Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Forty-Seven: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Decided to go to the ultimate classic this week so I read The Great Gatsby for the, well, I have no idea how many times. I was required to read it for class in high school, college, and grad school. In between I've read it several times on my own and still find it a welcome book to return to. I read it this time since I was thinking of having a student read it who is taking my writing class as an independent study. She is from outside the U.S. and does not have a great deal of experience with American literature so I thought this classic novel would be a good place to start. Not so -- there is much to explain here of U.S. history, and most the characters are not ones I want to represent the U.S.

I found myself wondering why I like this book. One of the things I do not like about Hemingway is that his characters are often whiny, self-absorbed Americans. The same could be said here of Fitzgerald, although the narrator Nick Carraway has a better sense of self than most. The character that makes this all work is Gatsby, a self-made person in all senses of the word. He creates his own history, his own rules, his own goals, and even his own money. He is the American story taken to the extreme and not one we always like to claim as our own. People are enthralled with the character he has created, but not with him. One of the great scenes is of the nearly empty funeral. In the end he is left with his father, Nick, and one of the party goers. The rest see Gatsby's value in what he offers, not in who he is.

This approach to people finds support in today's world where "contacts" replace "relationships." In the business world you are encouraged to build contacts, but really we do better both personally and professionally with relationships. Gatsby uses his contacts as well, all in the goal of getting Daisy back in his life. That is perhaps one of the saddest themes we pull out of this book, that of using others. But is what all the characters do -- use others for their benefit. There seems to be little enjoyment of others in themselves, but only in what they provide, be it money, sex, status, comfort, or entertainment. Gatsby uses others and allows himself to be used in his search for Daisy. What is surprising is how willing all these characters are willing to work in such a fashion.

Which returns me to the question of why I like this book so much. To begin with, it is extremely well written. A relatively short book, it takes words, sentences, and plot seriously enough not to waste time. Fitzgerald quickly draws strong, recognizable characters and creates tensions on several levels. Add to that the romanticism of the 1920s and you have an irresistible draw. But if you look closely (or to be honest, not even that closely), you'll find Fitzgerald does not offer the romantic view of the decade he calls the "jazz age." Instead, this is a surprisingly moralistic look at human nature's worst side and the fall that will surely accompany it. A moralistic novel? Now that is American.

Read more about Fitzgerald at F. Scott Fitzgerald Page.

Up Next 
I already started and am enjoying Jose Saramago's Death with Interruptions. He won the Nobel prize in 1998, but I've never read anything by him. His writing style is unique and challenging, but also intriguing.


  1. TGG is on my list of classics to read, your review just bumped it further up my list! also, i note you are getting very close to the of your year, will you keep blogging or will that be it?

  2. Thank you for the review! I wanted to read this book moreso when people kept comparing Richard Yates to Fitzgerald. It's on my TBR.