A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When people talk about the Great American Novel, this is it, this is what they mean. It’s a masterpiece and like all masterpieces, it has timeless appeal. I have read this book at least a dozen times and each time, I find something new. While it is a snapshot of the Roaring Twenties, at the same time it contains universal themes. I could easily imagine a Medieval troubadour singing a similar story.
The plot is simple; a poor military officer(Gatsby) and young woman(Daisy) fall in love, he goes off to WW1 and her wealthy family marries her to another wealthy man(Tom Buchanan). Five years later, the married woman discovers the former officer is living in a mansion just across the bay and he has never forgotten their relationship, which he now wants to rekindle. The narrator, Nick, is a relative of Daisy’s and lives in a small house next to Gatsby. He is both an observant outsider and friendly enough with everyone to be a confidant.
Nick has come to New York for a job selling bonds and the first part of the book is his impressions of his new life, especially the wild parties at the house next door. The lavishness of the parties and their preparations astounds him(and the reader) and the rumors about the host intrigue him. Gatsby is a spy, a bootlegger, von Hindenburg’s nephew and possibly a murderer. Nick is also becoming reacquainted with Daisy and her husband, “..two old friends he scarcely knew at all”. He is attracted to his cousin’s friend, Jordan Baker, a professional woman golfer and their romance is in a minor key, in between the operatic events of the rest of the novel.
Once Nick meets Gatsby, the novel becomes more substantial and intricate. Gatsby’s personality is gradually revealed through the book, mostly through other people. He has reinvented himself and gained great wealth, all for the purpose of showing Daisy that he is worthy of her now. His yearning for her is palpable and almost too intimate and when Nick provides the excuse for their reuniting, Gatsby’s hope is almost painful.“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
From there, the reader awaits Daisy’s decision; will she leave Tom?Will Gatsby’s dream come true? How this plays out and the tragedies that follow can leave the reader breathless and wondering if it was worth it all. For Daisy does not seem worthy of such devotion, she is shallow and flighty and has little depth. I don’t understand why she is so appealing. Surely it isn’t only because of her wealth?
“’Her voice is full of money,’ he(Gatsby) said suddenly.
That was it….that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…”
Strangely enough, she is the least developed character of the book. Is that so we can fill in the qualities we think a dream girl must have or was she really such an empty soul? She is not a remote ice princess like Estelle in Great Expectations, nor does she have enough empathy to be regretful like Catherine in Wuthering Heights. Daisy is very aware of her effect upon men and acts as if that should be the goal of every woman, saying at the birth of her daughter, “–that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
Gatsby is the opposite, so full of secrets that some remain even after the final chapter of the book. But he is charming and considerate. There is “..Something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” Yet, he is alienated and unfulfilled, despite the grand house and crowded parties, his happiness needing only the love of a certain woman. A woman that we are left wondering just how much she ever did love him.
And that is ultimately what makes this book special, capturing perfectly that yearning to return to a specific time in the past, when everything seemed possible and love was stronger than it ever was before or since. Fitzgerald is a man preoccupied with time, not just in this book which mentions timetables and clocks falling off mantles, but in his other writings as well. The whole theme of Benjamin Button is a life lived backwards. The author’s prose is full of splendid metaphors and poetic turns of phrase that makes feelings or settings crystal clear, even in confusing events. Who else could describe a woman as “..an angry diamond” or the night sky filled with the “silver pepper of the stars”?
That is not to say it’s without flaws, there are a few prejudiced comments about blacks and Jews and all females are “girls” no matter their age. And many of the characters are unlikable. Tom Buchanan is a brute and some of the activities of he and his friends are positively sordid.
With the new film version of this story, I wanted to revisit the source. By his own admission, director Baz Luhrman has added things and that makes me apprehensive. The cast also looks much too young, but that’s probably my own perception, as all the major characters in the book are actually in their thirties. I’m not sure if this novel could ever be adequately transferred to film, as so much of it is introspective. And the beauty of it’s language would be lost. That is what makes this book last, that and it’s heartbreaking longing.
originally published by Charles Scribner’s Sons 1925 aprox. 218 pp. Available in ebook and traditional formats