GAN Quest: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Boats against the current…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the great gatsby 2One of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, The Great Gatsby lays bare the casual recklessness and unthinking cruelty of the privileged rich in the pre-depression, prohibition era of America. Set in the summer of 1922, the book portrays the brittleness of a society still quivering from the aftershocks of WW1 and looking fearfully towards an uncertain future. The hedonism and dazzling decadence of the “Roaring Twenties” is exposed as a thin veneer over a society riven by class division, old wealth and new, and showing the first signs of a breakdown in the old social order.

The story is set in the fictitious areas of East and West Egg on Long Island. Facing each other across the bay that separates them are two mansions. The house on East Egg is the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, both born into wealth and privilege. On the other side lives Jay Gatsby, not just a self-made man, but self-invented. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is cousin to the Buchanans and neighbour to Gatsby, and finds himself rapidly becoming a conduit between them.

The wind had blown off, leaving a loud bright night with wings beating in the trees and a persistent organ sound as the full bellows of the earth blew the frogs full of life.

To claim perfection for a book might be too grandiloquent (though I’m tempted), but I confidently claim that the first chapter of Gatsby is the perfect first chapter. We get to know Nick, restless from the war, running from his comfortable mid-western home to escape the weight of family expectations. But Nick is no country bumpkin – he is assured and confident, sliding effortlessly into New York high society while still retaining some of the clear-sightedness of an outsider looking in. We meet Daisy, beautiful, privileged and outwardly vulnerable; but already we begin to see the hard shell of self-preservation that exists beneath her filmy, gauzy exterior. We are shown Tom, seeking a way to fill his empty life now that his days as a football star are over – through him we see the fraying of the certainties of the established order. And as the chapter closes, we catch our first glimpse of Gatsby, thinking himself unseen, revealing his desire and his vulnerability in one simple gesture. All this in a few beautifully written pages, and with room too to give the reader a feel for the setting of the novel to come, both physical and emotional.

But I didn’t call to him for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone – he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward – and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

gatsby and daisy

Gatsby himself is one of the most unforgettable characters in fiction; a self-made man to whose lavish parties New York society flocks, exploiting his hospitality while gossiping shamelessly about his murky and mysterious background. But Gatsby doesn’t care what the world thinks of him – only Daisy, the representation of all of his dreams and aspirations. For Gatsby, Daisy is the American Dream – the beauty, the wealth, the class, the privilege. And it was the odd democratisation of war that had allowed the Gatsbys and Daisys of this world to mingle – the uniform of an officer providing the entrance ticket that Gatsby’s own background didn’t give. This is a beautiful and poignant love story, but the Daisy that Gatsby loves is the memory of a dream; his pursuit is not so much of Daisy herself as of the time he holds most dear – the time when Daisy and he were in love.

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of…”
I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

F Scott Fitzgerald
F Scott Fitzgerald

Through the contrast of the Buchanans and Gatsby, Fitzgerald blasts away any idea of American society as being equal or even meritocratic and shows that, just as much as in the Old World, there is an aristocracy and upper-class who will defend at any price the privilege that their name and old wealth bestows. Gatsby’s name-change, his vagueness and lies about his background are partly to cover up the murky way he came by his wealth, but also to try to invent a background that will make him acceptable to this snobbish and exclusive elite. But he doesn’t quite pull it off – his ostentation and stilted use of what he sees as upper-class language give him away at every turn. And yet, despite his shadowy past, despite his occasional vulgarity, Gatsby shows himself to have an integrity and honesty wholly lacked by the society to which he so much wants to belong.

“They’re a rotten crowd,” I shouted across the lawn. “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. First he nodded politely, and then his face broke into that radiant and understanding smile, as if we’d been in ecstatic cahoots on that fact all the time.

