In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write “something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. “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–” Gatsby’s rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.
It’s also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby’s quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means–and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel’s more famous descriptions. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy’s patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.
While I had heard of and knew the story of this novel, and had been told its place in literary history on more than one occasion, I did not read the novel until one year ago, when I had to teach it.
On my first reading, I did not much care for the story as a whole, and especially disliked Nick Carraway because at the start of the novel he claims to be impartial and appears to be, in his estimation especially, better than those around him. Also, I did not have much knowledge about 1920s U.S.A., which made it quite a challenge to figure out references to historical events.
So, I read the novel again, and the second time around, it was a completely different experience. The characters are sparsely described, but what we learn from others observations and of the settings about the individual characters is amazing. Jay Gatsby is my favourite character because of his flaws, the tragic quality that he embodies, his enduring love for Daisy, and his sheer determination to make himself into something that will be acceptable to Daisy. The other characters, because we are told so little about them, and we have to fill in the blanks about their personalities, I found myself imagining Tom, Daisy, Myrtle, and Jourdan as the worst embodiment of what the 1920s United States offered, which maybe what Fitzgerald wanted us to do to begin with.
Overall, the novel can be a bit difficult to follow if you do not have a background on the history of 1920s United States, but researching that little bit is worth it because the novel is so much richer with that knowledge.
Fitzgerald’s brilliance is that by the end of the novel, he makes it possible for us to not only know the characters, but he makes us a part of Gatsby’s world – getting us an invitation to one of Gatsby’s famous parties and seating us at his table.
If this review does not tempt you to read the novel, this may – there is to be a new adaptation of the novel into film with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Jay Gatsby 🙂