I have managed to avoid The Great Gatsby since I was sixteen, even though it has been on the reading list at every high school I have ever taught at. It was also the only book that I only read once during my high school years, which brings the next statement as little surprise: I hated it sooooo much, as much as anything could be hated from the core of a 16-year-old’s being.
I think that I was a typical idealizing teen, anxious to label things and place them according to easily understood dichotomies. Having things agree to be right/wrong, white/black, night/day, bad/good, fascist/totalitarian brings comfort to most people, especially teens that have not had a chance to see or participate in all of the greys the world has to offer.
The one area that I could not or would not divide into two distinct camps applied to books and literature. I hesitated greatly to stomp on other people’s opinions and sentiments when applied to writing, whether it was their own or in what they read. Writing, I guess, has always been something that has not come easily to me and I appreciated anyone who could get published and read, even from my teen years. [The irony is that now, older and more willing to accept the greys (hair and otherwise) I am also more willing to call some books junk.] The best I could do was say that I did not understand something, or deferred judgment on what made literature good to someone else, more studied, more well-read, perhaps more refined.
The one exception was Gatsby. I could not stand that book. I remember finishing it just so that I could tell everyone just how much I hated it and would not be accused of missing some sort of radical twist that was snuck in at the end. I felt that the writing was elementary, characters unbelievably unrealistic and the setting plain, with no obvious conflict that the narrator could get involved with to solve. I hated it much so that it influenced decisions about reading and courses I took for years. Anything in my undergrad years that mentioned F. Scott Fitzgerald, let alone a book on the syllabus by him was stricken from my course options.
Older, wiser, I wonder how many great authors I missed delving into because a course syllabus read something like, “Hemingway, a contemporary of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, corresponded with F. Scott Fitzgerald while writing some of his most influential American literature that will be studied in this course…”
Older, wiser, I was guided toward a blog that suggested that Tender is the Night is a better novel than The Great Gatsby and was asked by this guiding friend, whose opinions on literature I hold in high regard, whether I thought that was true or not. He was absolutely shocked when I had to confess that I could hold no opinion on this. Through the cajoling and mocking that followed, I agreed to give Gatsby another shot so that I could converse with him on the subject. It would also give me a chance to justify or lay to rest the Fitzgerald-hate that had now been drawn out to decades.
Reading it now, twenty *ahem* years plus after the opinion of my 16-year-old self allowed my toss this classic piece of literature aside, allowed for many elements of The Great Gatsby to be reinterpreted. The truth is that many of the things that Nick Carraway saw and kept record of were grey, the grey of human nature and longing. Reflecting on it, this was probably the grey that my 16-year-old self did not recognize as part of the world, complicated and not falling easily into one of two categories that presented the initial resistance to the novel.
It is this grey that I am able to recognize as a, dare I say, more mature reader that allowed me to appreciate the narration this second time through. Yes, that means I did a total 180 turn about. The Great Gatsby read like nothing I remembered it as. It did not strike me as elementary, but artistically understated by a narrator that was out to tell a story with no pretenses. This was emphasized with the poignant observations that Carraway makes that would be difficult for a sixteen year old to digest, but now, in both life and world, are brilliantly represented through Carraway’s words and observations
A lot of other techniques that Fitzgerald uses are instantly recognizable to me as finely crafted narrative techniques. Many authors try, but most end up sounding pedantic, but one could only know that when well read. I was not well read at sixteen, but would dare say that I am much closer to calling myself that now. A good story can be delivered in a straightforward manner, but it takes talent to deliver a story that displays indicate themes and insight into human nature in what seems like a straightforward manner.
Nick Carraway, the narrator, introducing himself as being from a privileged, mid-western family of means and “one of the few honest people [he has] ever known” (Chapter 1) grants tremendous perspective on how he intends to present his accounting of the events that are to follow. Fitzgerald sets the reader up by allowing him or her to buy into a stereotype of the unassuming hick entering into the cosmopolitan surroundings of New York, as well as holding honesty in such high regard that it is only our narrator himself that understands the value of it to the extent that he can only be sure that only he is honest. The tale to be spun will come out true, if only because our narrator wants to ensure that he maintains that esteemed quality.
