25 Jan 2012
Is it just me or is it harder to write about a book that you loved than a book that was merely pretty good? A great book brings to my mind a million jumbled ideas all trying to tumble out at once. There is an awful lot of time spent staring at the wall trying to decide where to start and what to make the focus of my post about..
I’ve been wanting to read The Great Gatsby for a very long time. I am already a big Fitzgerald fan. But I wanted to wait for the perfect moment because I was afraid if I rushed into it, my treasured hope of loving the book would be ruined. I wanted The Great Gatsby to be the culmination of all the promise I saw in Fitzgerald’s other works.
I’ve read The Beautiful and Damned, This Side of Paradise, and several of Fitzgerald’s short stories. In each, there are perfectly strung sentences and quietly dropped metaphors which give that tense warmth in the chest that beautiful writing can cause. Fitzgerald is the master of the unexpected adjective, that quality gives a unique joy to his writing, for me. But the previous novels I read, as a whole, did not live up to the individual sentences; and the short stories often lacked soul. In The Great Gatsby though, it all finally comes together. I have a couple more Fitzgerald novels to read, Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon, but I’ve heard nether of these are on the same level as The Great Gatsby and it almost makes me teary to know that we will never have another example of Scott Fitzgerald living up to his potential.
I know many people do not like The Great Gatsby. My Dh had to read it in high school and hated it. I think I can understand that feeling. I have a couple theories on why it is a loved or hated book. First, I don’t think it is ideal for teens or anyone who reads primarily to relate to the characters. When we are in our teens and early 20s I think we often read books to find others who understand us. We look for characters who typify our experiences, struggles, and emotions. Fitzgerald is not an author to turn to if you are looking for that connection, unless you are a middle class kid trying to fit into an upper class clique lol.
There are young readers that look for things beyond personal identification in books. I think for most though, this comes later in life, with maturity (or for some it may just be a lifelong taste). Therefore, like The Scarlett Letter, I really can’t get behind teaching The Great Gatsby to high school kids. There may be one or two in a class that enjoy it, but for the most part the kids won’t be able to connect and won’t see the worth in it. Classic lit that is more plot driven is better for teens, in my opinion. I do think a couple years on, in college where the students have chosen their classes, The Great Gatsby should most definitely be included in a literature or writing curriculum. The book is a beautiful work of art but best appreciated by those with the mind set to view it independently not as an extension of self.
My second suggestion for The Great Gatsby reading success, would be to read it straight through if possible. There are some books you slowly slip into, day by day, (Charlotte Bronte’s work comes to mind) and then there are some that you need to tumble down into completely. It’s important with Gatsby to immerse yourself in the world and not break the spell. Fitzgerald is a short story writer and I believe Gatsby should be read like one. If you read one chapter a day, a little at a time, I think the tension and desperation of the characters would be totally ruined. And since there is likely no character in the story that you will fall in love with, the overall tension is that much more important to maintain. Though I would hope readers new to Gatsby would read it in just a day or two, it would be heartbreaking if they rushed. Fitzgerald’s writing needs to be savored. It’s all in the sentence, not so much the events.
My last suggestion is not to be thrown by the first few pages of The Great Gatsby. It feels a little disjointed and not what you are expecting when you first opened the book, but it’s all integral to the story because Fitzgerald is setting up Nick to be the perfect narrator. Nick is the outsider observing the mess to follow. You feel you can trust his description of events and his judgement of character. He is the reader’s companion because, like you, he is skeptical and cynical towards the other character’s behavior but he also sometimes finds himself dazed by the beauty of it all.
As usual with my posts, it’s not the plot of the book I want to talk about so much as a theme that caught my attention. My favorite aspect of The Great Gatsby is the worlds of artist and illusion vs realty and disillusion conflicting. Jay Gatsby is the artist. He literally creates himself, his life, and his money. He creates a beautiful world, the never ending party, but he does not participate in it himself. Instead he stands apart, looking from above at the living dream he built for some one else.
On the other side of the bay we have Tom, whose physicality and cynicism is the exact opposite of Jay’s dream. Tom has absolutely everything anyone could ever want, and yet he rants about “civilization going to pieces”. He has a beautiful wife that everyone adores and yet he spends his time with a tacky and irritating mistress. Frankly, Tom is a character that you just want to punch in the face.
Nick, our narrator, exists between these two worlds.
I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
Nick is also an artist/creator, as the teller of this story, but he looks straight on at the events, unlike Jay who observes through his own daydream. Nick was a writer in his youth but has come East to learn the money trade. He left his home in the West because after what he witnessed in the war he was unable to believe in the easy morals of his hometown. But he finds the alternative, complete disillusionment and materialism of the East, more false.
One of the illusions that Nick is tempted to indulge in is that beautiful women, like Daisy and Jordan, float innocently above the corruption…
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
How can you not love that writing?? *head explodes*
Although in some ways I understand the sentiment, it is also so curious to me that when people talk about The Great Gatsby, it is automatically “a book about rich people, that you can’t connect with, having lavish parties”. That is such a small part of the story. Yes, in the first few chapters Fitzgerald does create a beautiful dream built with impossible amounts of money but more of the book is about how wealth and the past corrupts that dream and tears down the future. I won’t talk about the events but my heart was aching at the end. And yet, not in that obviously contrived way that most modern writers try to “pull on the heart strings” by killing off characters or putting children in horrible situations. Even though The Great Gatsby is so much about untouchable illusions and even though you are not driven to connect one to one with the characters, to me it felt more genuine and more universally tragic.
her voice compelled me forward breathlessly as I listened — then the glow faded, each light deserting her with lingering regret, like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk