Monday, December 17, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Source of book: I own this.

This review is dedicated to the memory of my cousin-in-law Jennifer, English teacher and all around great person. The world is a sadder place without her.

The Great Gatsby is one of those books I really should have read in high school, but never did. If I recall, we had to read an excerpt in 11th Grade, which is often the worst way to experience a novel. I mean, there are some books for which a single scene is enough, but for most, a scene out of context loses so much. In any event, I wasn’t impressed particularly, and never went back and read it.

In my 30s, I did read Fitzgerald’s first book, This Side of Paradise, and enjoyed it more than I expected. Since then, I kept saying I would read Gatsby, but never got around to it. In a way, I was a bit intimidated by it, because it was Jennifer’s favorite book to teach her high schoolers, and I worried I would disappoint her. (I have my insecurities, and have a bit of Imposter Syndrome. It doesn’t help that I was homeschooled and skipped undergrad college.) And then, now, I regret that I will never have a chance in this life to talk with her about it. Life sucks sometimes. So, Jen, see? I did get around to reading it eventually.

The Great Gatsby had an interesting history. Fitzgerald wrote it, and submitted it to a publisher, who suggested some revisions, which Fitzgerald made. The title was a problem for him, and many were suggested. Deadlines (and the fact that most of the titles, quite frankly, were lousy) meant one had to be picked. The publisher went with the title we know today, over Fitzgerald’s objections. I’m voting with the publisher on this one, as the title has turned out to be one of the most memorable and iconic in literature. It also is a reasonable introduction to the topics in the book.

The book wasn’t a total flop, but it wasn’t particularly successful. Critics didn’t like it much, and even the ones who did gave lukewarm reviews. It wasn’t until World War II that the book really caught on. The story behind that is fascinating, and I talked about it in my review of When Books Went to War. Without the Armed Services Edition of this book, it is possible it would still be languishing in obscurity.

These days, Gatsby is considered part of the American canon, even if many probably know the Leonardo Di Caprio movie better than the book. Opinions on the book are pretty polarized - a quick google search turns up both “Why I Despise The Great Gatsby” and “Why Gatsby Is So Great.” I’m more in the middle. It’s a good book. It’s not in my pantheon of greats. But you should definitely read it.

Since this book has been in print, it seems doubtful that anything I say could really be considered a “spoiler,” but consider yourself warned. Plot points are rather important to the book, and this review will contain spoilers.

The plot is thus: the narrator, Nick Carraway, moves from the Midwest to Long Island, and becomes the neighbor of a mysterious and fantastically wealthy man named Jay Gatsby. As it turns out, Gatsby - formerly Jimmy Gatz - was a poor young man who made his wealth by bootlegging, and has purchased this mansion and throws crazy parties for the sole purpose of winning his first love, Daisy. She got tired of waiting for him, and married Tom Buchanan, a scion of old money, and a real prick. Tom is having an affair with a married working-class woman behind Daisy’s back. Nick assists Gatsby in meeting Daisy (who is Nick’s distant cousin), and the two flirt with rekindling their romance. Tom and Gatsby confront each other in Manhattan, and Daisy is torn. She drives back with Gatsby, and hits and kills Tom’s mistress accidentally. She leaves the scene of the accident. The husband, thinking Gatsby is the killer, murders him and then kills himself. Nick is left to pick up the pieces Gatsby leaves behind.

The book is pretty heavy on symbolism, and can be read as a critique of both the Roaring 20s and American materialism in general.

The criticisms of the book are, for the most part, valid enough. The characters are loathsome, yet without the psychological depth that makes one like them as characters. Certain points - and motivations - are simply glossed over.

However, I do think that one objection misses an important point. It is true that Gatsby is morally vacuous in many ways. The title character is intended (I would guess) to be admired, despite his flaws. Sure, he may have made his fortune illegally, attempted to break up a marriage, throws orgiastic parties, encouraged a hit-and-run, and so on, but he is true to his first love. Whatever. And true, Nick, who kind of stands in for the reader and acts as the conscience of the book, is pretty morally questionable himself. After all, he basically stands by and watches Tom’s philandering, and much more. And then, after all is said and done, gets to go back to the Midwest full of self righteousness.

I think, though, that this is indeed missing the crucial truth: because we tend to be Nick, and be like Nick, Fitzgerald is actually implicating us in this vacuousness. To come away with a sense that we are supposed to feel good about ourselves, secure in our righteousness, having just gawked at wealth and moralized against it while admiring it, is wrong, in my view. It is taking the easy way out, one without self-examination. One objection to this view might be that Fitzgerald arguably didn’t intend to implicate Carraway - and by extension himself - in this. So what? Honestly, what my reading of Fitzgerald has revealed is that he very often lacked self awareness - and yet somehow managed to tell the unflattering truth about himself. (The last line in This Side of Paradise is fantastic - and there are plenty of moments like that in both books.) It may have been unintentional, but it is still there and meaningful.

It really is an indictment of many aspects of American character as well. The myth of the self-made man - and the idea that the only thing holding the poor back is their lack of character. In general, the conflation of wealth and privilege with morality. Our fascination with wealth and its trappings. Our alternative morality that we apply to our superstars. (See The Toupee Who Shall Not Be Named and Evangelicals…) It is easy to see why this book is a popular one for teachers. There is plenty to discuss, and fairly obvious metaphors. It is also short, which has to be an advantage.

Gatsby isn’t as full of zingers as some books, but it does have some delightful word pictures, and some of the most epic (and understatedly written) party scenes in literature. In particular, the line, “I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby’s house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited - they went there.” was fantastic. It sounds almost like something Groucho Marx would say.

I mentioned the final line, which is worth quoting. It follows an extended section where Nick (who has basically had to handle the fun of notifying the few relatives and fewer friends of Gatsby’s demise) muses on the fallout of the whole thing, and life itself. Plenty of books tend to either ramble at the end, or come to a close all too abruptly. This one really feels like it is neither too long nor too short, but a perfect and beautiful conclusion.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter -- tomorrow 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.


It isn’t too often that a book cover becomes iconic in and of itself. Artist Francis Cugat designed the cover before the novel was completed. Fitzgerald reportedly liked it so much, he claimed that he had written the cover art into the book. 

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