Monday, November 16, 2015

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

NOTE:  If you regularly read my blog (thank you), this may be the most FUCKED UP POST I've ever written. I was typing this on an Ipad and a PC, and somewhere it got totally out of whack, so much so I don't know what the hell I was even writing. I think there are lots of good ideas in here, but WTF I was even thinking, I don't know.

So the last time I read The Great Gatsby was when I was in high school; I'm going to guess in 1986 or 1987.  I think everyone who is even a tiny bit literate knows at least one things about The Great Gatsby (or at the very least has heard of it).  Perhaps I'm a snob, but I think if I ran across someone who was an American older than the age of 20 who hadn't at least heard of the The Great Gatsby, and wasn't mentally incapable in some way, I'd at the very least be suspect of them, and at the very worst, actively shun them after that.  And weep that our education system is churning out clods.

Snobbishness aside, I don't know where my knowledge of Gatsby starts and ends.  Before re-reading the book what I knew about  the book was probably based somewhat on the long-ago original reading and studying it in a high school history class full of small town Kansas teenagers who had never been farther away than Kansas City or Denver (the farthest away I had been at that point was Iowa or maybe Oklahoma City).  Shady memories of a green light and giant eyes on a billboard being some sort of symbol, but of what I probably couldn't have told you (and perhaps still couldn't tell you).  I don't remember reading it again in any of my college classes, although I suppose we could have.  I only really have two friends left from my college days, and neither of them were English majors with me.  Mix in the movies - the old Mia Farrow/Robert Redford one which I'm sure we were shown in high school English class; and the new Baz Luhrmann one, which made me want to re-read the book in the first place.  Add a touch what I know about the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, like a sprinkling of powdered sugar on a pretty small cookie.    That's my experience with the greatest American novel of the 20th century, maybe the greatest American novel.  And now, of course, this.

This being I have to lead a book discussion on The Great Gatsby for work next week!  The local museum, which is a partner with the library, is having some sort of prohibition exhibit, and as a run-up to that, they wanted a book discussion on the book of the 1920s.  Although from what I've since discovered, The Great Gatsby really only took off after World War II; Fitzgerald didn't really earn anything from it; so it wasn't really the book of the 1920s  - here is a great list of bestsellers from the 1920s, none of which are The Great Gatsby.  I suppose from our vantage point, The Great Gatsby looks and feels like what we want the 1920s to look and feel like, and Fitzgerald seems to hint, vaguely, like smoke in the far, far distance,  that something was coming that would smash everything up, that Gatsby  and his party goers were dancing on a volcano.  


Nick Carroway.  Nick is the narrator of The Great Gatsby.  He's 29 years old, a veteran of World War I, and from the midwest. He's come east to become a bondsman, which to me at least means he was getting in on the sweet stockmarket that was sweeping the nation into wealth unimaginable and making the decade into the 1920s.  This was something I liked very much about The Great Gatsby; it's definitely set in its time and of its time, while still able to cross the space time continuum and be relevant today.  That's good writing.  Nick will now always sound and look like Toby Maguire in my head, because of the most recent movie.  

Tom Buchanan.  Tom went to college with Nick.  I don't remember where off the top of my head, but I think it was at Princeton.  Tom is fabulously wealthy and definitely upper class, back in a time when class still mattered, as much or more than money.  He's a hulking, racist brute.  He successfully played football in college, and he strikes me as someone who probably will never, ever let you forget that for a minute.  He's really quite unlikable.  As far as I can tell, he does nothing for a living but play polo, lounge, and have extra-marital affairs.  He's a dullard.   He's probably in his late 20s/30s.   He's married to

Daisy Buchanan.  Daisy was the richest and prettiest girl in Louisville. "Her voice is full of money."  That's a direct quote, and says everything about her.  She marries Tom Buchanan, and they have a child together (who only appears once, I think; no one cares about her). She's a cipher for all the events that happen in the book, but she's still kind of enigmatic.  She lounges around a lot, and in my mind has a southern accent.  She seems both bored and boring.  I'm not exactly sure what her appeal is, other than she's rich.  I have this acquaintance, really a student of my husbands, who is this cute as a button singer and dancer with a belt of a voice; that's who Daisy looks like in my head, although Alex is far more interesting than Daisy.  I imagine Daisy is in her mid to late 20s.  She's also Nick's cousin of some sort.

