Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Why Gatsby is So Great

Nearly everyone names The Great Gatsby as one of their all-time favourite books. Even people who have never read it have at least heard of it. 

Then there's those who know it from the well-known 1970s film version with Robert Redford. And those who are being swept away at the moment with the latest reinvention from Baz Luhrmann. Indeed, it's sparked a kind of Gatsby mania.

So what is it about it that is so great?  What makes it feature on everyone's list of favourite books?

Well it's a classic and one that lives on long in readers imaginations after they've read it. It currently sells half a million copies each year in the U.S! It never leaves literature teaching curriculums. Seems the story of a man who makes it big, chases down the American dream, with all the blessings and trappings that come with it, in an attempt to win back his true love, is one that never gets old. It's the kind of book that you go back to again and again and everytime, find something new in it. Like one reviewer said -  the book sparkles like a multi-faceted diamond revealing some new colour on every new reading.

It's a story that everyone can relate to, in some shape or form. It's a story in which the characters are not merely characters but archetypes, metaphors, shadows and symbols. It's a book that you'll come away from stunned. For all its dressings of superficiality, it will move you and affect you like no other. 

Anyway, after thinking about it for a long time (I love the book so much I was afraid that in writing about it,  I would fail to capture its brilliance!), I came up with ten reasons (narrowed down!) why I think it's such a great book. Here they are, in no particular order:

(*Spoiler alerts* for those of you yet to read/see it!)

1. Relevance:

Even though The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s (and was written in 1925), it never feels out-dated or redundant. Quite the opposite infact. Maybe why it is trending again today is its relevance to our economic position - i.e. the recession. Gatsby was set in America of the roaring 1920s, Long Island, New York, to be exact, with all its glitz and wealth, the country finding its (dancing) feet again after the Great War. After the war was a time of wealth and excess - a time almost equal to our own previous boom time, with both being followed by a grand economic collapse. The Great Depression of 1929 was to put an end to all the excesses as ours did. The novel is famed for offering a kind of prophetic warning that this kind of revelry couldn't last; that the bubble would eventually burst just as Gatsby's did. A good story is always timeless and The Great Gatsby is as timeless as they come.

2. Jazz Age Setting:

Gatsby is set in the legendary 1920s, or the 'Jazz Age' as it was better known by. It was the era of live-it-up hysteria and excess which came in the wake of World War I. People were reckless and risk-takers and money was for lavishing around. The story revolves around the rich of New York and the extravagance of their lifestyles. Gatsby throws elaborate parties (which would rival any today!) that attract guests from far and wide around the city to indulge in an array of comforts - orchestras and champagne and celebrities to name but  a few. Modern symbols of this wealth and status can be seen in the Baz Luhrmann film to great effect - for instance, the giant Moet bottle of champagne at one party, the Ladureé macaroons Gatsby brings to tea for Daisy, the decadent diamond-clad flapper dresses by Prada and the hip-hop/rap music soundtrack.  

The glitz and glamour of the '20s is a heady attraction for a wide spectrum of people: fashion-lovers, music-lovers, money enthuses, party animals, culture vultures. It's the golden period of history, one that we would all love to return to and sample ourselves. It's such a big attraction in The Great Gatsby. Just look at the Gatsby mania now created by the recent film. Fshion labels are going crazy for flapper again, even Tiffanys of New York have jumped onboard with a new Gatsby inspired line of decadent 1920s style jewellery. It's a period that never tires.

3. The character of Gatsby:

A major draw of the book is the character of Gatsby himself. He's mysterious, aloof and wrapped in an aura of mystique when we first meet him. Then he becomes endearing and admirable. Despite his dodgy dealings to gain his money, we can't help but be bowled over by the tenacity of his ambition and the devotion to his dream of making it big and winning back Daisy. Nick remarks of him affectionately at the beginning that he had 'an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which is likely I shall ever find again.' He is awed by Gatsby's persistence in obtaining his dream, his hope that he will be reunited with his first love, Daisy.

Not just that, but Gatsby is a man with a dream, an idealist - in a fake and fickle world. It is this which draws Nick to him, and us too. At the end of the novel, just before Gatsby's death, Nick tells him that 'he's worth the whole damn bunch (Daisy and Tom and Jordan) put together' and it's true. He's not like the callous careless Buchanans or the rest of the moneyed elite. He stands out as a good man in the midst of unsavoury characters and we come to feel that he shouldn't be in this world at all.

Gatsby embodies the ultimate story of rags-to-riches transformation and we applaud him for this, even, admittedly, when we find out of his unseamly connections. He has impeccable manners (as some of his guests will attest to), conducts himself as a gentleman ('old sport') and is unselfish and noble to the end. He even appears vulnerable and child-like in comparison to the other characters who are shrewd and cynical.In a word, he truly is 'great.' Great as in the affable host of so many amazing parties, great to have built himself up from nothing, great in his ambitions and success; but also, great as in  a good guy, one of the best, despite the circumstances that surround him.  We finish the book with great admiration for Gatsby and an even greater sense of sympathy.

