The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It always feels a bit weird reviewing something considered a ‘classic’; I felt a similar way reviewing Flowers for Algernon a couple of weeks ago. How do you say anything that hasn’t been said before? You’ll be hard pressed to find any critic who won’t argue that The Great Gatsby is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century, and it’s wider themes are bold and interesting enough that it’s easy to see why. The failure of the American dream, a theme which I would argue is the prevailing characteristic of the American novel, is key here, but the actual plot is somewhat more lacking.
The narrator of The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway, a young bond salesman from the East who moves to the fictional New York suburb of West Egg, into a small house bordering the mansion of the enigmatic millionaire Jay Gatsby. Gatsby is prone to throwing lavish parties and gazing broodingly across the Long Island bay, and Nick is drawn into Gatsby’s wake, becoming entangled in his life and discovering the secrets of his past.
Fitzgerald shows a great ability to conjure a beautiful sense of place; New York has been written about possibly more than any other city, and it’s amazing how different the city can feel in the hand of different writers. Fitzgerald’s New York is dreamlike, ethereal and not quite real, in part artificially constructed by its residents and part greater than those who reside there. Gatsby’s mansion itself is an artfully constructed location, vibrant and full but also curiously sad and lonely. Gatsby’s superficial success, but truly pathetic nature, is perfectly encapsulated in the empty and barely used rooms throughout his mansion.
Not a huge amount actually happens in this novel, and the passage of time isn’t particularly well conveyed. Nick’s friendship and respect for Gatsby happens unconvincingly quickly, but this is a novel more about atmosphere than plot. I suppose the primary flaw of this novel is the unconvincing central relationship between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, Nick’s cousin, and a highly unlikeable character. I do wonder if this was the point though; at the beginning of novel Nick, the obvious audience identification figure, is as enchanted by Daisy as everyone else, but as the novel goes on he begins to realise just how shallow and self obsessed she is. In the end, Daisy is just another facet of Gatsby’s aimless ambition; he surrounds himself with shallow displays of wealth to validate himself, and therefore seeks a similarly shallow woman to share his wealth.
It’s hard to deny Fitzgerald’s raw literary prowess when it comes to his prose. This novel has that effortless beauty that only the best writers can conjure; this is not a difficult book by any stretch, with Fitzgerald weaving his language with clarity and creativity. If this is the standard of his prose, I most certainly want to read more Fitzgerald.
Gatsby is an undeniably interesting character, but we don’t really get much of a feel for his personality, beyond a series of quirky character traits (I’m going to struggle to not call everyone ‘old boy’ after finishing this one). He’s more a symbol for blind American ambition, a symbol as relevant today as it was in 1925. The supporting cast is strong, such as Nick’s likeably sardonic love interest Jordan Baker and the violent power of Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan.
This is a short review, because there’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. The Great Gatsby isn’t a perfect novel, and I’ve read better dealing with similar themes, but it’s certainly worth a read, if only as an example of what truly great prose looks like.