I was talking to someone online who’d checked out my blog and really appreciated my review of To Kill a Mockingbird, and noted that he’d really enjoy seeing my take on The Great Gatsby.
Anyone who knows me knows full well that this is not a challenge I can pass by.
For years, I absolutely loathed Gatsby. I thought it was a terrible book with stupid characters and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why this piece of dreck that was wasting perfectly look space on bookshelves everywhere was considered a classic. I read it for the first time in eleventh grade, and have always considered it the book that ruined an otherwise perfect year. (We read Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and Catcher in the Rye that year as well.) I hated it, I wanted to see every copy burned, and I couldn’t understand why people I knew and respected thought there was anything worthwhile in the entire book.
So when I applied for graduate school and saw that one of the requirements was to “write a critical response on a substantive piece of literature,” I looked at my father and asked, “Can I write a paper about how I think The Great Gatsby sucks?”
To which his response was, “Well, that would be a critical response to a substantive piece of literature, so…yeah, probably. You may even stand out, since most people will write about books they love.”
So I did. But of course, this was late 2012. I’d read Gatsby in 2004. As much as I hated the idea, I was going to need to read the book over again.
But I am a consummate professional. I would take my burden with grace, and re-read the book.
…And I was absolutely amazed at what I found.
Because when push comes to shove, F. Scott Fitzgerald could write. He has an uncanny ability to capture emotion and scenery in words that would baffle anyone else. A character may rush to someone’s side “like an angry diamond”, or when the enigmatic titular character leaves the narrator, Nick Carraway, alone in the night it is described as being “alone again in the unquiet darkness.” In a book driven so much by its characters, the ability to write the world in which they live is essential – and Fitzgerald delivers. However, this too can come back to bite the author in the hand: the opening of the book is six pages of Nick describing the specifics of his family life and the neighborhood in which he’s moved into. As Nick discusses the parties Gatsby throws, there are three pages of characters’ names – people who we never see again and are unnecessary to the concept of the book. While exquisitely written, they’re expansive and unnecessary.
However, where the book really falls down is in the plot…or perhaps, lack thereof. As mentioned before, Gatsby is a character-driven book. What plot it has relies one hundred percent on the players of the game, as it were. It is not a thriller, where the plot is the race against time before the world explodes, or a crime syndicate attempting to murder vigilantes or anything of the sort. It is all inter-personal social conflict – and as such, the book needs powerful, driven characters of strong background and motive.
This is what the book lacks.
If the book’s purpose is to capture the feelings of the lack of authenticity and captivation of the time period, then it has succeeded in spades – but it makes for characters who are impossible to care about. Each of the primary characters serve as their place in the plot and no more – and the secondary characters are hardly worth a mention. There is Nick, who serves as a go-between for his next-door neighbor Gatsby, and his cousin Daisy Buchanan. Daisy and her husband Tom serve as both the catalyst and the hinderance for Gatsby’s every move – since Gatsby loves Daisy, but Daisy is, of course, married. Tom’s mistress Myrtle and her husband Wilson are tertiary characters who dream of being secondary, and have only a snowball’s chance in hell of being secondary because of their connection to Daisy and Gatsby’s drama. And then there is Jordan Baker, the golfer who provides a friend for Daisy and a distraction for Nick, and doesn’t appear to do anything else.
It is to be assumed that the reader is meant to sympathize with Gatsby – the book is named for him, each character believes some piece of him, and he has set himself up as an icon for the neighborhood; you are not someone until you have attended a party at Gatsby’s. However, prior to halfway through the book, Nick reveals that he has learned the truth of Gatsby’s past; nothing of what he presents is true, and his money comes from less than reputable sources. We are left with a character who desperately would like the audience – both inside and outside the book – to believe that he is a better and more affluent person than he could be on his own. He wants Daisy to believe his lies, so that she will love him again – leave her husband and be able to start over where they left off five years ago, when they first knew each other and fell in love.
However, in the end, Gatsby’s lies are his undoing. Daisy will not leave Tom, Tom’s mistress is murdered (unwittingly by his wife, no less), the mistress’ husband “determines” that Gatsby was the one to kill his wife (reasonably, as it was Gatsby’s car) and kills Gatsby, and then himself. Nick is estranged from the Buchanans whom he no longer trusts, and he falls away from Jordan. The book ends with a sparsely attended funeral for a man no one truly knew.
How is a person to feel sorry for him? Gatsby lived the life of a liar, and received a liar’s end – and none of the other characters have a life outside their role for Gatsby’s tragedy. With some of the most beautifully crafted prose the language has to offer, an entire neighborhood of characters fall flat on their faces, and no one is left to care – mirroring Gatsby’s life to the end.
Overall Rating: *** – Worth a Look (or second), if just for the writing