Jennifer (aka EM)'s Reviews > The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Dec 30, 11

bookshelves: novellas
Read on December 30, 2011

I read my high school copy - just about every one of its brittle, yellowing pages marked up; each colour and number circled, as though Fitzgerald's ham-fisted symbolism was the most important thing. I certainly remembered the novel most vividly for all its golds and pinks and whites and 12s and flowers and ashes, and of course for the lassitudinous debauchery; that feeling that can only be described as "Gatsbyesque" with the full range of connotation that describing something as Kafkaesque has.

I re-read this because I wanted to remember the original, as it was clearly (and directly mentioned as) an influence on Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which I just finished yesterday and enjoyed very much. I'm glad I still had it lying around on a bookshelf, available to be read for the broader story which I can now more fully appreciate.

It bears re-reading for many reasons, but of course mostly for the dissolution. And disillusion. The hypocrisy and petty cruelties of the "careless people", who "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."

Talk about a story that holds up well (Occupy East and West Egg!).

"Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they'll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between ...". Well, Tom says black and white; but fill in the blanks with any contemporary Fox News-inspired illustration of the world going to hell in a handbasket. I don't know how this makes me feel: 1) I marvel at Fitzgerald's prescience, writing before the Wall Street crash of `29 but seeing the decadence of the age as a sure sign, if not of it, of something momentous to come; 2) I give in to that sinking feeling of inevitable, cyclical doom coming upon us, as similar as it feels to our current age of decadence, greed and selfishness.

What a perfect read for Dec 30th, the end of such a politically, socially, environmentally tumultous year!

I know The Great Gatsby has a revered place in American lit, especially if not primarily for that final few pages when Fitzgerald eulogizes in a sad and bitter summary the loss of the American dream, from "the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world" to the inutterable brilliance of: "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us."

But to this Canuck, as powerful as those final pages are and as big (and contemporary) as that idea is, the story that comes before it -- the more personal story -- is even better. These characters' amorality is so pervasive they are completely unable to act in their own best interests, beyond satisfying their most basic and immediate physical or emotional needs. They can't identify what is making them so sad, or what will make them happy. They are caught in their own lies and mean hypocrisies; trapped by their own social position and empty aspirations; cycling through the endlessly-repetitive and unfulfilling pursuit of sex, power, money, material things. And most of all, they are unable to care for each other as they could and should, and they don't realize that it is that which is at the core of their sadness, this 'takerism', this total absence of compassion, which really marks their failures of character. For they all fail - they fail each other, they fail themselves. All but for Nick, I suppose, although he is as buffeted by events and as amoral as any of them. (He has the good fortune to be narrating the tale and therefore can pretend he`s learned some kind of lesson. And maybe he has. Discuss.)

They all just get it SO WRONG. Most tellingly, some (most) of them never face the consequences. And it is here that the depth of Fitzgerald's cynicism shines through so clearly. God, it's like a huge weight bearing down on the reader, how cynical this novel is. It's not just disgust for the selfishness and cruelty being portrayed, or even sadness for the characters whose lives have ended - or whose lives continue in a compassionless vacuum devoid of meaning or purpose, which may be worse - but the very real sense that there is no possibility of redemption through insight for any of them. This is quite possibly one of the most hopeless books I think I've ever read.

For me, that`s why - as Elizabeth says in her fantastic review - Tom, Wilson, Myrtle, Nick, Mr. Gatz, they all break my heart.

What a great book.

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Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo what a great review!


message 2: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo i wish i could write reviews like you. i'm not fishing for compliments or reassurances. i really wish i could write reviews like you. you've got to muse, man.


message 3: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Dec 31, 2011 08:27AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) are you kidding me?!? YOU WRITE BEAUTIFUL UNTOUCHABLE reviews. I'm not sucking up to your non-fishing. I was just reading your Salvage the Bones review, and it gets at those things that are so deep and important about the novel, and expresses them so elegantly and with such deep feeling - those elements so important to you, and important to any reader. So you make readers want to read; and you make me want to read like you read and then write: with that depth of feeling and understanding.

There are reviewers on this site - you are one; Elizabeth, karen, Ceridwen (and more!! more!!) are others - who manage to integrate elements of their lives and selves into their reviews, so the things become so much more than a book review. You all are truly inspirational to me.

And this book, this book, this morning - there is so much more that needs to be said about it. I was annoyed when I started it - annoyed with my younger self and the teacher who taught it to me (a New Critic, and one of the most important influences on my life), but it seemed like he made me focus on all the symbolism and I MISSED THE STORY - THE MEANING OF THE STORY!!

There is so much more to this story in its mere 182 pages.