The first time I read Gatsby, I was so enthralled that I read it in one glorious sitting, breathless and amazed. It’s a short novel, written with a wonderful economy that allows Fitzgerald to cast a laser beam at the divisions of this class-ridden society while still creating some of the most fully-realised characters in fiction; not to mention providing a well-plotted and deeply moving story too. A masterwork of fiction, this is a book I have read many times and expect to read many more with just as much pleasure.

gatsby glasses

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagFor the light it sheds on privilege and class in 1920s society…achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagAlways going to be subjective, since my reading in US literature isn’t wide enough to be definitive – but yes, I believe the theme meets the originality requirement so…achieved

Must be superbly written.

us flagMost definitely achieved.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagHmm…this is always going to be well-nigh impossible. Gatsby does give a very clear picture not just of the rich but also of the contrast with the ordinary working people of New York. Through the contrast of Daisy and Jordan, it shows aspects of the changing status of women. Through Tom’s fears of the future, it hints at the problems of race that are going to scar so much of the twentieth century. Through Nick’s comment at the end (“I see now that this has been a story of the West after all…perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”), a contrast is shown between the values of ‘East’ and ‘West’. I’m tempted…but am going to say no, Gatsby doesn’t capture the entire American experience – this is very much about one specific part of it. But I’m willing to be persuaded to change my mind…

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, sadly, but for achieving 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare The Great Gatsby to be A Great American Novel. And a truly great novel.

* * * * * * * * *

Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…

83 thoughts on “GAN Quest: The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

  1. FEF, you are extremely creative. I love how you structured this entire posts–with the smileys, of course, and the flags at the end. (How cool is the blank white one?)

    The professor loves the line that Gatsby is not just a self-made man, but self-invented too. That really captures his character.


    The professor read this book twice, and…complete and total dadblamery!

    I really can’t believe–for my own honor–that you read it in one sitting. That’s gotta be a lie.


  2. FictionFan – The Great Gatsby is such a vivid portrait of the 1920’s as you point out. The frantic attempts not to face the challenges of the era, the deep divisions in society, the whole thing. More than that, it raises more universal social questions without bashing the reader over the head with them. I think the characters are well-drawn too.And Fitzgerald pulled it off in a short space, relatively speaking. I think that says something about his talent too.


    • Yes, one of the joys of it is that it can be read on so many different levels. There’s so much in it, but he never forgets that first and foremost a novel should be enjoyable. It can easily be read and loved as just a tragic love story, or you could spend a lifetime analysing all its depths. Wonderful!


  3. Oh dear, FF, that evocation of the pull and lure of this wonderful has achieved the ‘make LF shed a little tear’ moment. It is amazing how much Scott F achieves with this – and how slim and effortless a read it is, yet how full a read it proves to be.

    Gazes at all the old dusty Scott F tomes and wonders whether Gatsby is rising towards the surface of another re-read………….. Highly likely, on this wonderful reminder


    • Thanks, LF! And two books we agree about on the same day! This could become habit-forming…

      Really, do re-read it. It must be three or four years since I last read it – far too long. For something that takes only a few hours to read, it gives so much pleasure, and though I know it so well, I still find something new or forgotten every time…


  4. I re-read this last summer and was surprised at the way in which Fitzgerald criticises the concept of the Great American Dream. I was very very much younger when I read it the first time and this had really passed me by. As an aside, as part of a day school we also saw the Robert Redford film and all had hysterics about the dog which aged around four months from being picked up in the street to arriving in the upstairs apartment. Continuity slipped up there.


    • It’s hard to remember now for sure, but I really think the first time I read it I only saw it as a beautiful, tragic love story – and yet even at that level I thought it was amazing. it’s only years of re-reading it and reading other people’s reviews of it that have made me appreciate it fully for all its depth – and I still find something new each time…

      Haha! Didn’t spot that about the puppy. The Redford film will always be The version for me – not so much for him, but for Mia Farrow’s Daisy.


  5. Psst, Tovarich – I had a quick shufty at your ‘great posts from around the blogosphere and spotted one with an interesting title a review of a book called Music Of A Life… headed that way and (begins to cackle maniacally and with rising hysteria. It’s definitely definitely MY kind of book and the reviewer sold it to me instantly and am off to buy. But, Yours? Hysterical chuckles, giggles, chortles, snortles and guffaws,,,,,,,,,,,,,here is what made me KNOW this is my book ‘[It’s that Russian soul of profound melancholy speaking to me’ (wonder if i could recommend The Goldlfinch……..THERE’S a woman who understands, betcha. Drowns out the sound of Fiction Fan aiming a loud riposte at me with Georgian choir at full blast, and, whilst buying the book, also stocks up on several boxes of hankies, to mop up the melancholy weeping I bound to subside into…………Nazdrovje!


