Literary Corner Cafe

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Review - Classics - The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I sometimes have discussions with my friends about which book epitomizes “the great American novel.” For most of my friends, the answer seems to be Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick. For me, however, “the great American novel” is, by far and away, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s gorgeous book, The Great Gatsby. Although The Great Gatsby is set during the 1920s and America’s “Jazz Age,” for me, its title character, Jay Gatsby, is, and forever will be, “the” symbol of “the American dream” gone wrong.

The Great Gatsby opens during the summer of 1922 in posh West Egg, Long Island. We “see” Gatsby through the eyes of the book’s narrator, Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbor, a Midwesterner who has come to New York to study the bond trade. By using Nick Carraway as a narrator, Fitzgerald successfully distances us from Gatsby a bit and increases his air of mystery.

Nick, the son of a wealthy family, is, above all else, fair and non-judgmental. Although Nick deplores the hypocrisy and shallowness of America’s upper class, he can’t help but admire Jay Gatsby, for Gatsby has charm and charisma in abundance. In fact, Nick finds Gatsby’s personality “gorgeous”:

If personality is a unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.

Nick Carraway first encounters Jay Gatsby as he’s (Nick) returning to West Egg from a dinner party given by his cousin, Daisy, and her husband, Tom Buchanan in the even-more-opulent East Egg. East Egg is the home of “old money,” of privilege and class, while the residents of West Egg are the nouveau riche. And this distinction is very important because The Great Gatsby is a book that encompasses class distinctions, social status, and elitism. Tom Buchanan, who attended Yale with Nick, has grown up with privilege. He’s domineering, hypocritical, and totally without scruples.

Tom’s wife, Daisy (Nick’s cousin), seems, at first glance, to be the antithesis of her husband. Delicate and diminuative, Daisy almost always dresses in white, accenting both her transparency and her seeming purity. She’s not at all coarse (just the opposite, in fact), but she does affect a deliberate air of languor and jaded sophistication.

Returning home from East Egg, Nick sees his good looking neighbor, Jay Gatsby, standing on his lawn, reaching out toward a green light, shining across the bay.

From the novel’s opening pages, we know Jay Gatsby is, in many ways, a man of mystery. He’s enormously wealthy, but the source of his wealth is never made completely clear, though it’s not difficult to surmise that it’s something illegal.

Gatsby also claims to come from “old money”, i.e., a prominent family in the Midwest. When pressed, however, Gatsby says he’s from San Francisco. Supposedly an Oxford graduate, he speaks with a very affected English accent. Although there’s much about Gatsby of which Nick disapproves, he still admires him and finds him irresistible.

While Nick finds Jay Gatsby “gorgeous,” he can’t find anything at all to like about Tom Buchanan. Tom’s hypocrisy is shown to its fullest in his affair with Myrtle Wilson, a married woman who lives in “the valley of ashes,” a barren, dying area that lies between West Egg and New York:

About half-way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screen their obscure operations from your sight.

The decaying neighborhood is dominated by an equally decaying and grotesque billboard displaying a pair of gigantic eyes. These eyes belong to Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, an optometrist who used to have an office in the area. The eyes of Dr. Eckleburg seem to see and know all, much like the all-knowing eye of God:

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, form a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.

Myrtle Wilson’s husband, George, owns a garage in the valley of ashes. Despite the poverty in which she lives, Myrtle is, at least outwardly, far more alive than is Daisy. Voluptuous, sensuous, and vital, Myrtle much prefers flamboyant colors to the pure white usually worn by Daisy, and unlike Daisy, she doesn’t chose her words carefully or act with artifice and affectation. Neither woman, however, seems capable of deep emotions or selfless action. While Daisy lacks genuineness, Myrtle is vulgar. In many ways, this makes both women ideal companions for Tom Buchanan.

Jay Gatsby is in the habit of hosting lavish parties every Saturday night, parties that showcase sumptuous food, unlimited supplies of alcohol, live musicians, and Gatsby’s legendary yellow Rolls Royce. They are, in short, a symbol of the decadence of the Jazz Age.

