The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I reread The Great Gatsby because of the Baz Luhrmann film. Sometimes I find films can affect how I read books – a film’s interpretation can overwhelm the text stripping a myriad possible interpretations down to just one. I didn’t want when next I read the book to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy. The danger seemed all the greater given I like both actors and both seem to me quite astute choices for their respective parts.
As it happens, I still haven’t seen the film. That’s ok though, because any reason to reread a book as good as The Great Gatsby is a good reason.
That’s the original cover, so loved by Fitzgerald that he wrote it into the book “I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs,”.
First off, The Great Gatsby isn’t about any one thing. Ten bloggers could write ten pieces about it, each with their own take, and what’s more they could all be right. That’s part of why this is genuinely a great book. In under 200 pages it contains multitudes. For me, on this reading, the key themes were mortality and money, but on another reading I could well come back with something quite different.
Nick Carraway is a comfortably off young man just starting to make his way in the world. He’s a veteran of the Great War, now working in bonds in New York. He lives on Long Island in a small house next door to a vast mansion which hosts extraordinary parties to which much of fashionable New York and the eastern seaboard appear to be invited. His place isn’t much to speak of, but it does have “the consoling proximity of millionaires”.
Nick’s the narrator, but here’s the thing – he doesn’t narrate events as they happen. He narrates in hindsight, everything he speaks of is already gone. Everything that follows needs to be read in that light, as something past and receding into memory.
Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
Over the water live Nick’s old college friends, his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. It’s because of them that he meets his neighbour, Gatsby, who loved Daisy years past and has kept her image inside him. Gatsby has only built his huge mansion so that he can live opposite Daisy. He only throws his parties in the hope that she might come to one. Gatsby is enthralled to a love that’s long since slipped from his grasp.
Soon Nick is part of their charmed circle, a friend to Gatsby because Nick is a route back to Daisy. Nick though is an outsider in their world, present only by chance. Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are both extraordinarily rich. Daisy grew up with money and has since married it, she knows Tom has affairs but she doesn’t leave him. Daisy and Tom are insulated from the world by Tom’s money, settled now in Long Island but with no great attachment to it or any other place.
They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.
The other member of their little group is Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, Daisy’s friend and for a while Nick’s girlfriend. Jordan doesn’t have the money that Gatsby or Tom do, but she has celebrity. Nick merely has a job. If it weren’t for his connection to Daisy these people wouldn’t look twice at him.
Few authors capture the allure of money quite so well as Fitzgerald. Here’s Daisy and Jordan at dinner:
Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here, and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening, too, would be over and casually put away.
There’s a tendency for people to assume that Daisy is a great beauty, a stunning creature who inspires overwhelming passions. The text though doesn’t support that. She’s certainly pretty, but so are a great many women of her set. She is a bright and attractive young woman of the upper middle classes who married well. Her charm is in part born of the utter confidence of never having to work, never having the slightest financial concern. Her voice is perhaps her best feature. Nick tries to work out quite what makes her voice so special, then it finally clicks – ‘Her voice is full of money’.
Fitzgerald captures here a truth of the jazz age. Most people never lived it. This is lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1920s style. It’s a collision of money and celebrity, washed down with champagne and soundtracked by the hottest acts of the age. Even as it’s lived it’s fleeting, and that’s part of what makes it wild because everyone knows the parties can’t last forever.
Daisy is drawn back to Gatsby, now as rich if not richer than Tom. She’s discontented, bored, and Gatsby returned is something new. The summer accelerates into disaster, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Tom’s affair, all an onrushing car crash that leaves shattered lives in its path.
I talked above of how Nick is an outsider, but Gatsby is too of course. The book is full of people hinting as to how he made his money, but in 1920s America the truth is it doesn’t need spelling out how a man comes from nowhere to a vast fortune. Nick describes Gatsby as “an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.” Gatsby is a showman, an imitation of a man from Daisy’s world. It’s not for nothing the book’s titled “The Great Gatsby”, with the impression that carries of Gatsby as a circus act.
