One of the greatest mistakes of our education is that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great American Novel” The Great Gatsby is among the mandatory literature studied in high-school. I remember the first time I read it, was for an English literature class and I hated it. We had to read a chapter or two a day and this imposition of routine on my reading combined with my utter lack of understanding as to why this novel is so great, painted a picture of it in my head as “a very stupid book”. I am inclined to believe I am not the only one who felt that way. Reading reviews from many people, they all seemed to share the same experience – they read it and hated it in high school. Then they read it at a more mature age and absolutely loved it.
For me it was slightly different. I started loving it without reading it a second time. As time passed and my view of the world changed from drinking booze till I pass out to more tangible goals (drinking booze but not passing out, please) I started to appreciate the beauty of The Great Gatsby. The prose is like a perfectly written poem – it flows easily like a song, enchanting, attracting, shocking. F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of my most favorite authors of fiction because he writes as if he was born only to do that – his novels are lean, to-the-point, without over-writing, and yet powerful and disturbing. And so, as the yet another movie adaptation is upon us and given that Leonardo DiCaprio is my most favorite author of all times (I could not imagine any other living author playing Gatsby) I figured it is about time I read The Great Gatsby a second time and see if I do really love it or it’s some kind of false remembrance from the past.
Considered by many critics as a “Great American Novel”, The Great Gatsby is set during the Roaring Twenties – an era of unprecedented economic prosperity, jazz music, beauty, cult of money and luxury, criminal activity and exuberance in every form of human life. After the devastation of World War I, people are turning towards more primitive pleasures – and soon money, wealth, power and beauty become the sole virtues against which a man’s worth is judged. One of the most prominent places for the rich and the prosperous is Long Island, close to New York. In the fictional villages of West Egg and East Egg coexist the “old money” – wealthy individuals coming from old and established families and the “new money” – recently enriched through mysterious and most probably not so legal means.
The narrator Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate and a veteran from World War I, arrives in Long Island to work as a bondsman in New York. He is soon embroiled in the intrigues of the wealthy circle of individuals that inhabits Long Island. And yet, one feels there is something different about Nick – something that doesn’t fit with that shallow picture of endless parties and booze:
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.”
With this beginning Fitzgerald sets the tone of the novel, where the actions of Daisy, Tom, Gatsby and the others will be judged against Nick – a man different from his surroundings and somewhat not fitting in.
Upon his arrival, Nick becomes quickly embroiled in the vividness of life in New Island. His neighbor, the “new-money” Jay Gatsby is a self-made millionaire and a role model for the Roaring Twenties – rich, intelligent and mysterious. Rumors about his life spread from criminal activity to actually killing a man, from fighting in World War I to being a graduate from Oxford, but no one really knows the truth about him – a fact which makes his parties even bigger, louder and more exuberant. As faithfully put in the trailer for The Great Gatsby:
The buildings were higher, the parties were bigger, the morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper.
And yet Gatsby is a likable character (at least for me). There is something childish and innocent about him and his pursue of dreams, he believes will make him happy. As Nick gets to know him, so does the reader:
No – Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
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 of five times in life. 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 understood you just so 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.
As a poor and young office Gatsby meets Daisy, an attractive yet shallow girl, a typical Louisiana beauty and this youthful romance becomes a sole driver in Gatsby’s live. During the war she marries the arrogant and brutal, yet extremely rich Tom Buchanan and Gatsby devotes his life to the pursuit of wealth to impress her with and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amount to one and the same thing:
“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…High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…
This description of Daisy says it all about the era – the strong obsession with money and prosperity that drives Daisy, Tom and even Gatsby towards some sort of shallow and imaginable happiness. Gatsby naively and foolishly believes (which in my own eyes makes him an even more likable character) that he can earn his happiness by impressing Daisy with his possessions – as a child showing off his new toy, Gatsby takes Daisy around his mansion, trembling each time she approves of something and suffering if she is repelled by anything. In that sense, does Gatsby love Daisy? I believe he likes an idea of her, or rather everything she represents – youth, beauty, wealth, luxury, an ideal life according to society standards. And does Daisy really love Gatsby? At one point in the novel she exclaims about her daughter:
And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.
I believe it says it all – behind the glitter of the American dream represented by the Buchanans and Gatsby lingers a painful realization – this shallowness and beauty is perverted; this obsession with money is rotten; and this happiness is not real. Fitzgerald critically portrays a society based on all the wrong virtues – a means to no end – and as the novel unfolds, it resembles more and more a tragic Greek drama. As the cynical Nick exclaims more of an entire age than of the Buchanans:
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…
Gatsby is doomed – by his false image of Daisy and by his false image of an ideal life – exuberant, rich, full with opportunities for new beginnings. And yet there is something about Gatsby, something about his determination, even if it is for the wrong things, that makes him stand out of the crowd – his parties are a means to meet Daisy, his wealth is a means to impress her, his social status is a means for him to be worthy of her. In that sense, he has devoted himself to a dream, that he pursues with strength and perseverance – even though it might be the wrong kind of a dream. And that is what Nick sees in him:
“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time. His gorgeous pink rag of a suit made a bright spot of color against the white steps and I thought of the night when I first came to his ancestral home three months before. The lawn and drive had been crowded with he faces of those who guessed at his corruption – and he had stood on those steps, concealing his incorruptible dream, as he waved them goodbye.
The second time around I haven’t been disappointed – the image I had of The Great Gatsby before reading it for the second time was correct – it remains one of my most favorite novels of all times. It is elegantly written, it is sharp and exact to the point, and it gives the reader the immense please of admiring F. Scot Fitzgerald’s talent. As for Jay Gatsby, for me he would be one of the most interesting and compelling characters in world literature – a man of contrasts, whose rise to the American dream and subsequent fall portray the image of an era obsessed with wealth, beauty, and shallowness.
More from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night