasing the American dream. In fact, it seems to me he that felt sorry for the Gatsbys of this world - though he was certainly sure that their ambitions would not succeed.

    I also feel wary of seeing the film - but I loved Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet. I guess I will be viewing it like a stage production of the book, where the director might choose to set it in a different era, with non-traditional costume choices, in order to deliver an additional layer of meanings to those that appear in the original text. As long as it's done well, I have no objection to this.

    Thanks also for your well wishes about Lulu, she is doing very well!