Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald


It's a shame that Fitzgerald never lived to see his novel become one of the most successful literary works of all time. In fact, according to the afterword in this text, by the time of his death, his book had all but fallen out of circulation. I was inspired to reread THE GREAT GATSBY after reading Ernest Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST, in which a detailed account of Fitzgerald talking to Hemingway about his "new" novel, The Great Gatsby, transpires. Hemingway is impressed by the quality of the book and declares it exceptionally good but also notes that Fitzgerald laments his bewilderingly tepid sales.

THE GREAT GATSBY is narrated in first person by a man named Nick Carraway, who seems to be a stand-in for Fitzgerald himself: educated, but not possessing much money, and hobnobbing it with those who are much more privileged than he is. His cousin is Daisy Buchanan, who is married to a bigoted narcissist named Tom, who is also having an affair with a married woman. Charming.

Nick's neighbor is a nouveau riche man named Gatsby who is well known in the area for throwing incredibly lavish parties that people attend with the same sort of wide-eyed wonder as one would a theme park. Unbeknownst to Nick, the overtures of friendship Gatsby extends his way aren't exactly guileless; Gatsby is utterly obsessed with Daisy and has been for years, and would like for Nick to arrange for the two of them to meet, as it turns out that they had a relationship when they were young and Gatsby was poor, and he's thought of her ever since. They meet and Daisy is as stunned by his lavish displays of wealth as everyone else, and also remembers all the good times she had with young Gatsby, and the two of them begin an affair of their own.

This is a tragedy that is also about classism, and how good breeding often excuses the rich. It's also a tale of love and obsession, and how passion can quite literally consume those who open themselves up to consumption. Gatsby's money attracts people to him, as does his charm, but he never really lets anyone know him except for Daisy, who is so selfish in her love that she isn't really ever quite willing to give of herself to anyone. Even her own child feels like an afterthought, mentioned only once. One really can't help but feel like Daisy is in it mostly for Daisy and doesn't give a fig for anyone else.

The most sympathetic person in the book is actually Nick, whose love and admiration for Gatsby is of a much purer form than that, ironically, which Daisy has for him. Nick is a stand-in for the reader, who discovers the story in pieces in real time, as we do, when disaster inevitably causes all of these fractures to cave in. Gatsby never really understands that what he is in love with is an illusion and a projection of his own wishes and desires. I felt kind of like Daisy is an extension of his desire to be one of the rich, and that his desire to marry her stems partially from his desire to be fully accepted into high society.

The writing in THE GREAT GATSBY is truly gorgeous and had me immediately buying up some of Fitzgerald's other works. I read this when I was a teen and much of the nuance was lost on me (and I also struggled with the vocabulary). I remember giving this a three-star rating originally, fixating mostly on the romance and missing basically everything else (as teens can sometimes do). THE GREAT GATSBY definitely gets better over time. I can see and understand the allegations of antisemitism within this work (there are other archaic references to people of other ethnicities that would be considered highly offensive now), and while the age of this book doesn't excuse those words and descriptions used, I do think that the context and the time in which this book was written makes it easier to understand why they are there. What a stunning portrait of doomed love. I am in awe.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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