Published by Scribner on September 2004
Genres: Classic, Fiction
Source: my shelves
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The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and is probably the greatest representation of the Jazz Age (also known as the Roaring Twenties) in literary fiction. The story takes place in the summer of 1922–also the year in which F. Scott Fitzgerald himself coined the term “the Jazz Age”–and it encompasses everything which that era represented: money, crime, greed, ambition, rebellion and excess. It is full of wealthy people, big parties, drinking (against the laws of Prohibition), music and dancing.
Jay Gatsby is a self-made, wealthy man—his money made through various illegal enterprises—who is in love with Daisy Buchanan. They met five years before the book begins, in Daisy’s home town of Louisville. Daisy was a beautiful, very popular girl at that time, and Gatsby was just a poor military officer, but they fell in love and started what seemed to be a serious relationship. When Gatsby was shipped overseas, Daisy became impatient and allowed herself to be swept up by the very rich Tom Buchanan. Daisy married Tom, and when Gatsby returned to the states, he decided to devote his life to becoming rich and pursuing the love that he had lost.
When the book begins, Gatsby is living in a large house in a wealthy community on Long Island Sound, directly across the bay from the house in which Daisy currently lives with her husband. His next door neighbor, Nick Carraway, is the narrator of the story and also Daisy’s cousin. Gatsby befriends Nick by inviting him to one of his big, expensive parties, and then uses Nick to bring Daisy into contact with him again. Gatsby’s story then becomes one of hope, frustration and tragedy.
There are many different themes in The Great Gatsby, but I saw the main theme as being a kind of caution against wanting too much. Gatsby’s big dream (also the great American Dream) is to become wealthy, gain popularity, get the girl and live happily ever after. In fact, in Gatsby’s eyes, wealth and Daisy are one in the same:
“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…
Gatsby already has the money and popularity (which is more a product of intrigue and infamy), but if he can get the girl whom he also sees as part of his wealth, he believes he’ll finally be truly happy. Alas, as close as he gets to realizing his dream, the odds ultimately prove to be against him and the price he pays for his obsession is a big one. Gatsby doesn’t realize that his dream has already come and gone, that it’s in the past, and he’ll never be able to turn back time. In the end, he sacrifices everything for the sake of Daisy’s reputation and safety, and his money and popularity prove to be useless in the scheme of things. It could easily be argued that they actually played a major part in his downfall.
Time is another theme in The Great Gatsby and it is used in interesting ways. As Matthew J. Bruccoli points out in the Preface, “[the novel] uses some 450 time-words, including 87 appearances of time.” The story itself jumps back and forth through the events of that summer and Gatsby’s past (and actually includes a few chronological errors) and Gatsby refuses to accept the way time flows naturally, along with the many changes it is apt to bring. At one point in the story Nick is trying to convince Gatsby not to get his hopes up about getting Daisy back. Nick cautions Gatsby, “I wouldn’t ask too much of her, you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby replies, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” It’s as though Gatsby didn’t have a firm grip on reality; he imagined the way he wanted things to go and just naturally expected them to happen that way. It was as though Gatsby thought he could hold on to a moment from the past and bring it with him into the present and make it happen the way he wanted it to, whenever he wanted it to… it was as though he was (psychologically) living in two different periods of time at once.
I felt bad for Gatsby from the moment he entered the story. Sure, he had all that money, he lived in that big house on Long Island Sound, he owned an expensive car, he threw huge parties that lots of people would attend, and from a distance it seemed all those people just loved Jay Gatsby. But as I got further into the book, I realized that none of the people who attended his parties really cared for him one way or the other. In fact, some of those people really disliked him, mainly out of jealousy. These “friends” were the kind of people who took advantage of Gatsby because he had a lot of money. They were at those parties for the booze and the fun. Even the people who seemed to have a closer friendship with him ended up proving that they didn’t really consider him a friend. Everyone around him was there for a specific reason, none of which had to do with Gatsby as a person. However, Gatsby was just as much at fault for this as everyone else. From the time he was a child, he had a vision of himself that he vowed to make a reality; Jay Gatsby isn’t even the name he was given at birth. As Nick explains:
I suppose he’d had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people—his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s Business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.
Because of this, Gatsby could never really be close to anyone. He needed to maintain that air of mystery and aloofness with the many people who came to take advantage of the food, alcohol, music and dancing of his lavish parties. If anyone were to get close enough to Gatsby to learn his secrets, the entire persona he had made for himself would have been destroyed. Again, here is a prime example of the cost Gatsby paid for his success and his wealth.
The Great Gatsby is a very realistic look into one of the more interesting and exciting times in American history. Gatsby’s story is funny and sad, exciting and tragic. I have read two or three other books written by Fitzgerald, and The Great Gatsby is definitely the best of the bunch. If you enjoy reading literary fiction or if you’re a fan of the Jazz Age, you will definitely enjoy The Great Gatsby. I plowed through the entire book in one day and loved every minute of it.
(Click here to learn more about F. Scott Fitzgerald.)