Gatsby is also a gangster, an oligarch, a man of great fortune whose origins don’t bear examination. He’s obsessed with Daisy, but Daisy is in some ways more than a person to him, she’s a symbol. Daisy was the first rich girl he ever dated. That’s what made her so special. She was an ice cream on a hot day, and an emblem of an America beyond his grasp that yet he did briefly hold in holding her. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that Daisy is especially desirable. She’s vital to Gatsby because of what she was to Gatsby, money and class in a summer dress.
Gatsby is driven by nostalgia. He’s chasing a dream which he’s clothed in Daisy’s flesh but it’s not truly Daisy, and she’s not really the girl he remembers. If Gatsby were poor Daisy would never consider preferring him to Tom. Gatsby knows that, it’s partly why he’s not poor any more.
In the classic Anglo-American 19th century novel money dominates all. This is a pre-social security world, one with no safety net. The concept of ruin is often interpreted morally, and that’s part of it, but it was also profoundly fiscal. A family that fell into ruin could no longer support itself. That’s why 19th century fiction is so obsessed with incomes and dowries.
Gatsby’s world is one in transition. The Great War has swept away the old order, but the new one isn’t yet clear.At one of Gatsby’s parties Nick observes:
I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.
That captures in a paragraph the decline of the UK and the rise of the US. The sweeping away isn’t complete though. There have always been Toms and Daisys, securely wealthy and sailing above change (just as their descendants continue to sail above it near a century later). Gatsby’s emerge, they occasionally manage to join the elite, but whatever happens to the new pretenders the old elite never entirely seems to fade away.
The Great Gatsby becomes then an almost forensic examination of new and old money, and of the extraordinary power of money. Tom and Daisy are rich enough to buy off consequence. They harm each other in part because nothing else can harm them. Us against the world only makes sense when the world isn’t already set up to your benefit.
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.…
Above all else, The Great Gatsby is a superbly written book. I could easily fill this piece with quotes, and what’s more with incredibly relevant quotes like the one above, which is the book in miniature. As an exercise in prose this is high art, and made all the higher by its richness in themes (most of which I haven’t even touched on) and the strength of the characters. At the same time, it’s acutely well observed, with a sharp sense of the physical and capturing small details that other novelists wouldn’t even think of let alone describe (I particularly liked how in one tense scene Nick is distracted by his underwear “cimbing like a damp snake around my legs” and of how “intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back” – that’s the kind of absurd detail that intrudes all the time in real life but very rarely in fiction).
I’m going to end on one final image, one that captures for me the book’s fascination with wealth. The word glamour used to mean a form of magic, a sort of illusion which seemed more real than reality itself. A glamour was a vision put by a faery or magician upon a thing to make it seem beautiful, desirable, better than muddy reality. The green light is a glamour. Daisy too is glamorous in this sense, made magical by Gatsby’s memories of her but all the more by her husband’s wealth which keeps her free from the world and her own part in it. A belle dame sans merci.
Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.
I’ve avoided reading other reviews while writing this, as I wanted to first get my own thoughts down. Here though is a piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian about the role of mortality and the fleeting nature of experience in the novel. Here‘s another excellent piece on what makes Gatsby great, by Sarah Churchwell who recently wrote a well-received book on the Fitzgeralds, and here‘s the first of two tremendous pieces by Lorinda J. Taylor about metaphor and symbolism in the novel (a subject she’s much stronger on as a rule than I ever am). Lorinda’s pieces are quite long, but I do urge you to read them anyway – they more than repay the time required.
Finally, here is a link to one of the odder things on the internet, an NES computer game based on The Great Gatsby. You can play it directly online at this link, and you too can see if Nick can survive Gatsby’s party and the threat of newspaper boys and charlston-dancing flappers. Seriously, follow the link, it’s deeply strange.