The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…. 

 

gatsbyIf I didn’t feel obligated to read this book for Jazz Age June, I probably would have stopped reading it at some point–not because it was boring, badly written or uninteresting. It’s because it made me feel empty, just like the characters the book portrays. I am a visceral reader and an emotionally affected reader. I just didn’t want to feel so void of the life force as I turned page after page. But The Great Gatsby is so well-regarded as an anthem to the Jazz Age, the quintessential look at the Roaring Twenties, that I felt it right to finish. And I suppose, in the end, I am glad I did.

The book is narrated by Nick Carraway, who moves into the house next door to Jay Gatsby in West Egg, Long Island, New York. Gatsby is a mystery, both as to his present life and his past. Almost everything anyone knows of him can be contradicted by what the next person thinks he knows. Is he an Oxford man or not? Did he fight in the war or was he really a German spy? “He’s a murderer, you know.” “No, he could never have killed anyone.” His car is huge, his house is huge, his Saturday night parties fill his home to the brim with people he doesn’t know and he feeds them only the best food. But his business dealings are shady and probably illegal and no one really knows how he makes so much money.

Nick has a cousin, Daisy who lives with her husband Tom across the bay in East Egg. Tom is having an affair with Myrtle Wilson, whose husband owns the gas station in West Egg. Gatsby and Daisy were in love with each other five years ago, before he went off to war and so she married Tom, but both have carried a flame for each other ever since. Some of the more touching moments of the novel have to do with Gatsby’s nervousness in seeing Daisy for the first time in all these years, but their affair ends with a tragedy that almost feels like karma.

It’s funny how reading has gone for me this year. Several times I have read books back to back with main characters with the same first name, similar themes or similar odd word usage. This book and recently The Glimpses of the Moon have much in common theme-wise (and first name-wise) when it comes to relationships. I am not a prude and am all for finding true love, but in both these books the idea that marriage vows have meaning is certainly put to the adultery-test. And the bit of comical hypocrisy when Tom, who is having an affair with Myrtle, becomes incensed when he suspects Daisy is seeing Gatsby, is not lost on me.

There isn’t much narrative to the novel, except for the narrator, Carroway. He’s come to New York after college to start his accounting career and finds himself involved in the myriad dramas of the people around him. He is the moral one, the “good man,” the voice of the adult while the adolescents break the rules to their peril. They act like they’ve been shut up for years and finally found the way out of the chains of the straight and narrow prison that held their thoughts and feelings in check. Without restraints everything they do is in excess and through a restless lens. I couldn’t help but feel this emptiness in their motivations and that their hearts were devoid of the spark of life.

This novel supposedly illustrates the effect of the new found prosperity and personal freedom of post-war America in its loosening of boundaries between people in all aspects of life; the notion of the self-made and re-made “man” that is grander than anything before it. But with this freedom Fitzgerald shows that people can act with incredible selfishness and indecency leaving human wreckage in their wake.

I found this a profoundly depressing book. Even though Nick is the shining light in an otherwise morally bankrupt universe, I am still left with a void. I find it hard to believe this book is the ‘quintessential social commentary’ of America in the 1920s. If that were really true how did we survive the decade!

__________________________

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner Classic
Device: Paperback
Year: 1925
Pages: 182

17 thoughts on “The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

  1. I must have read this about three times now, trying to find the element that has made it such a “classic” of American fiction. But I finish the book none the wiser. Glad to learn I am not alone in finding this a depressing read

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am not always so blunt when I don’t like something, but I can’t always help myself. With this particular book that has garnered such praise, I was surprised at how much negativity it gave me.

      And I think I would have to find a very good reason to read it again!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was tempted to reread this for Jazz Age June, Laurie, but I’m glad that I decided against it. Your experience was very similar to mine; I too am an emotionally affected reader. Empty lives and unlikeable characters made it difficult for me to appreciate the quality of the writing and I have no recollection of noticing the hopeful ending. Reading Jeanne’s quote, I still can’t see hope because of the dubious origin of and dubious reason for Gatsby’s wealth.
    But your review and the subsequent discussion has been so helpful and given me plenty to think about. One thing I’ve realised is that the underlying tensions and origins of the Jazz Age may be interpreted different depending on where in the world one lives and which nation one thinks about. I associate the Jazz Age with the Bright Young Things – The Lost Generation – who in Europe partied hard without a care for tomorrow in the aftermath of the first World War. They chose not to dwell on the horrors past and instead covered them with a thin veneer of shallow pretence and a ‘live for the moment’ attitude. It was cruel and cynical and possibly the only way they could survive. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises captures this for me. In America, reading everything discussed here, perhaps the Jazz Age is seen differently and with different origins? More to do with living the dream of opportunity? Hemingway and Fitzgerald of course, are closely intertwined but maybe with these two books each has captured the essence of the Jazz Age on either side of the Atlantic?
    Thanks for a fascinating discussion here, Laurie! And an insightful review
    (You are probably aware of the potential review-along for Tender is the Night later in the year. It will be my next attempt at Fitzgerald and may help me clarify what I think of his work.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The comments here have really made me think, although like you, I don’t see the optimism. I only felt the pathos and surely don’t think any of them, except possibly Nick, went on to lead a happy life.

