21 September 2019
Over drinks, I’ve observed—like so many smart alecks—that much of The Great Gatsby’s popularity relies heavily on its shortness. At a sparse 180 pages, Fitzgerald’s masterpiece could be argued to be the “Great American novella.” Gatsby, like so many other short classics, is easily readable, re-readable, and assessable to everyone from the attention-deficient young to mothers juggling a kid, a career, and a long-held desire to catch up on all those books “they should have read but haven’t gotten around to yet”.
I’ve now read Gatsby three times, and I admit that on my first reading during (like handfuls of others) my senior year English class, I wasn’t particularly fond of the book; I believe I used the adjective “overrated” on numerous occasions. Daisy Buchanan seemed like a twit of a woman, and I found Jay Gatsby to be pathetically clawing in his attempt to attain her. Nick, my guide, only annoyed me further with his apparent hero-worshiping of a man I found one-dimensional and his adoration for the kind of woman I’ve seen other men purport to be goddesses, but in fact, are dim-witted simpletons with nice figures.
Over my two subsequent readings—pushed along by friends whose judgment I trusted and who swore the book was “so funny and ironic”—I discovered within Fitzgerald’s fable a sardonic social wit and a heavily layered critique of the American Dream: the poor, working (wo)man rising above his or her social situation to discover money conquers all.
Fitzgerald has a discerning ability for sharp critiques of the economically privileged and, like Jane Austin, has an ear for realistic, bantering dialogue. Through Nick’s narration, we see a world that so many Americans dream of (its enviableness only further accentuated by our open disdain for it): a life of endless parties, delicious food, beautiful clothes, and Paris Hilton. Nick who’s paradoxically drawn to his cousin, Daisy’s, and her husband, Tom’s, lifestyle with gloating contempt echoes the contemporary American idolization of an elite lifestyle that none but a select few attain.
We watch Daisy with her voice that “sounds of money” flit about with uncompromising shallowness and vivacious school-girl frivolity, and through her, see so many of the inconsequential remarks and actions others (as well as ourselves) have made for the sheer sake of “having a good time”. In spite of her frivolity and weak disposition, we become, like Gatsby, “overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”
Through Gatsby’s veneration of Daisy, we not only imagine what so many Americans desire (success), but also we see the goal and glittering fixation of all humanity: beauty. And like many Americans in the throes of Capitalism, Gatsby believes that money can buy beauty as well as love. Fitzgerald articulates this disillusion with haunting force, particularly voiced through Nick’s obsessive repulsion with the extravagant society his social status has allowed him and the sadness he finds while watching a “working man” attempt to enter it.
One critique of The Great Gatsby, which could also be argued as a positive, is the limited scope of action and themes Fitzgerald chooses to encapsulate. We only see the wealthy elite (or people wanting to be the wealthy elite), and only Nick really has any depth of characterization. Unlike a tome, such as War and Peace, Gatsby fails to have numerous interwoven plotlines within a grand historical context. Yes, the Jazz Age is the novel’s backdrop, but Fitzgerald fails to engage in any discussion beyond a summer among the wealthy youth partying into the wee hours of the night in the West Egg. Yet, the control with which Fitzgerald expresses his limited themes makes the novel’s lack of scope forgivable.
Gatsby is short and easily accessible, and I have no doubt these aspects of the novel do lend to its everlasting popularity. At the same time, it should never diminish its truly admirable ability to tease apart some of the most confounding qualities American culture values: money, beauty, youth, hard work, and the ever effusive, love.