Martine's Reviews > The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Jul 22, 08

bookshelves: early-twentieth-century, film, modern-fiction, north-american
Read in July, 1993

Like many people, I first read The Great Gatsby when I was too young to understand it. I appreciated the beauty of Fitzgerald's prose and his gift for describing scenes, but disliked quite a few of his characters and couldn't fathom why they inspired in each other the degree of devotion and obsession that they seemed to do. I also found the narrator a bit dull and the ending a huge let-down. In short, I was convinced Fitzgerald was a good writer (I actually went on to check out some of his short stories immediately afterwards), but couldn't see what all the Gatsby fuss was about.

I think I can see it now, having reread the book a couple of times since then. Yes, it's a novel about the American Dream -- a rags-to-riches story about a poor man who re-invents himself as a mysterious millionaire in hopes of winning the heart of the beautiful rich girl he has fancied ever since they were young. But it's also about the shallowness of that dream, and about the corruption inherent in it -- about the lengths to which people will go for success and acceptance, not necessarily in an admirable way. It's about the gap between dreams and reality, between reality and perception, and about how modern, status-obsessed America is increasingly on the perception side of the gap. It's an indictment of materialism, of the thin veneer of wealth which hides the moral decay underneath. And last but not least, it's a story about what makes us who we are. About how we are shaped by our pasts and backgrounds, and how, no matter how far we run and how hard we try to re-invent ourselves, we are what we are, what we always were. It's a depressing message for the would-be self-improvers among us, but a true one, I think.

Of course, the book also works on a shallower level. The Gatsby-Daisy romance is fascinating, even if both of its protagonists ultimately turn out to be rather vapid and deluded. And Gatsby's dream is nothing if not powerful. If it ends up failing, that's because it was based on wrong assumptions -- assumptions arising from ignorance and greed as well as hope. There's a lot of greed and ignorance in the book, and it makes for memorable (albeit heavily flawed) characters. (I actually believe Jordan Baker is the most interesting character in the book. I'd have loved to see a bit more of her, although I guess it's precisely her elusiveness which makes her so fascinating.) For his part, old-fashioned Nick proves to be an excellent narrator, whose 'provincial squeamishness' adds just the right kind of perspective to all the modern goings-on described in the book. Nick may be unspectacular and unreliable, but to my mind, he's one of the best narrators in the history of modern fiction. Now that I've learnt to appreciate the novel, his disappointment and disillusionment will stay with me for ever, as will his sad resignation. (If, in fact, that is what it is. One never knows with this endlessly subtle novel.)
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Shannon (Giraffe Days) Beautiful review Martine! I definitely had that impression when I first read it (and I wasn't all that young - 19, 20?), that there was some lovely bits of prose but the story - well, it grated on me.

I bought it recently so I could read it again and hopefully have a more positive take on it, as you did, but I fear that there are some books that just rub me up the wrong way and while I can see what they're saying I just don't want to give them any credit. Petty much? The Red and the Black was like that for me - I was so annoyed by the characters and their melodrama that I didn't want to give the book any/much credit for its themes etc. I'm trying though :)


Martine Thanks, Shannon! I definitely think you should give the book another try. I myself like it better each time I read it, and I've heard other people say the same thing. Apparently it's one of those books you don't really learn to appreciate until you're a bit older, have set out your own course in life, seen a few of your own dreams shattered, been let down by people, etc...

I can definitely see that The Great Gatsby might not be everybody's cup of tea. The characterisation is shallow (but brilliantly shallow, I think), and I can think of better, more thorough ways to criticise American society in a work of fiction than the one Fitzgerald employed here. But for such a short book, it packs a punch... if you can relate to the mood that pervades it. I find I can now.

For what it's worth, I didn't really like The Red and the Black, either, when I read it ten years ago. I wanted to admire it, but somehow I couldn't. Like you, I found it annoying at times. At some point I will give it another try, to check whether (like The Great Gatsby) it's the kind of book that improves on further acquaintance and/or with increased maturity, but I have a feeling it might just be the wrong book for me. Yep, some books just do rub you the wrong way. :-)


message 3: by Noran (new) - added it

Noran Miss Pumkin maybe i will open it up again this winter.


message 4: by Noran (new) - added it

Noran Miss Pumkin Great review!


Martine Thanks, Noran! I hope you enjoy your reread. :-)


Sarah Null I was 27 or so when I read this and my reaction was pretty much the same as your first paragraph.


Martine I can see why, Sarah. Really, I can. Yet I hope you'll give the book another shot at some point. It is a good book; you just need to be in a particular mindset to appreciate it, and I think you must have experienced some serious disillusionment to get into that mindset. Think of the book as a mood piece. If you can't get into the mood, chances are you won't get what makes the book so good. That doesn't mean it's a bad book; it just means that you and the book aren't the right fit. But you may be later...

For myself, I'm glad I gave it another shot. It wasn't a life-changing experience or anything, nor will I go so far as to give it five stars, but it was a good, solid, rewarding four-star experience. Nothing wrong with those.


Jude very nice!

there's a segment of Studio 360's American Icons series devoted to Gatsby and it is VERY good. I was a believer from the first, but then i dint read it in high school.

and the movie contributes odd bits of illumination, too, even tho it is so flawed.

& it introduced me to young Sam Waterson and the completely and eternally underappreciated Scott wilson...


Martine Thanks, Jude! Believe it or not, but I've never seen the movie adaptation. You make it sound like I should, though. Despite its flaws...

I'd never heard of Studio 360, but it looks fascinating! I'm going to download some of their lectures to listen to on public transport. Thanks for bringing them to my attention!


message 10: by Jude (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jude ok here's the thing about studio 360. the themes are wonderful the guests are stunning brilliant bristling with ideas and vision.

and the host is a grain of sand that has yet to show any pearl-like developments in my mind or imagination. people obviously love him. he works for many somebodys and i are not one: for me he is in the way of his own quite lovely product.

while you're there, check out the Icon segment bout Superman. One of the biggest forehead smacking experiences of the year for me.


message 11: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell But it's also about the shallowness of that dream, and about the corruption inherent in it -- about the lengths to which people will go for success and acceptance, not necessarily in an admirable way. It's about the gap between dreams and reality, between reality and perception, and about how modern, status-obsessed America is increasingly on the perception side of the gap. It's an indictment of materialism, of the thin veneer of wealth which hides the moral decay underneath. And last but not least, it's a story about what makes us who we are. About how we are shaped by our pasts and backgrounds, and how, no matter how far we run and how hard we try to re-invent ourselves, we are what we are, what we always were

Really beautifully said. It's one of my top favourite books (maybe the top).


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