7.25.2012

Currently Reading: The Great Gatsby

The Great GatsbyShe looked at me absently. “Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when she was born. Would you like to hear?”

“Very much.”

“It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

“You see I think everything’s terrible anyhow,” she went on in a convinced way. “Everybody thinks so—the most advanced people. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.” Her eyes flashed around her in a defiant way, rather like Tom’s, and she laughed with thrilling scorn. “Sophisticated—God, I’m sophisticated!”

The instant her voice broke off ceasing to compel my attention, my belief, I felt the basic insincerity of what she had said. It made me uneasy, as though the whole evening had been a trick of some sort to exact a contributary emotion from me. I waited, and sure enough, in a moment she looked at me with an absolute smirk on her lovely face, as if she had asserted her membership in a rather distinguished secret society to which she and Tom belonged.

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Synopsis: When Nick Carraway moves to New York to work in the bond business, he winds up next door to an enigmatic mansion with an even more enigmatic owner: Jay Gatsby, who hosts the biggest parties but doesn’t drink, makes inconsistent attempts at appearing at his ease with wealth, and wants nothing in the world but the love of Daisy Buchanan, whom he wooed before she was married. As Nick becomes slowly acquainted with Gatsby, he vacillates between liking and despising him. Ultimately, though, he discovers that he may be Gatsby’s only true friend.

Notes: There’s no good way to review a book that a significant portion of Americans have been required to read in high school. I missed it, and when I try to imagine what I might have thought of it had I read it in my teens, all I can guess is that it would have seemed just as much a study of people acting inexplicably then as it was when I read it just the other week—though perhaps I would have understood less of the tale's deeper communications.

Nick Carraway’s subtle, revealing narration sets the stage that certainly contributed to the book’s success: an intimate depiction of America’s then-great divide between East and West and the mentalities thereof. He spends some time discoursing on that subject, but some of the meaning also comes out in the characters, as all of the major players are from the West but attempting to make it in the East. Nick himself, with his internal honesty and his incredibly evocative imagery of both sides of America, draws a lot of sympathy for his perspective on the nation and human conduct, if not always for himself or his friends.

Nick and his story have quite a bit to say about conduct and decency, actually, and together they draw a sharp image of pre-1960s immorality. Though Nick possesses a sense of duty toward womankind, arising either from his own honesty or from his Midwestern upbringing or both, the story shows many a participant in New York parties willingly surrendering his or her dignity to gin and moral carelessness.

Though Gatsby does not drink, his relation to Daisy follows the deadly trajectory of the ambitious Midwest boy who falls for a glamorous (in the old fairy-tale sense of that word) girl, sleeps with her, and feels “married to her, that was all” thereafter. The ensuing years of his life shape themselves upon the pursuit of her, and though he does many a wrong in that quest, the mad irony is that he pays the consequence for the one he did not commit.

Gatsby appeals to the reader, but perhaps more as a roguish, wounded puppy than anything else. The mix of passionate, decent Western boy and wealthy Eastern charmer fascinates and sometimes also repels. A smile like his is something that has to be received directly and visually, with all its dazzling connotations, to fully secure the loyalty it requests. Descriptive words can almost pull that off, but not quite.

Gatsby's companions mostly have less to offer the reader or society, however. Daisy and Jordan Baker are by turns sympathetic and awful, and Tom, at once ‘libertine’ and ‘prig’ (adjectives courtesy of Nick), is not likable or even appreciable in any way, though he’s occasionally pathetic.

Nick Carraway got brownie points from me on page two by stating the following:
“...after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don’t care what it’s founded on.”
Attempting to understand any of the characters except for him and to some extent Gatsby requires peering through the keyholes of the locks on the mind, the ones that prevent us from becoming quite as selfish and destructive as we would if we cared nothing whatsoever for goodness. I can’t speak for all readers, but for this one at least, that exercise contains all the unsettling giddiness of looking off the edge of a cliff.

The words “great American novel” should have been enough to tell me how the book was going to end—the only words that ever make me wonder whether we wouldn’t have been better off staying part of the British empire. I was raised in the West, after all; give me liberty or give me death, but definitely give me the hope of immortal bliss. Gatsby’s dream would never have served, of course; that much was clear early in the tale. Daisy was not the sort of person in whom even everyday human hopes can be safely placed, and she was obviously lethal in the role of “the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.”

Despite the tragedy and irony, though, despite the haunting last line that feels like only a half-truth, Gatsby’s story contains a lot worth reading. It’s worth studying such a powerful picture of historical time and place, worth knowing America a little better for it. The insights on life and humanity range from startlingly precise to—well, inexplicable, but Fitzgerald produces them with a consistent originality that very few authors attain, and this would make it worth the read if nothing else did.

