The Great Gatsby – the book

March 30, 2015

As I mentioned in my review of the movie, I somehow avoided ever reading this great American novel.  I don’t know how, it just happened.  Because we read Madame Bovary or something stupid like that instead.  I hear from lots of people that they hated The Great Gatsby in high school, but I rather suspect this is a book that teenagers aren’t really going to get — post-war existential angst, etc.  So, I was curious.  What’s it like reading this book for the first time at the age of 40+?

This book is amazing.  Amazing writing.  Just. . . See, most “classics” I read are classics for a reason — they’re really goodTo Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick — I’ve read them all later, out of high school, and I love them all.  Here, just look at this:

“I had no sight into Daisy’s heart but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking a little wistfully for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”

What I wouldn’t give to write a sentence like that.  One sentence, Fitzgerald nails that character to the wall.  The whole book is like that.  It’s a character study more than anything, of this group of people chosen to represent a specific time and place that the author suspects might be kind of terrible.

It’s actually kind of wonderful in a horrifying way how every single character in this book is just an awful, awful person.  And you know what?  Nick Carraway is the worst of the bunch.  What a spineless git.  (Question for the academics:  Has there been any commentary about the possibility that Nick is suffering from shellshock?  His drifting, his seeming inability to make any decisions, his shifting attitudes and perceptions…  Or is he just the ultimate post-war nihilist?)

But the most horrifying realization of all is the one that slowly creeps upon you as you are reading this book, almost a century after its publication, that a big chunk of 20th century American fiction has been all about people trying to write a book just like The Great Gatsby and failing miserably.



9 Responses to “The Great Gatsby – the book”

  1. Sheila Says:

    I agree – it’s one of my favorites just because of the writing style. Reading anything like that makes me feel like I’m gulping down chocolate.

  2. The rest of Fitzgerald is just as beautiful from the point of view of the writing, but in Gatsby he manages to scores equally well on the themes and characters and writing and plot.

    I also read it for the first time when I was over forty— read it aloud, in fact, which made the writing even more beautiful. I’m not sure I would have hated it as a teenager, but I don’t think I would have understood it very well, either.

    I wish I could remember who it was who said something to the effect that “The job of the literature professor is to explain to young people of 20 what would be perfectly obvious to someone of 40.”

    For some reason I had to read a lot of Hawthorne in school. I came to the conclusion that Hawthorne couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, and no Hawthorne I’ve since read has changed my opinion.

  3. carriev Says:

    And now I have to read it out loud.

    I can say with confidence now that Tobey McGuire did a terrible job with the narration in the movie from a couple years ago. He made the text sound droning somehow.

  4. As I recall, The Great Gatsby was one of the few books I actually enjoyed reading in my junior year HS English class, as opposed to some of the other works (looking at you, The Scarlett Letter).

    Other works read in HS English I enjoyed include To Kill a Mockingbird, Beowulf, The Glass Menagerie, and Maus (though I’d already read that one years before).

  5. lynorlane Says:

    I read this in high school, got nothing from it, and read it again when the movie came out. I was surprised both by the sheer gorgeousness of the writing, and how toxic I found Nick. I kept feeling like with just a few words, he could have prevented so much of the calamity at the end. And he chose not to say them.

  6. Nicole Says:

    Which books would you say were trying to imitate Gatsby?

  7. carriev Says:

    Anything in first person p.o.v. featuring directionless young male narrators who are making some kind of oblique commentary on their times, mostly by hanging out with rich people?

  8. Gatsby is one of my favorite books to teach. Most of the critical approaches are about how it comments on American life and the rich, which it does, but I’ve always read it as a portrait of the excesses of love. Gatsby doesn’t love Daisy as much as the image he created of her.

    But I have many friends who at one time or another became Gatsby by idolizing someone so much that they went to extraordinary lengths to be with them. Sometimes it worked out, but most of the time the intensity of the dream burned out because there was no real fuel for it.

    There’s a really good book about how Gatsby was written, and even more interesting, how it became a classic. It’s called AND SO WE READ ON


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