“The Great Gatsby”, F. Scott Fitzgerald

Ah, yes, The Great Gatsby.

This book highlights yet another of the pitfalls of being a precocious child: I first read it when I lacked the worldliness to truly appreciate it. I’m fairly confident that bits of it appealed to me, but it was nothing like this time. Nothing at all.

The book’s story is almost archetypal in its familiarity: boy meets girl, falls in love, they don’t get together, he spends the rest of his life trying to change that. What makes Gatsby so striking, so poignant, so noteworthy, is probably not the story itself, so much as the prose, the nostalgic melancholy, and the insights in to American society. Note, however, that I’m not going to comment on that latter point, as I would go round in circles and get lost. So let us look forward to the two other things.

A friend of mine told me that he stopped reading The Great Gatsby without finishing it. I find this astonishing, not because the plot is gripping (it’s pretty good), but because the writing is beautiful. Reading it is almost blissful. Fitzgerald uses language so vividly, so uniquely, that it is common experience while reading to encounter a completely unprecedented metaphor or turn of phrase that, nonetheless, is so apt as to seem perfectly familiar. Only a literary genius could describe:

  • an apartment as “one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses”
  • a disjointed conversation as “the broken fragments of the last five minutes at the table”
  • party chit-chat as “the echolalia of the garden”
  • the scenery at a party with “fresh faces drifted here and there like rosé petals blown by the sad horns around the floor.”
  • lingering regret as being “like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk.” or,
  • the late afternoon sky as being “like the blue honey of the Mediterranean”.

Writing that is this good literally takes my breath away. I’m reminded of trying to draw an apple for high school art homework, and my sister said not to draw an apple, but to draw the apple. The idea is not to pull images or schema from memory, but to portray originally. In the same vein, Fitzgerald’s writing doesn’t draw upon the literary equivalent of stock images. It is wholly original. The events are rendered in enchanting, impressive prose, that makes the very act of reading one of sheer delight.

There is also a quite intellectually-stimulating question, implicit in the text, regarding the past, how it affects us, and how we ought to let it affect us. This comes through Gatsby’s (the character’s, not the abbreviated book title’s) nostalgic melancholy.

What I mean by “nostalgic melancholy” is a pensive wishing for how things were. It’s a sort of melancholy, a loneliness, an emptiness, that is backward-looking, that wishes things had been different.

You see, Gatsby, when a penniless soldier, fell in love with the affluent Daisy. She reciprocated his love. Before they quite settled matters he was sent overseas by the army and she, in his absence, married the bland and boring Tom Buchanan. Now returned, and rich, Gatsby has established himself as the host of rather extravagant parties, all in the hope of giving Daisy and himself a chance to meet and rekindle their love. You see, the poor guy never really got over her.

Eventually Daisy and Gatsby do meet: Gatsby engineers this through their mutual friend Nick, the story’s narrator. Their love is reborn. As Nick observes (and Fitzgerald beautifully writes), “Her throat, full of aching, grieving beauty, told only of her unexpected joy.” But so much is different. She’s married, five years have past, he is different, she is different. Love alone, it seems, is not enough.

Fitzgerald has created an awesome situation here. Daisy and Gatsby, former lovers, are re-united. It would be so possible, so predictable, for them to get back together. But it doesn’t happen so easily. Daisy has her life, has a certain inertia therein, and can’t simply leave that for love. Each of us grows and changes and in the process learns from the past. To an extent, this process involves leaving the past behind, moving on, moving forward. And Daisy has moved on.

Gatsby really struggles with this. He isn’t content to be happy with the past. He insists that the present take on the same rosy hue as what has been, apparently blind to the impossibility of such. Thus, he wants to erase both the five years of separation that Daisy and he endured and the fact of Daisy’s loving Tom. Gatsby denies this latter fact, which is too much for Daisy:

“Oh, you want too much….I love you now – isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once – but I loved you too.”

However, Gatsby is not to be put off. The narrator has already discerned of Gatsby that “He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something.” Gatsby later asserts, “incredulously”, in response to Nick’s statement that one can’t repeat the past: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

We thus witness juxtaposed understandings of the significance of the past in relation to the present. Gatsby feels that the present should serve the past and, in fact, the future. He doesn’t care for Daisy’s current stability and security – he wants to create a shared, joyous future, founded on a shared, joyous past. Present be damned. Daisy, on the other hand, certainly loved Gatsby, and loves him now. But for her the hold of the present is stronger. She loves her husband, is happy with the status quo, and isn’t about to shake things up in an effort to recreate what has been. Wow.

Let’s leave it basically there. The book is brilliant. The writing is brilliant and the novel gets at the heart of a question that many of us have faced: can what has been be again?

Allow me to end this appraisal by quoting from the short novel’s ending lines, a conclusion that reveals both the startling magnificence of Fitzgerald’s writing and his thematic treatment of the past:

“[Gatsby] did not know that [his dream] was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, strech out our arms farther….And one fine morning –

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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