Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” – Nick Carraway
The Great American Novel is one of the most coveted yet most elusive titles in American letters. There are a lot of candidates and not one winner. Books such as Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut), Catcher in the Rye (JD Salinger), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides) and Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy) have all competed for the title of “The Great American Novel” and, so far, none of the candidates (including everything else that I haven’t mentioned above) have won the title as “The Great American Novel”.
One of the books that have been on the running is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is supposed to be one of the most vivid portrayals of America’s “Jazz Age”, a term that Fitzgerald coined himself. The Jazz Age itself was a time filled with decadence and excess especially in terms of alcohol, parties, and luxury. The Great Gatsby is set during this turbulent time in American history when, as the New York Times said, “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession.”
The narrator of the story is Nick Carraway, war veteran and Yale graduate, who came to New York to fend for himself by going into the stock market to trade bonds. At the course of the story, he met his neighbor, Jay Gatsby, a very rich man who throws lavish parties every Saturday night. However, despite his fame in high society, little is known about Jay Gatsby. Of course, in high society during the 1920s, it does not matter who you are and what your past is as long as you have deep pockets. Through Gatsby’s parties, we see how shallow the upper class are since all they care about is the next party, the next in-thing, the next fun activity.
The central focus of the novel centers on Gatsby and his quest for the American dream which is the idea that, whoever you are, you can make it in America through hard work and perseverance. For Gatsby, the American dream is connected with the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan, another one of the directionless aristocrats that populate Fitzgerald’s novel. Daisy is already married to another man, Tom Buchanan, and it is Gatsby’s objective to take her away from Tom.
This is the reason why Gatsby endeavored to become the rich person that he is at the start of the novel. He has already lost Daisy once due to the gulf between their social classes. For him to succeed a second time, the world must know that he is rich and that there is no longer a gulf between him and Daisy. He encourages a rumor that he is from Oxford, he litters his speech with rich man talk like “old sport”, and he loves to present his riches to the rest of the world. Just so that Daisy, who lives across the river from him, will hear about him and will one day cross his mansion’s threshold.
But, of course, this sudden emergence of a once-poor aristocrat will always invite questions. Particularly from the threatened Tom who makes it his mission in life to find out who Gatsby really is. But who really is Jay Gatsby? And what makes him great?
At the novel’s end, we are no closer in figuring out the answer to such questions. What we know is this: Gatsby was born under a different name; he really isn’t from Oxford; his love of his life was taken from him due to class differences and he made it his personal mission to win her back; he may be involved with illegal activities such as bootlegging; and his chase of the American dream was for naught. His identity and personality will always be the stuff of mystery; and his greatness, we will just chalk up to Nick’s admiration for Gatsby.
Now, I liked this novel sufficiently. It’s one of those books that I would recommend but without fanfare. I think that the tragedy within the pages was a heartbreaking dissection of the dangers in achieving the American dream during the 1920s. Once that dream is achieved, what is waiting for you at the top is a life of material excess, existential ennui, and emptiness. One of the most poignant quotes that I read from the book was from Daisy:
All right. I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool. You see, I think everything’s terrible anyhow. And I know. I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.”
This is a tragic realization for Daisy, despite her life of luxury, to know that what lies ahead for her is a life of terrible emptiness, that she cannot do anything about it, and that the same fate awaits her child. The only escape for her and for people like her is a life of decadence and worthless pleasures. This is the portrait that Fitzgerald paints of what it means to achieve the American dream, the unhinged lust for riches, in the 1920s.
All in all, The Great Gatsby is a good book. I like how Fitzgerald framed the stories of each of his characters and the way that he developed them throughout the novel. The prose is quite flamboyant but it is still beautiful to read. This book was enough to compel me to pick up Fitzgerald’s other works, particularly his short stories. I believe that The Great Gatsby earned its rightful place in the pantheon of American letters and I hope that it would be read for generations to come even though “The Jazz Age” is a distant memory.
To go back to the first part of this post, would I consider The Great Gatsby as an apt candidate for “The Great American Novel”? Do I consider it as “The Great American Novel”? Well, yes and no. I will consider it as a worthwhile candidate but I don’t want to say that it is “The Great American Novel”. First of all, debating what “The Great American Novel” is would be a moot point. I believe that there will be no “Great American Novel” since America has experienced drastic change every year so I believe that there will be no writer capable of encompassing all that history and change in one single book. What writers are capable of is to take one slice of the American experience and write about it. That is what F. Scott Fitzgerald did with “The Jazz Age” and with The Great Gatsby.