    • Haha! Funnily enough when I saw that line I thought of you! For ‘profound melancholy’ read ‘downright dismal’! But I ‘like’ posts that let me know I don’t want to touch a book – a bit like possing negative reviews on Amazon…

      Did you click on the review of the Goldfinch from View from the Upper Circle? (Also in my likes) Now there’s a review after my own heart… 😉

      Jilanne’s half-way through Goldfinch, but is refusing to tell us what she thinks so far…


      • Yes, I did, as I expected you might have liked one there that agreed with your view of one you had already read.

        It’s funny, i don’t know why, I will certainly mark reviews as helpful on Az if they let me know I will probably not like a book the author has liked, or maybe it makes me think more about the book I have read and perhaps I have a useful argument in my head further justifying my own view (or having it changed) but I don’t tend to ‘like’ reviews on blogs for things I think ‘oh no, not my kind of book at all’ (if positive reviews) or indeed like negative reviews of books which sound dreadful indeed. I can’t explain it any more clearly than that ‘liking’ a review of a turkey of a book seems to be giving it more house room on my own blog than i want to give that BOOK – so I’ll see if there is something else the blogger wrote that i can like so as to give the BLOGGER house room.

        Convoluted? Confused? Up my own fundament? Indubitably.

        That Jilanne is playing her cards very close to her chest. The woman is a wretched tease. However, we know she is a woman of impeccable taste (if she comes to MY conclusion) and a woman of NORMALLY impeccable taste but prone to occasionally worrying erratic behaviour if she comes to YOUR conclusion) Or she might be a diplomat, and write a review which balances what I loved, you hated and vice versa, carefully balancing pros and cons and finishing with an incredibly erudite summing up written in Mandarin, Ancient Babylonian or Lithuanian which, to my knowledge, neither of us speak and which there MAY not even be a Google translation of – and if there is – well we all know how bizarre and nonsensical some of those software translation packages can be.


  6. WRT “The Great Gatsby,” One of my favorite passages of all time is where Daisy and a friend are described for the first time:

    “The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

    A metaphor for the entire novel. Nothing short brilliant! I could dissect this passage for hours. This, and another description I can’t find at the moment, but it’s where Daisy’s voice is described as sounding like money.

    Have you seen 101Books review of Gatsby?


    • The thing about Gatsby is that you can open it at almost any page and find something both meaningful and quotable. I really had to restrict myself – I considered not doing a review at all, and just having a list of quotes instead. (The moneyed-voice quote is the third quote down, BTW – not just pivotal to the book, but such beautiful writing…)

      I haven’t seen that one but will take a look – I’ve been trying to avoid other people’s reviews of Gatsby until I’d got my own out of the way. I’m too easily influenced…


      • Shows you just how full my mind is today. It’s school play week, so in addition to everything else I’m responsible for, parents built props, decorated the sets, helped actors remember their lines and fit their costumes, and prepped for the cast party after the second performance—that ended about two hours ago. I actually double-checked your quotes to see if either were in there. I think I’m on autopilot.

        To your point, yes, you can flip to any page and find something striking. I’m trying to recall where I read about Fitzgerald’s editing process for the book. There were examples of “before” and “after” paragraphs. Perhaps it was one of the posts from 101Books where he talked about the writing of The Great Gatsby. Will have to try to remember, but as you’ve seen, my brain is foggy today.


  7. 1920’s are not my favorite time in history. However, I read this book more than once, and think it is one of the best ever. Oddly, I did not focus on the love story, but rather the societal disparities brought into acute focus. I liked that F. Scott did not need 800 pages to tell the story.


    • Oh, so did I – I’m so tired of huge bricks of books that say almost nothing, and quite often don’t even say it very well!

      Yes, it’s the social stuff that interests me more now and the beautiful writing, but Gatsby’s hopeless longing for a dream that doesn’t exist still always makes me reach for the tissues… 😉


          • haha well I can see how it may be viewed as romantic, but I suppose I’m too pragmatic to romanticize an unrequited love that is adulterous to boot. I’ve just never been a fan of moony young men (which probably explains why I’m very happily married to a blue-collar man!).

            I read Gatsby, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ all right in a row and all for the first time a year or so ago. Steinbeck’s prose truly gripped me. His haunting chapters between the “real” story are achingly beautiful, a story of people who want nothing more than the opportunity to work hard and provide for their families.

            Lee’s ability to tell a very “adult” story so innocently through the eyes of the young is brilliant. It’s a story that weaves prejudice and hope and injustice and honesty in a way that wonderfully reveals human nature and the importance of striving to understand our fellow men.

            When I weigh these two stories, full of hard-working, determined, *decent* people with the spoiled, whiny, superfluous, ungrateful, arrogant, selfish characters of Gatsby … I just can’t get past them to see to beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose, although I’m sure it’s there.

            Ah well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. 😀 And I was definitely glad to read a review from someone who genuinely loves the book instead of someone who is pretending to appreciate the book because they watched a movie, lol.


            • That does it! I’m sending you and the Professor off on a Romance Appreciation Course! 😉

              I guess it comes down to whether you have to like the characters or not to enjoy a book. Usually I do, but I sympathise enough with Gatsby for it not to bother me in this one. Also being a political animal, I always appreciate the social commentary side of things, especially when it’s so beautifully written.

              Steinbeck is on my GAN Quest list to read. I’m sure I tried it many years ago and, I think, hated it. But tastes change, and it’s possible I’ll appreciate it more this time. And I absolutely agree about Mobkingbird – it and Gatsby are my two favourite American novels (not that I’ve read a huge number).


  8. I’m glad you mentioned your review in the comment you left on my review! I agree with your assessment about how the book meets the GAN criteria (and that the fifth criterion may well be impossible to meet…Steinbeck might have gotten close. Maybe something by Mark Twain?).

    The one lie of Gatsby’s I can’t get out of my head is when he said he was from the Midwest, and when Carraway asked him whereabouts, he said, “San Francisco.” I can’t decide if Gatsby really doesn’t know that San Francisco is way west of Midwest, or if he’s saying that for some other reason. He seems like he’s a clever enough fellow to know better (not to mention that he actually is from the Midwest), but I can’t figure out why he would tell a lie that’s so easy to catch out as a lie. Any ideas?


    • Both Steinbeck and Twain are on my list to read for the ‘quest’. I’ve read Huck Finn before but as a child, so it’ll be interesting to see what my adult self thinks. Vertainly I’ve enjoyed both The Prince and the Pauper and Tom Sawyer on recent re-reads. I’ve never been keen on Steinbeck, but again it’s been decades since I read any so intrigued to see if I’ve grown into them.

      Yes, that was an odd lie and so obvious that even I spotted the geographical discrepancy – which, as you know, was one of the things I was saying I don’t find so easy as a non-American. But I always felt that, though Gatsby did do all the huge things to try to show off his wealth, he was pretty careless about revealing his true background – he told both Nick and Jordan his true story pretty much on first acquaintance. And cheerfully introduced Nick to his less than reputable friend Wolfshiem. It was as if, although he felt he had to put on a front to win Daisy, he wasn’t really ashamed of who he was at all so didn’t bother to make his lies very consistent. Perhaps he thought money would be the main thing that would let him gain entry to the golden circle and hadn’t realised background was even more important?


  9. I have to agree with Sarah – the review is more to my taste than the book. Having said that, I recognize its virtues, I just don’t like it.


  10. Your review perfectly encapsulates why I love The Great Gatsby. It’s just terrific — the review, I mean. A real achievement in the art.

    I can’t think of a book that achieves all the other criteria as well, and does any better at the fifth. Unless it’s Huck Finn (which perhaps does better on five, but maybe isn’t quite the jewel that this one is. These are the two I’ve long thought of as the GAN. But I’ve not read all the books on the list, and look forward to your future posts on them. It’s a wonderful, ambitious project.


    • Thank you, Matt – what a lovely compliment! I must say I find it much harder to review a book I know and love so well, than something I’ve just read, however much I like it. More emotional investment perhaps.

      I’m toying with changing the fifth criteria since it’s pretty much unachievable, I think. Perhaps to something like – must be a book that could only have been written about America, that couldn’t have been written about any other nation. But I’m still struggling to come up with something I’m happy about. Maybe once I’ve read a few more, ‘American-ness’ will become easier to define…

      Next up – Revolutionary Road!


