By F. Scott Fitzgerald; Scribner; @ 1925; 180 pages.
This is another book that I read a long time ago when I was way too young. (Why do our teachers do this to us?) Anyway it’s one of my coworker’s favorite books of all time. Of all time? —seems to be my standard reaction. I read this book many years ago and found it excruciatingly boring.
This is a book club book for me, and even though I swore I wouldn’t go again, I changed my mind. That’s because the vote was between this book and a book by Bill O’Reilly. I couldn’t let it pass; I had to vote. (Call it fate.) Since this book was selected by one vote (mine), I felt obligated to read it.
The Great Gatsby is set on the East Coast of the United States during the roaring twenties. Jay Gatsby is fabulously wealthy, handsome, and mysterious—and throws the most amazing parties. Everyone who is anyone attends, but people rarely see him. He stands off to himself, aloof and happy just to see others having a good time.
Our narrator, Nick Carraway, is a pretty well-to-do guy himself, but next to Gatsby, he is small potatoes. By chance, our narrator has rented a house in Gatsby’s neighborhood, right next door to Gatsby.
I’ve been studying the narrative arc lately while trying to pry my own story out of my brain. I noticed that Act I, where the stasis and the trigger occur, doesn’t end until page 80! Or, maybe the trigger occurs a lot sooner on page 11, but we don’t know that the trigger has fired until page 79 when we find out that Gatsby knows our narrator’s second cousin once removed, Daisy.
I felt sorry for Gatsby. It seems his great wealth affords him much waste. He threw all these parties hoping that Daisy would show up at one of them, but she never did. Finally, he finds another way to come back into her life. Nick makes the following observation after Gatsby and Daisy have gotten reacquainted:
As I went over to say good-by 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 will store up in his ghostly heart.
My first temptation is to complain about the theme of book and how it seems to keep occurring in several books I’ve read lately. Two people meet; one or both fall intensely in love; something goes terribly wrong; and they wind up with other people only to meet again later—and what then? [Eugene Onegin; The Sea, The Sea; Ethan Frome; My Antonia; The Great Gatsby; Embers (to some extent)] The popular BBC show As Time Goes By has the same basic plot.
I’m beginning to find it tiresome. With Eugene Onegin there is this horrible, hurtful, Russian twist that makes it a great story. Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea is so incredibly self deluded and arrogant the that story is interesting because of his character and the craziness that comes about. The one thing these stories all seem to have in common (except for As Time Goes By) is that when the two lovers come back together later, it ends badly—very badly.
I liked this quote: “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired.”
Much of the tension in this story revolves around the mysterious nature of Gatsby. Is he a good guy or not? Several times, our doubts are raised only to find out that he had been honest or had acted nobly. The aspect of this story that I appreciated the most was how well it showed the complicated nature of relationships. The dream of love versus the reality of love. Jay Gatsby is the dream; Tom Buchanan is the reality. Which is better? Fiction? Fact?
When prodded, Daisy cannot say that she never loved her husband. She did love Tom Buchanan—and she loved Gatsby too. Well, at least that’s honest. (But then, what is love?)
From simple beginnings, the plot becomes very complicated as far as the implications for its characters are concerned.
Not too long ago, I was listening to an interview of one of my favorite authors, Mohsin Hamid. He said that one of the greatest perils for us and our society is nostalgia. That got me thinking—about my own life and about why this might be true for our species. Hamid made the point that it is especially dangerous to be nostalgic now because of the quickening pace of technology. The Great Gatsby seems to be in agreement—that nostalgia doesn’t do us any good.
I really liked this book, and I’m glad I read it again. It takes some patience—for me, it wasn’t until page 79 that the story took hold. I still don’t recommend it for teenagers.
I haven’t seen the movie. Now that I like the book, I’m not sure I will.