Jason Pettus's Reviews > The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Jan 19, 08

Read in January, 2008

(The full review I wrote of this book is much longer than GoodReads' word-count limitations. Find the entire essay at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com].)

The CCLaP 100: In which I read a hundred so-called "classic" books for the first time, then write reports on whether I think they deserve the label

Book #3: "The Great Gatsby," by F Scott Fitzgerald

The story in a nutshell:
Considered by many to be the best American novel ever written, The Great Gatsby is set in the years immediately following World War I (known as the Great War to his generation, in that World War II hadn't happened yet); it was an era known as the "Jazz Age," from a term that Fitzgerald himself coined in an earlier novel, a time of great moral confusion and upheaval around the world. And in fact, that's an important thing to know going into this novel, that it is as much an examination of a period in history as it is the unique story of certain fictional characters; the main reason to read the book, in fact, is to not only follow along with the potboilerish plot on display, but to indeed understand an entire generation of Americans and how they got to the point that they did. Because the fact is that the Great War left an entire generation in numb shock after it was over; turns out that no one quite realized the kind of carnage that could be caused by adding Industrial-Age machines to organized warfare, not to mention the millions upon millions of fresh victims who could be easily shipped to the front now via modernized rail, leaving a nihilistic shell of a generation behind in its blood-soaked wake. The youth that emerged from that war were very quick to discard the Victorian/Edwardian morality and mannerisms of previous generations, simply from seeing what it got them all; instead, this generation was the first to embrace free jazz, experimental poetry, pornography and more, done through a haze of illegal booze and drugs and with none of them really expecting to live past the age of 40.

It's among such a backdrop, then, that we meet a series of individuals from the Jazz Age, all of them connected in one way or another to a ritzy section of New York borough Long Island: there is Jordan, for example, the haughty pro golfer who's also a pathological liar; Daisy, a preternaturally jaded young wife and alcoholic; Tom, her blustery and frat-boyish husband; Myrtle, the swarthy mechanic's wife who Tom is having an affair with; Nick, the middle-class midwesterner everyman narrator of our tale; and a lot more, emphasizing Fitzgerald's point that such people tend to become interchangeable when met under the blurry lights of an endless series of cocktail parties. All of these people, however, hinge around the mystery man in the center, the charming and attractive Jay Gatsby (Nick's next-door neighbor, through a strange series of circumstances), who has so many rumors swirling about him that they are like an industry unto themselves: that he is a bootlegger, that he is a war profiteer, that he is a relative of the deposed Kaiser, that he was a secret agent, that he actually lives on a giant yacht that never pulls ashore.

What's the real story? And why does Gatsby go to so much trouble to cloud the issue? Well, to understand that is to understand...
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Linda Great review. I absolutely must second your point about the importance of the historical period in understanding this novel. I read it for the first time in 10th grade and just recently re-read it as I'm about to clear "the bottom rung of middle age." [Full credit to you for such a wonderful description of such!] In 10th grade, I was told it was A Great Novel, but apart from that, I have very little memory of what I read. (Something about a green light at the end of a dock...?)

Now, reading it for myself as an adult, it took my breath away to see how different my experience of the book was. I really don't think it's possible to fully appreciate Gatsby unless you look at it squarely in the context of its time period. You mention the nihilistic abandon of the shell-shocked (both literally and figuratively) post-Great War generation. It's also important to consider the technological revolution that was going at the time. It's no mere happenstance that bright electric lighting floods Gatsby's mansion, or that so much of the action hinges on high-speed travel in fancy new motorcars. It must have seemed a world full of all kinds of possibilities, some hopeful, many frightening, and certainly disorienting, to say the least.


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