Jordan Baker.  Jordan is a professional golfer.  She is never described as such, but in my mind she's a flapper with bobbed dark hair, perfectly red lipsticked lips, and alabaster skin with just dusting of freckles.  She is droll.  Droll, droll, droll.  Christine Baranski could play her in another movie version of her, if Christine Baranski wasn't so tall and Valkyrie-like.  She's a friend of Daisy's; I got the impression they were both from Louisville, but I could be wrong.  I gathered that Nick and she were dating - but Nick is gay, right?  Right?  Isn't Nick supposed to be gay? And Jordan is a female professional golfer - wouldn't that make her a lesbian?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

Myrtle Wilson.   I first started to type "Myrtle Snow" but realized that's the campily beloved witch from American Horror Story: Coven.  No one can ever be named Myrtle again and not channel Frances Conroy?  Digression, all is digression.  Myrtle is Tom Buchanan's mistress. She lives with her husband, Mr. Wilson (did he even have a first name?).  They run a garage in the valley of ashes, which is between the East and West Egg (where the rich folk live) and Manhattan (heaven).  There is some sort of business deal between Tom and Mr. Wilson about a car, that quite frankly I didn't totally understand. Myrtle loves Tom, although god knows why, as he hits her at one point.  Perhaps Tom represents a way out of the valley of ashes, although he's never going to take you out of there, honey.  Never.  Fitzgerald sacrifices Myrtle on the altar of plot and symbolism; she's killed when a car driven by Daisy runs her down.  That car, though, is owned by

Jay Gatsby.  Born Gatz, born poor, World War I vet, and former true love of Daisy, who marries Tom instead of Jay because - because why?  Money, class.  Gatsby has nothing he can offer Daisy but his love.  Everything that Gatsby has done now is to try to win back Daisy - all the giant house, the motor boat, the wild parties; the shirts, the bootlegging, the organized crime - it's all to have enough money to win back his girl.  He will do anything for her.  Gatsby is really, really handsome, at least in my mind.  He's also in his 20s, but I always think of him as older.  He calls other men "sport" which I think is perhaps meant to disarm them, and more likely to annoy them and put them in their place.  He's a cipher and an enigma too.  He's the most likable character in the book though, but his wanting Daisy makes him unlikable.  

How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to "get into it"? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored...?

The Great Gatsby didn't really take that long to "get into."  I was pretty much engaged from the start.  The writing style is crisp and clean, and draws you in; the characters are interesting.  Reading the book, I felt amused (it's very wry and funny), annoyed at some of the characters - well, actually most of the characters; I felt like I'd fallen into the 1920s, which was a cool thing.  I went to the wood between the worlds, jumped into a pool, and came up into a world called The Roaring 20s.  I don't feel like I was ever confused; it also didn't make me feel stupid.  I thought the characters were stupid.

Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, inner qualities.
Why do characters do what they do? 

 I think I covered some of this up above.  But in a nutshell:  Nick tells us the story because he's half in love with Gatsby - a bromance or real romantic feelings, who knows.  But it's love.  Gatsby has done everything nominally because of Daisy, but I suppose he also has acted in such a way to become the "great" Gatsby because he was made to feel so bad when he was courting Daisy; a case of "I'll show them."  Daisy is greedy and mean.  Tom is a racist bully who probably can't ever stand being shown up or beat at something.  I don't know what Jordan's motivations are - perhaps she just likes adventure.  She's also sort of a hanger on, a parasite of her rich friends.  Myrtle, I think she is a probably a golddigger, but she also has a pretty bleak life and probably wants better.  

 Are their actions justified?   

Oh my lord, no!  No one in this whole book does anything that even approaches justification by a person with any kind of moral backbone.  Nick is probably the only pure one in the bunch, and he does the only good things (Gatsby's funeral).

