Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Great GatsbyIn The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald captures the flamboyance, the carelessness and the cruelty of the wealthy during America’s Jazz Age. The Great Gatsby lives mysteriously in a luxurious Long Island mansion, playing lavish host to hundreds of people. And yet no one seems to know him or how he became so rich. He is rumoured to be everything from a German spy to a war hero. People clamour for invitations to his wild parties. But Jay Gatsby doesn’t heed them. He cares for one person alone – Daisy Buchanan, the woman he has waited for all his life. Little does he know that his infatuation will lead to tragedy and end in murder.

As readers and writers, the hardest thing to accept is that you didn’t understand the intentions or purpose behind a piece of work. It comes with this stigma of unintelligence; that the author and your fellow readers who do ‘understand’ are operating on a higher plane of thought than you. In reality, it’s far more likely that a combination of the story structure, language style, and impossible or unlikeable characters threw you to the point where your mind didn’t want to understand and disengaged as a matter of self-preservation. That was the case when I read The Great Gatsby.

Scott Fitgerald’s writing is exquisite – he sure knows how to turn a phrase. It’s a pity that his plot dragged and his characters were equal parts boring and despicable. There were moments when I couldn’t distinguish one character from the other in dialogue, and I couldn’t bring myself to try to work it out. I knew I was in trouble at the first paragraph. Fitzgerald followed in Emily Bronte’s footsteps and uses a narrator that has the barest level of involvement in the actual plot, and comes across as a prying bastard that peers over his neighbour’s hedges and rummages through their underwear drawers. I think Nick is supposed to be a hardworking and slightly broke foil to the other characters’ ill gained wealth and excess. All I really know is that I hate this style of narration because it makes the whole story more unreliable, and I never know whether the unreliability of the account is deliberate, or simply a result of the flaws in the characterisation as a whole. Either way, the end result is a festering pile of past-tense exposition. Daisy and Jay’s ‘great love story’ is hinted at in fragments and then info dumped at the last moment. Even the events of Jay Gatsby’s death are told in past tense from a third character. What is the point of having a narrator who is respectively the cousin and neighbour of two protagonists, if he never actually talks to these characters about the plot points? Nick gets most of his information from Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker or Husband Tom. I felt as if everything actually interesting was happening behind a screen somewhere.

The only way I can excuse how unlikeable the characters are is to tell myself that F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing a social criticism. Daisy and Tom Buchanan represent the idle and frivolous rich who neglect their almost invisible child Pammy, and Tom’s mistress Myrtle and her husband are representative of the trodden down middle class. If that’s the case, then he did a bog awful job of it. I have no idea what the titular character is meant to be bringing to this critique of the Jazz Age. He’s a poor boy turned rich through dubious means. This might be an allusion to the unattainability of wealth. Perhaps Gatsby is simply there to parody traditional love stories. After all, Daisy and Gatsby’s ‘love’ was so unbelievable that it actually gave me a headache. I understand Gatsby’s original motives to get rich and rub it in her face, but the endless infatuation smacks more of obsession than love. It’s ludicrous that Nick and Daisy’s friend encourage this behaviour, especially after Daisy’s less than warm reception. I also don’t understand why Gatsby didn’t directly invite her to one of the parties, instead of turning on all of the lights, playing music, and hoping she showed. The only relationship that actually made sense to me was Tom and Daisy’s dysfunctional marriage, and that’s because the two selfish creatures deserve each other. Tit for tat affairs and ignoring children do not make an ideal home life.

To sum up – F. Scott Fitzgerald chose to exhibit his excellent vocabulary and (possible) social criticism in a novel written in the most boring and ineffective manner conceivable. The characters, their relationships, and the novella itself has been undeservedly glorified to classic status, probably because no one knew what the hell F. Scott Fitzgerald was doing and didn’t want to admit it.

 

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