What is this? – not “this” the Great Gatsby, but this, the words I am writing? It is not a review – you can’t really review a book published 90 years ago, not one which has attracted the wealth and weight of critical comment that much loved novels such as this have? At the same time a plot summary would be redundant, and random impressions need some kind of structure to make them worth reading. I think the best I am going to get to is “some interesting things I noticed about the novel that may not have been written about elsewhere, but probably have”.
I mention above that this novel is much loved – adored would be closer. On a first reading it is hard to see why – the central character is a deeply flawed former criminal, and is involved in the death of a young woman. But he sacrifices himself for the woman he loves without flinching, knowing that his life without her love is worthless. It is in that sacrifice that he finds redemption from his previous life of crime.
The Jazz Age setting is obviously seductive, conspicuous consumption meeting post Great-War hedonism and the early days of prohibition in a perfect storm of parties, frivolousness, and excess. The narrator, Nick Carraway is a tabla rasa who observes the events of the novel without meaningful judgment or any significant involvement – he seems as hollow as many of those he observes. He suggests that he has scorn for the nouveau riche and borderline criminal people orbiting around Gatsby, but is happy to join them, and condones Tom’s unfaithfulness to Daisy by his silence.
The novel is rich, almost burdened, with symbolism. The glasses that loom over the petrol station, a key scene for the very visual settings Fitzgerald uses, are explicitly compared to Nick’s neutral gaze. I am aware as well that the name Carraway suggests the very small (if pungent) seed of the same name – he is as unsubstantial and of little significance. As a narrator he is reasonably reliable, and does not hide or obscure events, but equally his personal role is not really important – he is only there to observe.
Probably the most mundane, but unavoidable, reading of this novel is that it represents a judgment on the Jazz Age and all its excess. Mundane because once you have drawn the conclusion that rich people aren’t that nice one doesn’t really have anywhere to go with it. Gatsby is usually exempted from this judgment, despite his background and criminal career making him in many ways its exemplar. His time in the war has taught him the cheapness of human life, although perhaps he did not value his own anyway, having lost Daisy to Tom, which is why his sacrifice, when it comes, seems so easily done.
I wanted to mention one irritation, which seems churlish given the overall strength of the novel, but stood out for me anyway. Prior to the motor accident that precipitates Gatsby’s demise there is a lot of “business” about who takes what car. This is a plot device to ensure Gatsby is mistakenly blamed for the accident. It appeared clumsily done to me – it was obvious there was some reason for the “take my car” ” no take mine” nonsense that didn’t really make much sense at the time. I may be being unfair to Fitzgerald, who I am sure wouldn’t mind that much anyway! Doubly unfair because the plotting may have been tight and I might have just missed the point, or simply because in the overall context of the novel a writer should be allowed to get away with little bits of business to engineer the end he is looking for.
I think this novel, given its place in the pantheon of world literature, probably deserves another reading, which given its relative brevity isn’t asking that much. For now its success is for me, elusive.