4. It's a tragic love story*:  

Ever since finding out that Gatsby has reinvented himself from the poor penniless young officer 'Jay Gatz' in order to win back the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan, we hold high hopes of this happy ending, but soon see it won't work out like that.  Gatsby is a dreamer, an idealist, a romantic - Daisy is not. We discover just before Gatsby that his affections in Daisy are misplaced; that she is not as glorious as he thinks of her, far from it. When Nick remarks to him, before the fated trip to New York, that she has a strange-sounding voice, Gatsby replies that it is the sound of 'money.' And that's when the tale turns and our opinions too.
When the truth finally is outed to Tom about Daisy and Gatsby's love for each other, Daisy fails miserably to support Gatsby and crawls pathetically back to Tom. It becomes clear to us that she has abandoned all ideas of having a life with Gatsby. We watch as her character disintegrates further when she lets Gatsby take the blame for the ensuing car accident, which inevitably leads to his death.  Most despicable of all is how she doesn't even acknowledge the fact that he is dead, a man she claimed to have loved, she just leaves without even as much as a flower or a phone call as Nick remarks. How could she be so cruel? It is then that we feel the full pang of sympathy for Gatsby and realise that this is not truly a tragic love story, but just a tragedy. A tragedy of a good man led astray. And what hooks us readers better than a tragedy?
5. The narrator:  

The book uses the device of a narrator, an innocent onlooking bystander in the person of the affable Nick Carraway. Nick is our eyes and ears in the book - everything we know comes through him, the impartial observer. He mirrors our own thoughts and feelings and puts into eloquent articulate words, what they are. Through Nick we come to understand the characters and especially gain insight into them and their world. Nick corroborates our theories and notions. He navigates us through this world with admiration, curiosity and awe as well as repulsion and condemnation: 'I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.' We share in his affection for Gatsby and feel that he is the only one, as well as Gatsby, among these people who is worth anything. He is our tether to morality and normality as the story evolves, the gauge by which we measure the goings-on of the world of the novel. Without Nick, the story wouldn't feel as intimate or exacting.

6. The language: 

The Great Gatsby has been described as a 'poetic' novel. One friend once described it as eating a very rich dark chocolate - you want to savour it one piece at a time. And it is like that. You pore over the words and find yourself re-reading passages until they become whole pages. Everything about it is exquisite. Fitzgerald has a way of describing things that is beautifully and heartbreakingly apt. His descriptions are revealing and revelatory, as in this instance when Nick first meets Gatsby:  'He smiled understandingly - much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you come across four or five times in life. It faced - or seemed to face - the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.'

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a dab hand at feather-light prose.  He describes the events of Gatsby parties as 'where he dispensed starlight to casual moths'. (And I love how in the Baz Luhrmann film the words float around Tobey Maguire's Nick in a magical touch). When talking of Gatsby's love for Daisy, the language is invested with a sparkling romanticism: 'So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.'

And perhaps the most memorable descriptions in the novel are those of the parties -
'There was music from my neighbour's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like  moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars...The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches  a key higher.' The poetic prose adds to the delicacy of the story and fine-tunes its inherent beauty to maximum effect.   
7. An exploration of the American Dream (and dreams)*:

Gatsby's story is one of successful reinvention. All throughout his childhood and formative years, he dreamed of being more. He wanted what every American (and everyone) wants - to better himself, to achieve things, to matter, to count, to be someone. His parents were poor and at the end of the novel we find out from Gatsby's father just how determined he was to improve himself when he was a boy - setting out study and work timetables and rules for himself to abide by. And he achieved his dream. But by ambivalent means. The novel as such makes a commentary on the American dream, both a positive and a negative one.
It could be argued that Gatsby's illegal associations and role as a 'bootlegger' inevitably lead to his tragic end. Or that he  is so obsessed with achieving his dream that it blinded him and as such, led to his death. But on the other hand, Gatsby's fierce and admirable pursuit of his dream was what kept him pure in a sense. It was a noble pursuit and more than a passion - it was his whole existence and as hinted, a means to redemption, with Nick noting that the dream of Daisy had gone 'beyond her, beyond everything' and goes on to add with a sense of awe and pity, that 'no amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.' 

Dreams, including the American dream, may be 'incorruptible' in the dreamer's eyes, but not in reality. The novel issues a kind of warning in this respect: pursue your dream, they can and do come true, but make sure you pursue the right dream, and more importantly, in the right way. What's more, it's more important to have a dream in your heart, a green light to pursue, than to achieve your dream and have it fall to pieces in your hands. Dreams guide us, dreams give us a fierce resoluteness, they sustain us, but some dreams, like Gatsby's, can get dashed on reality's shores.

