My decision to re-read books of my past, and review them, continues with “The Great Gatsby”. “The Great Gatbsy” is one of those books that seems to be an assigned reading multiple times throughout one’s “formal” education. The first time I recall being assigned to read this was in 11th grade. And the second time was at a community college.
Perhaps my teachers were onto something, and it was a good thing that these books were assigned throughout multiple years, because I never read the book completely either time. I have only decided to go back and read this book, as well as other books from my past (and more future books) as a means to become a better writer myself.
The narrator of the book is a man named Nick Carraway. A man from the Midwest who fought in the First World War, whose experience in the war left him bored with the Midwest. He moved to New York from the Midwest at the prospect of an exciting “American Dream”.
His neighbor was a man named Gatsby. Gatsby owned a nice mansion. Gatsby threw a lot of parties at his house. A lot of rich people came to Gatsby’s house to drink, and party. Exciting stuff. Get used to it, because it happens a lot throughout the whole fucking book.
Across the bay where Gatsby and Nick lived, lived Nick’s “second cousin once removed”, Daisy, and her husband, Tom Buchanan, whom Nick had known in college. Tom is basically a quiet brute with a sensitive ego: particularly when it comes to Daisy. Yes, this is largely a love story, my friends. Exciting stuff.
Gatsby’s name gets thrown around a lot because of all of the parties he throws for big-wigs. Lots of rumors get spread: many of them about all of the exciting things the great man has done. (Hence “The Great Gatsby”. Clever, huh?) To make a long story short, Gatsby loves Daisy and wants her to leave Tom for him. And she doesn’t do it. Spoiler alert. Sorry.
So what else happens? Why should you read this book? Well, Tom is cheating on Daisy with a woman named Myrtle Wilson, who is married to George Wilson, a mechanic. The Wilsons aren’t rich like Tom Buchanan and Gatsby are. Fascinating. At one point, Tom, Nick, Daisy, Gatsby, and some female tennis player named Jordan (whom is introduced as a possible interest for Nick, but nothing materializes from it) go to town, in two cars. Gatsby and Daisy take one car, with Gatsby driving, and Tom, Nick, and Jordan take another car, with Tom driving. Tom is trying to keep up with Gatsby and Daisy because he is jealous of Gatsby. He knows Gatsby loves Daisy, and Tom is very possessive. Daisy is just some dimwitted rich girl who happens to be related to Nick and who is married to Tom and who Gatsby loves. To be such a pivotal character to the story, I found her ditsyness insufferable.
Myrtle runs out in front of Tom’s car. Tom and Myrtle had been having an affair. Tom ignores her and runs over her in pursuit of Gatsby. Gatsby’s popularity gets the best of him, as rumor spreads that he was the one who ran over Myrtle. George shoots Gatsby in his pool. Fascinating stuff.
That’s pretty much the story. So why is this story so significant? Well, I’ll give you the standard analysis of this book, then I’ll provide you with my own analysis of this book.
What, supposedly, makes this book worth a read is the fact that it takes place during the “roaring ’20s”. During the “Jazz Age”. I think there’s something much more significant to this book. But that, basically, is where the analysis of this book begins and ends. “Roaring ’20s”, “Jazz Age”, “American Dream”, etc. But when I read this book in community college (well, I should qualify, half read), and when I read this book again just recently, I came away with something different.
Yes, there is no doubt about the time period in which this book took place. But to say that this book is “about” the “roaring ’20s”, I believe, is disingenuous. I don’t think this book is “about” the “roaring ’20s”, but is, rather, a critique of the “roaring ’20s”. The analysis that my community college teacher gave of this book, and the direction that the conversation of this book took place, if memory serves me correctly, was just about “the Jazz Age”, as if the book served as some kind of praise of the exciting “American Dream” at the turn of the 20th century, or maybe even, almost, as just documentation of the historical time period itself. (I’ll get to Gatsby and Daisy in a second). But I did not see that at all in Fitzgerald’s work. Sure, that’s when the book takes place. And there’s a lot of history about how the “roaring ’20s” were. But I think people are taking history and trying to analyze Fitzgerald’s work, instead of analyzing the work itself.
To begin with, let’s look at the characters. I noticed something, the time that I read what little bit of this book I did in community college, and when I read the book again recently. Most of the characters weren’t very happy. When Nick goes to Gatsby’s parties, there’s a lot of drunken merriment, but there’s also relationship fights that go on. When Nick goes to these parties himself, he can see this conflict. Otherwise, when you observe the parties from the outside, they’re “a hoot”. Just a bunch of rich people drinking and partying. My, what a ball! I bet they’re having a blast! No, I think the main theme of this book is that the grass always appears to be greener on the other side, but that it almost never is. I’ll provide some more evidence towards this later.
These rich people, drinking, “living it up”, but who actually aren’t happy at all. Putting on airs. Envious of this “Gatsby” fellow, whom they’ve heard a lot about, but have never met. Nick feels this way about Gatsby until he meets him, and gets to know him better.
