I can’t believe I have two reviews I haven’t written yet. I finished two books in May, and haven’t even put … er, figurative pen to figurative paper about them. What is wrong with me? (Don’t answer that.)
Let’s begin with May’s theme (arbitrarily decided upon with no outside input, sarcastic thanks to all of you who answered my survey) (but no seriously, legitimate thanks to the three of you that did respond, that really meant a lot), Classic Literature. And since I’m fond of hopping on bandwagons (give me a stair-car and I can rule the world!), I figured I’d just go ahead and kill a lot of birds with a minimal amount of stones (maybe mistresses with cars?) and read The Great Gatsby.
Holy shit, I have got to stop using parenthetical phrases. That above paragraph is disgusting. My junior-year English teacher would be rolling over in her grave if she was dead.
Okay, show of hands: do I really need to talk about the plot of Gatsby? I mean, everyone’s read it at least once, right? Or seen the movie? No? *sigh* Okay, give me a second while I throw up a big SPOILER ALERT.
Look, you guys know I don’t do this often — I’m a ruiner. It’s practically my job. So if you are saving the ~handwave~ big mystery about Gatsby for the 2 p.m. matinee at your local thee-a-ter, skip the next paragraph, okay? Okay.
We all know that the story is told by Nick Carroway, second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, married to the abusive adulterer Tom Buchanan, and Nick lives next-door to Gatsby, who is in love with Daisy and has been since he knew her before the war. He loves her so much that he completely recreated himself from a poor boy to a rich man, all in an attempt to win her back. And it works — until she drives over her husband’s mistress with Gatsby’s car, and then the mistress’s husband kills Gatsby while he’s lazing in his pool. In the end, Tom and Daisy don’t change whatsoever, Nick goes back home to the Midwest, and high schoolers are made to read this book until the end of time.
Hey, welcome back, culture-illiterates! (Sorry, I don’t know why I’m being so mean right now. All of a sudden, I’m super-sarcastic. Apologies. Apologies, all around.)
So now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about some of the other stuff. Now, I should mention that if you’re looking for a tie-in to the movie, look somewhere else; I haven’t seen it yet. If you’re lucky, it might show up on Movies Alaina’s Never Seen in a couple of years. I have seen The Hangover Part III, and if you want to talk about the allusions it made to Shawshank Redemption, HAVE AT IT, and also, SHUT UP. So instead, I’m going to talk about what I took away from Gatsby this time, compared to the last time I read it, which was in high school, which was a <i>long</i> time ago.
All I can remember about Gatsby was this writing exercise we had to do: take the first seven paragraphs of Chapter 3 (where Nick Carroway describes the first Gatsby Party he attends) and using the same stylistic choices, create your own scene. I remember describing an amusement park, and I’ll bet that if I look deep enough into the detritus of my life office, I may still have a copy of the paper somewhere (grade: A). I also remember discussing the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock and how that signified hope, and that still resonates.
There have been some criticisms of the book from friends and strangers alike who complain that none of the characters in Gatsby have any redeeming qualities. That is true. Gatsby was a shiftless layabout who only became an enterprising individual after he fell in love with Daisy and recognized that the only way to be with Daisy was to be rich, because Daisy is flighty and conceited and vain and awful. And Gatsby’s way of making money was to (theoretically, it’s never actually proven) be a bootlegger during Prohibition. Tom Buchanan marries Daisy but doesn’t love her, abuses her, and cheats on her. Daisy doesn’t love Tom but stays with him because women didn’t divorce men in those days, and also, because she’s grown complacent in her life: he has money, she’s taken care of financially, she doesn’t need to worry. Jordan Baker, Daisy’s friend and Nick’s sometimes lover, is accused of cheating at pro golf but doesn’t get kicked out, and pretty much is there to provide backstory.
The only person we can somewhat identify with is Nick, because he’s our eyes and ears: he’s our narrator. We are viewing this story through his eyes, and while we may have questions (was Gatsby a bootlegger? Did Tom really hit Daisy, or did she come by those bruises naturally? Did Daisy ever tell Tom that Gatsby wasn’t driving?), Nick doesn’t ask the questions and the answers aren’t offered to him, so we can only speculate. But Nick is still a reliable narrator, and we can trust his views and perceptions, because we really have no other alternative.
Plus, he says things like this:
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
He didn’t say any more but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. 
