THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Modern Library Ranking: #2)
I rarely read novels before watching a film, but I have made a few exceptions. One was the first book in the Twilight series, Twilight. I thought it trash. I simply could not get through it for its sheer banality. Another was The Great Gatsby. It was short, it's considered a classic, and I had spent my whole life without reading it. With the film being released at year's end (and I suspect a strong contender for Oscar nominations in Costume and Art Direction), I decided at long last to look over this book and see what all the fuss is about. The Great Gatsby is a marvelous read, something one can enjoy for pleasure and see that sometimes love is not worth waiting for.
We begin with our narrator, Nick Carraway, from whose point of view The Great Gatsby takes place. He is by no means rich but is comfortably well off. He becomes fascinated by his next door neighbor, the mysterious Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is the richest man in East Egg, who has the biggest house, throws the biggest parties, and is the least known man on Long Island. Nick soon reconnects with a distant cousin, Daisy Buchanan, her husband Tom, and their friend, the female golfer Jordan Baker. Nick and Jordan began a sputtering affair.
Nick soon finds entry into Gatsby's frivolous world, and the fascination with the Great Gatsby grows. Gatsby is rich, beautiful, and seemingly perfect. However, as time goes on, we learn the truth about Jay Gatsby. He wasn't born into wealth, he wasn't from the upper echelons of society. He is really James Gatz, son of poor farmers who has basically recreated himself. He is quite wealthy, but his fortune is most likely from being a criminal (bootlegger and all).
Jay Gatsby is also in love with Daisy Buchanan...still. Long ago, before the First World War, our James Gatz had romanced Daisy, and they had fallen in love. However, due to his poor background and the distances of miles and times, she married Tom Buchanan. She is unaware that Tom has a mistress (well, I figure he has many, but I digress): Myrtle Wilson, wife of local mechanic George. Nick detests the deception to Daisy, but he doesn't feel it right to tell either Jay or Daisy, who have rekindled their own affair.
Jay is determined to win Daisy over, but ultimately she won't leave Tom. After leaving a tense party at the Buchanan home, Nick finds that Myrtle has been killed by a hit-and-run driver. While it was Gatsby's car, Jay tells him Daisy had been driving. George, destroyed by his wife's death, tracks down the owner of the car...and kills him.
Jay is buried, unmissed save for Nick, Jay's father Henry Gatz, and a man Nick calls Owl Eyes, whom he'd met at the first party of Gatsby's who loved his book collection.
I can only go into what I got and understood from The Great Gatsby, but for myself, I saw it as a cautionary tale of the myth of self-reinvention for the wrong reasons. Jay Gatsby was not a real person. He was an invention of James Gatz, who longed more than anything to, in a familiar refrain, "be somebody". Gatsby wanted to be anything other than who he was, and above all else, he wanted to be rich.
He didn't want to be rich in order to indulge any passions or because he wanted power. Far from that. He wanted to be rich because by having lots and lots of money, he could achieve the one thing he truly yearned for: the love of The Woman.
For me, this is at the heart of the tragedy of The Great Gatsby. It was his love for Daisy that led to his ruin. He truly loved her, but I think that Gatsby also loved what she represented: respectability that comes with wealth. She was His Perfect Love, but there is no such thing.
This is where The Great Gatsby hit me on a strong level. We all have loved at least one person for whom we think by changing into something/someone more like them, they might love us back. If I were...fill-in-the-blank...they would love me. It doesn't work out this way.
Gatsby was not interested in the fact that he had to turn to crime to make his fortune. It was a means to an end, but by going into bootlegging to finance a lifestyle that would win back The One, he was ruining himself. Even if Daisy had left Tom for him, she wouldn't be leaving Tom for James Gatz, farmer's son. She'd be leaving him for Jay Gatsby, multi-millionaire.
Gatsby lived in a fantasy so strong he took it to be the truth. He would not let Daisy go, even after he should have known that she was not going to be with him. At the end of The Great Gatsby, I felt so much sadness for Jay.
His life was a fraud, a beautiful fraud perhaps, but a life so empty and hollow. All those wild parties, all those fun times--they were as vapor in the wind, one might say. I think about all those people who went to Gatsby's soirees. They were there for a good time, for frivolity, but not for him. They neither knew or cared for him.
Some things never change. How many people today are hangers-on to rich and famous people just for their own selfish needs? Even today, how many people "follow" non-entities or are "fans" of people who have money but nothing to offer their legions other than entertainment? Once their notoriety ends, so does interest in them, and those who were once sought after are forgotten.
Since Nick is the one narrating the story, The Great Gatsby is as much Nick's story as it is Jay's. I'd say far more. Nick is our Everyman, who is drawn to this world but who sees in the end how shallow it all is, how empty. He'd rather be himself, even if it means turning away from the lights and the spectacle, than surrender to the moral bankruptcy of these people's lives. For Nick, people still matter. He could never be so hurtful towards Daisy as Tom is by fooling around on her, or turn away from a friend like almost everyone did once Jay was dead.
I think The Great Gatsby asks us to examine what kind of sacrifices we would make for love, or for status. Gatsby was a prisoner the past, someone who thought that by changing into what he thought Daisy wanted he could get the love he so longed for from her. In truth, while Daisy loved him, her fear kept her from going with Jay. He should have learned to let go, to be himself.
Of course, this is something we will never learn. People will always change something to get love. Nick escaped from it. Jay died for it.
The Great Gatsby is a beautiful book, and while I was disappointed that the line, "rich girls don't marry poor boys" wasn't in it, it is still a sharp truth. Sometimes we can love and lose, but the real tragedy is when we keep loving that which is lost, never to be...