Jonathan's Reviews > The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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My essay on The Great Gatsby and reification

Why do I love The Great Gatsby?

A lot of people would likely agree with me when I say that F.Scott Fitzgerald's writing here leaves only a little to be desired. The characters themselves seem shallow and empty, lacking in morality and you could take all this into consideration and instantly go: 'well that's a shallow book if ever I've heard of one.' But in my eyes, The Great Gatsby is a scathing social commentary that explores the fruitlessness of pursuing dreams that in reality are nothing more than shadows. To that end The Great Gatsby is a brilliant piece of fiction designed to criticise the lack of morality of the rich and selfish individuals who feed off the work of the poor.

One of me favourite parts in this novel is the depiction of the Valley of Ashes, which ultimately all the characters seem to pass through in the novel whether they are rich or poor. It is a place of equality and reminds me of the idea of the 'Valley of the Shadow of Death' mentioned by the Psalmist, and in the novel itself Wilson relates those giant eyes to the eyes of God, a God who sees all that men do. To me that is such a brilliant image to present to the reader. It is imagery like this that haunts me from this novel and that I remember emphatically.

It is also the language of Fitzgerald's work that draws me in. It may not always be flawless writing but it is vivid and alive, thoughtful writing. It is the language of quotes such as the very opening lines that keep me enthralled by this book:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”


Of course The Great Gatsby will always be a polarising text due to its characters and the debate about whether it's really a novel about the American Dream. Is this polarising effect something that perhaps stems from the allure of the book - the way in which the novel hauntingly hints at something greater while remaining so brilliantly flawed? I certainly cannot fully explain my own fascination with the book, save that it does that rare thing that strong literature should do. It should be, as Kafka said, the axe for the frozen sea within us. And for me, that is what this novel is.

'To Dream, to Sleep'

It is often said that The Great Gatsby is purely about the failings of The American Dream. This dream being the idea that any man, woman or child in America regardless of race or upbringing should have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential and better themselves if they work hard and play by the rules. In The Great Gatsby the way in which Gatsby himself becomes the near legendary and wealthy figure of Gatsby mimics the idea of how anyone can attain power and a legacy in American society. (view spoiler) However, to consider The Great Gatsby as merely a tale about The American Dream misses the point entirely.

This is a novel that more seeks to depict a particular era of history and therefore preserve it and as a result features the failed American Dream as a central theme. The marvel of Fitzgerald's work is not in the prose itself, which is in itself marvellously poetic and a touch melodramatic (thereby adding to the sense of the era), but in the descriptions and what the prose hints at. Fitzgerald's writing in this book is as much about what he does not say as as much what he says. His narrator, Nick Carraway, is often described as the perfect example of the reliable narrator because there is no sense that anything is being hidden and yet despite using a reliable narrator Fitzgerald is able to weave language so that by omitting certain descriptions he leaves behind a haunting idea that allows the reader to fill in the gaps themselves as he directs. Think of it as like a painting where the artist has placed red and white close together to give the illusion of a pink blend being formed. This is what Fitzgerald does with his language.

The characters of this novel are in my view, perfect literary creations. They are not characters I would ever want to befriend but they are, in their own particular way, uniquely lifelike. Their dialogue (again, through the way words and ideas are left hanging cleverly by Fitzgerald) grants the illusion that the reader is observing a transcript of real individuals (and it may have been noted elsewhere that Fitzgerald did base some of the characters on real individuals he knew, however do not quote this as truth). Among the characters feature: Nick (the sole likeable character and the narrator), Daisy, Tom, Gatsby, Jordan Baker and Meyer Wolfsheim, all of whom are fascinating characters.

