Thursday, April 7, 2011
The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
The first thing that struck me about The Great Gatsby was its size. It is a very short novel encompassing only 170 pages. I was surprised as I expected a huge tome of a thing, and yet what I got was almost a novella rather than a novel. I found a local cafe and started it right away. It was interesting because the first two pages are quite complex in writing style , but from there on in it becomes less so and easier and quicker to read.
I was really struck by this brevity of the novel by the time I was finished. Fitzgerald has shown immense literary skill in giving the world a short and yet detailed novel of 1920's America. It reminded me of a non- fiction book on the Great War by Michael Howard. He compressed that world wide conflict into the space of just 120 pages. In effect it was a long essay. This brevity is a writing skill I admire immensely, and believe it takes a lot of skill to achieve. Fitzgerald compresses several months of his narrators experiences and observations into just 170 pages.
For me personally The Great Gatsby presents to the reader everything I dislike about money and the monied. As a novel it has gathered a reputation of the 'roaring twenties' with an affluent America swinging to jazz, and of the glitz and glamour of the decade. Fitzgerald could not have shown money any other way than through the eyes of those able to afford the then lifestyle. But this isn't what the novel is about as such. The glitz is a front to Fitzgerald's bald indictment on the uber-rich and their attitudes to those poorer than them and the neuve-riche like Gatsby.
It is all quite repugnant as Fitzgerald's narrator, Nick, moves amongst a couple he knows. Daisy is a distant cousin. She is young, beautiful, totally pampered, and ignorantly unaware of what poverty is. Her husband Tom, is an arrogant white supremacist bore, who has so much money that he doesn't really have do much of anything. They are 'old-money' and every inch of it in thought and behaviour. Nick may move among their circle but he is never comfortable with them, and slowly comes to realise they aren't nice people. In short the novel shows what too much money does to the sole of those who have it.
Jay Gatsby is their neighbour and 'new-money'. He is initially a shadowy figure who no-one really knows anything about. He throws lavish parties which the rich and famous are not shy in inviting themselves to. They are shown as drunks with no respect for property, whether their own or not. In short they are nothing but spoilt brats. Nick is be-friended by Gatsby and likes him. He is likable because he has never forgotten his roots as poor white trash. At first we don't know where his money comes from, but it is later revealed he made it from selling boot-legged liquor. When this is found out Gatsby's so-called friends all disappear as he is seen, and looked down on by the 'old-monied', as 'new monied', and viewed as worse than scum.
It is this attitude of money that is the central theme to the novel. Daisy's husband finds out about her having met and loved Gatsby in the past. He digs around and finds out how he made his money and uses it against him when Gatsby and he are fighting over Daisy. Daisy knows her husband is having an affair and is a detestable man, but she goes with him in the end for money, and out of pure snobbery. She knows old money is more secure than new and won't risk her 'place' in society. She herself isn't a particularly nice person and nor are those around her. This is all borne out when she hits Tom's mistress and lets Gatsby take the blame as it was his car. She runs and hides behind her husband and their money instead of showing some moral courage.
Tom and Daisy are quite despicable people. As things fall apart for Gatsby Nick tells him that he is better than them and worth two times the people they are. In one sentence Fitzgerald sums up the super wealthy and what shits they are. The reader can only be appalled at how Tom and Daisy retreat behind their money to save themselves out of pure snobbery and distain for the new kid on the block. They are shown to be the revolting human beings they are. Gatsby, the innocent, is murdered by the killed woman's husband in the mistaken belief he was driving his own car. Not once do Tom or Daisy say anything to the contrary. The book ends with Gatsby being buried and all of the socialites who attended his parties being notable for their snobby absence. Again wealth is shown to be nothing but usury when it suits itself.
Nick meets Tom weeks later in town. He tries to justify his and Daisy's actions and shows no remorse for them. He is wealthy so why should he be the one to pay? Nick is disgusted and leaves New York. He cannot forget or forgive what they, and others like them, had done to Gatsby in the end.
As stated earlier this most famous of American novels shows to the world in quite blunt terms what the super wealthy are like in attitude to those with less. Money corrupts the sole and Tom and Daisy are superb examples of this. It may be something of a love story but again it shows how the attitude of either having money or true love is irrelevant as there is no substitute to wealth . In essence they are all hollow shells of people with no real redeeming features. Not once does the reader like the rich and powerful, and sees them for the users they are. Gatsby throws great parties, but when it is time for him to be acknowledged they all act like ostriches and treat his memory as that of a leper.
All the way through I felt nothing but disgust and loathing for the wealthy. If this was Fitzgerald's aim then with me he exceeded extremely well! It is a superb novel and its brevity can only be marveled at because it says so much with an enviable economy of words. It is a sad but true indictment on the jazz era, the so called 'roaring twenties', and the moneyed facade it hid. It was an era for the rich alone, and anyone without was seen as trash. Nothing has changed really has it??
It is regarded as one of the very best novels of the Twentieth Century. It is hard to disagree and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I will say this though, great novel that it is my disgust at what Fitzgerald's enlightenment of the wealthy does will never see me rate this as one of my favorite books. It is too true to life and for me isn't entertainment. I like escapism in fiction, but The Great Gatsby only reminds me of what I read for, to escape, not to be reminded of what I'm trying to escape from.
Click here for my review on the film adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow: