Everybody has a favourite book. Reading is something that is very personal to just us. Opinions are subjective and the way in which we interpret and understand the words on the page differs from person to person. So how is it, then, that a book can be widely regarded as great? How does a book become a classic, loved and adored by many for generations? That is something that I myself am not sure of, and if I had the formula to write a great novel, I most definitely would. I often think about penning a novel, you know just in my spare time if inspiration ever strikes (I have always been a keen writer, creative was my favourite in school), but I realise that I could never write as well as my favourite authors or even come close to reaching their level. I know that it is a mildly toxic way of thinking to measure your skills against others, but really, there’s no point in doing something if you’re not going to do it well – or be the best, which is my issue as I may be a bit of a perfectionist. One man who I idolise, as a writer though not fully as a person, is F. Scott Fitzgerald. Author to many of my favourite books and a man who I consider to be the writer we should all aim to emulate, if I, myself, could achieve a piece of work even half as incredible as his I would be eternally satisfied.
I would consider F. Scott Fitzgerald one of the finest writers of all-time. Every single book of his that I have read, I enjoyed. He has a wonderful way of evoking a certain period of time, a way of life that is unfamiliar to me but through his books I feel a part of. Perhaps him being a fairly modern writer, only about 100 years ago were his books written, helps me resonate with his prose. Whilst I can’t exactly relate to his characters’ situations and lifestyles, there are some universal truths and themes in his novels and short stories which reach us all.
Fitzgerald’s story is slightly sad. He died aged 44, after years of alcoholism and multiple heart attacks. But it wasn’t all negative. Born in 1896 to an upper-class family in Minnesota, he attended Catholic schools and enjoyed all the luxuries of an upper-class upbringing. All throughout his childhood, his literary interest and skills were noticed and during his time at Princeton University, the well respected Ivy League school, he worked on his craft. In July 1918, Fitzgerald met Zelda, who would become his wife and the couple lived in New York, albeit with little money as Fitzgerald continued to write and submit stories to publishers. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, a semi-autobiographic account of his time at Princeton was published in 1920, to much success (I am re-reading this book for the third time currently). Eventually, the Fitzgeralds became very wealthy and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, much like many of the characters in his novels. For most of the 1920s, he travelled to Europe often, enjoying Paris and the Riviera, and the wild and uninhibited lifestyle which the Jazz Age afforded. In 1937, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood where his descent into alcoholism continued. By this point his wife, Zelda, had well known mental health issues and was living in institutions on the East Coast. He became poorer financially and eventually worked on movie scripts for MGM and commercial short stories, which he is said to have found degrading considering his literary success with other novels. Then soon after Fitzgerald died. Although Fitzgerald’s life was short, he lived in a hedonistic manner and seemed to enjoy his success when he had it. In such a short life, he produced some of the best American novels to date, including The Beautiful and The Damned, Tender is the Night, his unfinished masterpiece The Last Tycoon (which is one of my favourite books and after reading the outline for his vision of the ending, would’ve been one of his best works), and finally, the subject matter of this very post, The Great Gatsby.
Although Fitzgerald wrote many great books and many more short stories, Gatsby stands out to me as the greatest (no pun intended). It is a novel that I studied in school, and I am so thankful that I did because studying it in great depth helped me understand and appreciate it on a level that I may not have before. Luckily, Gatsby is a book that is a part of the curriculum for most schools, meaning that the masses get an education on one of the finest books of all time. So what makes this his best work? Well I’d say that the magic of Gatsby lies in the fact that almost every single one of us can relate to it in one way or another. I always thought that something being relatable was a stupid idea, like when somebody listens to a song because they’re going through the same thing (think Taylor Swift = break up, Marilyn Manson = hating your parents/religion/government/society/life). That is an idea that I don’t understand. (I listen to Marilyn Manson and am content with most aspects of my life, I listen to Taylor Swift on the odd occasion too and I’m definitely not heartbroken). However, books are slightly different. When reading, you don’t have to see yourself in the character or even have experienced the same things, because if it were about sharing the same experiences none of us would’ve enjoyed Harry Potter because when it comes down to it, none of us go to a school of magic (or witchcraft and wizardry). What you do have to do, in my opinion, is to at least understand what a character is going through. Whilst you don’t have to like them or identify yourself in them, you need to empathise with them. Gatsby has a quality which means that everyone can empathise with the main character in some way, understand the actions of the other characters to a certain extent and hopefully identify the main concepts and deeper ideas addressed in the novel.
For those who haven’t read it, The Great Gatsby is a novel which chronicles the tale of Jay Gatsby, a self-made millionaire, and his love affair with Daisy Buchanan, who he met several years ago and has been in love with ever since. It is set in the roaring twenties, a period of moral and social decay, and captures the hedonistic time period in a tragic and haunting way. “Haunting?”, you may question my word choice here but really, when you think about it, Gatsby is a story that sticks with you. Since my first time reading it, the story has stuck in the back of my mind. You cannot forget it because it is so powerful. I have literally cried for at least 10 minutes thinking about it because it gets to me so badly. To summarise the story and completely ruin it for those who haven’t read it, or seen the various film adaptations, it is told by Nick Carraway, Daisy’s distant cousin, who has recently moved back West after the short time period in New York and the events that occur, the events which are the basis of the very book (which is meant to be sort of like Nick’s diary/account of his summer). Nick is very disillusioned with life after that summer during which various things happened. Firstly, he reunites with his cousin who is married to Tom Buchanan, a rich ex-polo player, and lives in East Egg, a typical upper-class area. Both Tom and Daisy are shitty people, to put it in basic terms: Tom is having an affair with a woman named Myrtle, who is married to a poor garage owner and is eventually killed by Daisy in a hit and run (Myrtle, not Tom). Daisy also has an affair with the titular character, Jay Gatsby, who is a shady but likeable character who has made his money in an attempt to win Daisy’s love. After the hit and run occurs, Daisy and Tom disappear and Gatsby is left to deal with the repercussions, which leads to his death. The end. It makes it all sound so trivial when you compress one of the greatest novels ever written into a mere few sentences, however that was just the basics of the story.
