Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Am I terrible if I only reread this book from a desire to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby this May? Probably, but I won’t be the only one. If you haven’t had a chance to see the trailer, this is the one to make the movie seem decent, but it may convince you The Great Gatsby is more of a love story than it is. The book relies on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s poetic prose to flesh out a simple story; when you take away the narration, it doesn’t seem there’s enough for a movie without tedious voice-overs, but we’ll see. In a nutshell: Nick Carraway, the narrator, moves to a small house next door to Gatsby’s mansion on Long Island. After attending one of Gatsby’s opulent parties, he’s asked to facilitate a meeting between him and Daisy, Gatsby’s former lover, who is now married to Tom Buchanan. Gatsby intends to charm Daisy back to himself and things become tangled. This book may have been around since 1925, but I can’t bring myself to spoil the ending even if everyone read it in high school.

The prose is lovely, but when you’ve got to get through x pages before starting your algebra homework, it feels tedious. When read on a Sunday evening with no rush, some gin, and no need to write a paper after, it’s fantastic. What surprised me most was how different Gatsby seems now from the character I remember. His obsessive, all-consuming “love” for Daisy is naïve and innocent, not unlike a high-school crush. When I read it years ago, Gatsby bordered on greatness and heroism, now he seems tragic and lonely. It’s clearer now that he doesn’t know Daisy and his whole quest is foolish:

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart. (101)

Sure, I could understand that in theory, but I hadn’t felt firsthand what it was to put someone on a pedestal and subsequently learn I didn’t know them at all. I believed everyone else was putting their crushes on pedestals, but that I was building real connections with mine because we were fundamentally alike. That’s how it felt. I just didn’t know enough to know that everyone else was feeling this way too. (It’s hard to write this here, that I was frequently lovesick and an idiot in high school, but I underestimated how much my teenager-ness shaped the way I saw Gatsby and the happy ending I thought was coming.) Anyhow, the scenes when Gatsby’s vision of Daisy crashes into the actual Daisy are brilliantly written.

I say all this because it’s hard to convince people to read a book they’ve already read. I get that. Life is short. But this book is so much better now than when you read it in high school. And if you hated it in high school, it’ll be a low bar to enjoy it more the second time.

This book also has the best kind of narrator: the kind you can’t completely trust. Nick can be relied upon to give an accurate recount of who/what/where/when, but he’s clearly biased in Gatsby’s favor. He’s nice and well-connected enough to be given a front row seat for dramatic scenes, but he’s not so dynamic as to shake up the plot. There’s the sense that if Nick weren’t there to shove Gatsby and Daisy together, there would be someone else to do the job. The characters are static and limited to their strict roles (Gatsby: dreamer, Daisy: golden girl, Tom: brute) and Nick is there to pull them and the story together. When they bicker, Nick is set to the side and becomes little more than an observer; it’s easy to identify with him.

The only downside? The characterizations of everyone except Nick are overly simplistic, Tom in particular. Since Tom is tough and cruel, he can’t do/say anything without this being mentioned. He can’t speak without demanding, objecting, snapping, or breaking out savagely—he never just speaks. In fact, no one ever just says anything without a qualifying adverb. This is a pet peeve of mine. The dialogue here is strong enough that not every line needs to be explained and spoon fed to the reader. Daisy can’t say anything without it being emphasized (and re-emphasized) that her voice is wonderful. Though one of these descriptions does yield one of my favorite passages:

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of——” I hesitated.
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…. High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…. (127)

On the subject of Daisy: Yes, she is a weak character. She’s barely there at all (something else that will likely change in the movie). But this isn’t a failing in the book since it’s never really about Daisy so much as Gatsby’s vision of her.

Overall: 4.3 (out of 5.0) Lots of things are better after high school, this is yet another.

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