The Great Gatsby

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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 ....”

Check out Fanda’s posts here, here, here and here

Check out the fantastic Crash Course posts here and here

I'm off to go see the movie now!


Sandy Nawrot said...

I just finished this re-read yesterday on audio. I really don't think I truly could appreciate the nuances of this book in high school. As an adult, you better understand the implications of the cheating, the materialism, the shallow nature of human beings. What did come back to me is that I HATED Daisy then and I hated her now. I'm thinking I'm going to have to see this movie on Mother's Day. I'm cashing in my chips!

Marie said...

What a great review! I re-read this last weekend after reading and not appreciating it at all in high school. I very much enjoyed it the second time. Maybe I felt differently because after a decade I have a better appreciation of the writing itself, rather than the plot alone.
I thought your review was perfect, though, especially in relation to Gatsby's character. I loved the fact about Trimalchio! How interesting.

Ann Summerville said...

Wonderful review. I have never read the book, but I can see I need to put it on my list.

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I just finished this last night for the first time...and all I could think of was: excess -- from the story lines to the descriptive narration of Fitzgerald -- just over abundance of excess.

The Relentless Reader said...

I just re-read this as well. I had to before the movie was released! I'd forgotten just how much I love this book :)

Fantastic review!

Bybee said...

I can't wait to see the movie!

Sarah said...

LOVELY review! "He is also one of the most thoroughly alone individuals in literature." So true.

I read this for the first time a few years ago, and now I totally feel like re-reading it. Definitely should before I see the movie.

Kristi said...

I just re-read this too, in preparation for the movie. I do remember liking it in high school, but I think it requires a bit of life experience to really understand the depth. As an adult, it just sat so heavily on me when I finished. It's so tragic.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Sandy - I felt the same. I think there are just some elements of adult life that can't possibly resonate with teens in the same way that they can when you're older.

Marie - Since I already knew how the story would end, I found myself focusing of the writing too! It's just so beautiful.

Ann - I hope you enjoy it!

Melissa - The funny thing to me is that Fitzgerald managed to convey that feeling of excess in less than 200 pages. As descriptive as he is, he still managed to keep the writing sparce.

Jennifer - I love that the movie is inspiring so many of us to re-read it!

Bybee - Can't wait to hear your thoughts on it!

Sarah - You should! It definitely changed my view of the novel.

Kristi - It really is. I think that as adults we understand the concept of lost dreams in a way that you can't when you're yong and everything is possible.

Meg @ write meg! said...

Just started re-reading for the fourth (!! eek, that's crazy) time after seeing the movie last night, but this will be my first read in six years or so. Can't wait to appreciate it in a whole new way. And the movie was SO GOOD. Hope you loved it!

Anonymous said...

Would you believe I had to read sections of "Cena Trimalchionis" while serving a one-semester term in a college Latin class? I hadn't heard that Trimalchio was originally considered as the title of TGG. Interesting!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Meg - The fourth time, that's impressive! I loved the movie too. I can't say all of the soundtrack worked for me and I wish they'd cast someone other than Tobey Maguire, but everything else was just perfect!

bibliophilica - No way! Now I'm curious to read those.

thecuecard said...

Yes I'm just rereading the book now, and then I will see the movie. I would like to also read Tender is the Night; I have read This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald is always a good read!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

thecuecard - I read Tender is the Night a couple years ago and was just moved by the rawness of the situation. It was so clearly his life just poured out on the page. The writing in it is gorgeous.

Fanda Classiclit said...

Yes, I was also glad that Gatsby, somehow, still cared for his father. I think that aspect has increased my respect for Gatsby, besides his good morality.

And I love your last quote, well...actually I loved almost all of what Fitzgerald wrote here. They are so beautiful and intense.

Thanks for reading it together with me, and for reading (and commenting on) my chapter posts. Now I'm so anxious to watch the movie, I'm going to do it tomorrow, with Melisa (there're so many Melis(s)a around here, eh? :D)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Fanda - I agree about Fitzgerald's work being both beautiful and intense. I can't wait to hear what you thought of the movie!

Unknown said...

That's a really thoughtful review of The Great Gatsby. I read it about 4 years ago and loved it (never read it in high school for some reason). You're completely right about it being the perceived persona that's "great." I'd never thought about that.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Rachel Bradford - That's how I saw it. I really don't think Fitzgerald thought of Gatsby as truly great as far as achievement, etc. Beautiful book!