  11. I just think the fifth criteria has to be redrawn because if TGG doesn’t meet it, nothing will. The book has to be ABOUT America, not necessarily directly, but in its underlying themes, in the spaces between the words. It can’t be about America if it isn’t about how the different classes of Americans relate to each other, treat each other, get along with each other; what various groups of Americans hope for, wish for, and what blocks their way. But it can’t require that a novel deal with every class or segment of society — that’s something one can require of non-fiction, but not fiction. It seems likely it must deal with class in America, but it can’t be required to deal with every class or segment of Americans. Is there a book on this list that deals with the Native Americans in any significant way? Maybe the McMurtry? Surely most don’t, and those that do seem unlikely to deal with all the others. But novels that deal well with some of them can illustrate what all of them face, and think, and feel, at least at the core, in a way that’s different than if the book were ABOUT France, or Ireland, or Peru.

    Gatsby and Huck Finn deal with America in the way I’m suggesting, and in the way the fifth criteria is getting at. They’re both very much about the wishes and hopes and dreams and delusions of Americans — not Brits, not Irish, not Mexicans or South Americans or South Vietnamese, but the descendants of all those who ended up making their lives in America. How they deal, have to deal, learn to deal with all the deepest aspects of being people — all the stuff people write literary fiction about — in ways that are distinctly American on the whole, that’s what makes something THE GAN and not just A GAN.

    So to me, we’re looking for the novel that’s the best of a generation at being ABOUT America in this way. (And I don’t see why it can’t largely take place elsewhere — after all, one can often see better in the rear view mirror, than through the windshield).

    Enjoy Revolutionary Road, it shocked the hell out of me, that book.


    • Very interesting, Matt – thank you. I think you’re right – it’s the distinctively American cultural aspects that should be judged, rather than trying to cover the whole territory. Any book that actually did that could only end up as a horrible patchwork, I feel. And it is interesting to see on my existing list how skewed it is towards white European-descent males (and heavily British/Irish-descent indeed, if the names are anything to go by) – not altogether surprising given the age of some of the books, but there must surely be writers coming through in the last few decades from other cultural groups. I see no Hispanic names there at all, but whether that’s because there are no great books coming out of that part of the culture, or because they’re written in Spanish, or simply because the intellectual elite that influences these things is still looking towards the old traditions I have no idea. And there are only a couple of black writers on the expanded list – Hurston and Morrison. No black male authors at all. Though of course, there’s no reason why an American of one part of the culture shouldn’t be able to write convincingly about another…or is there? Hmm…

      And yes, I see what you mean about it not having to be set in America necessarily, though my personal preference would be that it should be. But certainly if I was looking at Great British Novels, I would definitely be looking at novels set in India, Africa and all the other parts of the Empire that have impacted as strongly on Britain as Britain has on them. (This being why I’m not happy that the Booker is being extended beyond the Commonwealth – I don’t think the impact of Empire has been fully played out yet and the Booker led us all over here to read many books that explore the ongoing effects of it.) And I don’t suppose any country in the world has as much influence, inwards and outwards, as America…certainly in the 20th century.

      Thought-provoking – I shall mull, and come up wih a different wording for the fifth criteria that’s more achievable. 🙂


      • The extension of the Booker is a travesty. And it will diminish, rather than expand, the prize and the notice people take of it globally. A real shame, and a wrong-headed move by those who think it’ll mean more rather than less.


  12. An excellent review/overview of a truly great novel. I re-read this last year and was amazed by Fitzgerald’s economy with words; though there are beautiful passages of description, so much of this story happens between the lines, and I admire that.
    I agree about Daisy being — for Gatsby — the embodiment of the American dream. It’s interesting that, like the American dream itself, Daisy has changed over the years…but Gatsby refuses to see that. I love the scene when Nick claims that you can’t change the past and Gatsby says, “But of course you can.” Gatsby is the dreamer personified, and it is heartbreaking to watch him be crushed.


    • Thanks, Kelly! After reading so many huge bricks recently, most of which say very little, it amazed me again how much is in this really short novel. You’re right – most of it is left to the reader to fill in, which is a huge skill and really adds to the pleasure.

      That’s exactly how I feel about Gatsby. He might have been shady and refusing to face the real world, but the world needs dreamers…or what would be the point? I still cry for him every time I read it… 😉


  13. I love The Great Gatsby. I read it before the movie (the latest) came out and then again afterwards for no real reason at all. And you pulled my favorite quote (though its hard to pick a favorite, really)– the bit about Daisy’s voice being “full of money”. I’ve been working on a short story and the phrase: “high in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl” won’t get out of my head… was planning to use it as an epigraph.


    • It’s a great line, isn’t it? A few words but tells you so much, and beautiful too. I can see it working really well as an epigraph.

