The Great Gatsby
By: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby is a self-made man, famed for his decadent champagne-drenched parties. Despite being surrounded by Long Island’s bright and beautiful, Gatsby longs only for Daisy Buchanan. In shimmering prose, Fitzgerald shows Gatsby pursue his dream to its tragic conclusion.
I first read this book back in grade 12 for my English class. I didn’t think too much about this book at the time as we had to complete a couple of assignments with it. With news circulating around that a new adaptation of the book will be coming out at the end of the year, I figured now is as good a time as any to revist the novel. Plus, the Vintage Classics edition of the book (the cover above) is too pretty xD Contains some spoilers!
One theme that vividly struck me as I read this novel this time around was that of appearances. Throughout this novel, almost everything is a shiny facade to cover up some of the darker aspects of anyone or anything: the glittering parties and the copous drinking and eating to cover to ease the mesh of the old and the new and the lingering loneliness that each person carries. Daisy is beautiful and captivating and yet underneath she is shallow and indecisive. Tom comes off as the alpha male, the “big thing” so to speak and yet he’s bruttish and a white supremacist. Gatsby is cool and sophisticated to hide his humble roots–all to impress a woman he once loved. Amidst all of this is Nick Carraway, who assures the reader that he is one of the few most honest men around; unlike all of the other characters in the novel, he comes off as the most level-headed who isn’t really pulling off any particular image of himself (at the same time, you could argue that he does come off slightly condescending towards the people around him, but in the end it has to do with who’s mingling with who). But the theme of appearances is in keeping with the time period–coming out of the First World War, America is relishing in its sense of prosperity and enjoying its sense of decadence and thrust into modernity. Yet its decadence is vapid, as is the case with many of the people who crash into Gatsby’s parties and in the case of Tom and Daisy’s relationship.
It seems I’m running a bit of a theme right now because reading books that tackle the issue of nostalgia for the past. In the case of The Great Gatsby, this is reflected in Gatsby himself, who is still living in the past–his past with Daisy. He endured a rather hard childhood and survived a brutal war; he only had the memory of his life with Daisy to keep him going. Through his bootlegging activities, he was able to accumulate enough to build a life that she would want. Despite reconnecting with Daisy, it’s clear that the feeling is a bit more one-sided this time around; during the great confrontation between Daisy, Tom and Gatsby, Daisy cries to Gatsby that “Oh, you want too much!” It begs the question of how much of the past–whatever it was that drew Gatsby to Daisy in the first place or whatever it was that they once had–was left in Daisy that he wanted back, in the present time. Given Daisy’s personality, was there ever much sustaining their relationship to begin with? According to Jordan, Daisy was very much affected by Gatsby’s absence during the war yet in the end chose to remain with Tom–and there is no doubt that the reason she chose to stay was because of the child they have. Additionally, by the last chapter, the reader comes to realise that perhaps in the end Gatsby too was fooled by the perception of Daisy’s value, that underneath the beauty and the excitement, there wasn’t much there. He had compromised his future and everything–right down to who he was–in order to win her. The realisation that he is surviving by nothing more than the memory of what they once had is rather tragic; everything he had done since the war was to appeal to her. What does he have left if not even her?
What’s also very tragic about Gatsby’s story was that at the end of everything, only Carraway remained at his side. None of those people who attended his parties stood up for him as the reporters hounded and pried into his case, nor did the woman he loved speak out and showed some measure of support. Carraway had earlier noted that everyone was always complimenting Gatsby for his opulent parties, yet at the end of the day, when he lay dead, no one stood up for him as a friend or even came to his funeral.
What also struck me in reading this novel this time around was Fitzgerald’s prose. The story itself is short and straightforward, the course of events moving quickly. But there are pockets here and there where his prose truly shone. For example, this particular paragraph struck me:
“Through all he said, even though his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something–an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.” – p. 91
Fitzgerald also had a way of describing people and situations so succinctly. For example, I especially enjoyed his final description of Tom and Daisy:
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
I guess this is one of those novels that I wished were a bit longer. For example, I wished we had seen more of the fallout from that argument between Tom, Daisy and Gatsby that revealed Daisy and Gatsby’s relationship. I wished we had seen any reaction on Daisy’s part after Gatsby was discovered dead; while the retreat out of town and back West also characteristically described this couple (not to mention this entire novel was told from Nick’s point of view), some more insight would have been interesting. I also wished we had seen more of Nick’s relationship with Jordan Baker, which also seemed rather fleeting with no solid foundation and seemingly no future.
Overall, The Great Gatsby was an interesting read, I certainly got more out of it this time. I wished there had been more scenes conveying the scope of this material world that they lived in and the fallout of keeping up with appearances as well as more context behind Gatsby and Daisy’s renewed relationship. But it was a fascinating look into life in the 1920s and Fitzgerald’s prose was a wonder to read–I look forward to reading his other works.