Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013 (First published 1925) ISBN 9781922079558
It's been over twenty-five years since I last read The Great Gatsby, at University. I have picked it up again because my son is studying it now, and I'm glad I didn't rely on my memory before discussing it with him, as the limited memory I had of the novel turned out to be completely wrong. I am also debating within myself whether it is truly a great book.
At heart a tale of love and loss, The Great Gatsby also passes judgement not only on the "Jazz Age" (a term which was apparently coined by Fitzgerald), but on the lives of the indecently rich. It tries I think to be a deep novel, and yet it seems to skate strangely over the surface of the issues with which it deals.
The most successful writing in the novel is when Fitzgerald is writing about love and pining for love lost: his evocation of Gatsby's parties is also very vivid. However when he tries to become deep, writing about ageing or corruption, his phrases seem taken out of a guidebook, they don't feel (to this reader at least) genuine. Fitzgerald wrote this book before he turned thirty, and it has the feel of a young man trying to be mature, rather than an older man retelling lived experience. This is not to say that a young man cannot write of experience (Of Human Bondage by Maugham a case in point), but The Great Gatsby has the feel of a young man writing about things he's not fully sure of. I know when I read it as a young man I liked it, but with another couple of decades under my belt some of it rings a little hollow.
The first chapter of the book was also a struggle for me - it's clunkily written, and the style seems different to the rest of the novel, and even the plotline doesn't seem to fit fully with the rest of the novel. The book has a few fairly obvious mechanisms to move the plot along, but it is the beginning and the end of the novel where these are most noticeable.
And what of the themes of the book? The main theme of course is relationships - between Daisy and Tom, Daisy and Gatsby, Tom and Myrtle, and Nick and Jordan. These relationships all revolve around money, in one way or another. Tom and Daisy married as they were of the same class and it was a good match, Gatsby loves Daisy (or more correctly an idea of Daisy) but needed to make money before he felt he could make a play for her, and Nick and Jordan partake in one of those desultory relationships that seem to be the preserve of the wealthy.
While the love of Gatsby for Daisy is the centrepiece, the other relationships have their interest. Tom and Myrtle in particular is an interesting relationship - why Tom is attracted to her is never really made clear - she is clearly older than him and has a certain sexual allure, and her attraction to Tom seems to mainly revolve around his wealth. Unfortunately Fitzgerald doesn't flesh the relationship out beyond the first chapter, and the use of Myrtle to propel Gatsby to his end is quite melodramatic.
Nick and Jordan epitomize their class - never really bothering to make an effort with each other, they are together because it is the path of least resistance. Nick has come East to avoid another such relationship, only to fall into the same pattern with Jordan, leaving her at the end of the novel without too many regrets.
While Nick can't gather up enough will to stay with Jordan and make it work, Gatsby is at the other extreme - he has spent years trying to become the person he thought Daisy wanted, the person he falsely presented to her when they first met. Yet he has become the opposite of what Daisy thought he was - he has become a bootlegger, a fraudster, and worse, and when she recoils in horror from those revelations it almost breaks him.
Gatsby has a perfect moment in his mind - the last day he spent with Daisy before he headed off to war, and he spends the rest of his life trying to recreate that, without for a moment thinking that Daisy may have moved on. Daisy still loves Gatsby, but not enough to discard what she has to be with him, and while he thinks he's the same person, he clearly isn't.
So, what to think on re-reading this book? I don't think I enjoyed it as much as I did when I was a young man, even though I did basically read it in one sitting this time around. It's a good story, passably well-told, but great literature? I'm not sure.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell