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….
If 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