Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: A review

The story is well known by all the literate or movie-going world. It's a story told by Nick Carraway, a young man from the Midwest who moves to New York in the early 1920s to seek his fortune in the city selling bonds. He rents a cottage in a (fictional) village called West Egg on Long Island. That cottage just happens to be next door to a gaudy mansion belonging to an entrepreneur named Jay Gatsby. Just across the water in the village of East Egg is another mansion which belongs to fabulously wealthy Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy, serendipitously, turns out to be a cousin of Nick's. 

And Daisy is the first love of Jay Gatsby. The time is 1922 and the Great War is over, but five years before and before Gatsby went off to fight in that war, he and Daisy had a passionate affair and were deeply in love and planned to spend their lives together. But once Gatsby went away, they gradually lost touch and Daisy met Tom and married him and they had a daughter together.

Now Gatsby is back and purchased his mansion, where he gives extravagant parties, in the knowledge that Daisy is just across the water. At night he stands on his dock gazing longingly across at the green light that shines all night on the Buchanans' dock. 

Gatsby's origins are mysterious as is the source of his wealth, but we gradually learn that he was born and grew up in poverty and that everything he has acquired since has been a scheme to attract the attention of his beloved Daisy.

Tom Buchanan, though extremely wealthy, is an extraordinarily unpleasant man, a bully who is serially unfaithful to his wife and is currently conducting an affair with a working-class woman named Myrtle whose husband owns a garage.

Through Nick's efforts, Gatsby and Daisy reunite, but, ultimately, she is unwilling to leave her life of luxury with Buchanan. Recklessly driving Gatsby's car on the night she makes this known to him, she hits Myrtle who has walked into the road. The woman is killed and Daisy speeds away.

Myrtle's husband believes that Gatsby was driving and goes to Gatsby's house and kills him and then kills himself. Daisy and Tom are free to continue their lives of decadence and excess.

The end.

I first read this book many years ago - I can't remember exactly when - and was underwhelmed by it. I couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. Reading it now, all these years later, my reaction is a bit different and the book has risen in my assessment.

The novel seems a very focused and deliberate piece of writing and there are themes and symbols there that I simply don't remember noticing when I first read the book. For example, there is Tom Buchanan's casual racism and misogyny and his proto-fascism.

In the first chapter of the book, when Nick first meets Tom, there is this conversation:
"Civilization's going to pieces," broke out Tom violently. "I've gotten to be a terrible pessimist about things. Have you read 'The Rise of the Coloured Empires' by this man Goddard?"
"Why, no," I answered, rather surprised by his tone.
"Well, it's a fine book, and everybody ought to read it. The idea is if we don't look out the white race will be - will be utterly submerged. It's all scientific stuff; it's been proved." 
I can't remember that that made much of an impression on me at all with my first reading and yet now it stands out like a flashing neon light on the page. This is representative of Tom's opinions as expressed throughout the book. What an awful man he is!

In fact, there are really no likable characters in this short book. Nick Carraway comes closest, but even he is not someone that one would choose as a friend. The writing is polished like a crystal; the language is rich but the characters are cold and distant. By design, I think.

The edition of the book that I read this time had a foreword by Fitzgerald's granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, which gave some familial context to the writing of the book. But, best of all, it had an introduction written by Jesmyn Ward, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Her introduction helped me to see things that I had not seen before and to understand the book in a new way. Her introduction was my favorite part of this reading experience.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

4 comments:

  1. I liked this book very much, especially for Fitzgerald's sumptuous literary images and the carefully (and fake) constructed world of its characters. The Great Gatsby is a fine example of a careful social observer at work, and the power of literature to perfectly encapsulate an era.

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    1. I agree. It perfectly reflects the social mores and attitudes of the period that represents. And Fitzgerald was quite brilliant and quite subtle in constructing a novel that embodies that era. That's why it has stood the test of time and is still read and reread.

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  2. Perhaps when I get REALLY old, which is coming right up it seems, I will reread Fitzgerald and find new meaning. I do admire the way he writes, polished as crystal is a good metaphor (or is it a simile, I am tired tonight.) But I had never thought of his novels as being timely social critique. Hm.

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    1. The political realities in our country today shed a whole new light on some of the literary works in our history, including Fitzgerald's writing. Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

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