Monday, September 29, 2008

Required Reading: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy -- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

The Great Gatsby
is a classic tale of lost love, old money vs. new money, and a green light. Set in 1922 and published in 1925, this novel wholly captures the era Fitzgerald called "The Jazz Age" - the time between World War I and the Roaring Twenties.

With its straightforward depiction of disturbing relationships, brilliant narration, and beautiful language, The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels of all time. I hope that this post will encourage you to pick up the book, whether or not you've read it before, and see it with a fresh set of eyes.

Why I Think It's Great

I was a junior in high school when I first read The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing flowed, creating a beautifully tainted stream in which troubled characters tried desperately to keep their heads above water. I was most captivated by Nick Carraway, the character who narrated the story while everyone (Nick included) stumbled through fabulous parties and fierce parries, both physical and verbal. I loved the book so much that I waited years before I read another Fitzgerald book. I didn't want to hold it up to Gatsby, to compare the two books outright.

I do, however, easily see Gatsby in a lot of other stories. I created a Gatsby category at my blog so I could tag posts whenever I mentioned Nick, green lights, or tragedies in pools.

The novel is populated by imperfect characters who are fractured, careless, and heartbroken. Daisy, Tom, Gatsby - they're all broken, selfish, and greedy to different degrees. There are no heroes here. No one is blameless. Daisy wants her daughter to be a perfect little fool, and indeed, that's what Daisy herself is, if you think about it. Meanwhile, she calls her husband a hulking brute, and that's Tom, with his utter lack of shame. Gatsby wanted so much to impress and attract Daisy that he created a whole new persona. He moved so that he could be near her, yet he was reluctant to approach her.

Consider the tragic outcomes of their not-so-secret relationships. Some characters are victims of accidents, unexpected or otherwise, but perhaps, even then, some would argue that they are victims of their own making. The book makes it clear that money can't buy happiness, and that dishonest actions such as lying, cheating, and misleading others can have horrible consequences.

Nick, one of my favorite narrators ever, gets caught up in all of the mess, yet is removed from it just enough to guide readers through it. I don't feel as though he's an unreliable narrator, and I don't think he lied about anything that happened. I believe that he relayed his own thoughts and experiences. He observed what he did and shared what he saw and heard, revealing to readers the events of the story. He, like everyone else, is admittedly fallible, but he considers himself to be pretty truthful. I love this line:

Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known. - Nick, Chapter 3

Great Quotes

Last year, I opened The Great Gatsby to look up one particular line of dialogue, and I ended up reading the entire novel again in one sitting.

In addition to those I've already sprinkled throughout this piece, here are some of my favorite quotes from the book.

There was so much to read, for one thing . . . - Chapter 1

It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. - Chapter 1

"It takes two to make an accident." - Jordan, Chapter 3

"Well, suppose we take a plunge in the swimming-pool? I haven't made use of it all summer." - Gatsby, Chapter 5

From Book to Film

When we studied The Great Gatsby, my English teacher informed us that we'd watch the film after we finished the book and our subsequent essays and tests. When the promised day came, she popped in the VHS tape of the 1974 film. The first few scenes played out on the small television tucked in the upper corner of the classroom - and then my teacher hit the fast forward button on the remote. "I don't like Robert Redford," she said by way of explanation as we watched the first party at Gatsby's house zip by us on the screen. Shortly thereafter, she stopped the tape, turned the lights back on, and moved right along onto something else.

I apologize on her behalf: I'm sorry, Robert Redford. I will watch your performance as Nick someday, Sam Waterson. I have every intent to watch the 1926 silent film and the 1949 version as well.

"No . . . I just remembered that to-day's my birthday." - Nick, Chapter 7

Earlier this month, I quietly celebrated my birthday. I received a coupon entitling me to a discount off of a DVD purchase, and I - gasp! - used it. Yes, I actually bought something. What did I select as my treat? The 2000 A&E version of The Great Gatsby, which I had watched and enjoyed when it first aired. Paul Rudd was simply brilliant as Nick. I already thought well of him as an actor, so to see him bring one of my favorite characters to life was absolutely fantastic.

Sounding Off: What Others Had to Say About The Great Gatsby

In preparation for this piece, I posted a notice at my blog asking for opinions on Gatsby. The responses I received were varied, and I'll share them all now, even the comments from a friend who worried I'd be upset after I learned of her dislike for the book. She has nothing to fear; I understand that not everyone loves the book as much as I do. That was the point of this post: to give other readers the opportunity to express what they did or didn't like about the book. Educators, students, authors, bloggers, and librarians all weighed in.

