Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Great Gatsby Revisited

          Like many Americans I watched the PBS series Downton Abbey  with great fascination, and the new season will explore the Twenties, a time of flappers and liberation after WWI.  This Christmas that PBS series will be joined by the release of a new film version of The Great Gatsby, based on a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and published in 1925 by Scribner’s.  If you are a product of public education in America you probably read this—or the Cliffs Notes—in high school.  A classic novel with layers of meaning, The Great Gatsby is well worth an adult read because it beautifully describes the human yearning to make dreams come true, often at a terrible price.  And—bonus—it contains only nine compact and enchantingly written chapters.

          In his novel Fitzgerald attempted to answer two questions about the nature of humans:  Can you repeat the past? Can you plan and work hard—no matter what means you use—to make your dreams come true?  

          The very first time narrator Nick Carroway observes the mysterious Jay Gatsby, he actually sees a shadow, a silhouette of a man, arms stretched out in the darkness toward a green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock.  Beyond that dock live Daisy and her husband Tom, members of the inherited money class, careless people who smash their way through life with total ambivalence toward the feelings of others.  Nevertheless, Gatsby remembers Daisy as the golden girl, the love of his life when he first left for WWI.  Gatsby believes it is their destiny to be together.  Can they repeat the past and make life again contain the innocent love they once had?

          Piece by piece the truth of Gatsby’s background comes together in a story woven of fairy dust.  He came from nothing but had the enormous imagination to remake himself into a glamorous image of wealth in order to catch the attention of the enormously rich Daisy.  His will alone pushed him relentlessly on in his quest for his lost love.  In that plan he surrounded himself by the new rich of the Twenties, scandalous people who had been in prison, bootlegged alcohol, and killed people.  But they aided him in his climb to reach the rich, well-guarded plateau of the Buchanans.

          Only tragedy can result when he finally recaptures his love, but finds the past cannot be repeated, innocence cannot be regained, and, in the morally corrupt era of the Twenties, his endeavor comes at a terrible cost. Despite his heartbreaking ending, Fitzgerald fills his novel with rapturous descriptions of perfect love and wondrous dreams, two of the uplifting themes that define human yearning.

          Nick Carroway, in the end, is left to explain that America was the dream of the old sailors who first discovered her green, untouched location, and they realized that this New World could become a place of great hope and dreams.  By the Twenties, however, reality had changed that dream into a place of moral corruption and hopelessness beneath its Coney Island facade.  Gatsby too did not realize that sometimes the very best of human yearnings get smashed in the very worst of human nature.

          The Great Gatsby is a literary classic and, as such, causes the reader to think about his own time and the nature of humans no matter what the time period.   “Classic” means a reader also sees new ideas he didn’t discern with the first reading.  If you haven’t picked up a copy of Fitzgerald’s book lately, think about doing so. It’s well worth your time.


  1. Professor Van Kirk:
    I was so excited to read your post on Gatsby as I have recently concluded the educator’s equivalent of a “maiden voyage” with teaching this novel for the first time in my Advanced English course. I have noticed that teaching great works is both a joy and a disappointment in that as a teacher I have SO much to say and comment on, yet, a) not enough time to adequately discuss each and every one of my copious annotations, and b) too few students enthusiastic enough to fully engage in an impassioned literary discussion. Sigh. It has been somewhat of a disappointment to find that not all learners (and not even all of the advanced learners) are exhilarated by a lit-centric tete-a-tete.
    While reading and re-reading this book for our unit in Advanced English, I, too, was moved by the desperation of Gatsby's attempts to re-live his past. An element that I found to be particularly intriguing was Fitzgerald's choice root Gatsby’s past in physical places or material objects-- most memorably the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, but also her home town of Louisville, among other places and items. In chapter eight, Gatsby describes (we, of course, hear this as commentary through Nick) how he traveled to Louisville while Daisy was away on her honeymoon with Tom.
    He came back from France when Tom and Daisy were still on their wedding trip, and made a miserable but irresistible journey to Louisville on the last of his army pay. He stayed there a week, walking the streets where their footsteps clicked together through the November night and revisiting the out-of-the-way places to which they had driven in her white car. Just as Daisy's house had always seemed to him more mysterious and gay than other houses, so his idea of the city itself, even though she was gone from it, was pervaded with a melancholy beauty. (Fitzgerald 152)
    This passage struck me because it is the quintessential representation of Gatsby's overactive imagination building Daisy up to be the "golden girl" that you discuss in your post. It seems that Gatsby is simply overcome by the grandeur of Daisy's lifestyle and cannot separate that from Daisy herself; for, as we see consistently throughout the novel, she is neither mysterious (other than her captivating voice, which also is "full of money") nor particularly “gay” or interesting. As the excerpt delineates, it is not Daisy who is mysterious and gay, but her house. It is not Daisy who provided the city of Louisville with beauty, but perhaps the city which provided a captivating backdrop for a mediocre girl. For these reasons it is obvious that Gatsby has misinterpreted his lust for Daisy’s lifestyle for a deeper connection. In the same way, Gatsby has attached his memories and need for Daisy to the places they visited in Louisville and not specifically to Daisy herself.
    I could go on but I’ll stop my rant! Thank you for posting! I thoroughly enjoy your writing!

  2. Great comments, Kate. I agree with you 100%. As I mentioned above in the post, TGG has layers and layers of meaning and themes. And Gatsby does lust for the life of the rich because it seems so easy, so refined, so beautiful, so relaxed. To someone like Gatsby it seems like another planet compared to the upbringing he had in a poor home with parents who had no imagination. You are so right about the trip to Louisville where he saw the mysterious and exotic house and again saw Daisy as the culmination of that kind of life. But he loves her too, so again there are so many layers.

    And Gatsby has such wonderful pictures like many of the iconic and imaginative moments in a Spielberg movie. (Think "ET" and the boy on his bicycle against the moon.) Such a moment is the night Nick finds Gatsby watching over Daisy, who--after a great tragedy--is sitting at her kitchen table making up with her husband. Gatsby is afraid Tom might hurt her but we know the opposite is true. And, as Nick sadly says, he left Gatsby there watching over nothing.

    It is such a poetic book with such depth of symbols and meaning. Definitely one of my favorites.

  3. I'm inspired to put this one on my 'read soon' list! It was so long ago, I barely remember it.