Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Great Gatsby

Shocking revelation forthcoming. Set your faces to stun! Here it is: I've never finished reading The Great Gatsby. Well, that is until last night when I read it in one mammoth sitting. Did you also know that The Great Gatsby is considered one of the greatest novels ever written? Often considered the quintessential Great American Novel? Well, I did. I felt it was my duty to read this book, and I'm upset with myself that I had avoided it for so long. Why? No reason in particular; I was always more concerned with other books and other literary movements. Modernism and I haven't always been the best of friends.

For those of you who don't know, this book is the story of Jay Gatsby, a young and rich party-thrower, as told by our narrator, Nick Carraway. Nick watches and records and promises not to judge as Gatsby has an affair with Daisy, a young rich woman that Gatsby knew before she was married. As the characters move from mansion to hotel to party, the affair comes to the light and Daisy's husband, Tom figures out the truth, leading to a disastrous conclusion. 

The novel is a searing indictment of the materialism and excess of the "Roaring Twenties" as Prohibition helped raise the caliber of organized crime, and money for everybody. It is also a blistering critique of the American Dream, the self-made man, and the manifest destiny inherent in a lot of American art.

This book is essentially critic-proof. It's a perfect novel. Once I had finished the novel, I understood why it is so highly regarded. Fitzgerald's unreliable narrator, the use of symbols, the use of language, the careful dialogue, everything.

I was reminded a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson's highly influential essays, "Nature" and "Self-Reliance", both of which I had to study in depth when examining early American literature.

In "Nature", Emerson lays out the idea that the new continent is free from history's long stretch, that we can appreciate nature with new eyes, that it's a blank slate. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe" he writes. In "Self-Reliance" the themes pertaining to The Great Gatsby are even more apparent. Emerson writes, 
"These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence."
This is a perfect summation of what Gatsby is trying to do.

Gatsby is the self-made man. He changes his name, which in literature is always synonymous with changing identity. He changes his history - his-STORY - and makes his own way in the world. Gatsby is the American Dream now, but it comes at a price. 

He stands aloof at his own parties, constantly an outsider, a voyeur to all that happens. The "old rich" are rude to him and ostracize him based on the idea that he's "new rich". He experiences paradigm shifts in his estimation of his own possessions in light of what others say. Jay Gatsby is a blank slate. He's beating back the steady movement of time, for there is nothing worse to Gatsby than the ticking of a clock.

If The Great Gatsby were only about Gatsby, then it would still be good, but not perfect. What makes this novel absolutely perfect is that the story is refracted through Nick's narration. He tells us right at the outset that he is not here to judge. He prides himself that he is one of the few honest people out there. 

But he's an unreliable narrator. The novel is full of small phrases such as "I suppose" or "I think" or "Perhaps". He's consistently making the observant audience second-guess him. Nick is proud of himself for giving Jay a compliment, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together." He tells us after this that he has always disapproved of Jay on moral grounds. This is definitely in stark contrast to his promise not to judge.

However many times Nick tells us that he doesn't approve of Gatsby, it's obvious that Nick adores him. After all, Gatsby is the quintessential American Dream.

Another thing that holds this book up is the plot's reliance on accidents. The conclusion of the book hinges on an automobile accident, but not only that, many of the relationships and friendships only start due to an accidental meeting. What's interesting is that accidents are the antithesis of the concept of the "self-made man", of the self-reliance, of the manifest destiny of the American Dream. A person who has created himself in a new image, and has created a new story for themselves can't have accidents and coincidences running amok. Accidents are messy; self-made men are neat and tidy.

I could go on and on and on and on about this book. There's just so much going on: the use of colours, the images of the moon and of the clock that Gatsby almost accidentally drops, the dialogue, the narration. This is an endlessly rich novel.

I often ultimately judge a book by how well it could be taught, that is to say, how much a teacher could get out of the book for a classroom full of students who are not all readers like I am. Definitely, The Great Gatsby is a book that I could form a whole course around. It is a perfect example of the American Novel.

As an aside, I purchased this book in the new Penguin Modern Classics imprint, the new design that Penguin's rolling out to replace the stark and beautiful blank imprint. Here's the two books I picked up by Fitzgerald:

Aren't those nice? I also got Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf in the same design. I absolutely adore Penguin Classics. I have a whole bunch, in different designs and different sizes, but they always look nice on a shelf, and the introductions are often fantastic. 

Thanks for reading.

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