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[184] The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

gatsby1“When the ‘Jazz History of the World’ was over girls were putting their hands on men’s shoulders in a puppyish, convivial ways, girls were swooning backward playfully into men’s arms, even into groups knowing that someone would arrest their falls—but no one swooned backyard on Gatsby and on French bob touched Gatsby’s shoulder and no singing quartets were formed with Gatsby’s head for one link.” [55]

The Great Gatsby is set in Long Island’s north shore and New York City during the summer of 1922. The sense of time is a bit dreamy and warped, as most of the actions are confined in three months’ window. The novel’s events are filtered through the consciousness of its narrator, Nick Carraway, a young Yale graduate, who is both a part of and separate from the world he describes. Although Fitzgerald, like Nick in the novel, idolizes the riches and glamor of the age, he was uncomfortable with the unrestrained materialism and the lack of morality that went with it:

“…I come to the admission that [tolerance] has a limit . . . I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart.” [6]

Upon moving to New York, Carraway rents an inexpensive cottage sandwiched between two mansions in West Egg. His neighbor is an eclectic millionaire Jay Gatsby who throws grand party at his mansion every Saturday. They city’s elite and fashionable come to marvel at the extravagance of this man of mystique. Rumors have it that Gatsby has rooted in a murky past and he has built his fortune from illegal gambling and bootlegging. Despite of high-living, Gatsby is unhappy. At one of the parties where Nick overhears gossips that flavor the conversations of frivolous guests who haven’t even met the host, he strikes up a conversation with a man who claims to recognize him from the army during the Great War. Nick mentions his difficulty in finding the host and the man reveals to be Gatsby himself. This is an important event of the novel as Nick becomes Gatsby’s only loyal companion in the jungle of shallow social climbing and emotional manipulation. Their friendship begins as Gatsby invites Nick to more get-togethers.

Later it’s been revealed to Nick that Gatsby fell in love with a young girl before the war. He couldn’t afford to marry the her. One of his most fulfilling moments in life is when the girl’s wealthy family accepted him to be their own. This girl is Nick’s own second cousin Daisy, who is married to Tom Buchanan, an ex celebrated football player at Yale. Although phenomenally wealthy, he is a brutish, overbearing dilettante who nourishes a mistress in the city. The reason why Gatsby has bought a mansion in West Egg, and throws lavish parties is more than a proof of his achieving a social status. It’s indisputable that Gatsby creates an imaginary world in which he inhibits in. He has taken a romantic view on what happened between him and daisy, and that he hopes she might visit one of his parties.

“If it wasn’t for the mist we could see your home across the bay. You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.” [98]

She is something that Gatsby longs and searches for that is just off in the distance—and no matter how much he has, he never feels complete. Once he says “her voice is full of money.” How tied the idea of wealth is to Daisy in Gatsby’s mind. If there is any true love between them, it’s been preserved by his lust for wealth and possession, for Daisy has a profound impact on his thoughts of wealth. After his reunion with the former love, which is arranged by Nick, Gatsby becomes single-minded in getting her back and oblivious to anything that will weaken his fixation on Daisy. His unrestrained desire, which boils when he makes known his love for her in Tom’s presence and confronts her marrying Tom out of convenience, also dooms him.

The Great Gatsby is a novel about money and power. The power of Gatsby as a character is inextricably linked with his wealth. From the very beginning Fitzgerald sets up his eponymous hero as an enigma. But soon Nick realizes what Gatsby has told him about his past is mere fabrication. The reality of situation is that Gatsby is a man in love. He creates his mystique and personality around rotten values, gives everything he has emotionally and physically to win Daisy back. With a decadent cynicism, the party-goers and the privileged—the guests who don’t know the host—cannot see beyond their enjoyment. What old aristocracy possesses in taste, however, it seems to lack in heart. Nick’s impression of his own cousin seems to foreshadow the downfall of Gatsby who is a victim of desperate love:

“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.” [22]

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to 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 . . .” [188]

People like Tom and Daisy, the East Eggers, have proven themselves careless, inconsiderate bullies who are inured to money’s ability to ease their minds that they never have to worry about hurting others. In Gatsby’s pain and depression, Nick coaxes him to leave for a week, saying “they [Daisy and Tom] are a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” [162] But Gatsby smiles the irresistible smile that Nick has described as having “faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.” [52]

“He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” [189]

The Great Gatsby is an American classics because it captures the intimation that the American dream has been corrupted by the sole, empty pursuit of money. The foresight and divination of the book, which reflects very sharply and accurately the materialistic world that we live in now, escalates it to the pantheon of classic literature. 216 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

55 Responses

  1. I’m so, SO glad you liked The Great Gatsby – I hoped you would. Fitzgerald IS one of my favorites, after all! 😀

  2. I read this in high school, but it has been so long…and your review brought it all back. I did like the novel when I read it, but being young and flighty and more into boys, I doubt I fully appreciated it. Great review…thanks for sharing.

