The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story is of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his new love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.
The Great Gatsby is one of the great classics of twentieth-century literature.
In high school, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and decided I hated it. It was boring, all the characters were unlikable, and the symbolism my teacher was obsessed with discussing was way too obvious. (Fitzgerald literally says the billboard symbolizes the eyes of God, and the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock symbolizes the thing Gatsby wants to obtain. Not exactly subtle!). For some reason, I have the habit of occasionally rereading books I hated to see if I still hate them. Usually I do. I’ve come around on The Great Gatsby, though. I still think the characters are obnoxious, and I’m not about to put the novel on a list of my favorite books or anything, but I do appreciate more–perhaps because I don’t just think Fitzgerald was writing about a bunch of rich jerks but because I can now see he was also writing about the complexity of humans. I don’t have to enjoy the characters to see that they’re more developed and more trapped in suffering than I previously gave them credit for.
The two characters I’ve most changed my mind on are Daisy and Nick (sort of surprising to me, since I always thought of Nick as the nice one, if I thought about him at all; he definitely is a major character, but high school me might have written him off too much as “just the narrator” and not worth paying as much attention to as the other characters).
I recently was speaking with Michael at My Comic Relief about Daisy and whether she’s to be read as shallow and vapid (high school me voted for this) or as a woman worthy of sympathy because she’s trapped in an unhappy marriage she won’t leave. It seems clear to me now that both are true. Yes, Daisy doesn’t seem to make an intelligent comment in the whole novel (besides her initial heart-to-heart with Nick when she bursts out with the wish he daughter will be a beautiful little fool to avoid suffering), and her frivolousness is accentuated by her tendency to repeat everything. Now, however, I wonder how much of this is affectation or a coping mechanism. She knows her husband has no respect for her and is cheating on her. Even Nick occasionally mocks her. Perhaps she tries to be charming and dumb and inoffensive to get by or give people what she thinks they expect from her. Readers have no real way of knowing since we know little about her past, before her marriage.
Yet while Daisy came off a little better to me this time around, Nick came off worse. As mentioned above, I do think he mocks Daisy sometimes, even though he also seems to like her well enough. He refers to past comments she has made with levity, for instance, and Daisy seems to have no idea what he’s talking about or what’s supposed to be funny. He also overexaggerates things that seem as if they might actually be important to her, such as when she asks him if her friends in Chicago miss her. There’s also the matter that Nick knows about everyone’s affairs and either ignores them or facilitates them. There’s definitely something to be said for minding your own business, but I’m not sure I think much of him for setting up Daisy and Gatsby when he knows Gatsby means to declare his love for her. Nick’s redeeming moment is, of course, the end when he sticks by Gatsby when no one else does and even goes through the trouble of trying to get other people to the funeral–who never come. He says himself he never really approved of Gatsby but he thought he owed him something, and that’s something that apparently didn’t occur to anyone else who was always enjoying Gatsby’s parties and hospitality.
The book, overall is rather depressing, not just because the characters are all generally horrible but also because there’s such a theme of emptiness that pervades it. Gatsby pursues a dream he can never realize and dies alone, all his wealth and the hard work (uh, illegal work) that he put in to obtain it. Daisy and Tom stay in their unhappy marriage because it seems comfortable. Wilson realizes his wife didn’t love him the way he loved her. Everything is just disappointing. Even Nick doesn’t seem to get what he wanted out of going East and just goes back home, judgmental of everyone.
It’s interesting and gives a lot to readers to think about, but this isn’t how I view the world or would even want to. So I think the novel is better as art this time around, but I still don’t find it personally compelling.