Goodreads: The Great Gatsby
Summary: Nick Carraway arrives in the East to start his career, but finds himself drawn into the mystery surrounding his wealthy neighbor Jay Gatsby’s obsession with an old lover.
Review: The Great Gatsby holds the distinction of being labeled classic literature, and though I can certainly understand why—can talk of themes and social commentary and writing style and whatever else we tend to associate with great works of art—I had, after reading it years ago, hoped never to undergo the experience again. The book centers around the superficial and empty lives of the wealthy members of American society in the 1920s, meaning that the majority of the characters prove too disagreeable for me to form much attachment to them. In fact, dare I admit that, barring narrator Nick Carraway, I even find them repulsive? My instinct when reading about them is to throw the book across the room, as if by doing so I can somehow distance myself from their actions.
Such a response surely testifies to the great work of art that The Great Gatsby is. F. Scott Fitzgerald brought the decadence of the Roaring Twenties to life so vividly that decades later I can feel tainted by it. At the same time, however, my discomfort raises a lot of questions about the characters themselves and how their environment affects them. The characters seem trapped by a nightmare of their own making—a nightmare that they were told was part of the American dream. Perhaps Gatsby is the most obvious symbol of self-destruction in this sense, but Daisy, poor Daisy who seems to have not one serious thought in her head, comes closest to articulating the problem with her society when she speaks of her child: “I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
Daisy’s continued participation in the follies of her society despite her recognition of their shallowness is part of what makes the book so emotionally traumatic for me. A subtle sense of doom pervades the whole, and always with it lurks the sense that the characters could avoid it if they chose—but choosing requires too much effort. In the pursuit of their own pleasure, they prove willing to ignore anything that might bring discomfort or unhappiness, so Daisy, after considering the state of her society, pushes it from her mind. The Great Gatsby illustrates that kind of apathy as the real destructive power, more destructive than hate or rage. And, to paraphrase Theoden, what can men do against such reckless indifference?
The Great Gatsby is thus for me the great tragedy. It contains no catharsis, only the bitter revelation that sometimes lives are broken and no one wants to bother to stay to pick up the pieces. Nick, though largely honest, does not emerge as some triumphant hero opposed to the values he criticizes. In the end, his only option is to leave, too. The Great Gatsby is a fantastic book. It just hurts too much for me to want to read it.