      The thing about Gatsby is that you could pretty much take any line in it and it would turn into a fantastic quote. It looks so simple on the surface, but every word is so carefully placed for maximum effect.


  14. Excellently written review. But I’m still not persuaded as to the merit of this book sorry. I’ve read it three times now and still can’t see why people rave about it so much.


    • Thanks! 😀

      It’s odd – this is one of the few books that I absolutely can’t understand why everyone doesn’t love it. But you’re by no means alone – I’d say about half of the people who’ve commented either don’t love it, or even really dislike it. It just shows what an individual thing reading is.


  15. I really love this book. What was one of the last lines about the “orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”? If I had only read that line I would love this book. I have admiration for writers who can take a deep, complex idea and eloquently and concisely phrase it.


    • I know – he was able to say in a sentence or two what some authors take chapters to get across – and say it beautifully too. It’s one of my favourite books of all time – i find new things in it every time I read it.

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 😀


  16. I appreciate the genuine enthusiasm and sincerity of your review. Amid the sea of snarky, “Dead White Males, blah, blah” critiques one too often sees, it is more than refreshing to read your reviews, which offer graceful and appreciative analysis.

    If you had asked me thirty years ago to give my pick for the Great American Novel, I would probably have said, “Moby-Dick.” But now I think it may be “The Great Gatsby.” It does not have the sweep and breadth of Melville’s great work, but it is truly as close to the perfect novel as one will see. Of course, it does benefit in that context from being shorter and hence more economical. Melville was trying for everything, and immensely succeeded. Fitzgerald’s work is not nearly as existential, but it sheds as illuminating a light on America as any book ever has.

    I’m glad you liked the Coppola movie version. For some reason, it gets routinely panned, but I think it is very good. Far better than Baz Luhrmann’s version, or indeed the absolutely awful TV adaptation starring Mira Sorvino. I am not the biggest fan of Mia Farrow at this point, but she did a very honorable job in portraying Daisy, evincing that ultimate shallowness; and as you say, self-preservation above all, which renders her unworthy of Gatsby’s romantic obsession. The other two versions made a dreadful mistake of styling the story as primarily a romantic love story; because it is ultimately a hollow one, with Gatsby the very flawed but still adimirable Romantic hero who symbolically is taken in by the sparkling charm of the American Dream Factory.

    I agree with Mr. Geyer’s point above that there really can never be a GAN which encompasses the entire American experience; it is simply too vast and complex. Faulkner grasped the Southern sensibility and tragic history better than any author, in my opinon, particularly in “The Sound and the Fury.” In “Huckleberry Finn,” Twain provided an indelible picture of the 19th Century American Heartland. “Gatsby” is the most lyrical American novel ever written; and while it is rooted in a particular era and setting, it transcends it, because you can always see its counterparts in various aspects of American culture in any era. And then there is “Moby-Dick,” which is about every big issue which any novel has ever tackled; thus even though it is not “about America” as the other three are, it is an extraordinary novel written by an American. I think that the GAN has to be one of those four, with the recently read “American Pastoral” coming in very respectably, along with “Lolita,” “The Young Lions,” and a few others.

    The final page of “Gatsby” may stand as the most hauntingly beautiful and ineffable prose to ever end any novel. I would say that the meaning of those sentences shimmers just out of reach as much as the American Dream might be said to do. They take a vastly entertaining and psychologically perceptive story, and ultimately render it into something mythological.


    • I’m quite partial to Dead White Males to be honest – a bit more ambivalent about living ones! 😉

      I do think Gatsby is the best American novel I’ve read, but I can’t convince myself it has ‘The’ Great status. Matt and you are right that it’s almost impossible to meet my fifth criterion, but I reckon American Pastoral comes close to summing up a point of time in its entirety. That might be because it’s a pretty political book and I’m a political animal. But much though I love it, I prefer both Gatsby and Revolutionary Road, which blew me away totally when I read it for the first time a few months ago. I never have got around to coming up with a fifth criterion I’m happier with and have more or less decided to stick with this one – I reckon very few books will achieve it, but then nor should they.