It is interesting that The Great Gatsby has recently been filmed again, and from appearances, filmed as a lavish spectacle of a film. In many regards this ironically misses the entire point of the novel and at the same time serves the novel very well as a vehicle of its themes. In the way that Gatsby himself throws wild luxurious parties, so the film is in itself a vehicle of the spectacular sense of wastefulness inherent in the novel. It is this hedonism, this wastefulness, that I perceive as the real underlying theme of the novel. The American Dream, to my eyes, is a mere side affect of the core idea Fitzgerald attempts to reconcile the reader with - the idea of flawed humanity. Why else would all Fitzgerald's characters be tainted with such particular flaws? Nick himself notes that he believes his flaw to be grounded in honesty, Jordan Baker's is found in dishonesty, Gatsby's flaws are in his profound naivety, Meyer Wolfsheim's flaws are in his sense of indestructible invincibility, Daisy possesses the flaw of being superficial and Tom possesses a narcissistic and supercilious streak to his persona.

"I couldn't forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to 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..."

What readers should see then is that The Great Gatsby is more than the novel of The American Dream. It is a novel about flawed ordinary human beings when you break them down and examine them. It is a novel that explores how ultimately equality can be seen in how all men must die and how all men will pay for their crimes or selfishness, perhaps not immediately but in the future. It is a novel about many things because it is a novel that does not limit itself to being one thing alone. It is a masterpiece, flawed in every way and perfect in so many ways.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

These are some of the most potent words to end any novel. They highlight the sense given by other quotes ("'Can't repeat the past,' he cried incredulously. 'Why of course you can!'") that time eventually catches up to all individuals and that humanity is bound to repeat various cycles or stages of its own history. In this regard perhaps The Great Gatsby could be seen as a pessimist's novel, a novel about the fruitlessness of human endeavour. Yet, to read it as such is to miss the sense of optimism Fitzgerald provides. Yes, he states, yes we do keep trying to push forward into the future believing in our dreams and in those unobtainable ideals. Yes, we do keep falling back into the past, a past we cannot, as Nick states, repeat. A past we cannot repeat and profit from. Our aim, Fitzgerald seems to urge, must be to learn from the past and to not let the current of history sweep us back into old cycles of life.

“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.”

In many ways the dream of The Great Gatsby is that humanity can learn to wake from dreaming. That humanity can stop being careless and fixated on the unobtainable. Gatsby's dream, Nick notes, "was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city." For Gatsby, in seeking to move onward and to go back to what he once had he forgot what truly lay behind and therefore failed. Because he himself had become one of those many reckless individuals in how he tried to reach his dream.

The Great Gatsby seems to be a keen warning and perhaps it is for this reason that it remains a polarising novel. It is the sheer mystery of it all as we go on reading and learning...
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Reading Progress

05/22/2013 marked as: currently-reading
05/22/2013 page 10
5.0% "Re-read, re-read, there's always time for a spontaneous re-read..."
05/24/2013 page 60
33.0% "Loving it all over again..."
05/24/2013 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-50 of 55) (55 new)


Sunny LOL! I just picked this up at the library last night. You and I must be on the same wave length this month!


Jonathan Maybe we should tune our thoughts to world domination... :p

Haha that's kind of interesting what was it: Russian authors and Percy Jackson already. You don't have a copy of Cloud Atlas floating around too do you?


Sunny No, no Cloud Atlas on the horizon for me. But, two out of three isn't bad. :)


Jonathan That's 66.66 percent so yeah it's not too bad. :D


Megan I keep meaning to reread this and your review makes me want to even more!


message 6: by Marjorie (new)

Marjorie Friday Baldwin Ugh, I never could get myself to finish this book--or read any other Fitzgerald. I'm sure he is capable of constructing a grammatically correct sentence, better than say, Mark Twain :) I'll take Twain's interesting and quotable insights ANY DAY over this guy. The only author I ever found to be MORE boring than Fitzgerald was Dickens (though Dickensian characters are always interesting) or Arthur C. Clarke (who typically doesn't even HAVE characters...or none I can remember. The man is in love with expositive and narrative to the point there is no story and just a setting) I'd rather read Dickens than Clarke or Fitzgerald--and that's saying something!


Jonathan His other work is not so good I must admit but as I said this is a polarizing text. You tend to love it or hate it. I personally appreciate aspects of all books I read. I love language in general and so I like Fitzgerald, I like Twain, I like Dickens and I want to read some Clarke in the future.


message 8: by Sarah (last edited Sep 08, 2012 02:12PM) (new)

Sarah WebbiegrrlWriter Well if you love reading prose that is just about the language, and you want to try Clarke, I highly recommend Rendezvous With Rama. The descriptive prose droned on and on--well-written but way too much of it for my taste. It's one of his more popular titles, too.


Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) While Dickens has a more functional, workman-like style at the core of his prose (though the rich descriptions offset this realisation somewhat) compared to Fitzgerald, I can't say whether I prefer one over the other.

For the 'Great American Novel', Twain is perhaps more timeless than Fitzgerald in that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a kind of basic power rather like Homer's Odyssey, but I think Fitzgerald's balance of perspective is at fault here rather than any comparative lack of depth to the work.

I've only read Clarke in translation, but I really enjoyed the Space Odyssey series. Science fiction often has a 'long-view for humanity' aim, so traditional characterisation and plot can become incidental in favour of this purpose.


Jonathan Twain and Steinbeck have probably written the better versions of the 'Great American Novel'. However much has to be said for Fitzgerald's ability to describe the
'Rolling Twenties' era and the general level of human selfishness that existed and still exists. Plus, this is one of those novels that made me love language again in a new way...


message 11: by Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) (last edited Feb 27, 2013 12:53PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) Yet to read Steinbeck, or Melville for that matter, though of this latter I've been told Moby Dick should appeal to my tastes.

I got to thinking when I was reading a comic adaptation just recently that the trouble with Gatsby is that the potency of this very setting, and the sleek style it's described in through the eyes of a narrator who gives a sense of being lost between eras, together detract from the more general themes (which bide their time till the end) for most readers.
Either the setting sticks with you and lets the rest of the story unravel or it doesn't and you come away feeling it's only a stylistic peculiarity; hence I think the polarised views.

You're absolutely right that the language is admirable on its own. It has almost a delicateness when it comes to quaint constructions and imagery which nevertheless flow easily. That said, I can't see it being less subjective, so there's a feeling to this novel to my mind that it embraces it flaws harmoniously rather than struggling to bury them with better qualities.


Jonathan I think that the flaws of the novel rather work considering how it is a novel about the flaws of humanity. It's rather a poetic work that I definitely agree you must feel the setting is organic and not detracting from the overall narrative.


message 13: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Heidin-Seek Great perspective, Jonathan.


Jonathan Ian wrote: "Great perspective, Jonathan."

Thanks Ian but unfortunately having not read the book for a while it's rather limited. I hope to expand it shortly with a re-read.


midnightfaerie Nice review. Agree about the valley and the quotes were a nice touch. When you get so involved in a story, sometimes you forget to enjoy the writing.


Cecily I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks the writing is not always as perfect as its so often declared to be (and I say that as one who gave it 4*).


Jonathan Cecily wrote: "I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks the writing is not always as perfect as its so often declared to be (and I say that as one who gave it 4*)."

It's not perfect but it is beautifully poetic. That's what I love about it personally.


Cecily Jonathan wrote: "It's not perfect but it is beautifully poetic..."

Some of it is, certainly (though it's not alone in that).


Steve I appreciate your basis for appreciation. Great review, Jonathan!


Jocelyne Lebon Great review, Jonathan. I want to re-read the book now.


Jonathan Cecily wrote: "Jonathan wrote: "It's not perfect but it is beautifully poetic..."

Some of it is, certainly (though it's not alone in that)."


Wait for me to finish re-reading and I'll try and explain what I mean. I love the prose for the most part in this book but I note how at times it's overly 'purple' and doesn't quite hit the same kind of notes as say Peake does. But it's very nicely crafted looking at it again, from a new linguistic perspective.


Lynne King Excellent Jonathan and your last paragraph says it all:

"The Great Gatsby seems to be a keen warning and perhaps it is for this reason that it remains a polarising novel. It is the sheer mystery of it all as we go on reading and learning... "


Jonathan Lynne wrote: "Excellent Jonathan and your last paragraph says it all:

"The Great Gatsby seems to be a keen warning and perhaps it is for this reason that it remains a polarising novel. It is the sheer mystery o..."


