There are certain books that sit on most every high schooler’s bookshelf: a faded “Catcher in the Rye,” an annotated “Brave New World,” perhaps some Hemingway and, of course, the ubiquitous “The Great Gatsby.” These were (or should have been) staples of a young person’s literary diet, and while one could certainly look back and find trifling problems with most of these germinal titles (“Catcher” is just #firstworldproblems set 50 years ago, Hemingway is sexist and hates bulls, etc.), it’s much more difficult to harangue against Fitzgerald’s timeless masterpiece.
The magic of Fitzgerald’s writing in “Gatsby” is that it perfectly balanced a sense of feeling with a sense of story; to explain, every sentence has a poetic feel without being weighed down by indulgent tendencies. If you were to read through “Gatsby,” seeking to eliminate unnecessary sentences or to inject needed meaning, you would find the task utterly impossible. That’s how excellently Fitzgerald was able to connect his prose with his intent. Concise and kinetic, poignant but never cloying, “Gatsby” is a poem in novel form, all while being almost absurdly readable.
That being said, it isn’t usually Fitzgerald’s style that annoys those who hate his work: It’s the “inanity” of is plots and characters with the central figure of derision being Daisy. For example, why would Gatsby love a woman like Daisy (as if we ourselves were pinnacles of human decency)? Fitzgerald’s depiction of Daisy/Gatsby is an example of his profound understanding of love and its drivers. The book shows how more often than not, we love ideals instead of realities (green lights, Daisy, money, children). Its characters are driven toward false images of happiness in order to fulfill needs residing in their pasts; it’s not only a beautiful concept, but a painfully relatable one as well.
Other points of contention exist, and that short paragraph probably did little to quell the haters, but still, against it all, “The Great Gatsby” thrives on its sense of feeling. Even if certain scenes seem contrived, or characters overbearing, underneath it all is a heart of truth which embodies romantic, and gross, parts of humanity.
Is “The Great Gatsby” one of the greatest books of the last century? Probably. Does it have flaws? Of course. But what doesn’t? Fitzgerald resided in a period of American history tarnished by excessive greed and self-interest. Within this moment in time, he sculpted a modern tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. “The Great Gatsby” is wonderfully written, heartbreaking and insightful; a novel that should be on every person’s shelf.
I once fell in love with a complete buffoon: someone shallow, indifferent and flighty. He was the male equivalent of Daisy Buchanan: pretty, and with the emotional understanding and range of a slow clap. Perhaps I’m jaded. Maybe I’m biased because my own failed romance ended about as well as Myrtle Wilson’s life. But each time I sat down to read “The Great Gatsby,” I couldn’t get past the frailty of human sacrifice and the flaws behind the characters’ reasoning.
There are plenty of novels that benefit from exposing human nature: In fact, most respected authors spend years trying to pin down the exact expression of humility and emotional vulnerability in their writing. In that, Fitzgerald does a spectacular job. Each character is fantastically flawed, human and imperfect. If you didn’t dislike each character at some point, you’ve done an injustice in reading the novel.
My unhappiness stems from the overtly ungratifying depths to which the characters sink in the name of love. No doubt, I’ve been a fool while muddling through feelings. But it seems difficult to imagine a scenario in which, after witnessing my ungrateful, unfaithful true love run a person over, I would sit back and take the blame. It’s difficult for me to imagine a time in which I would take a mistress, find her struck dead and promptly take my wife on a vacation to rekindle the romance.
People are irrational. They are fearful and uncertain, but more often than not, the immediate need for self preservation kicks in. Furthermore, the desire to have and to own supersedes the desire to please. Had Daisy chosen Gatsby, I’d understand his reaction. Had Daisy not slept with Gatsby, I’d understand Tom’s reaction. But I can’t, and the novel feels incomplete: like something that had all the workings to be phenomenal, but instead falls right before the big jump. It feels like a cop-out to watch Gatsby die without confronting Daisy. It feels wrong to watch Nick be a casual bystander who doesn’t interfere, but has all the opinions.
The novel, as a piece of literature, is phenomenally written. Fitzgerald is a master of language, and it shows in each sentence. But the rationale, the logic behind the novel, is inherently harder to understand. It doesn’t have to be cut and dry. I don’t mind analyzing motives, I don’t mind accepting that certain characters are more flawed than others. I do mind making excuses for characters: witnessing them make mistakes that seem forced.
Is “The Great Gatsby” worth reading? Absolutely. Is it worth loving as much as every teenager seems to love it? Perhaps not.