After not reading for over 20 years a little chat about what I was studying led to my Mum reading and loving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel ‘The Great Gatsby’. If you are a little intimidated by classic literature, a literature student studying Gatsby or just someone wondering what to think of it, and even if you are none of those - read on.
Disclaimer: There will be MAJOR spoilers!
In this conversation we talk A Level analysis, why bother reading at all, movie adaptations and of course was Gatsby really that great? Before that - I just needed to add a little student preamble seeing as this is probably the only time I'll get to write about a text we studied for two years -
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
After a turn of events that still feels like we are living inside an Orwell novel, the Covid-19 saga has left many of us students with a lot of knowledge but nowhere to put it. Gatsby is the kind of book I've grown to appreciate both as a student and now as simply a reader. It gives us distilled moments of tragic existential beauty and then life continues, as 'we beat on' - something that feels pretty apt right now. One take away has been to ensure we learn from the tragic observations and heroes we read from the past, not become them. Before heading onto the conversation I'll end with a James A. Baldwin quote that feels fitting with Gatsby,
"People are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them."
Slightly self-pitying student ramble over.
Reading Again, Meeting Gatsby and the Importance of the Narrator
So you’ve just been, well finished, reading Gatsby, what was it like picking up a book again and why now?
Well first thank you for getting me interested enough to read again! Lockdown has meant a lot of free time and the way you talked about The Great Gatsby made me think 'hm maybe I could give it a go’. Like a lot of people I lost the motivation to read after finishing school and needed that push of confidence and inspiration. It definitely helped having someone to talk to, share the excitement with and make me think much deeper about the text. It was such a distraction from everything I forgot how thrilling reading could be.
So what did you find after a few pages into reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ and when you finally met him?
To be honest at first I just felt ‘well..where is he?!’, this ‘great’ guy is in the title and you only get glimpses of him for the first few chapters, but there are so many other characters and events that it doesn’t frustrate you and you do actually forget that the book is actually about Gatsby. The title really heightens your expectations so I found meeting him very anticlimactic - Nick doesn’t even know who he is at first. However Nick’s adoration for Gatsby grows on you and I think he becomes greater to us as they become closer. The film is something that really captures the way Nick sees him, and so I guess the way we're meant to see him at first too.
Definitely and I think Fitzgerald wants you to be underwhelmed at first. That reminds me of what I was saying earlier about the importance and unreliability of the narrator.
Yes it’s odd but before I’ve never really thought of the person who’s telling the story as involved in the narrative much themselves, but after you reminded me about how we see everything through Nick, I was much more thoughtful about his perspective. I started to judge and compare the characters more critically.
And I guarantee that parts you do or don’t believe when hearing versions of Gatsby’s history tend to match the views of Nick. The narrator’s elevation of Gatsby stops us from seeing him as someone stalking a lady after a single night 5 years ago, and who is so obsessed that he bought a house opposite but has never had the courage to actually talk to her! He tragically transformed his destiny for a woman who had moved on - it feels like he was fated to pay ‘a high price for living too long with a single dream’, especially for one based on appearance not authenticity.
On that note is Gatsby ‘great’, and secondly is that your answer or Nick Carraway’s?
Oof - I did not think about that! I was going to say yes, Gatsby is great but I suppose it is because of Nick and his glorified presentation of him. It definitely depends on the reader, but I’d say he’s not ‘great’ but he’s not not great either! There is a humble simplicity and vulnerability about him despite all his wealth which makes me see him as a foolish but very ambitious victim - not just a great hero.
The Hero vs Villain, Class and Setting
When I studied Gatsby as a tragic hero one of his tragic flaws often came up as hubris or pride. But whilst he is naive and possessive, I believe that he isn’t corrupted or proud of his money, it’s more of a means for him to achieve greater visions.
He is definitely not portrayed as arrogant or at least not when there are characters like Tom Buchanan around. I noticed, in the film especially, how he is polite to every class of person - guests but also waiters etc.
Yes, as one guest says ‘He doesn’t want any trouble with anybody’, and his outstanding etiquette almost prevents him from climbing that social ladder as he doesn’t share that inherent self-entitled arrogance of antagonist Tom Buchanan.