Essentially, Nick suffers from the same problem with which I am also afflicted: we both have faces where people can tell us anything. No, seriously. Do you know why my hair is so long? It’s full of secrets. Because everyone tells me everything. So look, unless we are true friends — and True Friendship means I’ve held your hair back while you pray to the porcelain god, or I’ve trailed a boyfriend for you to make sure he is going to football practice, or you’ve yelled up at my window at 8 a.m. to make sure I’m awake, or I’ve promised to share the profits from our joint book venture, The Illustrated Guide to Universally Known Hand Gestures — I don’t want to know details of your sex life, or what you think about your boyfriend that I’ve never met, or — and y’know? Even if I do know you that well, I still don’t want to know that stuff. What happens in the marital bedroom stays in the marital bed, guys, and I’m glad that you’re open with that type of stuff, but I’m just too apathetic to whatever.
The above rant is brought to you by: Store Set. Store Set. That time when everyone gets loopy and feels they need to keep the conversation going.
ANYWAY. So we know from Paragraph 3 that Nick is a reliable narrator. So we can believe him when he feels that Tom is an asshole wearing a Person Suit. We can trust him when we get the impression that he’s unamused with Daisy’s antics. We can trust that the lavishness that surrounds Gatsby is true, and also that Gatsby did it all to impress Daisy.
Because it’s no coincidence that he built his mansion directly across the bay from her. It might be coincidence that Nick happened to rent the house next to Gatsby and that Daisy is his second cousin, thereby providing the ‘in’ that Gatsby would want.
So what are we going to do about all of these unlikeable characters? Some criticism I’ve read about Gatsby tries to say that because the characters are despicable, we shouldn’t rate the book as classic literature. Well, I hate Holden Caulfield, but I recognize that The Catcher in the Rye is another book that deals with heavy themes and deals with them well — until Mark David Chapman really latched on to it. I mean, Catcher is about adolescence, the journey from ignorance to enlightenment, and also — and maybe I’m reaching here, because that’s another book I haven’t read since high school — how people present themselves to different people. The duality of man, par exemple. (Sorry, I’ve been watching Mad Men. How can a show where nothing overly dramatic happens be so damn dramatic?)
Conversely, there are a lot of despicable characters that do get redeemed. I think the difference here is that Gatsby dies before he can change. And that’s another tenet of great literature that, actually, Gatsby seems to eschew: characters start the novel at one place, emotionally, physically, spiritually. And no matter what you read, whether it’s a romance, a classic novel, or a sci-fi title, at least one of those characters have to experience change. Gatsby doesn’t; he dies. Daisy and Tom certainly don’t change. The case could be made that Nick attempted to change by moving to New York and dealing with all of these nouveau riche idiots, and then reverted back to himself by moving back home. Nick’s journey – and he’s the narrator, after all – could be retroactive. In this, Fitzgerald turned the idea of the novel as a journey on its head. Rarely do characters start out one place and move backwards.
Finally, through all of this discussion of reduction and moving backwards and unlikeable characters, the feeling that I left Gatsby with is, remarkably, one of hope. Gatsby — arguably for all the wrong reasons — pulled himself up from poverty by enlisting in the army for World War I, and turned opportunities into advantages. He ended up very wealthy through his own efforts. Unlike Tom and Daisy, whose wealth was inherited and unearned. Gatsby wants to do right by Daisy; unfortunately, Daisy is too childish and stupid (there; I said it) to want to give up her comfortable bland life to be with Gatsby, because the truth that Gatsby can’t accept is that Daisy doesn’t love him anymore. Daisy doesn’t love anyone. But Gatsby loves passionately; that can be seen through his endeavors. He was just too blinded by a dream to recognize the reality.
And doesn’t that happen to all of us? We have all fallen into passionate crushes or love affairs, and it’s not until reality sinks in — whether it’s that you finally spend the night with him and you realize he snores worse than Snorey McSnoreson (and folks, that’s a deal-breaker right there), or you realize that you like him more than he likes you — whatever it is, the dream implodes, you’re back to harsh reality; the autumn of breakups, if you will.
Gatsby, for all of his deviousness and unlikeability, is still a multi-faceted character. And my final “final” thought is to remind everyone that “Great” doesn’t refer to his personality. “Oh, Gatsby; he’s so great.” No. That’s not what the Great Gatsby means. The definition that Fitzgerald was intending was the following: Unusual or considerable in degree, power, intensity, etc.
And I think that that’s something we can all agree on.
Grade for The Great Gatsby: 4 stars