George Wilson: a mechanic in the “Valley of Ashes” (basically in poverty). Tom was either going to buy or sell a car to George (it doesn’t really matter to me either one, honestly), and George was really excited about it and needed it because he’s poor, but to Tom, it wasn’t that big of a deal, because he was rich. This again, to me, screams out “the grass always appears to be greener on the other side”. George, a poor man, would love to have Tom’s wealth, and the lifestyle that he assumes comes along with it. But Tom never seems to be happy in the book at all. He’s quiet, reserved, easily embarrassed and intimidated by Gatsby, who cheats on Daisy and then kills his mistress. Sometimes, that grass is brown and dead on the other side. Poverty isn’t the only big problem in the world. That was the sense that I got from this book. But that’s not what I got from the book when it was discussed in the classroom. The discussion was about the “roaring ’20s”, and maybe even some class warfare, or something. Something that I don’t think makes sense at all. I’ll provide more “the grass always appears to be greener on the other side, but frequently isn’t” evidence soon.
Gatsby is mysterious and always busy, and Nick tries to read him. Sometimes, Gatsby seems confident: other times, miserable. Yes, Gatsby loves Daisy. He was trying to win her over with his luxurious lifestyle. There’s no doubt about that. But when I read this book in community college, something else stuck out to me. And that was the color green.
The green light that Gatsby looked out at. Where Daisy lived. Sure, he was looking out at Daisy. But the color green rang a bell to me. The color green is associated with envy. And when I looked at all of these miserable characters: rich people who seemed to have it all, but were still in unhappy relationships, the contrast between the rich and the “Valley of Ashes”, and George Wilson’s situation compared to Tom Buchanan’s (but knowing that Tom Buchanan had his own problems as well), the infidelity of both rich and poor, the rumors about Gatsby: all I could think about is that, for instance, it is easy for non-wealthy people to look at wealth and see that it will solve all of their problems. This book definitely states the contrary. Likewise, just envy in general, whether of the demeanor of someone else, the perceived lifestyle that they have (like the exciting one that Gatsby appeared to lead), or envy of a romantic interest who loves another doesn’t always provide that greener light on the other side. I think the last passage provides evidence of my analysis as well:
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning-
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
So does the green light represent Daisy? Sure. But it’s much more than that. Because Fitzgerald says “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Us. Clearly, he doesn’t want this light to just mean Daisy. There’s more significance to this “green light”. Why green? Well, I read “envy” into it, personally. Maybe the green represents money? Maybe the green light is Daisy because Gatsby looked out at them both, and thought that he could win Daisy’s heart with his money? That certainly makes sense to me. I still lean towards envy, simply because of the unhappiness that pervades seemingly every character in this book, and how this unhappiness that blankets them all exists within this contrast between rich and poor.
Could Fitzgerald have been talking about the “American Dream”? Of course. Was it about, say, a recession? Was Fitzgerald pessimistic about the future of economic progress in America? “…the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us”? Considering as how there was a depression in 1920, I think this certainly could be the case. I think his message is multi-layered. I think the “layers” between the American Dream and Gatsby’s love for Daisy are obvious. But the fact that almost everyone in this story are miserable (even when appearing to try to have a good time) is significant, too. The grass ain’t always greener on the other side. There’s worse fates than poverty. And money can’t solve everything.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” We strive to better ourselves, even as life makes it harder to do so. I think one can definitely draw connections between that line and the “American Dream”. Between that line, and the contrast between the rich in the poor in this story, which may cause some to ask “Is the ‘American Dream’ really just a dream?” I’m not going to analyze that question here, but here’s some things that may be of interest to you if you are interested in that question.
The first time I read this, I was thinking so much about this “envy” message that I was getting that I misread Dr. T. J. Eckleberg’s eyes as being green. I’m saddened to reread that they are actually blue. So, sure. The eyes represent “God watching all”, knowing about all of our secrets and infidelities, judging us. Also, more contrast between the rich and the poor, with a giant advertising billboard. I personally find this shit boring. I like my analysis of this story better.
So what did I think of the book? Well, it takes a long time to get into it. I like the way Fitzgerald writes more than the way that Stephen King writes. I wish I could think of this story without thinking of my past experience in community college with it. The book isn’t that bad. As I’ve just said, I like the way Fitzgerald writes. He was good at giving Gatsby this air of mystique (that’s one thing I liked about the book when I first started to read it). He has interesting ways of describing things. The tale itself was quite bland to me. The most exciting thing about the story was a woman getting ran over and her breast basically getting ripped off of her body. I’m sorry, but a tale has got to do more than that for me. I guess there’s a lot of mystery to this story, but I’m not a fan of mysteries. There’s also romance, but I’m not a fan of romances. So the tale didn’t do much for me, honestly. I think it’s overrated. And I don’t think Fitzgerald was trying to “capture” the “Jazz Age” as much as he was trying to critique it. The copyright of this book is 1925: right in the middle of the “roaring ’20s”. Based on how aloof the rich characters are in this book, I can’t agree that Fitzgerald was trying to “capture” the “Jazz Age” with admiration. I think “criticism” is a more appropriate word than “admiration”. Perhaps he was a grumpy old introvert who was agitated by the extroversion of his age. Hmm…why does that message ring a bell with me?