Somehow I made it to adulthood without reading The Great Gatsby or seeing the 1974 movie. But I wanted to read the book before I saw the latest movie version later this year. While there are elements of the book that will translate to the screen (especially in a Baz Luhrmann film), I was disappointed in the book. I know it’s considered a classic, but overall, it’s not an engaging read.
The plot is straightforward. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a college graduate and war veteran working in New York City, living in West Egg. His next-door neighbor is a mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby.
Although Gatsby’s past and the source of wealth are unknown, one thing is certain – he throws extravagant parties, attended by anyone and everyone. “People were not invited – they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park.”
At one of these lavish parties Nick meets Gatsby, and despite his mysterious past, his questionable wealth and his shady business associates – or more likely because of them – Nick develops a fondness for Gatsby.
Unbeknownst to Nick, Gatsby once dated his second cousin Daisy, who is now married to Tom Buchanan and living in fashionable East Egg. Tom has cheated on Daisy throughout their marriage. His current mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is married to a witless cuckold, who also happens to be Tom’s mechanic.
When Daisy learns that Nick is Gatsby’s neighbor, she coerces him into organizing a reunion with Gatsby and they soon rekindle their romance. Daisy is intent on flaunting the relationship in front of Tom, and he tolerates it, perhaps as retribution for his infidelity, until one awkward evening. After a night of drinking Tom confronts them. Gatsby and Daisy leave together. As they are racing through town, they pass the home of Myrtle Wilson. She and her husband have also been fighting; Myrtle’s husband George knows she is having an affair, but he doesn’t know it is with Tom. Gatsby and Daisy hit Myrtle as she is running to flag down the car and escape George. In the wake of the accident Tom and Daisy appear to reconcile and leave town. Gatsby reveals his back story to Nick, who encourages Gatsby to leave town as well.
Tom tells George that Gatsby struck his wife, and George assumes Gatsby was her lover. He tracks down Gatsby and kills him. Nick is left to contact Gatsby’s family and plan his funeral. Despite his popularity while alive, Gatsby’s funeral is only attended by three people.
I know The Great Gatsby is widely read and much loved, praised by critics and readers for decades. But to me this is a book whose parts are greater than its sum. The individual characters are interesting, but collectively they are the worst type of clique – selfish, aloof, devoid of sympathy or remorse. Even though Nick is likable and pitiable, he’s impressionable. I wonder why he’s so interested in the ‘in crowd’ even though he recognizes how fake they are. I’m not even sure Fitzgerald liked his characters, especially the women. There is not a single admirable female character in the book. They are either materialistic, androgynous or home wreckers.
Moreover, the love story between Daisy and Gatsby, the quintessential love story that was the impetus for all the events in the book, isn’t convincing. In fact, it’s as impulsive and affected as Daisy’s other whims (including the daughter she completely ignores).
In the end Nick finally realized what we’ve known all along, that Daisy, Tom and Gatsby “were careless people … 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.” He acknowledges that the East, with all its “superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio” has lost its luster for him.
Ultimately Nick wasn’t profoundly affected by the fateful tale of The Great Gatsby, and neither was I.