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Bill

The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald

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I recently re-read this novel as a RL book group choice. I first read it in my teens a long while back.

 

Despite the fact there was nobody likeable, with the possible exception of the narrator Nick, the story and the setting and the quality of the writing really engaged me.

 

I liked how through the narrator Nick we get to know the truth about Gatsby in a piecemeal fashion, adding to his mysteriousness: how he made his money and also the background to his relationship with Daisy. His feelings about her were the most honest emotions in the novel. More honest than Daisy’s I felt. Dishonesty in various forms - emotional and criminal – is a major theme.

 

I thought the author conveyed very well the superficiality and carelessness of the smart set who frequented Gatsby’s mansion. You get a glimpse of what they’re like quite early on when Nick makes his first visit to Tom’s place – both Miss Baker and Daisy have different sorts of affectations, one with her contrived haughtiness and Daisy with her absurd little laughs and fluttering. In contrast Nick makes no bones about Tom being thoroughly unlikeable. Tom, besides anything else, is a two-timing hypocrite. But he and Daisy both are accused of being ‘careless people'. As Nick has worked out '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 ending is sad and pointed when none of these smart people come to Gatsby’s funeral (except the man who'd been in the library) despite Nick trying to drum up some support.

 

The music and the alcohol and the glittering lights of the gatherings at Gatsby’s are evoked very well and the almost desperate gaiety. The reality is sordid. The American dream is a very mixed bag.

 

Like Kimberley I really admire this novel.

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I have now read this book 3 times, the first in High School (it's a standard high school text in the United States), the second when one of my children read it for school (proving that it's still a standard text), and this time for a book club where I make an annual appearance because a good friend of mine hosts it.  This was the first time that I got anything out of it and I liked it better for that.  But I didn't love it, in contrast with the everyone else who read it for this book club.  Their discussion was the most active one they've had since I've been making my annual appearances.

 

I had always found both Gatsby and Daisy to be total ciphers, but I've decided that that was on purpose.  Gatsby has so thoroughly reinvented himself that it's hard to tell who he really is except that he undertook all of that reinvention in order to win Daisy away (in his view, back) from her husband.  He rightly concludes that Tom's money is what was attractive to Daisy, but fails to realize that Tom's social standing is, too.  And Gatsby will never be able to have that.  He can be rich and a war hero and say "old sport" all the time, but he will never be one of them (although his children could have been--see next paragraph).  He's just so West Egg when Tom and Daisy are East Egg.  Daisy knows that, which is why she marries Tom.  I can't fault her for her decision because she had so few options.  That's why she was so sad about having a daughter.  A daughter is stuck with the same choices she is stuck with.  This is one of the things that makes me believe that Daisy had strong feelings for Gatsby, even though she didn't run off with him when he wanted her to.  She didn't think she had the choice.

 

It's hard for me to understand why Gatsby is so crazy about Daisy to be honest, but at least some of it, again, is that she has the social standing he so desperately wants.   This is often described as a very American novel and I think that that's why.  There are plenty of people in the United States who came from nothing and became something very rich.  The first generation is self-made and possibly a bit rough around the edges, but the ones after that have been raised to be part of the Daisy and Tom level of society.  The Kennedys are a good example of that, but most of the families that made a lot of money in the late 1800s and are now considered "great" American families had a history like that if you go back far enough.  And often the money was made through criminal activities.  

 

Tom is really a complicated character.  He is clearly used to his entitlements and doesn't brook any interference.  The casual way he broke Myrtle's nose was shocking.  She has high hopes for her relationship with him, but they are foolish.  She'll never get anything from him.  He recognizes that Gatsby is in no way a threat to him, even if Gatsby does not.  And he's right.  He's a very casual racist, but I think most people were then.  Every now and then, though, he sees glimpses of the costs associated with his world view and he at least stated that he would mend his ways in order to keep Daisy.  I think if he hadn't shown some tiny bit of humanity, he would have seemed like an exclusively bad character and Fitzgerald didn't want that.

But he was involved in an important way with each of the deaths that close the book.  His affair with Myrtle is what made her run out to the car.  And he's the one who told Myrtle's husband that the car was Gatsby's in order to get Gatsby out of the way.  He's not even embarrassed about it.  And Myrtle's husband kills himself because of the heartbreak over his wife's infidelity and death, both of which were tied closely to Tom.

 

 

One of the book club attendees last night teaches Advanced Placement American History and he has his students read this book when they get to the post WWI era.  They are all excited and want to have a Roaring 20s party and then they read and discuss the book and realize that it isn't all about how much fun the Roaring 20s were.  Fitzgerald was an expatriate at the time and it's pretty clear in this book why he decided to leave the United States.  Apparently, that's true in his other books as well.  I know lots of people who just love his writing, but I'm not one of them.  Interestingly, that's also how I feel about Hemingway.  I just can't connect.  I think some of it, though, is that I resent that this is the book that everyone reads in high school these days, when Faulkner's books are no longer part of the standard curriculum.  

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I have just finished this and I enjoyed it.  I loved Fitzgerald's prose and the story. My copy says on the back that it's one of the great novels of the twentieth century, I'd argue with that.  It was a nice short story and I enjoyed it.  

 

I'd take Faulkner over Fitzgerald any day, but then I'd take Faulkner over every body any day.

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