With all the recent hoopla about the recently released movie adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” and with the recommendation of a trusted fellow reader, I decided to pick up a copy of the book and see how it read. The last time I had poked my head into it was during the rush and crush of grad school, and as that was such a rushed read, I don’t think I got a real appreciation of it. So read it again this week (and then immediately read it one more time to enjoy the writing and imagery at a much more leisurely pace).
Wow. What a difference a few years makes. This more recent reading was a completely different experience for me and I realized that I had not the same appreciation before due to the speed of grad school reading requirements or because I am much more experienced in the world of books now. (Perhaps it’s both.)
This is one of the few books that I immediately picked up and read again once I had finished it. I wanted to read it a second time to notice all the recurring imagery that Fitzgerald had put in there, and also, having read a brief biography of Fitzgerald and Zelda (both troubled in their own ways), it’s clearly much more autobiographical than I had realized before.
I’m not going to go over the plot – there are other resources for that and besides, I’d like people to read the original text to get their own ideas. This is fabulously written and seems to perfectly capture the rich idle ennui of the wealthy young in the Jazz Age (a phrase, incidentally, that Fitzgerald is credited with originating). The characters in this story drink to get drunk, they chat with people they don’t know about things they don’t care about, and all this in an atmosphere of excess – money, time, drink…
Fitzgerald and wife Zelda spent some time as expats in Paris at the same time as Hemingway and those guys, and although Fitzgerald and Hemingway were good friends, Hemingway rather sneered at Fitzgerald’s “selling out” and writing commercial stories to pay the bills. (Oh, how superior you must be, Ernie.) They both had alcohol problems and marital challenges, and obviously influenced each other in how they wrote – very spare sentences (despite the excessive and overloaded world Fitzgerald portrays).
Gatsby’s world seems to have been bought on every level – one evening, the “premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket…” Everything can be bought, everything can be sold.
Written in 1925, it predated the Depression years and reflects the over-consumption and deep feeling of detachment and isolation felt by some people at that time. Fitzgerald’s characters have a sense of despair unspoken and Gatsby is frequently portrayed removed from all his guests by him not drinking, by standing away from this guests, by the shallow chatter, and by the fact that most of his guests don’t even know the host.
Fitzgerald writes that Gatsby not only dispenses generous hospitality to people, but also “dispensed starlight to casual moths”. Light plays a huge role in this book – just think of the green light at the end of the dock – as does color (especially colors linked with the sun: yellow, gold, orange… Once you see this, you tend to recognize it more than otherwise. At least, I did.)
It’s a love story (of so many things) on some levels, but it’s not one that the typical person would want to replicate – it’s unrequited (or is it?), it’s complicated, it’s delayed by five years and a marriage to the wrong person (Daisy to Tom). And throughout the story, I would argue that there’s a light veiled theme of same-sex attraction between various combinations of characters (mainly male). Gatsby wants to go back to the past when he first met Daisy five years ago, although it’s not possible (and not healthy) to do so.
And the “five years” pattern repeats itself quite a few times: Gatsby and his rich friend Dan Cody were together on the nautical adventure for five years, it’s been five years since Gatsby has last seen Daisy, and he’s been living on West Egg for five years… Fitzgerald is not known for his “sticking to the facts” (was “not scrupulous about real details” is how scholar Dr. Matthew Bruccoli* put it) and “was incapable of factual meticulousness” (i.e. he says that Nick Carraway was from the Mid-West: San Francisco! – but details schmetails.) So – was the five-year period there for a reason?
“Can’t repeat the past?… Why of course you can!”
– Jay Gatsby.
This is really one of the best books that I have read this year, and I can’t believe that I didn’t really appreciate (or even like) this book on earlier readings. If this was a title forced on you in your younger educational days, I urge you to take another look at it. With the experience of years, it can be a completely different experience to read it again and I have loved reading it this time around.
Now I’m not sure about going to the movie – I can’t believe that it would do justice to such a rich storyline and characters. Highly recommended.
- I am sure this guy has never received any guff about his last name. Nope. Never.