Not going to lie: I totally re-read this just because the movie is coming out soon. The trailer, with its stylized images and Florence + The Machine song, has me a little excited for it. But this is a review of The Great Gatsby the book. I read it when I was high school (just to read it, not because we had to study it) and didn’t like it too much. Now, I feel more charitable towards it. I don’t know if it’s just that my appreciation of quality literature has grown and changed as I’ve grown older, or whether my circumstances have made me able to appreciate Nick and Gatsby’s conflicts in a way I couldn’t when I was younger. In any event, I’m now happy to praise The Great Gatsby, not bury it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s choice of narrator, Nick Carraway, is interesting. At the beginning of the book, he is an outsider to the society where most of the action takes place. This allows him to criticize it with the outsider’s cynical but sometimes gullible eye. Though the book is ostensibly about Gatsby and Gatsby’s doomed love for Daisy, it needs Nick to build up Gatsby as this near-ineffable, mysterious figure. It would be a very different novel if Fitzgerald had decided to narrate it from Gatsby’s point of view or had just opted for a third-person narrator. Instead, we get Nick’s very personal—and not wholly objective, considering that Daisy is his cousin—take on who Gatsby might be and whether his actions are justified.
I love the character of Gatsby. I have a thing for books about confidence games, and hence for characters who are largely con artists, and you don’t get much bigger than Gatsby. The surface persona is so incredible, so larger-than-life, that you just want to believe it is true. The combination of his easygoing, cool manner with his opulence and extravagance make Gatsby a very attractive person, the kind of person who could actually pull off a flawless military career, big game hunting expeditions, and numerous other exploits. Gatsby uses his considerable charisma to leverage the various heroic figures of the 1920s in order to feed the fire of his own quiet celebrity, all in the name of pursuing Daisy.
And Fitzgerald’s presentation of Myth!Gatsby is an impressive feat of characterization. He provides a great example of how a reader’s impression of a character comes from three sources: what the character says, what the character does, and what other people say about that character. Myth!Gatsby throws impressive, over-the-top parties and then says very little, hinting instead at his past exploits. What’s more important is how other people perpetuate the myth of Gatsby. When Nick first attends a Gatsby party, he spends the first part of the evening wandering aimlessly through the house, searching for the host—at this point, he hasn’t even met the man and has no idea what Gatsby looks like. No one else seems to know where Gatsby is either, but everyone is certainly willing to gossip about him. Through these little rumours (“I hear he was an Oxford man!”), as well as his own efforts, Gatsby becomes a 1920s version of the most interesting man in the world.
The man behind the myth has his own impressive story, though. James Gatz’s origin is more humble, although like all great liars, he has based most of his lies on the truth. Fitzgerald portrays Gatz as an extreme version of the American Dream ideal of a man: he pulls himself up by his bootstraps and transforms himself into this rich playboy. And he’s doing it all to get the girl he couldn’t get as Gatz.
The Great Gatsby is captivating because of the conflict between its fantastic, Roaring Twenties atmosphere and its sinister tone. By every outward appearance, this is supposed to be a time of peace and repose. The parties and dinners that Nick attends, with or without Gatsby, are sophisticated affairs that just drip with supercilious and haughty boredom. Tom Buchanan and his ilk are the bland product of an upper-class society that is so exhausted after its brief foray into the Great War that it has thrown itself headlong into a bacchanalian celebration of life, lust, and the pursuit of happiness. Beneath this exterior of ecstasy lies the sinister realm of racism, misogyny, and violence that Nick slowly exposes in his narration.
There isn’t really a villain in this book, which I perceive as one of its strengths. There are certainly villainous acts, but one of the themes is that everyone has within them that capacity for both good and evil. Take Tom, for instance: he is abusive, adulterous, and generally boorish in his attitudes towards women. He’s happily racist and imperialist as well—essentially, he’s a one-stop shop for all the stereotypical failings of Old Money. Nevertheless, I would argue he genuinely loves Daisy, despite his infidelity. His attitudes and actions are largely a result of upbringing and influence—and this doesn’t excuse them, but it places them in a context where he is not so much a villain as a victim of those times.
Daisy suffers similarly. She is a sympathetic character who, like most of us, has trouble discerning what she wants. Gatsby’s renewal of his pursuit of her is very interesting, because it offers an option that was previously unavailable. By this I mean, if Gatsby hadn’t shown up, Daisy would still have to deal with Tom’s affair one way or another. She could have continued to ignore it, confronted him about it and possibly left him, or perhaps tried to have an affair of her own. Gatsby’s reappearance complicates matters but also gives her an additional choice. Unfortunately for Daisy, Gatsby might be nicer and more stalwart than Tom, but he builds his memories of her into a myth that she can’t fulfil. His disappointment when confronted with the real package is palpable and doesn’t help matters.
Gatsby himself, with his long con, is somewhat of a rogue as well. He establishes Myth!Gatsby and arrives in West Egg solely to be across the bay from Daisy and get her attention. That is creepy-stalker level of planning right there. It’s not too extreme to call Gatsby obsessed with Daisy, and if events hadn’t played out like they did, I wonder if he and Tom would have come to some form of more direct confrontation eventually. As it is, I love the awesome tension in the scene at the Plaza Hotel; the way it deflates and ends with a whimper, as everyone just “goes home”, speaks to the veneer of civility that characterizes Tom and Daisy’s society.
The combination of all these emotional elements creates a decidedly dark tone for the story. It’s a lovely, skilled journey in which Nick is seduced by Myth!Gatsby only to find himself caught in the middle between Gatsby and Daisy—one is a friend, the other his cousin, and while the two might be happy together, neither understands who the other really is. And it’s possible that the true plot of The Great Gatsby isn’t so much Gatsby pursuing Daisy as it is Nick trying to unravel the truth about Gatsby and decide how deep down that rabbit hole he really wants to go. He seems to make some progress in this respect, until Gatsby’s life is tragically cut short, and the whole charade falls down in shambles.
The United States of America of the 1920s is a period of history I’m not too familiar with (though, unlike the latter half of the twentieth century, at least we did study it in school). It’s fascinating to read a contemporary novel of that time. Fitzgerald creates a seductive portrait of a sickly society. He also creates complex characters whose decisions and deceptions drive the plot from its simple inception to its final derailment. I comprehend why so many laud The Great Gatsby as one of the great American novels and why its quality, combined with its length, make it a favourite on high school reading lists. I’m not going to call it the Great American Novel (my experience with classic American literature is too impoverished to really make such determinations anyway). But there is so much to see in this otherwise thin volume, and it truly is a masterpiece.