This quality leads to some incredible observations. Any writer worth his or her salt is able to reflect truths about life, the universe and everything through the words of characters. Have a quick look at a page that lists the quotes from Gatsby and I could challenge you to find quotes that are not universal, that reflect culture, not only of a time, but of a society; timeless observations that transcend the time of the book and make statements about humanity.
This is what must happen for a book to move beyond being a great book of the time into that area reserved for the classics. For an author to do it consistently it places him or her into the upper echelon of literary greats. Isn’t this what is consistently said about Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Kafka and their ilk [I, personally would include authors like Atwood and Munro, but their time is not up yet], that they captured the universal qualities of humanity, not just of their generation or place? That is another problem that my sixteen-year-old mind would not be able to grasp. How could one who had not seen enough of life understand how astute the commentary about humanity and life truly was? Of all the quotes that left me agog with their oracle-like nature, there were two that resonated above all, mainly due to how they can be applied to the present day.
“Americans, while occasionally willing to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry” (Chapter 5).
There is not a much more accurate statement to sum up the last three decades of North American culture. We have watched the middle class be dwindled away to nothing or, by some accounts, become non-existent and suffer it. There is a refusal to give up the belief that with hard work prosperity can be achieved. Fitzgerald recognizes, through Carraway’s observations, that even in the midst of the Roaring Twenties there was a class divide. People, such as Tome Buchanan, holding the “old money” were interested in maintaining these differences, even widening them based on culture and colour.
Buchanan, representative of this old money, the deserving, is interested in the pseudo-science that backs his position and that of his peers. They deserve, based on nothing more than family name, colour and heritage. He is also a wonderful representative that with money there does not inherently come ethical or moral responsibility. Given that he cheats on his wife and does not tolerate ineptness, real or imagined, when he is negatively affected by it directly, Tom Buchanan is not the foremost moral representative of a new, post-World War 1 America. Him and his ideologies certainly were not what the veterans of that messy war believed they were fighting for. Ironically, Gatsby was one of those veterans, now the “new money” that Buchanan holds in contempt of potentially upsetting the old established ways.
“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made” (Chapter 9).
What better quote to describe so much of what is excused in our modern capitalistic society? As left leaning as I may be, this has more to do with being accountable human beings, having money should be no excuse for careless behavior. It is less the money, more the careless. As I pointed to the ethical behavior above, the non-accountability of someone (or something in the case of corporations) is what infuriates me. If you make a mess, clean it up. That is what I am trying to teach my kids and I see no difference in cleaning up spilled milk than spilled oil on the level of accountability and involvement with cleaning it up. [Yes, I recognize the environmental argument is not the same, but do understand the difference in sense of scale: if we had started by being accountable, we would have figured out better ways of cleaning up after ourselves by now.]
As for the love stories that run through Gatsby, they do not seem as ludicrous now as they did years ago. Jay Gatsby’s pining over Daisy, Tom’s infidelity, Myrtle Wilson’s relationship with Tom and George’s final actions do not seem as stupidly ridiculous now as they once did. Over the years, I am sad to say that I have seen far more outrageous actions for far less reason than Fitzgerald presents in this novel. Even the relative non-involvement of the Buchanan’s with their daughter is not as unexplainable to me as it once was. Sad, but true.
From a historicist’s perspective, the psyche of those that served and lived through war times would be quite unfathomable to a modern audience. Though not deeply explored, Gatsby’s participation in WW1, even off of the front lines, would still have been incredibly traumatic. Hanging onto and idealizing a love shared with Daisy, however old and remote, makes more sense than ever in this age where we are learning the impact of PTSD on soldiers.
Coming back the The Great Gatsby years later has proven to be an exercise in humility and a lesson learnt in holding opinions. My real life has proven before that I have a tendency to hold a quiet grudge for far too long, some might call it unhealthy. I am glad that I was encouraged to get over the opinion that I created at 16 and give one of the great American classics another go.
Amazing that even at my age a freedom can be felt by letting go of a long nursed grudge. Maybe the silver lining is that the feeling of Gatsby’s revitalization for me matched the power of the abhorrence toward it that I had been holding on to for all of those years.