F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is considered one of the great American novels. It is certainly great, and quintessentially American. It can practically be read in one sitting, but that doesn’t limit the effectiveness of Fitzgerald’s economic prose. The story, set during a hot Long Island summer in 1922, is part love story, part morality tale, while also reflecting the post-World War I excesses of the priveleged set.
Jay Gatsby may be the focus of the novel, but the hero is its narrator, Nick Carraway, a 29 year-old man who has been drifting through life since the end of the war. Originally from the Midwest, he, like many, heads east to New York in search of direction — and something else — thrills, love, purpose? He isn’t quite sure. He gets pulled into the orbit of his wealthy cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her philandering, polo-playing husband Tom. They try to pair him off with Daisy’s professional golfer friend, the “incurably dishonest,” Jordan Baker, who leads him to his most significant friendship of the summer — his mysterious and exceedingly wealthy next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws extravagant parties that he never seems to attend.
As Nick gets to know Gatsby he learns that he and Daisy were once very well-acquainted. In fact, Daisy promised to wait for Gatsby when he went off to the War in 1917, but then turned around and married the more suitable (and monied) Tom Buchanan (who attended Yale with Nick) two years later. When the war was over a heartbroken Gatsby devoted his life to amassing a suitable fortune to both impress Daisy and launch him into the society he has always so desperately wanted to be a part of. But the New Egg and Old Egg where Gatsby and the Buchanans reside are strictly divided — new money and old money. Old money may attend new money’s lavish parties, but will never really accept them as one of their own, as Tom Buchanan effectively sneers when Gatsby claims that he and Daisy are going to run off together, “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out …”
Fitzgerald’s Gatsby is not just a romantic dreamer, but a personal embodiment of the American Dream. He is a self-made man, although the source of his income is shown to be through underworld connections. Gatsby has reinvented himself, from his low origins as James Gatz, a poor farmer’s son. His go-getter attitude garnered him connections to powerful men who wanted to help him — first a millionaire named Dan Cody, and later New Yorker Meyer Wolfshiem.
“Meyer Wolfshiem? No, he’s a gambler.” Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: “He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series back in 1919.”
“Fixed the World’s Series?” I repeated. […] “Why isn’t he in jail?”
“They can’t get him, old sport. He’s a smart man.”
As Nick gets to know more and more about Gatsby, his admiration for him is not tarnished, as it is with his party guests and even Tom and Daisy. If anything, he respects him more, as he tells him towards the end of the novel, “They’re a rotten crowd … You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together”
Fitzgerald writes beautifully, and his dialogue is so alive that it seems not just modern, but contemporary. There are jarring notes, however, mostly in the form of racist comments made by Tom Buchanan. Ethnic stereotypes also abound, further alienating the reader from the “beautiful” Daisy and her crowd. Some of the recurrent imagery, although evocative, is a bit overdone. Although many like to point out the number of times Gatsby calls someone “old sport,” I was bothered more by Fitzgerald’s need to refer again and again to “the valley of ashes,” and the omnipresent poster on the road to New York featuring the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.
Eckleburg aside, there are some wonderful visual references, most notably the green light that flashes at the end of Daisy’s dock across the Sound from Gatsby. Gatsby sees it as a guiding light, bringing him back to his true love, and not for what it truly is, a siren’s call. The scene with Gatsby’s shirts, where he impresses Nick and Daisy with his extensive and expensive wardrobe, is a neat visual to tie in to the other overarching theme of the novel — money, and how it determines most of the characters’ actions and motivations.
“’Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood it before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it … High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl.”
Gatsby knows that money is what drives Daisy, but he also hopes that there is great love, too. Daisy may love Gatsby, in a way, as one loves their youth, but she also loves Tom, and not just for his wealth. It is clear how she reacts to his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, calling him at their home, that he can hurt her, which wouldn’t be the case if she didn’t care about him. Tom knows this, but Gatsby doesn’t want to believe that Daisy can love both of them.
“I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past … I did love him once — but I loved you too!”
The Great Gatsby is a classic and timeless tale which features (mostly) unlikable people. Gatsby is the most sympathetic, because as hopeless as it might be, he has a dream of the future. Nick can only observe and then retreat when life gets too real, too messy. And Daisy and Tom are just like all of those selfish people we read about every day, who think that the world only exists for their own entertainment. As Fitzgerald, through Nick, so eloquently states,
“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.”
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