F Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby

F Scott Fitzgerald - The Great Gatsby
Rating - 9.1

The Great Gatsby is a beautifully written book. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the sheer magic of the writing. Fitzgerald spins sentences of such wonder, such clarity and honesty, that we are left to do nothing else but shake our head in amazement. Jay Gatsby may be a great mystery, he may be the Great American Dream personified, but if he sparkles, then the novel itself shines.

Nick Carraway has decided, at twenty-nine to 'go East and learn the bond business. Everybody I knew was in the bond business, so I supposed it could support one more single man.' By chance, he finds a cheap house, a 'weather-beaten cardboard bungalow at eighty a month' that is nestled amongst the huge mansions of the rich. He doesn't know it to begin with, but he is neighbours with Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby.

Gatsby holds parties on the weekends, grand affairs of cocktails and party dresses, his house filled to the rafters with people, some invited, most not. He is endlessly hospitable, allowing his alcohol to be drunk, his food to be consumed, his pool, his books, his home - they are open to his guests. Guests, not friends.

He is a mystery. Nobody knows why he has these parties, though everyone attends. Just as nobody knows how he made his money, or who he really is. Gatsby, when he enters Nick's world, refers to him and everyone as 'old sport', a distancing technique that is prevalent throughout the novel. 'It was testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.'

But he is not completely unknowable, though the romantic beliefs about him are accurately held. No, Gatsby is more and less than the stories that surround him. He is in love, his mansion lies directly across from that of Nick's cousin, Daisy, an old flame he cannot let go. At her jetty a green light winks across the water, and it is this that Gatsby watches on lonely nights, nights which are filled with people who mean nothing, or nights he spends alone.

Gatsby is mysterious and alluring while he remains unknown. When his love for Daisy is revealed, he becomes more known and less ethereal, his character growing from an enigma into a person. It adds warmth and humility to his personality, and is something beautiful. 'He had waited five years and bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths - so that he could 'come over' some afternoon to a stranger's garden.'

But it is when Daisy 'becomes his' that Gatsby's character loses its shine and lowers to the ground. He is now a normal man, with the same strengths and weaknesses as everyone else. Perhaps there are more weaknesses - it is hard to consider cuckolding Tom Buchanan an admirable quality. Gatsby represents the dull, ordinary routine of a dream realised, that failed glow of actualised fantasy.

Nick's presence in the story has its own plot, but it runs adjacent to Gatsby. Perhaps Fitzgerald's greatest inspiration was to make Nick a 'supposer', to remove Gatsby from the immediacy of intimate narration and make him the refracted imaginings of Nick. 'I am one of the few honest people I have ever known', Nick says of himself. But Gatsby isn't honest, so how can an honest man understand someone's whose life is built on fantasy and deceit? More importantly, can an honest man understand someone who exists - has created himself - out of a love that has fallen into the past? He can't, which is what makes Gatsby, and Nick, so interesting.

Gatsby's love lies in the past. Fitzgerald refrains from sentimentalizing Gatsby as a younger man, but it is evident from the text that the sadness of his - our? - lives comes from an unwillingness to leave the past and live for today, or better yet, the future. Gatsby is sad and melancholy, a friendless man who wants a friend, an unloved man who wants to be loved. But can a man who only looks backward expect love or friendship in people that necessarily live in the now? He can expect it, but it won't happen. Romantic, yes. Fulfilled, never.

Fitzgerald's writing is beautiful, both understated and grandiose, mellifluous in its gentle rhythms. 'On the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of nonolfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.'

It is worth noting the quality of Tony Tanner's introduction in the Penguin Classic edition. He goes to some length to show that part of what makes The Great Gatsby such 'A classic, perhaps the supreme American novel' is what Fitzgerald cut out of the piece, not so much what he left in. He analyses passages in the first draft and their remains in the completed piece - it becomes clear that Gatsby can survive only as a mystery, with as little exposition as possible. So many times, what Fitzgerald cut was explanatory dialogue or comments from Gatsby, which would have dramatically weakened the piece. We cannot and should not know Gatsby, even when he becomes 'known' and explained by the text. He must remain a cipher, such that we can impress upon his impressionable facade anything at all that we wish. I say facade, because we cannot probe deeper into what Gatsby is. The Great American dream? Perhaps - but what is he, even with that? He's a mystery, and so is the dream.


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