Boats against the current…
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One 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 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…”
“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…
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.
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.
The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.
It must be innovative and original in theme.
Must be superbly written.
Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.
Hmm…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…
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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.
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Agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion…