For whatever reason The Great Gatsby had never really appealed to me, both the book and the recent-ish big-budget adaptation by Baz Luhrmann. But with my determination to read through all the classics and sample the great authors (and that list growing ever and ever longer…) I finally tackled it last week. The Great Gatsby is considered by many as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best work despite suffering from average reviews and poor sales upon its publication in 1925. A rather sad fact; Fitzgerald died in 1945 under the impression that he and his failed works were to be forgotten.
The Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age. Whatever you want to call them, it is this period of time where the events of the book take place, and they were brought to an end when the Great Depression hit after a stock market crash in 1929. Fitzgerald’s book, published in 1925, several years before the crash, is eerily prophetic as he peers through the charades of wild and reckless parties and general decadence to see the stark truths, built up on vanity and wealth. By the end of The Great Gatsby, we are left in no doubt what Fitzgerald’s general opinion was of this era. The book is a cautionary tale; the unfairness of inequality, power and wealth, of living to excess, the inability to let go of the past, and the chasing of the American Dream.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
The plot follows the book’s narrator Nick Carraway, as he moves from Midwest America to the east, to take a job in New York, to Long Island and the fictional town of West Egg. He lives in a small house next door to the rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby. In Nick’s first few weeks he catches up with his cousin, the flirtatious, incredibly well-off Daisy, her powerful, even richer but also a complete dickhead Tom Buchanan, and their friend, cynical but glamorous golfer Jordan Baker. We get a taste of life in the Jazz Age through a series of small parties where alcohol is drank to excess and the conversation is just awful. Power and wealth and the upper class are not exactly put in a great light here. Alcoholism, promiscuity, social prejudices, the discussion firmly kept to class and wealth. The crowd that Nick becomes involved with are not exactly the most grounded bunch.
Eventually Nick is invited to a party of his neighbour Gatsby, whom owns a tremendous mansion next door to Nick’s much more humble abode. Having seen the bright lights of many of Gatsby’s parties from a distance Nick is is quickly enveloped into an almost surreal existence, full of swinging parties and audacious feats of wealth. Gatsby is the source of nightly parties that carry on into the early hours of the morning, yet Gatsby himself rarely takes part, leading to rumours about his past, how he came about his wealth, and his true desires. Nick attends more and more of these parties in West Egg at Gatsby’s mansion, and grows an attachment to the man. There is something about this Gatsby, as Nick writes:
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.
Despite being set during prohibition, there is plenty of booze, drunk driving, car crashes and debauchery. Nick is intrigued by this man, seemingly so generous in opening his home to people he knows and knows not, yet he doesn’t participate – he doesn’t drink, hell he hasn’t even used his luxurious pool in his back garden – he is observing, or waiting. But for what, or who? Well, Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, has been for the past 5 years and in fact the two once dated before Gatsby had to fight in the war. It turns out that Gatsby has been attempting to win Daisy back. His mansion is exactly opposite hers, across the bay on East Egg, with the green light shining across the water a constant reminder of the love they shared.
The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.
The Great Gatsby’s final chapter is one of the sad and unfair endings in literature. A chain of events ends in a hit-and-run. Ironically, Tom’s mistress Myrtle is unknowingly killed by his wife Daisy, but Gatsby agrees to take the blame. However, when (finally) relaxing in his pool one afternoon Myrtle’s wife George Wilson enters Gatsby’s property and shoots him before turning the gun on himself. Nick’s efforts to arrange a funeral while gauging the reactions of Gatsby’s so-called friends is troubling as we realise just how lonely this seemingly popular and successful man was.
After that I felt a certain shame for Gatsby — one gentleman to whom I telephoned implied that he had got what he deserved. However, that was my fault, for he was one of those who used to sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby’s liquor, and I should have known better than to call him.
What Fitzgerald succeeds in is creating terribly flawed characters that demand the reader’s attention. You may (in Tom’s case, will) despise certain characters, but you will enjoy reading about them – they are all fascinating in their own way. Daisy (who of her daughter says ‘I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’), and Tom Buchanan in particular, who Nick describes as ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax‘ and is prone to racist rants, come across as shallow, self-centred, careless individuals. Nick’s views on Tom after an encounter several months after the death of Gatsby:
I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
Was Gatsby great? It’s a difficult question. When compared to the rest of the supporting cast, he certainly comes across as a likeable character, and perhaps with narrator Nick Carraway’s encouragement, we the reader would be inclined to say yes.
They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.
From the start the strange rumours of Gatsby as this almost mystical presence are exaggerated. He resembles a magician, the ‘Great Gatsby’, and even his vehicle at one point is described as a ‘circus wagon’. But how great was Gatsby, really? As Tom refers to him, ‘Mr. Nobody from Nowhere’, Gatsby came from humble beginnings and of low-birth, which doesn’t really work out well for you in this book. He is a self made man, literally making his own name, changing it from Gatz to Gatsby. What he does demonstrate is incredible ambition to make something of himself – sure, it was through bootlegging and other illegal activities, but coming from nothing to throwing the best parties in New York is pretty impressive. Gatsby got to where he was through hard work, desire, ambition and ‘an. extraordinary gift for hope’.
But ultimately Gatsby’s doomed romanticisation of Daisy was hugely flawed. His inability to move on, to try and recreate the past exactly, was naive and foolish.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
The tragedy is not Gatsby’s dedication in chasing a dream, but chasing an morally ambiguous, dishonest dream. And he shows tremendous greed too. He is not content with Daisy loving him – he wants her to have never loved Tom. To have never loved Tom the five years they were apart, as if he can erase the past. And this is his downfall.
There is plenty of symbolism within The Great Gatsby. The infatuation with money is everywhere, and there is evidence that Gatsby, when they dated all those years ago, loved Daisy’s money more than Daisy herself. He reminisces about her mansion in particular, and when he reconnects with her finally he insightfully shares with Nick that ‘her voice is full of money’:
“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of-“
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money-that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.
And ultimately wealth is the ultimate power of this age. Wealth consumes the rich, and destroys the poor. Everyone is striving for wealth in the book, but in The Great Gatsby, they bring immorality and death.
While reading The Great Gatsby I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s writing and the vivid and complex characters. But it was only once I had reached the end of the book and had it clouding my thoughts for days after that I realised how much the book has affected me. It’s a tragic tale of the hollowness of the American Dream that still resonates today.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and 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, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.