      I fear Huck Finn just didn’t do it for me – I hate to admit that I found it tedious, and though I admired the dialect, I wasn’t blown away by the writing overall. And I argued quite strongly against it being seen as a great call for equality. Matt Geyer, whose comments on this one you’ve read, is one of the people who inspired me on this quest, thorugh conversations we’ve had on Amazon, where he reviews too. Like you he has a real appreciation for American classics. He rates Huck much more highly than I did, and I respect his opinion highly, so I read a great lit-crit to see what I’d missed – – and while it made me appreciate more what Twain had been doing in the book, it tended to confirm my opinion of the racism aspects of it. I highly recommend it – it was an enjoyable read as well as an informative one.

      William, have you never thought of reviewing? You’d be great at it, and the blogosphere is not so awash with great insightful reviews as you might think. Most of the book-blogging revolves around crime and fantasy – light stuff – but there’s a small but enthusiastic community who blog interestingly about good literary fiction. (My blog’s a mish-mash, I know – but most people seem to specialise.) I think I shall have to try to persuade you to blog…


      • Thank you for the compliment! I have at times thought about writing book reviews; and it would be fun to share my opinions on books at great length. But I am either a luddite, or I simply do not have an aptitude or enough interest in gaining any computer skill. Probably both. So unless I had someone who would actually create a blog for me, put the cursor in the exact right place so I could start typing the reviews, I am thwarted in this regard. But I certainly appreciate your encouragement, and I will consider it. Feel free to try to persuade me from time to time; it might impel me to figure out the intricacies of blogging. I wonder how one manages to get the nice picture on the top of the page? 🙂

        With regard to the stimulating search for the GAN, you are actually impelling me (in a good way) to want to read the classics again. For example, I read “Huckleberry Finn” as a boy, a couple of times, and then surely in college once or twice. But perhaps not since then. So I could do with rereading it, to see what I thought about it now. “Gatsby” I have read multiple times, as well as listening to on tape; but not for a few years. I think that classics can always do with rereading.

        Maybe I am overrating (in my mind) Huckleberry Finn, but I do remember it as a book full of vivid imagination and fascinating character description. As to the racism, I neve saw it as Twain’s, but Hucks’s and the people of Hannibal, Missouri in the antebellum South. And as I know you know, when Huck gets away from the town, and he and Jim are in the almost mythical world of the river, he ultimately grows to see Jim as a person. To have a White character admitting that he got on his knees to a Black man, and begged his forgiveness, must have been an astounding thing to have written at the time. And the novel in general did certainly capture a time and place in American history. But it does jump around a bit, and is not an ideal dramatic whole. I have never forgotten the Duke and Dauphin (as a boy, I puzzled over these characters, not quite understanding that they made everything up). I still remember Colonel Sherburn telling the crowd that they might be very brave in a group, but cowards one-on-one. And the “Hatfields and McCoys” story is haunting. I finally got to see Hal Holbrook, at 89 years old, do “Mark Twain Tongiht” in person. The passage he dramatically recited was from that section, and it was powerful indeed.

        But yes, I do prefer “Gatsby” to “Huckleberry Finn,” and as the better contender for the GAN. (Although “Moby-Dick” must be given serious consideration!) Now, “Revolutionary Road” is interesting to consider; and I must reread that as well. I read that first as an adult, maybe twice. And then I saw the movie recently done. I do not have enough memory of the book in general to really analyze it well, as compared to your recent reading of it. I remember thinking that it was a fine book, written in a clear and compelling prose. And it certainly evoked an era which is not that long ago. And it is deeper than that, in terms of its understanding of the ambiguities of the married couple whose story this is. But I did not think that it rose to the level of the other great works we are so far considering. For example, I think that Shaw’s “The Young Lions” is written in an equally gracefully clear and literate prose, and may have a bit more poetry and sweep to it, even though it literally is about a brief period of time. Updike was never my favorite author, but “Rabbit Run” is comparable to Yates’ book. Both are among the best American novels of the recent era, but I do not think that either one reaches the heights of the absolute top tier. I think that “American Pastoral” may well do so. It is about America in the 20th Century; it has a political perspective, as you say; and it is certainly about being Jewish in America. It is the best American novel I have read since being immersed in the classics. Up until reading it, “The Young Lions” was the best American novel I had read in the last 20 years or so. Back to Yates, maybe at some point you will want to read Yates; “Easter Parade,” which is not quite as good as “Revolutionary Road,” but pretty close, and somewhat similar in tone and aspect.