 Describe the dynamics between characters (in a marriage, family, or friendship).

 Nick is Gatsby's neighbor, went to Yale (?) with Tom, is Daisy's third cousin (or second?), is sort of dating Jordan.  
Gatsby used to court Daisy before they broke them up because he wasn't good enough for her; he's Tom's rival for Daisy's affections; he is Nick's neighbor, and really Nick is a better friend to Gatsby than Gatsby was to Nick; Gatsby was using Nick to get to Daisy.  
Daisy is Tom's wife; she's Gatsby's ex-girlfriend; she's a friend of Jordan (in a languid way); Nick's cousin; Myrtle's rival.  
Myrtle is Tom's mistress.  

 How has the past shaped their lives?

Nick comes to the city with the war still on him, and seems melancholy.  Gatsby's actions are completely based on his past interactions with Daisy; everything he has done and is doing is based on the past; the past has completely shaped his life.  I think probably Daisy's past relationship with Gatsby has affected her as well.

  Do you admire or disapprove of them?  

I like Nick; he seems attractive enough, and a nice guy.  I certainly don't approve of Jordan, but she's interesting and would probably be interesting to know.  Daisy and Tom are trash in designer clothing.   Myrtle is unlikable too, but Fitzgerald writes her that way, I think; she's almost a stereotypical floozy without much character development. 

 Do they remind you of people you know?   Jordan vaguely reminds me of someone, but I can't figure out who.  

Do the main characters change by the end of the book? Do they grow or mature? Do they learn something about themselves and how the world works?

Nick certainly learns how cruel the world can be.  This is Nick's story, and everyone in this story exists to help him learn something about how human relationships work.

I think it's quite likely that Nick loses his innocence about people, and has become cynical about them by the end. I  hope for his sake that doesn't last his whole life.

Is the plot engaging—does the story interest you? Is this a plot-driven book: a fast-paced page-turner? Or does the story unfold slowly with a focus on character development? Were you surprised by the plot's complications? Or did you find it predictable, even formulaic?

The plot is very engaging; I was interested the entire way through.  Fitzgerald is a really good writer; a master of the craft of novel writing.  It's not a fast-paced page turner (it's not a thriller).  The story unfolds gradually (and surprisingly for such a short book), and there is a focus on character development; Fitzgerald weaves images and ideas about the characters and their motivations, never bluntly but always subtly.  He makes us think.

Maybe in 1987 I was surprised by the plot's complications.  I was impressed and interested but I don't think anyone can be over the age of 25 or 30 and still be surprised by The Great Gatsby,.  It's sort of ubiquitous in our culture, at least our literate culture.  If the book is predictable or formulaic, it's so because it's so ingrained in our cultural psyche at this point that it's become sort of a caricature of itself.  Last year, for example, a friend gave a huge, over the top party - and when describing it, he said "It was like a Gatsby party."  Everyone instantly knows what that means; Gatsby has become a descriptor, an adjective, a state of mind.  It stands in for our idea - really simplistically - of the 1920s too.  

Talk about the book's structure. Is it a continuous story...or interlocking short stories? Does the time-line move forward chronologically...or back and forth between past and present? Does the author use a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? Why might the author have chosen to tell the story the way he or she did—and what difference does it make in the way you read or understand it?

It's a continuous story, written in a linear way, first person, with a nominally single point of view, although at some points characters relate important stories about Gatsby or Daisy (Jordan does this at some point).  Why does Fitzgerald use Nick as the storyteller -why isn't this told from Daisy's point of view, or a third person omniscient?  I suppose Nick is an innocent, unlike the other characters and using him to narrate is both more interesting and more devastating at the end.  It's told in first person, from Nick's point of view.  It might have been a bit more interesting, perhaps, if the point of view had shifted among the characters. 

What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas?

Oh fuck, this is where it gets hard.  What are the themes of this book?  Isn't this what generations of high school students and college students have struggled over?  What is Fitzgerald trying to explore here?

Those eyes of God  in the form of that billboard watching over everyone doing wrong things.
The green light at the end of the dock, telling Gatsby to "go" when he really should have been stopping.