Like all good novels, Gatsby improves with a second perusal. Having re-read half of it for the sake of writing this review—it’s really not a long book—I suspect that Nick Carraway has more to say than I could piece together on first impressions. I could be convinced to give him another listen for the sake of further interest and understanding.

Recommendation: Read it for a thoughtful depiction of the beauty and ugliness of America, dreams, and humanity.

14 comments:

  1. Very thorough & intriguing review, Jenna.

    Although I have to say The Great Gatsby is probably not going high up on my reading list. I'm usually leery of Great American Novels. Of the list of them given on wikipedia, I've read two, Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. Although eventually I'd like to read The Grapes of Wrath.

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    1. Thanks. :D

      OK, I had to look up that list. I've read Huck Finn, Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird. And fifteen pages of Lolita. And yeah, much as I liked Mockingbird and thought Gatsby was interesting and Huck had its moments... ergh.

      I'm kind of interested in Moby-Dick, but am not sure I dare to swear myself back on Steinbeck to get through The Grapes of Wrath. The Red Pony was SO awful. :)

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  2. "The words 'great American novel' should have been enough to tell me how the book was going to end—the only words that ever make me wonder whether we wouldn’t have been better off staying part of the British empire." BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA!!!! YES!!!

    "I was raised in the West, after all; give me liberty or give me death, but definitely give me the hope of immortal bliss." YES, YES AND YES!!!

    Oh my goodness, Jenna, you are SO funny. Sorry for all the caps and exclamation points. They were warranted.

    Excellent review. I was compelled to read The Great Gatsby in high school and have felt bewildered by it ever since (haven't re-read it, but I have thought about it in the same way you admit to thinking about reading Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men was intolerably horrid.) Thanks for your excellent analysis and insights as always. Beautifully written, too!

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    1. :D

      No need to apologize. It's been a rough eight weeks or so on the writing front, and it's only just starting to turn. I'm afraid I basked a little in your exclamation points. ;)

      The book is a bit bewildering, and I expect it would have been much more so to me in high school. I doubt I'd have found much to like about it then--though it certainly would've been a prose upgrade from the stuff I generally read.

      Oh, and thanks for the warning. If I do ever break my self-inflicted ban on Steinbeck, I won't start with Of Mice and Men. ;)

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  3. I didn't get it at all when I read it in school. I was fifteen, I think? I think I got more enjoyment out of The Sound and the Fury and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which we also read that year. I've picked up Gatsby again lately and am appreciating it more, but mostly I'm just struck by how depressing it is. :P

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    1. P.S. Out of all the "Great American Novels" on that Wikipedia page, I notice that only To Kill a Mockingbird was written by a woman. That makes me pretty much disregard the whole list on principle.

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    2. It was definitely depressing!

      You know, I noticed how short that list was overall, but somehow completely missed the fact that Harper Lee was the only woman on the list. Her novel is unusually uplifting, too. Maybe women are just less likely to write the sort of poignant but endless misery that warms the hearts of English professors everywhere. :)

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    3. "Maybe women are just less likely to write the sort of poignant but endless misery that warms the hearts of English professors everywhere."

      HAH!!!! Jenna, you are SO quotable!

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  4. I feel like that list was missing some books...

    I read (and hated) Gatsby in middle school/high school..I can't remember..but I picked it up again (after reading Hemingway's impression of Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast) and I really liked it. I think schools make kids read it too soon.

    If you're starting out with Stienbeck, go for "Travels with Charley, it's not as harsh. We read The Red Pony in high school too, and it turned me off Stienbeck until I found Mice and Men, and that got me loving him again.

    I'm trying to think of a woman who should be added to the Great American Novels list..I'm leaning toward possibly Willa Cather with my Antonia, any other suggestions?

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    1. "My Antonia" is in the top five, not just the top 100, if you ask me. :) But I haven't read nearly as much American fiction as you have. I haven't read Wiseblood, and though I believe Flannery O'Connor's short stories are more popular than her lone novel, she is such a towering figure in American lit it seems unjust that she should not make the list.

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  5. I've never read it, but I've heard good things about it, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. I'm not sure it would qualify technically as a Great American Novel but if we're just offering up suggestions.

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  6. I would put Artificial Nigger, or The Geranium (sp) on a "great American Short Story list, but I think Flannery's novels aren't quite American ethos enough to be on the list. But then I'm harsh and judgemental, and I really don't think half the books they listed count. I think a great American novel really needs to tap into the American identity. I would even drop Lolita, much as I love it, because Nabokov is formed in Europe and Humbert is as well, which is obvious in the book, and because Lolita really isn't about the American identity...

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    1. Hm, good argument. I wondered how Lolita qualified, and then assumed it was just because the author happened to live in America. I'd agree that the list of great novels written by Americans and the list of Great American Novels that carry a strong sense of the American ethos are different things.

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