Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Great Gatsby—overall impression

I wanted to have a thread on what other’s think about The Great Gatsby because I feel I’m probably in the minority. I enjoyed the language of the book—deceptively simple but rich all the same. But there was something that kept nagging at me, keeping me from fully enjoying it. I’ll try and condense my overall thoughts to a manageable-size post, but I’m sure I’ll fail at keeping it short while at the same time conveying my thoughts successfully. But here goes anyway…

I thought the invention of Nick as the narrator was brilliant. Having someone that is at first a detached observer but who quickly becomes an active participant in the story works extremely well. Nick is far from an omniscient narrator, but the later chapters sometimes include a swing from Nick the immature participant to (after a couple of years) Nick as a more mature actor and the change in language at that point stand out.

Symbolism is everywhere in the book and at times it felt heavy-handed, but there are some places I found it enjoyable. I wonder if Fitzgerald had anything in particular in mind with the billboard of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg. Some people take it as a symbol for God, but I lean toward a constant reminder of the moral blindness demonstrated throughout the book. And he could be other things as well…which shows how ambiguous some of the symbolism is in the book.

Where Fitzgerald really started to lose me was toward the end of the book as he pushes the story as a morality tale of the American Dream. Several aspects of this just didn’t ‘feel’ right to me.

• The first was the stress between the East (glitzy, shallow, amoral, hedonistic) and the West (grounded, moral). While showing the corruption of someone like Nick or Gatsby, that fails to explain Tom and Daisy. They were like they were before they reached New York, having to hightail it out of Chicago for some unspecified reason. There is more to the East/West split in the book than just that, and even the additional intention doesn’t ‘feel’ right. It’s almost like Fitzgerald wanted to portray the West as the closest thing to the American Dream still existing, with the materialistic East was a corruption of the Dream. To which I think California…gold rush…1849…. And other western events in its very founding that don’t seem to fit that message very well. To which you could say the same things about the east, although Nick's visualizing of the discoverers being overwhelmed by the new land ties a nice bow around the dream vs. reality theme.

• There is a strong generational struggle portrayed, with the younger set personifying the amorality and hedonism. Yet there are strong exceptions to that as well—Wolfshiem and Dan Cody were clearly immoral, as well as materially successful. The timing of having read Nathaniel Philbrick’s book Mayflower couldn’t have come at a more relevant time on this topic, serving as a reminder that the “American Dream” (although that’s not what they called it at the time) was going to hell started with the Pilgrims first generation.

• There is little middle ground in the book. There is an exquisite scene when Nick imagines Gatsby’s thoughts as his dream slips away from him. As he speculates on Jay’s feelings, Nick goes from the “old warm world” to such imagery as “frightening leaves,” grotesque roses, ghosts. A powerful passage, but the possibilities (as Nick imagines Gatsby’s world) can only either be an ethereal world, where dreams are still alive, or an ashen nightmare. Fitzgerald would probably argue that is because Gatsby’s dream itself is a corruption, but given Nick’s talk after this passage it strongly felt like a projection of his own disillusionment and lack of success. Which is why Nick could identify with him strongly after Gatsby’s death.

Again, the language is masterful, and I enjoyed reading it. There were no words not needed—you pulled one word or passage out and the book wouldn’t be as well written. And as I mentioned in the previous post, his use of time throughout the book was one of my favorite pieces—the exploration into the significance of the past in the present. The human ability to transform and achieve goals still does not free us from the past. Or as part of the concept was inelegantly put in the movie Magnolia, “we may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

There is so much more that I haven't mentioned. Feel free to add your thoughts on the book. I’m a numbers guy, so I may be way off the mark on things like this. But I always enjoy hearing how others feel about books, so add a comment!


Dwight said...

One additional thought that I kept thinking about while reading the book was that Fitzgerald didn’t have the luxury to see how history unfolded over the next 20+ years. While he was writing about hedonistic luxury and amoral shallowness, he couldn’t know about the Depression, the Dust Bowl, or World War II. People in the country, all through the country, were made of sterner stuff than he gave them credit for.

Is it unfair to judge the book based on that? I don’t think so it if wants to be declared a classic. As it is, the book is a fabulous period piece with some other themes that stand up better than others.

Mel u said...

I see the Great Gatsby as a period piece only its is diction-I found the constant use of the expression "old chap" annoying-but maybe it was meant to be annoying and show and affectation-I think the prose in the last ten pages of The Great Gatsby is very very beautiful -I see it as a classic of the 3rd order-