What did you think about the way class is treated in the book?
What I liked about class in the book was how Fitzgerald doesn’t concentrate only on rich upper class luxury; we get an insight into people from all walks of life. It really hits you when you read or see the contrast between the lavish parties and the suffering lives of people like Wilson in the Valley of Ashes. (This startling contrast is depicted by two different settings from the film below)
Exactly, and all in the first two chapters. The valley is this rotting by-product of the consumerist excess of the time, and the short distance between the two extremes emphasises the darker results of living recklessly in 1920s America. Combined with the irony of the mass drunkenness despite the Prohibition era, Fitzgerald really shows us a society that entangles everyone in corruption from which even the moralistic Nick can’t escape. That reminds me of how Fitzgerald unknowingly foreshadowed the Great Depression.
Yes - it’s amazing that he subconsciously predicted how this almost sickening way of life was going to go from a complete high to a complete low. Gatsby did give an open door to so many people but this kind of generosity can’t exist for long and it didn’t in real life either.
The Gatsby/Daisy Dilemma and a Corrupt Society
Do you think Gatsby was asking for too much from Daisy?
What I didn’t understand about Daisy is whether she really wanted the excessive luxury Gatsby was offering or whether she actually just wanted him. She wants to run away with Gatsby but why doesn’t he take that up?
True, perhaps what Gatsby felt for Daisy wasn’t really love. He adored what she represented, a challenge that would solidify his movement up the social classes. It’s not objectification in the same way as Tom Buchanan's attitude to women, but Gatsby’s ‘love’ focuses on erasing the past and creating an image he pictured of Daisy rather than a real life with her. He can’t leave his mansion as without that he becomes ‘Mr Nobody from Nowhere’ and his protective shell is broken. There is an absurd stubbornness about what he is asking for which in a way is both admirable and ignorant, and makes us question whether it is really Daisy he is in love with or the American dream she represents.
If that’s the main plot of the book covered - what did you feel at the end of it and at the end of the film?
In both it was very saddening the way Gatsby ends up being treated by society after offering so much to so many people and despite his criminality you never feel he is an immoral or ‘bad’ person. The way person after person is so unapologetic about not turning up to Gatsby’s funeral, and Daisy not even sending a flower is tragic. It is only Gatsby’s Dad, who he pretended didn’t exist, and Owl Eyes, who he proably barely knew, who turn up - it really is so pitiful.
Yup. Daisy becomes a villain too when she jumps ship and literally gets away with murder. That point about Owl Eyes being the only one from Gatsby’s parties who turns up when ‘they used to come in the thousands’ just adds to the tragically weak legacy of the character.
It makes me think though how even today people care just as little though.
Yes and that’s a question I wanted to ask, why do you think this book is important and has it made you think about any larger themes?
I suppose the way Fitzgerald presents the rich and the poor in a more complex, less straightforward way. One thing that stood out when watching the film was the contrast between the mourning for Myrtle in the crowded garage vs Gatsby’s empty funeral with only press there. The extremely poor people in the Valley of Ashes still respect human beings and as you get involved in corrupt money-centred ways of life you lose your morals and well - yourself.
Definitely. That is reflected in the way Nick struggles with being ‘within and without’ that lifestyle. The difference between him at the start as an optimistic man ready to read and work, to the spiteful, disgusted and lost individual he becomes after experiencing so many intoxicating situations shows how self-destructive this kind of society is.
But you can be successful as long as you remember who you are - unlike Gatsby. All the characters in the book are ‘wrong or bad’ in their own way. Nobody's really innocent, even Jordan has a dodgy past!
Exactly. Fitzgerald shows us how we are all members and sustainers of a corrupt society - there is no one real hero or villain (although avoid this kind of point in an exam if asked to analyse the hero or villain- but it is an interesting personal perspective to have!). Thanks Mum for taking the plunge into reading again and having a chat about The Great Gatsby with me, maybe you’ll inspire other people out there who were just as unsure about where and whether to start!
Thank you! I would definitely recommend the book, especially to people like me who want to read the classics but doubt whether they will enjoy them. It goes at such a good pace and despite its short length it is so full of life.
Until the next Lit Chat, Over and Out!