I was fortunate when it came to reading Gatsby - it wasn't disemboweled through analyzing. I got to do an independent study my senior year - I chose the book - I chose the topic to write about - I sat through no lectures - and I finally really, truly figured out symbolism. It's made all the difference.

- Jackie, librarian

I love referencing Gatsby, which I've read about a dozen times and taught to sophomores in spring 2007. Here is my favorite analogy: Elvis Presley was a lot like Gatsby - desperately seeking the approval of the Memphis old money types, who loved to come to his parties and take his presents of cars and jewels and whatever, but who never fully accepted him as one of their own. He was new money, and a rock-n-roller, and though they enjoyed the spoils of his wealth, they still looked at him with disdain.

- Lara M. Zeises, author and teacher

I love Gatsby. I fell in love with this book, and with Fitzgerald, when I was 16. My mother than read it and discovered an authentic portrait of [Fitzgerald] in the back of an antique shop, covered with dust. She bought it, had it restored, and it hangs in my parents' living room. He was a Princeton student when it was painted. He was gorgeous.

- Beth Kephart, author

I liked Gatsby when I read it in high school, but I loved it when I went back and read it as an adult. I think a certain amount of life experience deepens the meaning in a lot of ways.

Incidentally, an English teacher friend of mine who has taught the book several times, was convinced that Coldplay's song "Yellow" was about Gatsby because of the lyrics and the symbolism of the color yellow in the book. I've since heard that the song was inspired by the phone book, but when I went to see Coldplay in concert and they got to that part of the beginning of the song where the electric guitar kicks in all loud and wailing, the stage was flooded with green light, which I think gives my friend's theory some credence.

- Ali

Gatsby stands as my favorite American novel of all time. To me, it's forever contemporary even though it was written in the 20's. As a writer, I appreciate its crafting - so many wonderful stories abound about F. Scott's editor Maxwell Perkins and all the revisions he made Fitzgerald do. It shows. Tightly crafted. Every word a pleasure. Tiny moments even, like when Nick describes Daisy's "wedding cake" of a ceiling and then in the next chapter juxtaposes Myrtle living in "one slice" of a row of apartments.

Nick is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Tells us he's "the most honest person he knows" and then proceeds to watch and participate in all the down and dirty that comes with unbridled wealth. Gatsby wants Daisy so much he's willing to morally bankrupt himself. [Recently I read] an editorial by Charles Krauthammer, referring to the possiblity that Obama (who I like, by the way) might really be just a mysterious Gatsby - the man no one truly knows but everyone wants to, the man who goes to his own parties but never really participates.

I could happily go on and on. It is a miracle of a book. Those last lines, "And so we beat on..." bring tears to my eyes each and every darn time.

- Joy Preble, author

It's been ages since I've read it, but I remember reading The Great Gatsby for the first time as a very intense experience. I disliked every character in that book passionately, especially Daisy, which actually turned out to be one of my favourite things about it. I love it when fiction provokes and Gatsby certainly does that. And the writing is incredible, of course.

Sometimes I'd hate [Nick], and then I'd turn the page and [think], "Oh, Nick, I like you." And then I'd turn the page... It just went up and down. I think a lot of that has to do with the other characters, actually, and my dislike for them. I often [thought], "Just walk away from all of this, Nick, before it's too late." Ultimately, though, I can't imagine a better narrator, and even when I didn't like him, I wanted him to keep telling the story.

I really need to pick it up again, and see what I take from it the second time around...

- Courtney Summers, author

I read The Great Gatsby about once a year. It is, without a doubt, one of the best books ever written. I think [Nick]'s the most likable unreliable narrators ever.

- A.S. King, author

I spent a weekend this summer in Newport exploring the mansions where the film version was shot, and then watched the movie [1972 version] the following night. Hubby fell asleep. I got depressed.

- Mitali Perkins, author

Required Reading: Why Gatsby?

I could go on and on about the symbolism in the story, or talk how and why this book is still taught in English classrooms across the country and around the world, but I'd rather let the novel speak for itself and let you, the reader, think of it what you will.

Tell me: Why do you think Gatsby should be or is required reading? Please leave a comment below.


courtney summers said...

This is more than a blog entry, it's a tribute, and a wonderful one at that. Well said, well written, well done. I'm gonna have to make a second date with Gatsby this October.

(But can I just say--poor Robert Redford!! :) )

I think Gatsby should be required reading because--just reading your thoughts, and what others had to say--there are so many ways it will resonate, it has the ability to reach out and impact people on many different levels. That's a wonderful thing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Courtney. I hope that you enjoy the book the second time aeround.