    BTW, I found a well-loved copy of Gone With the Wind at my local used book store. I’m ready to read!!

  3. Yay! I’m so glad you liked it, and I love that you quote the line about Daisy’s voice being full of money. That’s one of my favorites.

    Also glad to see you have Sula coming up. Now there’s a great book.

  4. Wow!! Super review/critique. I have always loved that book, although I haven’t reread in a number of years. Your analysis brought it all back to me. Thanks.

  5. This is one of those books I read because you’re supposed to read it. At the time I wasn’t focused on it at all and walked away not remembering a thing. Thanks for the review, I’ll have to pick it up again and devote a little more focus to it this time around.

  6. I have never read this – perhaps due to my Canadian upbringing, this, like The Grapes of Wrath, isn’t really considered “required reading”. But perhaps that’s for the best, because I think I might not have appreciated it at 16 or 17, but look forward to reading it now that I’ve lived a little and am potentially able to bring my own personal perspective to the table. Thanks for the great review.

  7. The Great Gatsby is on the Big Read list.

    Click here for the Feb calendar;
    http://www.neabigread.org/events.php

  8. I know this is a wonderful book — but mostly when I think of it, I think of Robert Redford, tossing his many colored shirts up in the air, in the movie version.

  9. I enjoyed reading the book back in high school, but have forgotten much of it. I don’t feel sympathy for any one of the characters, especially Daisy. Without knowing her culpability, Tom went ahead to tell the garage owner on Gatsby. That’s just how ugly people can be. Your really nail on how the book really lives up to how we live now. Great review.

  10. I was thinking of Gatsby the other day–about how our society’s greed and superficiality so closely parallels the world of Fitzgerald way back when. What goes around really does come around, doesn’t it?

  11. I can definitely see the parallels to Revolutionary Road. I’m really glad you liked it. I haven’t read this book yet (which makes me feel a little ashamed) but it sounds well worth the while. 🙂 Thank for the great review Matt.

  12. I have never read it because it wasn’t required in most UK schools. Having grown up in Hong Kong and studying in the UK, I’m more exposed to European literature. I can easily see, from your brilliant review, why this is an important book. Thank you for your insights. I’ll have to pick it up and read it.

  13. Nicely done. Gatsby has always been a favorite of mine as his fixation upon the green light betrays a faith in possibilities – the possibility of a pure love, the possibility that the American dream is open to all. He fails to see that money does not defy social standing even in the youngest of countries. His occasional gaucheness, his inability to navigate the treacherous slope of American aristocracy have always broken my heart just a bit.

  14. I have not read this book but I did start it once. I will honestly think about giving this one another try. I really loved your review and it has sparked some interest in reading this again!!

  15. I loved this book. So glad you enjoyed it!

  16. Chelsea:
    Tender is the Night is on my radar! 🙂

  17. Sandy:
    Consider the short length of this novel (189 pages excluding the publisher’s note), it took me a while to finish because the prose is very contemplative. I don’t think teenagers would be able to appreciate the full meaning of this book.

  18. Rebecca:
    I finally redeem myself from not reading this American classic! Every page of the book smells of money and vanity. She’s probably the worst in terms of vanity and pomp in the book.

    I’m currently reading Their Eyes Were Watching God right now, bathing in her colloquial language. I’m looking forward to reading Sula. 🙂

  19. Beth F:
    I have enjoyed every page of the book, allowing the prose to slowly seep into me. It’s very beautifully written but sad.

  20. Christina:
    I wasn’t very focused and was too flighty when I tried to read it in high school. I didn’t pick the book after I flipped through the first few pages for my project. It’s worth a closer read.

  21. Steph:
    It’s amazing how just across the border the classics is not even required in school. It reflects the different values and psyche of the countries. I didn’t fully appreciate the meaning and implication when I tried to read it in high school. I’m glad I have waited until now or I won’t fully perceive what Fitzgerald is complaining about the society.

  22. Isabel:
    Thanks for the link to Big Read. 🙂

  23. bloglily:
    When I told my friends that I was reading this book, they kept talking about Robert Redford. I guess I’ll have to check out the film! 🙂

  24. John:
    I feel the same way about Daisy and Jordan. I do not feel sympathetic for them as well. Tom Buchanan is such a brute and overbearing. The root of these is not just vanity and greed, but selfishness.

  25. chartroose:
    Excatly! I was just thinking about how people are consumed by greed and how inconsiderate some people are now.

  26. lena:
    The Great Gatsby is more nuanced and contemplative than Revolutionary Road. I recommend Gatsby to you. 🙂

  27. Tina Liu:
    I would equate Fitzgerald to Dickens in British literature. They both nail the social foibles and the unrestrained desire for wealth and greed.

  28. Frances:
    Why is it that everyone who looks for true love, pure love will end up being doomed? Gatsby always looks into that green light shining from the coast of East Egg but he’s always just off in the distance. It’s sad that he never understands the limit of money.

