A Review of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”
Don’t worry. The regular book reviews return next week when I have an unexpected deluge of February 6 releases to tempt your reading palate with. But, for now, in the quiet time of groundhogs ready to appear, I thought I’d take a crack at another mouldy oldie. I found a battered paperback copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterwork The Great Gatsby at a book sale as part of a charity fundraising effort by the Canadian federal government. It only cost me 25 cents. A pretty good deal.
While the novel is now very favourably looked upon, when it was released it was a commercial and critical flop. The author died in 1940 well before he could see the praise that was heaped upon it, and praise did come after the book was sent overseas with American servicemen during the Second World War. Afterward, The Great Gatsby became a staple of American English literature high school courses, in part due to its relative brevity and because it is a fairly inoffensive book. Its stature has grown ever since, with two movie adaptations that I know of, for starters. A few years ago, Entertainment Weekly ranked The Great Gatsby at №2 in their Top 100 Novels of All Time list. That’s right — of all time. (Anna Karenina was, if I recall correctly, №1.)
Part of the love of this book in American letters is probably because Fitzgerald loved every $100 adjective that he ever met. The novel is floral in nature, and says a great deal about human nature and love in a limited amount of space — $100 adjectives be damned. But does The Great Gatsby still hold up? Or is the source of great dismay for high school English students in the United States? Well, I have to say that this book of the lives of socialites in Long Island, New York, during the roaring ’20s is still very relevant, maybe even more so than in the past. I probably don’t need to recount the plot as it is very well known, but it’s in the unknowns of the book that a lot winds up being said. We don’t really know much about Gatsby, even by the book’s end, and the mystery and enigma that surrounds him is very reminiscent of a Trump-like cult of personality.
I see in this book the foreshadowing of the Great Depression. Everyone here speaks in riddles, having nothing of import to say, and the endless partying and goings on of Gatsby and his followers seem oblivious to the fact that the party must end sometime. I see this a lot in tech start-ups today. Everyone’s after the buyout dough, everyone says important things that aren’t really all that important, and nobody wants to see an idea through to completion — only to the point where it is salable and then they can bail and start all over again with countless riches. The whole culture of today seems to be pointing to another Great Depression that will make the Great Recession of 2008 look like just a little housing bubble that burst.
There are other things going on in The Great Gatsby that still hold true. It is, after all, a small book about unobtainable love, and the lack of any sort of respect or decorum for marriage vows. One of the minor characters is carrying on with a mistress right out in the open, but when that character’s wife starts nosing around with Gatsby, he immediately becomes vicious and jealous. There’s a double standard here at work that Fitzgerald was quite apt to point out. In a sense, The Great Gatsby is a novel about the sexes, and the inequity between them.
Having now read the book, I seem to understand why it didn’t take hold with either the American public and the book critic establishment right away. The story would have cut too close to the bone for a lot of people — it may have been that Fitzgerald, who was a bit of a socialite himself, was mocking them (and maybe a bit of himself in the process). I think this is true despite the novel’s opening gambit that the main character says he learned from his father that he wouldn’t criticize anyone because they may not have had the same advantages in life that he had.
I also have to say that the book is hardly Top 10 Books of All Time material. The reason is because there are so many dangling little plot threads and unanswered questions. I’m sure that’s the whole point, but everything about this book is all flash and pizzazz, all surface. The book is so short that we never really get to know these people, and who they really are. But I’m probably making an easy target of this book because the whole point seems to be about the illusions in the nature of the human condition.
All of that being said, this was maybe not the best 25 cents that I ever spent, but a pretty sound investment, still. I’m not sure if the average American teenager would agree with me — as much as we should encourage the reading of “classics,” modern or otherwise, amongst our youth. I think kids in English classes should be given some leeway to read things that will excite them and take hold of them. Despite what one movie director tried to do, there is no hip-hop in The Great Gatsby, and I wonder how relatable it is to teenagers. (I know, I know — you have to read the classics first in the great canon of literature to be able to be intelligent about books and maybe other things. Still, I think there’s room to give kids a little John Green now and then, something they can feel passionate about reading. Even Stephen King has a bit of a literary streak in him.)
Anyhow, that’s my take — and you can take it or leave it. The Great Gatsby is good; not terribly great but not a travesty either. You can be taken with the language of this book, and be annoyed by the one big figurative MacGuffin this book offers. (If one person didn’t switch cars with another, the plot wouldn’t turn out the way it does.) It falls into that Twilight Zone between the turkey it was upon arrival and the lauded status it has now. Still, it’s an important read with a heavy moral lesson, one that people nowadays should take to heart. After all, it’s only a short walk to a window to jump out of when the stock market collapses. With that gloomy image, I will stop and say I will resume my regular programming on February 5 with not just one, but two (TWO!) reviews to run that day. I’ll see you on the other side.
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