Even though technically I finished this reread before I began The Classics Club challenge, I wanted to include it because I really enjoyed my reread. I read The Great Gatsby for the first time a few years ago. It was the first book I read on the Kindle which I think was partially why I was unimpressed my first time through. I read it quickly, wanting to have the basic knowledge of the story because I was tutoring at a school where the eleventh graders were reading it. I understood it well enough, I thought. My review on Goodreads at the time was basically, ‘Yay, I read a classic. Don’t get what the fuss is about, but okay. Moving on.”
With the film version coming out this summer and myself teaching American Literature, I decided to add this short novel to the curriculum. It’s classically American and much loved to be used in high school because of the short length. I figured, why not? Maybe I’ll have stuff to add to my students’ understanding. With that in mind, I picked it up again, determined to do a more annotated reading of it and was absolutely floored.
If you don’t know the story, the plot is told from the point of view of Nick Carraway, a well-educated young man who moves from the Midwest (or Middle west as they called it) in the 1920s to Long Island to work in bonds and make something of himself. He is not rich, but went to Yale and that puts in him the sphere of the higher society of the time. He lives on West Egg (the new money side of the Sound) and has distant relatives/friends on East Egg (the old money side) who invite him over after he moves. He lives in an ‘eyesore’ of a home between two mansions, one owned by the mysterious Gatsby who holds parties all the time. On East Egg, Tom (classmate from Yale) and Daisy (distant cousin) Buchanan are attractive, rich and very much of their epitome of that society. Nick enters the world of these elite people, only to find out that there’s a past between the mysterious Gatsby and Daisy and that as more and more is revealed about who Gatsby really is, Gatsby’s desires are entirely unattainable and a lot of it ends quite tragically.
I didn’t get it the first time. Not one bit. The dialogue was vague and boring to me. There was no serious action until the end and who could like the characters? On the most recent reading, I underlined so many perfectly crafted sentences and found myself depressed as a writer that I will never be able to write like Mr. Fitzgerald. The first two chapters don’t make a lot of sense until you get the back story on Gatsby and Daisy. I don’t buy that their love is really love. Daisy is too much of her upbringing to be truly swept away by a man not equal to her station. But I do believe that they had something like a first love five years before the book takes place. And for Gatsby, Daisy was the very symbol of all he wanted to achieve in the world. He’s almost stalker-like by today’s standards; buying a house across the water from Daisy’s house; hiding in the bushes outside her house to make sure she’s okay after a horrifying experience (which she seems completely unaffected by). But I feel for Gatsby. He’s trying to recreate something that happened years ago and there’s no way because people change, life changes. We as humans always look back at a moment or an experience that seems so perfect in hindsight. We desperately want to re-experience that in all its glory, but it is impossible.
There is a lot symbolism in The Great Gatsby and I could go on about the colors, Dr. T.J. Eckleburg’s eyes (possibly the best name ever), or the green light, but that’s not what really impressed me. The mere writing did. Lines like “a gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman,” and “that I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table – the only place in the garden where a single man could linger without looking purposeless and alone,” and “The interior was unprosperous and bare; the only car visible ws the dust-covered wreck of a Ford which crouched in a dim corner.” Each word is perfect and I see those images in my head. Fitzgerald doesn’t go on and on about how things, people, places look. He’s succinct and well, perfect.
I’m all giddy now about this book. So much so that I put a few others of his on my Classics Club List because I want to see what else he can do with his amazing writing ability. I plan to always use this when I teach American Lit. It’s short, full of both realistic situations as well as deep in symbolism and thematic qualities, and has some of the best crafted phrases and sentences I’ve ever read. Recommended to everyone, especially if you have any interest in the 1920s in America.
And I can’t wait for the movie either.
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