Oh good to know that the last paragraph works. I struggled with finding an ending for my updated review.


message 24: by Lynne (last edited May 25, 2013 01:33AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lynne King Jonathan, The beginning and especially the ending are inevitably the sentences that remain "in the mind's eye". I was told that at uni and also, anything important to say, always "do a Columbo" and mention it on the way out of a room or at the end of a conversation. Works too! Maintain the suspense...


Jonathan Lynne wrote: "Jonathan, The beginning and especially the ending are inevitably the sentences that remain "in the mind's eye". I was told that at uni and also, anything important to say, always "do a Colombo" an..."

Oh yes, it's very true. I always try to make a memorable opening or conclusion to my reviews/work in general. I've found that some of the best stories have very memorable opening and closing lines. This book for instance, The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit, Great Expectations, 1984... the list goes on.


message 26: by Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) (last edited May 25, 2013 03:29AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) I begin to think of this novel as not about flaws or shortcomings in fact, since these are peppered evenly in a broad view as you note, but how we're in the end different from each other by how winners and losers are picked depending on what each is willing to do (or significantly, not do) in order to bear with whatever they personally know of their own shortcomings. The social facade is really about safely exploiting one another.


Jonathan Yasiru wrote: "I begin to think of this novel as not about flaws or shortcomings in fact, since these are peppered evenly in a broad view as you note, but how we're in the end different from each other by how win..."

That's an interesting way of putting it. There is much of that to the novel, but regardless there is a point made by Fitzgerald that even if one perhaps attains a high level of authority or power illegitimately one can only hold that position for a certain time before one either succumbs to their inner demons or is dragged down by the world. Wolfsheim and Gatsby being prime examples of both aspects. It's why I find the element of the overlooking, judging eyes to be so fascinating in the novel. It's as if Fitzgerald is saying 'you others may be able to reach a satisfied self-serving level of hedonistic gluttony but eventually it will all come to a shocking end and who then will be left to attend your funerals?' The point I take from this novel always is the idea of live and be happy with the opportunity you have, not with the falsehood of reckless abandon in 'free' love and partying. Because if there's one thing this novel shows it's that nothing is really free and there is always a price. There's a very similar theme in another novel I studied at the same time I first read this: Ethan Frome and Other Short Fiction. Though, my edition is a stand alone novella.


message 28: by Manu (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manu Brilliant and complete review Jonathan...keep it up.


message 29: by Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) (last edited May 25, 2013 06:33AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) Inner demons yes, but for Gatsby it was proximity to his dream that was ultimately fatal. Looking beyond just Gatsby, it seemed the judging eyes were selectively cast considering the accident in the valley of ashes and how it turns out, which I thought was something of a subversion. The careless ones manage to move along with the flow, belonging in some way, while conscience is what at once awakens and traps the outsiders (Gatsby, as well as Nick). The novel certainly shows there's a price always, but the tragedy seems that the ones who accept it then see the exit, yet those who defer for a while more of empty decadence carry on without comeuppance. Nothing really changes on the whole, but those who remain adapt relative to each other. The parties and such are the stages for this social exploitation, where dreams and romantic ideals quickly wither away- the falsehoods have taken over the course towards the future.

Ethan Frome sounds interesting. Added it.


Jonathan Inner demons yes, but for Gatsby it was proximity to his dream that was ultimately fatal.

I suppose if we consider that he was directly opposite the bay where his dream was in sight but out of reach. The real error for me that Gatsby makes is in trying to exactly replicate the past.

The novel certainly shows there's a price always, but the tragedy seems that the ones who accept it then see the exit, yet those who defer for a while more of empty decadence carry on without comeuppance.

Which is where it is interesting that Nick as a narrator seems to take a back seat approach to everything. While noting that Daisy and Tom smash everything they touch and avoid comeuppance by making others take the social fall...


Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) That's what I dislike about Nick's viewpoint; it's too... dazed.


Jonathan Yasiru wrote: "That's what I dislike about Nick's viewpoint; it's too... dazed."

Dazed? As in there is a sense of near naivety or a sense of being awestruck by the individuals around him? I sense that in his narration but I love how reliable he is, the fact that he points out his biases and preconceptions where possible.


