Like many people, I read this in high school and vaguely remember liking it. Rereading it was a completely different experience. The cadence of Fitzgerald’s writing just floored me. Each sentence was beautifully crafted and the lyrical pace of the novel is astounding. He manages to tell one man’s story from three different perspectives, each time showing us a bit more of the man behind Gatsby’s mask, but never fully revealing what is true and what’s a lie.
Most people know the basic plot. Nick tells the story of the one summer he spent in New York and the charismatic man who was his neighbor. Gatsby throws lavish parties and remains a mystery to all who know him. Finally Nick finds out that Gatsby whole life is devoted to reconnecting with an old flame, the now married Daisy. She is a deeply unhappy woman whose brute of a husband is cheating on her.
There’s much debate over the topic of greatness when it comes to this novel. Is Gatsby great? If not, why did Fitzgerald choose this title. To me it is the idea of Gatsby that is great. It’s the persona he creates for everyone else to admire from a distance, not the man himself. He is just a man, full of dreams and disappointments. He gets everything he originally set out to achieve, but only on a superficial level. I think it’s particularly telling that Fitzgerald originally considered the title Trimalchio.
“Trimalchio is a character in the 1st century AD Roman work of fiction Satyricon by Petronius.Trimalchio is a freedman who through hard work and perseverance has attained power and wealth.” - from Wikipedia
I think that despite Gatsby’s shady business dealings, Fitzgerald created a self-made man that he admired and pitied in equal parts. Gatsby is, on his surface, the picture of success. He is also one of the most thoroughly alone individuals in literature. At the end of the novel Nick desperately tries to find people to attend his funeral and of the hundreds who made it to Gatsby’s parties, no one seems able to make it. It’s truly tragic.
In rereading the book I was surprised by the brazen nature of Tom and Myrtle's relationship. I had forgotten how he flaunts it, taking her to restaurants and introducing her to Nick. It’s also incredible that the title character doesn’t make his first appearance until we’re already ¼ of the way through the book. I had forgotten that Gatsby had returned home at some point to buy his father a house and show him that he was now wealthy. There’s a level of loyalty there that I admire. Even if Gatsby left his roots behind him for bigger and brighter things, he still felt the need to care for them in some way.
BOTTOM LINE: There are few American novels that portray ambition and emptiness in such a visceral way. Fitzgerald’s descriptions are breathtaking. If you’re hoping to find sympathetic and relatable characters, try his autobiographical novel Tender is the Night. If you want a book where each line sings off the page and metaphors for the deflated American dream abound, this is the one.
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.”
“Thirty--the promise of a decade of loneliness, a thinning list of single men to know, a thinning brief-case of enthusiasm, thinning hair.”
“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was ....”