The Great Gatsby. It was not in my youth nor, I suspect, in my salad days. I had some maturity, I believe, but apparently not enough to fully appreciate the magnificence of the Fitzgerald masterpiece. I must have read it with an eye to finishing it rather than focusing on the course itself.
So much of my reading through both graduate school and my working years dealt with non-fiction: histories, historical studies and criticism, didactic monographs—instructional pieces if you will. It was always the end and/or the thesis of the book that was important: the pages in between were either expository or instructional. It was easy for me to carry that approach to the written word over to fiction. I probably read much fiction in my more youthful days as if it were a mystery story—an Agatha Christi-- with the solution or the answer or the punch line in the final chapters. It was the end that rewarded the reading.
With The Great Gatsby as with so much of great literature, the pleasure is in the journey—in the slow development of the story and not just in the mystery of Gatsby’s life or in the story’s resolution. Fitzgerald elegantly chronicles a world of privileged people decaying in America just after World War One and during Prohibition. It was America’s Jazz Age and Fitzgerald captures one part of that world pitch perfectly: its decadence and decline interwoven with the epoch’s remake of medieval Europe’s Courtly Love (how else to understand the relationship between Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan?).
Here, for example, Fitzgerald’s description of Nick Carroway’s first encounter with Daisy and her friend, Jordan Baker:
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown back after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.
It is an image that catches exactly the sultriness of wealth. The reader can both see and feel dissonance.
Or, as another example of Fitzgerald’s writing, consider the scene toward the novel’s end when Nick finds Gatsby floating dead in his swimming pool:
There was a faint, perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb its accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water.
Here an image that captures the novel’s sense of suffocation and discord. And again the wind, that is a constant in the novel by either its presence or absence.
Ultimately The Great Gatsby chronicles a contemporary tragedy built around the themes of infidelity, jealously, rage, greed, and moral decay. The Great Gatsby defines a social consciousness that continues to this very day to thrive among part of America’s segmented society.
I am not certain how long ago I first read