  • Wealth, and it's manifestations, and how it can twist people, and ruin them.
  • What happens when the party ends.  Who is left clean up the mess? Perhaps a subheading here is The Roaring 20s.
  • Chasing rainbows, the rainbow being Daisy Buchanan.  She wasn't really worth it, although Gatsby didn't really know that.  But why couldn't he get over her?  She was no good.
  • Love and love affairs.   Sex and love swirl around everyone in this book, like cigarette smoke at a party.  Jordan and Nick, Tom and Myrtle, Tom and Daisy, Gatsby and Daisy, Wilson and Myrtle, Nick and Gatsby...


The central conflict of The Great Gatsby could be:

Gatsby verses himself - Except I don't think we internally ever come to know Gatsby well enough for this to be a conflict; we only know what Nick knows or thinks he knows about Gatsby.

Gatsby verses Daisy - Gatsby loves Daisy.  If anything, that conflict is "will she or won't she.?" That's central to the novel, that's what at least part of the plot rests upon - will Daisy give up the shallow life she's built with Tom and run off with Jay Gatsby, the man at least we (through Nick's eyes) thinks she loves. 

Gatsby verse Tom - so the conflict then shifts, when Tom and Gatsby have it out over Daisy, and the truth comes out.  Will she or won't she becomes will Tom win or will Jay Gatsby win.  Jay loses everything for Daisy, and to me, she does not choose him.  She chooses Tom.

Gatsby verses the class that Tom and Daisy.  Is this really where the conflict lies, the central conflict, what the book is about?  Jay Gatsby is one kind of man, self-made, pulls himself up out of the mud and trenches, becomes fabulously wealthy (through various legal and illegal means).  He's also the new man, the kind of new man the roaring 20s was creating, the new man that ultimately stuck a pin into a the old class system balloon that had existed for a while (see:   Edith Wharton or the sinking of the Titanic).  Gatsby loses everything, Daisy and Tom win, but we know from a historical standpoint that they all don't win.  The crash is coming; a war is coming, that will level the playing field, at least for the next century.  The Wilsons sort of win, at least for a while.  We could say that the Wilsons are losing again, and the Gatsby's are on top again.  But the Daisy's and Toms, that rigid class system, is more porous now.

I know if I had to be a character in the book, I'd want to be Jordan, because she's almost too cool and funny and I imagine everyone always laughs at what she says, a beat later after they understand it.  

It's a short book, sort of a novella almost, but we are not briskly skipping through the lives of the characters.  Rather, Fitzgerald uses few words to build a world and build characters here; if some of his characters seem flat and paper-dollish (Myrtle is one such character), the world he builds is unforgettable. For good or evil, Fitzgerald painted the picture of America in 1920s that will resonate through the ages.  So it's really a combination of both of what I've read is a Hitchcockian plot- the affair, the mistaken drivers in the yellow car, the subsequent murder) and some carefully building of the main characters (Daisy, Tom, Gatsby and Nick).

Point of view.

Nick only knows what he can observe, guess or infer; he's not omniscient.  He can't crawl into Gatsby or Daisy's heads and figure out what makes them tick.  The narrator lets us know everything though; Nick (well, Fitzgerald) tells the story in a way that reveals everything, or maybe just enough; I guess that is what makes the book so memorable.  

Nick is convincing; I believed he was "flesh and blood."  He was sympathetic and likable, intelligent.  He talked a strong talk, but I think he still possessed a strong naivet√© until the very end of the novel, when he ate from the apple of knowledge.  Nick is weak until the end; he does whatever his cousins or Gatsby ask him to do. I think also Nick is a lonely loner, and also a stranger in a strange land.  

Tom is also a strongly convincing character, albeit a very, very unlikable one.  His racism is disgusting (Fitzgerald throws in some racist language as well, although he is writing from a certain time period, but still).  He is a parasite of sorts, he seems to have no job and no friends.  Gatsby throws these big parties where everyone comes; Daisy and Tom seem to be the opposite, although all three are lonely.   Tom is a bully, and weak.

