This week I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby published in 1925. I must admit I started it with some prejudice, as I didn’t like the movies inspired by the book that I saw (the one starring R. Redford, the other L. di Caprio). So I was expecting the worst. And I was wrong.
I’ll be honest; it didn’t engage me in a way I usually enjoy. I was mentioning a few days ago that the books I like best are those that draw me in, make me feel as if I were in the middle of the action. It wasn’t the case. However I found that the book had some powerful messages I could relate to and others I didn’t but still found interesting.
For those who have never heard of either book or movie, The Great Gatsby is written in the first person by Nick Carraway, a Yale graduate from the Middle West who comes to live in New York after returning from the Great War. There on West Egg he witnesses the giant parties organized by his neighbour, Jay Gatsby, whom he befriends. It’s revealed that Gatsby befriends him in order to meet Nick’s cousin, Daisy Fay Bucchanan, whom Gatsby knew and loved before being sent to the front.
The reason I found this book interesting is because I picked up some powerful themes within: Gatsby’s parties seem to emphasize the decadence of that age in all its meaning. Decadent because they’re over the top, a testimony to a great wealth and decadent because the extreme behaviours one can witness during them.
It’s a powerful critique of an age of abuse and extremes, as if its contemporaries knew it would come to an end. It almost feels as if Fitzgerald was foreseeing the Great Depression and the rise and fall of the great Gatsby is representative of that of society. I realized I’m the one rationalizing this, but still.
The second theme that seems to permeate the book is the concept of the American dream. Gatsby is a self-made man; in love with Daisy Fay who belongs to another caste of society, he’s done everything he could to be deserving of her. Taking elocution lessons, making money so he could enter the circles she inhabited. But it also encompasses the dark part of that dream. We learn in the book that Gatsby’s money may not be entirely clean: a bootlegger. And somehow that makes him despicable to Daisy’s husband and people of his circle. Beyond the critic of organized crime – represented by Mr. Wolfheim in the book – I felt Tom Bucchanan’s contempt for Gatsby: he’s new money (and unclean at that). He’ll never belong. It seems particularly fitting that nobody who used and abused his hospitality attend his funeral. He’s from West Egg and even though people from the richer, classier East Egg attend his parties, they still don’t think of him as one of them.
The third theme, which spoke to me, was that of the place of women in society: there are essentially three female characters in the book and neither of them is particularly positive. Jordan seems to be self-sufficient, being a golfer. But she is arrogant and dishonest: yet she expects humility and honesty from others. It’s also hinted at that she actually cheats to win to keep on top of people. Mrs. Myrtle Wilson cheats on her husband with someone he considers his friend, Tom Bucchanan. She’s a mechanic’s wife, yet when she’s entertaining with her lover, she pretends to belong in Tom Bucchanan’s same circle; which also shows Tom’s hypocrisy. She calls him at home, knowing his wife is present. I could almost imagine a nasal shrill voice when she spoke. As far as Daisy Bucchanan is concerned, well I don’t know whether I pity or despise her. She knows her husband cheats on her, she’s in love with Gatsby, tells him so, tells him she’ll leave Tom. Yet, when push comes to shove she prefers to stay in an unhappy marriage, because it provides comfort, safety… or is it because she feels she has no choice seeing as Society’s expectations of women were what they were at the time?
When you read the book, it first seems that Gatsby’s just a materialist who enjoys showing off the fact he has achieved the American dream, has so much money that he can entertain giant parties every weekend even if more than half the guests aren’t actually invited. Even in his friendship with Nick Carraway, it feels like he’s showing off – both in possessions and in his manner of speaking. Yet, as you go along, you realize the money is just a means to an end. To be able to enter Daisy’s circle, which he eventually fails at, since she decides to stay with her unfaithful husband.
An interesting book to read, although not one I would put on my favourite’s list. I still would recommend to check it out. And I can see why it made the 100 books to read before you die list.
Have you read it?
What did you think of it?