And I see you 2-starred it - so, it didn't open up to you?


message 4: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo thanks, jen. i think we are blind to our own achievements and keenly aware of the other's. it would be better if we were aware of our own, too, but that's not an entirely bad position to be, since we don't mind praising. :)


as for GG, i read it a couple of times in the first five years after i came to the US and it just didn't mean anything to me. american dream? please. impossibly rich people fucking around? give me something i can relate to. also, as i was just telling simon, i simply didn't have the tools (cultural, but also geographical etc.) to understand it. west and east egg? i spent HOURS trying to work out the symbolism of that egg stuck in the middle of somewhere-in-new-york. it didn't OCCUR to me that it might be a place! so, basically, i read GG as if it were a surrealist novel, and i understood nothing at all.

but i suspect that if i had read it in italian, with footnotes, i still would have found it very hard to relate to. impossible, really.


Jennifer (aka EM) I think you're totally on to something - this book offers something to Americans that we non-Americans simply can't fully understand; it just doesn't have the same resonance. Elizabeth alludes to it in her review (and/or possibly in the comments thread).

I was reading the reviews and comments by UK/Australian folks on my friends list here this a.m., and there is a clear division in response to it.

It's interesting to me that it is a part of every high school curriculum in Canada, or at least was.

I have the same problem with Steinbeck.


message 6: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo no, wait, steinbeck? he talks about the suffering of the downtrodden, doesn't it? that should be a pretty universal theme.


Jennifer (aka EM) but for some reason, he`s not on the curricula of most Cdn high schools, so I was never exposed - and then my reading just went in a completely different direction. To this day, I have not read a single Steinbeck - what should I start with?


message 8: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo oh i see. Grapes of Wrath. it's amazing. i'd read it again with you but i've got quite a reading challenge and cannot truly afford to re-read books, if you see what i mean.


Jennifer (aka EM) oh, i understand completely. Carry on.

(your rec is important to my 2011 BestReads infographic-listicle, in prep now.)


message 10: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo how can it possibly be, since you haven't read it? ARE YOU TRYING TO SEND ME ROUND THE BEND??? HEY? HEY? CUZ I'M TOO BUSY READING BOOKS TO FALL FOR SUCH SHENANIGANS!!

hey do you realize that Salvage the Bones is about a pitt bull?


Jennifer (aka EM) OMFG, it is: `Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull's new litter, dying one by one in the dirt.`

i can`t read that - Katrina and dying puppies, are you trying to KILL ME?????

(ps on the former, you`ll see, you`ll see!!!)


message 12: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo they are SO NOT dying one by one in the dirt! absolutely not!!!! did you read this in the GR description????

anyway, the pittbull is a sweet and much loved white female called china. she's one of the best things about the book. her and the boy who loves her so much.


message 13: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo also, stoopit GR description, skeetah gets china the best food available at the market, in large bags. the scraps are extra.


message 14: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo now, you may ask, is it all love and gentleness and the triumph of the human-canine bond? and i'd have to answer a reluctant no. :(


message 15: by KFed (new) - rated it 5 stars

KFed Salvage the bones was good. Not as brutal as it sounds.


message 16: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jan 01, 2012 11:16AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) I refuse to cry in 2012. Not a single tear will be shed by me over a book. A stupid book. Just words. On a page. Made-up words on a page.

No tears, no sirree bub.


message 17: by jo (new) - rated it 2 stars

jo hmm. don't read Salvage the Bones.


message 18: by Jennifer (aka EM) (last edited Jan 02, 2012 07:19AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jennifer (aka EM) I was being flippant about not crying in 2012 - I love to read books that make me cry, and many do!

But GG - no, it didn't make me cry.

I'm trying not to generalize, although I realize I am anyway, and I can only speak from my perspective as a Canadian - but I think that the gigantic metaphor, "The American Dream", born out of a violent revolution and a very specific historical, social, political, economic past - influences the American reader's read of this novel in a different way than the non-American's.

I have an intellectual understanding of what Fitzgerald was pining for here, but not an emotional or visceral one, other than to just appreciate the overall loss and sadness. I guess I can sympathize but not fully empathize.

It's really interesting that you mention Woolf and Fitzgerald as having a similar sense of loss - that is really dead-on, I think. And it's not coincidental, I don't think, that I relate to Woolf's characters with a similar one-step-removed emotional response.

Hmmmm.

I am right now doing a 2011 analysis of my reading (and having a devil of a time with the html), and this is an interesting perspective to consider.


Jennifer (aka EM) Precisely. My working class background limits my empathy for, as jo says, "impossibly rich people fucking around." (although Woolf's attention is focused on a broader segment - not quite the 1%, right?)

I'm not clear where Fitzgerald's own sympathies lie, to be honest. I get a sense of ambivalence from him, certainly from Nick who seems a stand-in for him (if that's not authorial heresy to suggest), when it comes to his admiration of the wealth and power, a yearning for it or at least to be around it that circumscribes whatever moral judgement he might feel about the methods of acquiring it or the behaviours of those who have it.

I should read more Fitzgerald, probably.


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