I read 'The Great Gatsby' a few years back, when I was doing my Great American Novel reading. It was the first time reading it and the review is here. I said that the story is 'slight' and, truth be told, so was my review. One of the reading groups that I follow chose it for the month of May so I reread it last week. I've been thinking about it quite a bit since then.
As I was getting ready for the reread I realized that I couldn't remember very much about it. All I could recall was a) I'd had a favorable impression, b) the story took place on Long Island and New York City of the 1920's and c) the story was told by Gatsby's neighbor. That was it. My previous review was from early 2007 so in six years, almost all of it had fallen out of my head.
I wanted this time to be different. I took my time reading. Pausing and rereading paragraphs a few times if needed until I felt comfortable that I got the message. I did no more than two chapters a day. The story is short and you could easily knock it out on a medium length airplane ride. But I didn't want to do that. I wanted to dig in and really 'get it'. I even decided to bug the FP Gal and keep talking about it with her so that I could bounce things off of her.
There were reviews out there for me to read, but I very consciously waited until I was done before I read them. This review, from my reading group leader, Sam Jordison, stresses the difference between youth and mortality. This review, from a different Guardian writer, dwells on how the false promise of the American dream. She talks about how Gatsby's money would have protected him today.
A review from a different ideological quarter, comes from Reason magazine. This one argues that 'Gatsby' is still relevant today because the 20's were the beginning of what we recognize as modern America. This was when city life became the dominant feature and (most recently) when the melting pot was in full blast. Gatsby is new money and self made but really, anyone else could be self made too.
All three reviews are worth reading. Here are my thoughts:
- The most winning element of 'Gatsby' is the narration. I'd read Nick Carraway's thoughts on just about anything. He's writing here about the Jazz Age, but I'd read his thoughts on the Depression just as readily. He is compelling and authoritative and always, always interesting. If the narration wasn't as good, the book would have failed. If narration of this quality was moved to a different book, that one would have excelled.
- I tend to think that if the title character of a story dies, it's probably a tragedy. Did Gatsby deserve to die? No. He didn't do anything that warranted death. He was no saint, of course, but what were his sins? He lied and invented a new life. He was involved in some kind of crime but it was most likely smuggling. That's far different than thoroughly immoral things like prostitution or murder.
- Gatsby is New Money and Tom Buchannan is Old Money, right? So Old Money murders New Money out of a combination of jealously and contempt. Tom is of course upset about the affair with Daisy, but he's also upset (more so?) over Gatsby's past. He's not of the same social circles and Tom makes it clear that this is a problem. If the theme is the unreachable American Dream, is there a suggestion that Old Money won't let New Money have that dream? Possibly, but doesn't that make it seem like a much smaller book?
- When I read this book before I was struck by how empty the rich people were. Same thing this time. Before he learns about the affair, the only thing that riles up Tom is some high concept book that he has read about other races. He's having an affair of his own but it almost seems like a habit for him, more than something he is passionate about. Daisy and Jordan present shallow facades as if depth would be too low class.
- Gatsby himself is presented as fairly empty, but I wonder if that's fair. It's easy for me to picture a man consumed by an earlier love who just doesn't have the energy to discuss other things. He's obsessed with Daisy, or at least he's obsessed with their earlier encounters, to the point that almost everything else is secondary. That rings completely true for me. Nick wants more from him, but that's because Nick doesn't feel that same obsession. It's easy to become bored while watching someone else's love affair.