  29. Staci:
    I highly recommend this book. If you haven’t read Revolutionary Road, which ponders at the similar theme of deceit and happiness, you should read The Great Gatsby first. 🙂

  30. Matthew:
    Now I’m eying on Fitzgerald’s other books. Tender is the Night would be next. 🙂

  31. i agree with so many people who left messages here that when we were younger reading this book in highschool, we did not and could not fully appreciate the depth and magnitude of the power of yearning. It was all an irony; when people were young, love wasn’t enough; when people possessed power and money, neither could bring happiness or could turn back time to right any wrongs. The characters in this novel are so iconic that any stories that follow the same footsteps simply pale in colour. Thanks for the great review, one can certainly take on a whole new layer of meaning and appreciation of this novel after experiencing life’s inevitable ups and downs such as love, loss, dreams (including those that are broken or unfinished) and hope.

  32. Great Gatsby is such a great gem of American literature- thanks for the wonderful review!

  33. Great review, Matt! Both Gatsby and Tender is the Night (also Their Eyes Were Watching God, for that matter) are on my reading list this year, too. I hope you enjoy Sula, too.. loved that (I’ve never yet read a Morrison that I didn’t like).

  34. Your review is fascinatiing; also the responses. This is another author whose style I admire, though I’ve only actually read several of his short stories. My connection with Gatsby, so far, has been the movie (years ago) and, more recently, the opera (1999) by John Harbison, which I’ve heard over the radio a couple of times. I didn’t connect much with the opera, but it was, by reputation, very respectful of the original, at least in spirit. But grand opera is such a different kind of expression than fiction, and the high flown vocal style somehow seemed wrong. Anyway, a book to put somewhere on the docket.

  35. Another book I need to reread. This was a favorite of the required high school reading. 🙂

    Btw, you have been given an award: http://marireads.blogspot.com/2009/02/premios-dardo-award.html

  36. Mari:
    Aw, thank you so much Mari. I’ll hop over there to claim my award. 😀

  37. Greg S:
    The solicitous and substantial responses make this discussion very lively. I am not even aware that Fitzgerald work is being adapted by opera, let alone making the connection. His contemplative and somewhat detached writing is certainly up to my liking. I would explore him in more depth, with Tender is the Night being the next book.

  38. claire:
    I’m currently reading Their Eyes Were Watching God and am bathing in Hurston’s dialect. The phonetic-written dialogues truly make the reading experience very lively. Tender is the Night is on my radar. And also I want to fit in a James Baldwin book for Black History month. 😀

  39. marie:
    I’ve been ashamed of not reading it for so long! 🙂

  40. Vince:
    I find myself re-reading many books that were required in high school. The reward is a whole new layer of meaning, bestowed by growing experience in life and sharpening perception of social and cultural psyche. As I grow older, the division between good and evil, ironically, becomes not as marked. Some of us would question an author who tries to envision characters who are neither too holy nor too evil. But in real life, are people either completely evil or the opposite? Characters should be extremely nuanced, demonstrating layers of personalities and human strengths as well as frailties.

  41. I remember that above the garage where Tom’s mistress and her husband live there is a billboard showing a pair of eyes. Fitzgerald uses the word careless a lot in describing most of the people and events in this book. There seems to be no fear of consequence, of judgment. So who is doing the judgment? That is, in part, what the eyes on the billboard. I really should consider re-reading the book. Thanks for your great review.

  42. Matt.. I haven’t read James Baldwin.. will keep an eye on your thoughts when you do. I’ll be reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes before black history month ends.

  43. John:
    You made a great point and a keen observation. Fitzgerald doesn’t mention the Eckleberg eyes in passing. He has at least mentioned those “eyes” that look upon the people in at least three occasions. First the wife of the garage owner, Myrtle, who is Tom’s mistress. The eyes somehow serve as the symbol of judgment even those the people aren’t being judged in the frame of the novel.

  44. claire:
    Giovanni’s Room is my favorite Baldwin. It breaks my heart. I’m planning to read Another Country next.

  45. I felt pretty let down when I read this book for the first time last year but your review is so insightful and wonderful that I think i will give it another go further down the track.

  46. Mae:
    I just redeem myself from having not read this all-time American classic. I thoroughly enjoyed it, feeling grateful that I haven’t been forced to read it when I was a teenager. I probably wouldn’t be able to appreciate the themes raised in the novel then.

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  48. Hi, If you’re interested, I added a complete book summary of The Great Gatsby in my website, here – http://www.free-book-summary.com/the-great-gatsby.html. Enjoy!

  49. […] The pumping heart that Baby Suggs always refers to is a strong symbol for freedom and life. In The Great Gatsby, the green light off the coast of East Egg where Daisy and her husband live symbolizes a yearning, […]

  50. its great novel but I have a question
    how do you think there is any unrestrained materialism and can you explain it?
    thank you.

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