8. A comment on American society/Past Vs Present Theme*: 

The Great Gatsby is, in many respects, an American novel. Leading Fitzgerald scholar James L. W calls The Great Gatsby "a national scripture. It embodies the American spirit, the American will to reinvent oneself."
Not only that, but the novel also makes a comment on the state of American society at the time.  Post-war America was an uncertain place, one that swung precariously between the nostalgic past before the war and the uncertain future, much like Gatsby himself. When Nick cops on that Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy is more to do with recreating the past he says to him that you can't repeat the past. Gatsby answers: 'Can't repeat the past? Why of course you can!' This is Gatsby's tragic flaw, his clinging belief and nostalgia for the past over the future. He disregards Daisy's present status as wife and mother, so enwrapped is he in his past love with her.  The green light at the end of Daisy's dock across the water from him, which is a motif of hope for him, also represents the green glow of the future, which he could not reach. Gatsby's tragedy lay in the fact that he believed his past to be his future.
At the end of the novel, Nick realises this as he comments: 'I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. 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.' 
He then goes on to equate Gatsby's dilemma with each of our own as well as America's - will it be able to proceed into the future confidently that 'year by year recedes us'? We failed before - 'it eluded us then' - but he continues hopefully, 'but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning - ' until he interjects - 'So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past' - in one of the most infamous last lines in fiction. Yes, America will continue to fight the past and reach for the future, but like Gatsby, and like us, will keep being drawn back to it like a boat in a current. 

So we finish the novel with the question in our mind - are we condemned to be controlled by the past? Is it our fate? Or can we beat on, to reach the 'orgastic future'? That is the question, isn't it? Great novels pose great questions and this is one of the most pondersome. Plus, is there any line more evocative, more beautiful and heartbreakingly sad as this last one? It echoes in your mind like a bobbing boat, rippling the surface, threading experience into meaning and emotion into a high swell.

9. It's based on real-life:

F. Scott Fitzgerald just didn't pluck the idea for Gatsby out of thin air. No, the book is loosely based on his own experiences in trying to woo his wife Zelda, a rich and pretty socialite, when he was just a penniless writer. Some critics even see it as a thinly-veiled autobiography. Fitzgerald and Zelda went on to be the party animals of the 20s - living it up in Paris, drinking and dancing, partying and holidaying, gaining the reputation of 'crazy' by many of their contemporaries.

Also, the fate of Gatsby when it was first published almost mirrors that of the lead character himself - it was a flop on first publication, failing to alight the interests of readers and critics. alike. Unfortunately, Fitzgerald died (at the young age of forty-four) before he could see it claim any of its great success. Now, as I already mentioned, it sells half a million copies in the U.S. each year and is listed as one of the greatest books of all time.

10. A prism story:

And finally, what makes Gatsby so great is the fact that it's not just a story, but a prism of a story - that is, within its one story, there are many stories. In other words, the novel, like Gatsby's eponymous smile - offers to us, each and every reader, what we want to take from it, what we need from it in a certain time and place - 'it understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood'. It is ever-shifting, like the diamond that reviewer spoke of. Perhaps we identify with Gatsby in his doomed quest, his unfettered idealism, his conviction? Or with Daisy, trapped by circumstances? Or with Nick, confused and perturbed at whatever new world we find ourselves in? The novel can be many different things to different people ('with an irresistible prejudice in your favour...') It is universal but deeply personal. It can be both a tale of hope and a cautionary tale of woe, a green light and a red light. A story of winning and losing, tragedy and beauty. It's never static, never stuck, always moving with us, like those boats in the current. It's this quality which makes it a book we re-read over and over, many times in a lifetime and see something different in it each time. For it is a story which deals with 'the unreality of reality', an idea that is always entrancing.  And that's what I think makes it such a great book, one of the greatest.

Hmmm, and apart from all that, it's really short! The fact you can read it in a day (only over a hundred pages!) is definitely a plus point for the book. (Coincidentally, Hemingway, a friend and contemporary of Fitzgerald's, read it in one afternoon sitting!) And it's particularly good to read in the summer, seeing as it's set then, with the real backdrop of all those moonlit blue nights and music floating on the air around you (swoon). 

How about you? What are your favourite things about Gatsby? Have you seen the new film? Read the book many times? Never read the book? About to read the book? As in love with it as I am??? Let me know why!

~ Siobhán


  1. I first read The Great Gatsby some eight or ten years ago in high school. Although I was a voracious reader, I only read books for their stories, and missed out on the deeper meaning behind much of the literature I was exposed to at the time.

    Your post is incredibly thoughtful, and helped me re-think the way I read this book the first time around. Gatsby is now on my re-read list. :)

    1. Thank you Brittany!

      Unfortunately, I never got to read Gatsby in school, or even as a literature college student! But I suppose now I'm kind of glad I didn't. Sometimes the books we have to 'learn' interfere with our liking them!

      Do read it, it's one of those books that will seem so different the second time around!

  2. Brilliant review Siobhán!

    1. Thank you Margie! Are you a Gatsby fan too?? :)


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