Tuesday, December 22, 2020
2020 Back to the Classics Wrap Up
Wednesday, December 16, 2020
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I never read The Great Gatsby when I was in school and afterwards as the years went by I kept putting it off. Something about the plot didn't grab me and now having finally read The Great Gatsby I can't say I loved the book but I have been left with many questions and the realization that one reading is not enough.
Is this a novel for example about the decadence of the Jazz Age? Are Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan stand ins for F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald? Is Gatsby a cautionary tale about the American Dream and what is meant by the American Dream? Does the age at which you read The Great Gatsby and the era you are living through matter? I would say yes to all of these questions. There are multiple meanings to take from this book.
And so when The Great Gatsby begins it is 1922 The novel is set on Long Island and New York City and narrated by Nick Carraway. Nick is from the Midwest. He's also a Yale graduate and a World War I Vet who is working in the bond business in New York. Nick lives in a modest house in West Egg, a nouveau rich part of Long Island that is looked down upon by East Egg, the town across the river. Nick's neighbor is the very wealthy and mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby lives in a beautiful mansion and almost every night he throws fabulous parties. The guests show up in their finery and dance and drink the night away. Jay Gatsby is the host but no one sees him at these parties and there is all sorts of speculation about where he came from and how he makes his money.
Shortly after Nick moves next door he receives an invitation from Gatsby to attend one of his parties. Nick accepts and is stunned by Gatsby's estate and the excess he sees around him. He also meets an attractive young woman named Jordan Baker at the party. Jordan is a professional golfer with a cynical personality that Nick falls for and it will be at this party that Nick also meets Jay Gatsby. The two men talk about heir recent service in World War I but Gatsby has a reason for wanting to be Nick's friend. Gatsby knows that Nick is a distant cousin of Daisy Buchanan who lives across the river in more fashionable East Egg and Gatsby has been obsessed with the beautiful Daisy for years.
Like Nick, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are also originally from the Midwest but from different classes. Daisy comes from a prominent family and Jay Gatsby (Jimmy Gatz) is the son of a poor farmer. Normally these two would never have met but five years ago a handsome young Jay Gatsby was in uniform stationed in Daisy's home town and they fell in love. The courtship was cut short when Gatsby went overseas to serve in World War I and Daisy ended up marrying the wealthy Tom Buchanan. It's not a happy marriage. Tom cheats on Daisy, beats up his mistress and he's a racist and a bully. As for Daisy despite her beauty and her flirtatious charming exterior she is silly, vain and selfish.
Jay Gatsby meanwhile has been spending the last five years pining for Daisy. He has remade himself, grown rich through bootlegging and he's moved to West Egg determined to win Daisy back. Nick is called upon by Gatsby to facilitate the reunion. Gatsby is sure that Daisy never loved Tom and that he can win her back and finally have the life he's always dreamed of and I won't go any further in the story except to say that it ends in tragedy.
This isn't a book filled with likeable characters and as bad as Tom Buchanan is, Daisy doesn't prove herself to be a decent person either. Quite the contary and so if you ask yourself what Gatsby sees in Daisy, it's actually what she represents. Jimmy Gatz (Jay Gatsby) the poor boy remaking himself by winning over the beautiful girl from a prominent family is at the core of this book. It doesn't matter where you come from in other words. If you have determination you can rise high and your past and your class won't matter and I suppose that is at the center of what has come to be known as the American Dream.
But I think to read The Great Gatsby in the 1920's is different than reading it now because back in the 1920's the public was fascinated by the rich and famous to an extent I am not sure we are today. Maybe we are still fascinated but the awe is gone. Movie stars for example are not the Gods and Goddesses they once were during the silent film era. I think New York has changed too. It's still a great city but the way F. Scott Fitzgerald experienced it, coming from the Midwest a successful young author and his beautiful wife, it must have seemed like a magical city with every door opened to this golden couple.
But The Great Gatsby continues to have relevance today best expressed I think by Azar Nafisi in her book Reading Lolita in Tehran: "It shows how dreams can be tainted by reality and that if you don't compromise you may suffer". I think that's a universal truth that never goes out of fashion.
The Great Gatsby is book twelve on my Back to the Classics Challenge list fulfilling the category - choose a classic with a name in the title.