Maddie I didn't particularly like this book (thought it was alright, but nothing overly special), but to some extent I do agree with your review.


Jonathan Maddie wrote: "I didn't particularly like this book (thought it was alright, but nothing overly special), but to some extent I do agree with your review."

When I like a book's language and study into it they become more special to me. Dracula is another case in mind as is the work of Chekhov. I've found so much value in those books as a result...


Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) Jonathan wrote: "Yasiru wrote: "That's what I dislike about Nick's viewpoint; it's too... dazed."

Dazed? As in there is a sense of near naivety or a sense of being awestruck by the individuals around him? I sense ..."


Perhaps 'distanced' is a better way to put it. His observations and what he regards as significant don't seem to carry through to the character (as opposed to the narrator). This gap only closes after the accident.


Jonathan Yasiru wrote: "Jonathan wrote: "Yasiru wrote: "That's what I dislike about Nick's viewpoint; it's too... dazed."

Dazed? As in there is a sense of near naivety or a sense of being awestruck by the individuals aro..."


Another interesting view considering that Nick is the narrator. But I do see what you mean, there is a sense that he as the narrator isn't particularly involved in anything, choosing to stand back from it all. Which is perhaps why he works as a fine example of the reliable narrator - there are not really vested interests on his behalf.


Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) Have you seen the film yet, by the way? I hear mixed reviews.


Jonathan Yasiru wrote: "Have you seen the film yet, by the way? I hear mixed reviews."

Nope I don't intend to see it until it hits dvd or legal download etc. It looks to lack the subtlety of the written work.


Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) May be. All the positive comments seem to hinge around the looks and 'glamour', which is my main concern.


Jonathan Yasiru wrote: "May be. All the positive comments seem to hinge around the looks and 'glamour', which is my main concern."

Which is ironically what the message is against...


[Name Redacted] The fact that so many people read this novel (or, indeed, anything by Fitzgerald) as a celebration of the Jazz Age is pretty dang depressing.


Jonathan Ian wrote: "The fact that so many people read this novel (or, indeed, anything by Fitzgerald) as a celebration of the Jazz Age is pretty dang depressing."

Definitely. It's as much a celebration as any book depicting the Great Wars is a celebration of those wars.


midnightfaerie So true...


message 44: by Fran (new) - added it

Fran Is the english used in the book "complex"? im not a native speaker so i dont know if i should read it in spanish or in english.


message 45: by [Name Redacted] (last edited Aug 20, 2013 03:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

[Name Redacted] His English is very clear and precise, but there are idioms and cultural references which might not come through if you're not already familiar with them. Then again, reading it in another language will mean missing out on a lot too.


Jonathan Fran wrote: "Is the english used in the book "complex"? im not a native speaker so i dont know if i should read it in spanish or in english."

Fitzgerald's a precise writer as Ian said because he has a particular love of English. But yes there are phrases and senses that may not translate well...


Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog) Fran wrote: "Is the english used in the book "complex"? im not a native speaker so i dont know if i should read it in spanish or in english."

The language isn't difficult, though it has a very delicate flow to it, light, elegant and almost (fittingly, given the novel's themes) vain. This was what I enjoyed most about the book, and I expect it wouldn't translate too well. Some of Fitzgerald's metaphors are rather unique, and in this sense he's not all that idiomatically-rooted and traditional a writer. Besides, I understand the work is often read at middle school level.

You can try a few of Fitzgerald's (quite excellent) short stories for a bit of a feel for his prose in general then make up your mind.


midnightfaerie By the way, love the essay. Loved your inferences into the "American Dream".


message 49: by Jonathan (last edited Aug 20, 2013 05:46AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jonathan midnightfaerie wrote: "By the way, love the essay. Loved your inferences into the "American Dream"."

When you've done a lot of reading and study (my trip to the US focused on the idea of 'what is the American Dream about') into it it tends to help you write essays for uni reasonably well. My favourite part was learning the new term of 'reification' myself.


Jonathan Yay, a second review up to 100 likes. This calls for some celebration! Or something. Like a big party where everyone is invited. A completely off-topic party!


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