The Great Gatsby is a book that upsets some people because of the expectations that come with such a work. It is lauded by so many great authors, and assigned in just about every English Lit classroom, so when we sit down with it we expect nothing less than a tectonic event. If that doesn’t happen it’s easy to feel let down by the work, or to wonder what on earth all the hubbub is about. This happens with many great works. All art comes down to taste and sometimes it feels more like work than fun if it doesn’t meet us where we’re at.
Gatsby is an interesting case. Like all great works, it’s a creation of its time, but perhaps even more so. Fitzgerald is responding very particularly to the vapidity of his age. ‘The jazz age,’ which he is so often associated with, and also to the ‘American Dream.’ He prefigures the Great Depression (remember, it was written in 1925) by pointing out the emptiness in a preoccupation with style, wealth, and with the petty trivialities of life. Sound similar to any other time? He does this most notably by pitting Nick against Gatsby, and Gatsby against Daisy and Tom, as representative postures in relation to human happiness.
Fitzgerald is critiquing his time and the idea of the American Dream, but he’s also saying something universal. It’s no mistake that all the main characters in Gatsby are rich. Their wealth couches them in a system of events that Fitzgerald can critique. Against this commonality there is one major difference – Gatsby and the way in which he uses his wealth. While Tom and Daisy use their wealth for its own sake, and are caught up in the fads of their time, Gatsby uses his wealth as a means to an end, the end being his love for Daisy. And his love doesn’t take him into the future. It takes him into the past.
This is why Gatsby is such a enchanting character. His anachronisms are purposefully shallow, aligning with the shallowness, not of his love itself, but of the object of his love. He says things like ‘old sport’, has a bogus pedigree, and is pursuing Daisy with the ferocity of a medieval troubadour. His tragic mistake is in the consideration not of love itself, which Tom and Daisy don’t even really have, but in the correct aiming of one’s hopes. This is why Daisy Buchanan is so easy to hate. She’s meant to be hated while we ponder the meaning of Gatsby’s love for her. We watch him fall for the same incantation so many have fallen for – the nostalgic consideration of the present. This is why Gatsby wants Daisy to tell Tom she never loved him. He wants to rewrite their history.
It’s okay if you don’t like The Great Gatsby. You don’t have to. It sits along many other classic works that take time to digest, and have the occasional hurdle for us to jump over in order to come to terms with the story and ultimately enjoy it. It could be that the book is just as irrecoverable for those of us who weren’t part of the turn of the 20th century as Gatsby’s dream was itself irrecoverable for him.
I give Gatsby 4.2 out of 5 maroon polka-dotted pocket squares
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