It took me four reads before I finally fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American novel, The Great Gatsby. I might not have ever read it again after the last time (a couple years ago my book club had a ‘year of classics’) had it not been for the fact that I am teaching grade twelve this year. Often referred to as the quintessential American novel, its place in literary canon is certainly undeniable, but I just never bought in. The Great Gatsby is my daughter Mallory’s favourite novel and she was understandably flummoxed as to why her English teacher geek of a mother never really liked the book. Now we’re on the same page. If you believe that a classic is a book that never runs out of things to say, this book certainly qualifies. I guess I’m just late to the party.
Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, moves from the mid-west to Long Island’s West Egg to take a job on Wall Street. Across the bay in East Egg lives his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband, Tom, an old Yale classmate of Nick’s, a man so “enormously wealthy” he’d brought “down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest.” Nick comments “It was hard to imagine that a man in my own generation was wealthy enough to do that.”
Despite their wealth, Daisy and Tom don’t seem particularly happy and on his first visit with them Nick discovers that Tom is having an affair. When it comes to the Buchanans, all that glitters is not gold.
Next door to Nick’s little house, and directly across the bay from the Buchanans, lives Gatsby. His mansion is “a colossal affair by any standard.” Gatsby throws lavish parties every weekend – huge glittering affairs attended by the who’s who of New York and “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” On the first night Nick attends a party at Gatsby’s he is “one of the few guests who had actually been invited.” Soon after meeting his charming and enigmatic host, Nick finds himself drawn into a compelling love affair between Daisy and Gatsby, a love affair that had actually begun five years earlier.
The Great Gatsby operates on two very distinct levels: as a love story and a social commentary on the decadence and decay at the heart of the American Dream.
Gatsby’s single-minded devotion to Daisy, his desire to wipe out the present and reclaim their shared past drives him to create a sort of fantasy life. Everything Gatsby does is for Daisy and Nick remarks on his “extraordinary gift for hope,” his “romantic readiness such as I have never found in another person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” But Nick also acknowledges that perhaps Gatsby wants “too much” of Daisy and cautions him that “You can’t repeat the past.”
On another level, Fitzgerald’s novel captures the glittery, frenetic 20s. A generation of young men had returned from the Great War, Wall Street was booming and in Fitzgerald’s version, anyway, people cared about little else except having fun. Underneath the façade, though, there is rot and corruption. No one works except for Nick. They just drink and laze about. Nick sees it and when the veil is pulled back he tells Gatsby, “They’re a rotten crowd….You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
The Great Gatsby is a beautiful novel, I see that now. I am sorry it took so long to believe in the dream.