Daisy, Tom's wife, has a beautiful voice that everyone notices.  She, like Tom, is careless and at heart , cold and selfish.  People don t matter very much to Tom and Daisy.  She's apathetic.  She's not a good mother, or at least not an attentive, caring one.  She's not naive or innocent.  She is strong, in her own way.  Really, she's quite unlikable.  She's as unlikable as Tom.  

Jordan is far from innocent.  She is droll and observant, secretive.  She lies.  Nothing Jordan says can be trusted at face value. She seems modern (for the time), is intelligent and strong.  She's almost believable as a character, although perhaps since her creation has become a "type" - she appears in screwball comedies of the 30s as a wisecracker, like Ruth Hussey's character Liz from The Philadelphia Story.

Myrtle must be beautiful in a 1920s floozy sort of way, to attract Tom.  She thinks he's going to stay with her forever, which we know is probably not true.  Myrtle doesn't get a whole lot to say, but we can probably assume she possesses some sort of romanticism if she loves Tom that much; she's softer than Tom.  She's not so soft to her husband though, so we can also perhaps assume she's an opportunist.  I guess the question is: does Myrtle want Tom for him OR his money? We don't really know much about Myrtle's personality or motivations though; she's a fulcrum for the plot to turn. Her husband, Mr. Wilson, we know even less about.  They both represent the working class though as opposed to Tom and Daisy's more leisured existence.  

Gatsby seems strong; I guess his strength is measured on whether to think a romantic streak is strong or weak.  Carrying a candle for Daisy all those years, arranging a life so in order to eventually capture her, my midwestern sensibility purses its lips and shakes it head.  The type of person you are also indicates whether you think he's sympathetic or not.  I don't find him sympathetic at all; I think Daisy isn't worth it - although perhaps we don't know that until the end ourselves.  He is innocent, at least when it comes to Daisy.  Perhaps he's naive about Daisy.   

"What exactly does Kylie Jenner do?" was literally just asked aloud by our houseguest, who is on his Iphone (reading celebrity gossip, I suppose) and I think one could ask the same thing about Tom and Daisy Buchanan. I can't identify with them, just like I can't identify with the Kardashian clan (and loathe them, actually).  Tom and Daisy are like Kardashians, they do nothing, they are parasites.  They were worse than Kardashians, as at least the Kardashians supply jobs in the entertainment industrial complex.  
So Tom and Daisy remind me of Kardashians.  

We only know the characters by what we hear from Nick, as he tells the story from his point of view, so we are privy to his inner thoughts and actions.  However, I didn't come away from the novel thinking he was an untrustworthy narrator.  He's also not going to tell us everyone's motivations though, so we have to infer it through his storytelling, and their dialogue and actions.  We can infer that psychologically and emotionally that Daisy is cold, selfish and confused; she also is motivated by class consciousness and money.   Tom is emotionally cold and detached, and selfish, and racist.  Nick is detached and but by the end resilient and a good friend.  Jordan, droll and although in love with Nick, in love with class too.  Jay Gatsby, motivated by love and romance, and also by money, as a means to an end (to capture Daisy). 

The book is about Nick, I think, and how he grows and changes.  He's naive about people and life at the beginning, and at the end has a deeper, clearer, more cynical understanding of human nature.  He has his eyes opened about his beautiful cousin and her infatuation with wealth, how the upper crust can get away with murder, he sees the injustice.  

I think hearing the the end described as Hitchcockian is apt.  I don't feel like it was forced or heavy handed or manipulated.  If it may feel that way 70 years later, that's probably because we all know what's going to happen and it doesn't feel new to us jaded folks of the future; I bet  felt very fresh and real to those GIs discovering the book during World War II


It's ironic that Myrtle dies in the way she does, and then Gatsby gets killed by Myrtle's husband, and Tom and Daisy get away scotfree.  It's also pretty shitty luck for Myrtle, who really hasn't done anything wrong, other than screw around with the wrong guy.  I guess he has to be punished for this, but it doesn't seem fair.

I cheated - the internet says the title is ironic, because Gatsby isn't that great.  He's basically a bootlegger and a crook.  And he sucks at love too.

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