      I am not aware of the Tender is the Night review along. Can you point me to that direction? I would like to try more Fitzgerald and this might be a good way to do it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the time when you read a book affects your perspective. I might have been depressed if I read The Great Gatsby during this pandemic, but as I didn’t, I loved it. Yes, the theme is hopelessness, but I think the end carries new fresh hopes. And you can’t deny Fitzgerlad’s eloquence writing – I feel like he might have polished and polished every sentence before it became the version we read – everything is so perfectly put.

    My suggestion is to give it another try… in 2-3 more years. You might “find” new gems hidden inside the narrative. The Great Gatsby is full of metaphors, that finding them itself changes your reading experience. If you like, you can check my chapter analysis when I read it last (which I must confess, I didn’t finish), to give you an idea.

    Ah, you made me want to reread it again, maybe next year… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is interesting to see how many see the last bit as the hopeful part. I guess that wasn’t enough for me! But, hey, if you do read it next year I’d love to do a buddy read and maybe get your take on these metaphors. I am sometimes too literal of a reader to grasp these sometimes. I’ll check out your chapter analysis too.

      I have a collection of his short stories and might read one or two. I did like his writing style and maybe because it seemed so realistic to me, I felt the superficiality more.

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  4. I’ve always thought of this novel as one of the quintessential looks at what happens when idealism meets disillusionment, kind of like A Streetcar Named Desire. The dream is beautiful, and the ending is boundlessly optimistic:
    “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——
    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
    It leaves me hopeful, that we keep trying.
    I’ve been feeling burned out about political activities, and then in the last two weeks young people have turned out–even in my small town–to take over for the kinds of things I’ve been doing with older protestors who remember the sixties. The young people mobilizing fill me with hope.

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    • Yes, I can see the hopefulness in the last lines, but I did not feel that with the majority of characters in the novel, who just went back to business as usual. Only Nick had the promise of something better to me. I am a cynic, I guess!

      But I love how you see this optimism in contemporary events. That’s why classic literature is so important. 👍

      As an aside, it’s been pretty remarkable that the need for change and reform has penetrated to every part of the country and not just in big cities. I’ve been in awe at towns of 300 who have protested.

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  5. I like your allusion to them all being trapped with no way out, I think that’s how I saw them – beautiful creatures that come alive for each other. I’ve read that at the time it was the least favourite of FSF’s books because he showed the jazz age for what it really was but it was his critical success. I remember feeling quite sorry for Gatsby because he was never going to be accepted and cross with him for wanting it so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, some of the deeper moments for me was seeing inside of Gatsby. With all that money he couldn’t buy true friendship or love. I think he trusted Nick, because of all the people in his life, Nick wasn’t fazed by money or the glitz of ‘the life.’

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  6. I had to look up “visceral” in your post. I hear that word all the time but have never bothered to locate a definition. 😀 I’d say I’m a visceral reader too. The joy for me in this book was that closing passage “and so we go on…” My oh my that conclusion made up for the emptiness in this book — for me. It undermined the moral poverty with its eloquence. x

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, except that Gatsby didn’t go on…but Nick did and I guess so did all the others. But what choice did they have to do otherwise?

      I did enjoy the writing, even though it described such a decadent, sad lot. I think Fitzgerald got this right when he described the party life and some of the descriptions of individual characters. It’s just that I take all this classic literature too seriously. I get inside the book, I see everything and feel everything. It’s one of the reasons I love to read and the reason it can be so hard!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it more – an intriguing review that got me thinking. Did America survive the decade, though? It ended with the Depression and the dire poverty of the Thirties, followed by WW2. It was only really in the ’50s that America (and most of the western world) began to recover from the after-effects of WW1. I love this book – I do see why it could be seen as depressing though. But to me it absolutely sums up the jazz age – a glittering, dazzling shell disguising the spiritual hollowness, material poverty and sense of desperation beneath. And Gatsby himself, for me, shows that the idea of meritocracy in the New World was (is?) an empty sham – there was just as much of an aristocratic class as in the Old World, begun with money but soon based just as much on breeding.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s an interesting perspective to think we DID survive the decade as all those big national and world events came into play. It’s like the adolescents of the 1920s had to grow up and do adult things like figuring out how to provide for their families then fighting/keeping the home fires burning when WWII happened.

      The 1920s were also the years of Prohibition and that did not help anything at all!

      Liked by 1 person

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