Even during his parties, Gatsby remains a man of mystery. He doesn’t mingle with his guests and doesn’t even appear to know half of them. His parties are, however, legendary, with guests arriving from West Egg, from East Egg, and even from New York City:

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and women came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the hot sun on the sand of his beach while his two motor boats slit the foam. On weekends, his Rolls Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

While there is much about Jay Gatsby that is affected and artificial, we do learn that there is also much about him that is genuine. He is, above all, a man of contradictions.

Gradually, Nick comes to learn more and more about Jay Gatsby. Most importantly, he learns that Gatsby bought his house in West Egg for the sole purpose of effecting a reunion with Daisy. Five years earlier, Daisy, who had been a Red Cross volunteer, had met and fallen passionately in love with Jay Gatsby, then an Army lieutenant. And, although she accepted Gatsby’s marriage proposal, Daisy didn’t wait for him as she’d promised; she married Tom Buchanan instead.

At this point in the novel, Nick realizes that the green light toward which Gatsby yearns is the light on Tom’s and Daisy’s dock. It’s also the point where Nick becomes even more involved in Gatsby’s life when he agrees to arrange a meeting between Gatsby and Daisy.

The reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, which takes place in Nick Carraway’s house, shows us clearly the fundamental flaws of character possessed by both Gatsby and Daisy, flaws that will, before the novel’s end, lead to several tragic events.

Gatsby is a man who cannot seem to move forward in life. He wants to live in the past; he wants to recreate the past. If he could, he would freeze his first meeting with Daisy and live in that moment forever. He’s a dreamer; he’s a visionary; he’s a romantic of almost mystical proportions. While there can be no doubt that Gatsby does, indeed, love Daisy (he’s willing to sacrifice his life for her), he doesn’t love her in a healthy, realistic manner. Instead, Gatsby idealizes Daisy. She is, for him, the epitome of all his dreams: wealthy, sophisticated, privileged. Gatsby even idealizes himself. When Nick tells him, You can’t repeat the past, Gatsby responds by saying, Of course you can!

The set piece in which Gatsby shows Daisy his English shirts is not only one of the most famous in all of literature, it’s also the one in which we see Daisy at her most “human,” her most unaffected, her most vulnerable:

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher—shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.”

Daisy, though, like Gatsby, is possessed of a fatal flaw that precludes genuine love.

While Daisy does have genuine feelings of love for Gatsby, there is something she loves even more—status and privilege—things she can share with Tom Buchanan in East Egg, but things Jay Gatsby, no matter how wealthy he becomes, can never provide.

After the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy, events in the novel quickly begin to spiral out of control and the lives of the characters become more and more entwined. The reunion seems to affect Gatsby most profoundly—he stops giving lavish parties, he fires his household staff, and, for the first time in his life, he begins to care about the gossip swirling around him. While Gatsby becomes more discreet, Daisy, however, seems intent on throwing caution to the winds, inviting the inevitable disaster.

The novel’s climactic event takes place on the first day of autumn, in Gatsby’s swimming pool. It’s not simply for dramatic effect that Fitzgerald made these choices. The first day of autumn brings a chill to West Egg, but Gatsby, in characteristic defiance of the future, chooses to float in his pool, despite the cool weather. For him, the passage of time does not exist; he lives in eternal summer:

There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of a compass, a thin red circle in the water.

The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, perfectly constructed and written in gorgeously shimmering prose. It’s filled with symbolism and even with religious overtones. Gatsby, himself, can be seen as a Christ figure, a lamb on the sacrificial altar of “status.” The book also presents a vivid, though quite unflattering, portrait of the decadence and sumptuousness excess of the Jazz Age.

More than anything, The Great Gatsby, to me, represents the death of the American dream. Gatsby was a dreamer, a visionary, a romantic. He represented all that America, in her infancy, represented.

The final line of The Great Gatsby is one of the most famous in all of literature:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Like the green light on the Buchanan’s dock, like Daisy, herself, life for Jay Gatsby was a dream, but always a dream just out of reach.


Recommended: Absolutely, with no reservations. This is a beautifully constructed, gorgeously written book, set against the backdrop of the Jazz Age, and telling the story of the death of the American dream.

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