        And don’t forget “Lolita.” I don’t know what you will think of that novel; it certainly occasions a great diversity of opinion. But I think it has to be considered a masterpiece, of writing if nothing else; and what a daring tour de force novel by a brilliant writer. I don’t think anyone would ever dare to call “Lolita” the GAN; it was written by an Russian emigre for whom English was his third language; and of course its ostensible theme would never do. But it is unquestionably worth reading, multiple times. And then you can watch the original movie, with the great James Mason portraying Humbert Humbert exactly as I had envisioned him.


        • WordPress really make blogging quite easy. I’m not particularly computer literate either, so I had a few trial and error experiences with other providers and came to the conclusion that WordPress is far simpler to use – and also work better for comments and chit-chat, besides being free. I set up a private blog for a bit first so I could play about and make my mistakes without anyone seeing before I went public. The picture at the top is just a photo – WordPress lets you upload any image you like and then shows you how to crop it to the size required by the theme you choose. And there are loads of themes, from really minimal ones to busier ones like mine. You should click on Lady Fancifull’s name and take a look at her layout. Basically we do exactly the same but the end result is entirely different because we use different themes. It took me ages to talk her into blogging too… 😉

          I frequently re-read favourite classics – maybe too much, since it doesn’t leave me a lot of time to tackle new ones. But I’m trying (always) to get a better balance in my reading. I do like junk too as you’ve probably noticed, so time is always an issue. But though I’ve only read half a dozen or so of the GAN Quest books so far, it’s been great fun, and though some of them are re-reads for me too, at least half are books I’ve never read before.

          Haha! I will read Moby Dick and Lolita – I promise!! And I’ll add The Young Lions to my list. Sadly, Updike is on there too for a re-read – must admit I really wasn’t impressed by Rabbit Run first time round, and that was only a few years ago, so I doubt I’ll enjoy it more this time. But I’ll try to keep an open mind…


          • I’ve enjoyed reading this entire thread. I would say one out of every ten novels I read I’ve read before. I can’t imagine why everyone who loves fiction wouldn’t reread their favorites often. As for Gatsby, the first two pages and the last two pages are wonderful in so many ways; each of these passages contains the whole novel within it somehow. And what a novel it is. It’s the closest thing to THE GAN I’ve ever come across, and the reason Hemingway couldn’t have been happy about it’s publication. The truth is, Hemingway isn’t trying to write the GAN, certainly not in those of his I’ve read. But I haven’t read Moby Dick since grade school (and that was surely an excerpted or Readers Digest version).

            Revolutionary Road is a GAN, in my book. I recently read one of his smaller books, A Good School, and enjoyed it very much as well. In my copy of RR, the preface or introduction is by one of my favorites, Richard Ford, who credits Yates for being a bit of a first mover or beacon to his ilk. When RR came out, he says (paraphrasing from memory here), we all kind of looked at each other and said–So that’s where we’re going. A revolution happened in American abstract painting in the late 1940’s (an era I’m writing about just now) and it happened in American fiction in that same period.

            I picked up Rabbit, Run for about the fifth time the other day. I’ve never made it into that book, but I won’t stop trying. Some day it’ll catch, and I’ll see what I think about another author Ford and others credit with leading the way.


            • I didn’t know Hemingway wasn’t happy about it? Did he give a reason? I was put off Melville by being forcefed Billy Budd at University, but that was quite some time ago now(!) so time to get over it and give Moby Dick a try. Can’t say the thought appeals much, but I did read an excerpt in a literary anthology recently and his writing style was more enjoyable than I remembered.

              I’m still voting for American Pastoral as The GAN even though it’s not my favourite book. But I do think it says something about the whole of America rather than just one part of it. So far there have been a few GANs though, and hopefully more to come. I just need to find a way to either read more, which seems impossible, or prioritise better, possible but improbable. I read The Grapes of Wrath weeks ago now but am finding it an exceptionally difficult book to review. Largely because I still can’t decide whether the balance tips towards love or hate. Next up The Lay of the Land, but probably not till July. Certainly the one that has had the most powerful effect on me so far, of the ones I hadn’t read before, is Revolutionary Road – a really stunning book that I still find myself thinking and talking about a year later. And oddly, The Road is another one that’s had that effect on me, though with it the effect wasn’t immediate – it has continued to grow on me over the months since I read it. Definitely not The GAN though – but maybe a great novel.

              Can’t say I’m looking forward to revisiting Updike but maybe looking at it as a potential GAN will make me feel differently about it…


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