Saturday, September 22, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I had a hard time deciding what to read after Lost Illusions. I was a little afraid whatever I read next was going to suffer by comparison. I finally decided to go with another classic that’s been on my shelf for a long time – The Great Gatsby. I can’t believe I was never assigned this book somewhere along the way, but then again, I made it through school without ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird, so I clearly have some huge gaps in my education.

We have a nice collection of Fitzgerald’s novels sitting on our bookshelves waiting to be read. After reading The Paris Wife with its brief but fascinating peep at the relationship between the Hemingways and the Fitzgeralds I reminded myself again that I really needed to read something by Fitzgerald other than Bernice Bobs her Hair. And so...

Not the edition I read
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a surprisingly short novel narrated by the earnest young Nick Carraway, a midwestern gentleman come to New York to make his way as a bond trader. He rents a house in the less fashionable (new money) West Egg which is across the bay from the more fashionable (old money) East Egg where his distant cousin Daisy lives with her husband Tom Buchanan.

Daisy is beautiful, rich, and spoiled; however, she isn’t happy. Her husband, an arrogant, unpleasant man, is having an affair (not his first) and is none too discreet about it.

Nick, meanwhile, is introduced to his neighbor on West Egg, a man who throws frequent, extravagant, wild parties at his mansion. Nick learns that the neighbor, Jay Gatsby, has set up ostentatious housekeeping in this particular place because it is directly across the water from the Buchanans. Gatsby is in love with Daisy. He had vainly hoped Daisy might come over to join the fun, but the Buchanans are not lured by wild parties. He now wonders if Nick will help him reconnect with the girl he once wooed.

Nick does.

Nick narrates the entire train wreck of the couple’s reunion and of the bits of their past that he pieces together. Gatsby was not born to money the way the others were. He craved riches and then he met Daisy and he became obsessed with her too. Could he have loved her if she wasn’t made of money? It doesn’t matter. He had to become fabulously wealthy to be worthy of her. But his method of obtaining money is a shady one. He must keep his methods secret because he has to appear to Daisy to be an insider. He can’t just have money, he has to have come from money.

Gatsby has created a false version of himself to present to Daisy when he reappears in her life. Nick, who styles himself fatally honest, is able to present the facts to the reader so that we see how everyone else is living a series of lies. Yet Gatsby’s pretense of belonging to their social class seems, to all but Nick perhaps, to be the most unacceptable of lies. Events spiral out of control and Nick bears witness to Gatsby’s tragic downfall. (I’m trying avoid spoilers in case I’m not the last person to have read this.)

The Great Gatsby has been called the Great American Novel (or novella) and it is a marvelous book in how much it accomplishes in such a compact story. The characters (although awful) are well-drawn. The settings are stunning. And Nick’s narration is quite ingenious, because while the reader most likely won’t be able to empathize with the protagonists, emotionally they can be drawn right along with Nick.

The novel was not as overwhelmingly good as Balzac’s Lost Illusions, but Balzac’s book was more ambitious in scope and it was part of a much larger body of work exploring the whole human condition. The Great Gatsby illuminates a very unattractive picture of one small subset of people.

If you like The Great Gatsby, you might also enjoy The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington.

I’m making some progress now on my Mount TBR Challenge (hosted by My Reader’s Block.)

1 comment:

  1. I also made it through school without reading this or To Kill A Mockingbird! Thanks for the recommendation of The Magnificent Ambersons, I hadn't heard of it before and think I would really enjoy it.