Basics aside, the story has a much deeper meaning. It is a novel filled with symbolism and greater truths which speak to all of us. The main theme of the novel is the American Dream, or more so illusion of it. For those who don’t know, the American dream is an ideal that many strive to achieve. In basic terms, it is the concept that if an individual works hard in the US, they can achieve all of their goals and ambitions, regardless of all factors which could be limiting such as age, race and gender. However, it is proven to be an illusion throughout the novel and is also shown to have become corrupt because instead of it being about wanting to achieve happiness, it is now just the pursuit of wealth.
Jay Gatsby had a dream, which was closely linked in with the American Dream, which was to win back Daisy Buchanan. When they first met, during the war, Gatsby was wearing a military uniform meaning his wealth, or lack of, was unnoticeable. Maybe this would make more sense if explained with a little background. Daisy Fay, as she was then known, was an upper-class, high society girl from a wealthy, established family. Jay Gatsby, on the other hand, was a poor, penniless man, the son of “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people”. Tom Buchanan, the man that Daisy married despite being in love with Gatsby, was also immensely rich and from a good background. The main reason that Daisy and Gatsby could not be together, beside him being deployed in the war, was their class differences which is another key theme of the novel. Tom and Daisy were upper-class, old money types. Their wealth had been established for generations and they had all the social skills and graces that were required in high society. As a result of this, their money was worth more socially and their standing would always be higher than Gatsby. Jay Gatsby, upon returning from war and realising that his lack of wealth would be a major preventative factor in regards to his relationship with Daisy, made a fortune in ways that could be considered unethical. He was involved with organised crime, demonstrated by his friendship with Meyer Wolfsheim, a notorious gambler, and as a result of this connection (or “gonnection”) numerous wild rumours surround Gatsby. Crime theories aside, Gatsby is new money and as a result of this, will never actually be accepted into Daisy’s social circle. It is an issue that is still prevalent in today’s society. New money is worth less than old money, purely due to the lack of social connections and perceived class and good taste that follow. Take Kanye West’s song New Slaves – I know what you’re thinking but let me ride this one out – in which he discusses the racism that he experiences whilst shopping. When he was poor, it was “don’t touch anything in the store” because he was expected to steal. Now that he is rich, it is stereotypical things that he is expected to buy; “Bentley? Fur coat? Diamond chains?”. I know that this song is in relation to racism, in particular towards blacks, but it could also be applied to the old money/new money theory as new money types are expected to buy things just for materialistic, showy reasons like the items Kanye describes in the song. Classism.
Another major issue in the novel, besides class differences, is the danger of wealth. It is characterised throughout the novel as something to be wary of. If anything, Gatsby is a precautionary tale. Tom and Daisy, both immensely wealthy people, are shown to be heartless, cruel human beings. Daisy is selfish and a coward whereas Tom is truly a brute; racist and misogynistic are only two words to describe him. Their wealth allows them to live in a way that normal people cannot. If you were involved in a hit and run tomorrow, could you disappear from the scene with no remorse? Move on with your life as if nothing has happened? They did. It was not as if the person killed was just a stranger either, it was Tom’s mistress, a woman he was meant to love or at least be very fond of. Daisy is also a very selfish person. In conducting her affair with Gatsby over the summer, knowing fine and well who he was, and then abandoning him and letting him take the fall for her unforgivable crime, she proved that. Each time I read the novel, I find myself taking a different stance on this area. I can never decide if Daisy ever truly loved Gatsby or not. I cannot, for one, sympathise with her however. There is a short scene, when just before her wedding to Tom, Daisy receives a letter from Gatsby. What is said in this letter is never truly revealed but I’m sure it is something along the lines of him aiming to better himself in order to be with her. Literally minutes before her wedding, she has a breakdown, crying hysterically and breaking the string of her pearls and letting them scatter all over the floor around her. Was this breakdown because she was in love with Gatsby and never thought she would hear from him again after the war then finally did? Was it because he explained who he really was? Was it because she knew marrying Tom was a mistake? Either way, she married Tom and had to deal with the consequences of that. And her reason for marrying Tom, although not stated but heavily implied, was because of his wealth. Yes, they had a nice time together and there was obviously some mutual feelings and attraction, but it was a loveless marriage really. Tom had affairs from the beginning and the couple were so unsettled, moving from place to place aimlessly that it couldn’t have been a comfortable or settled environment. The couple had a child that was rarely acknowledged in the novel; it seemed rather neglected by Daisy who had little interest in it, hoping only that she grew up to be “a fool, a beautiful little fool”. Gatsby seen the child only once. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether Daisy loved Gatsby or not? Was it just her lack of courage that prevented her from really leaving Tom for Gatsby? Or was it something more than that? Was it really that the affair with Gatsby was just a fun thing to do, a way to pass the time in her otherwise dull and unfulfilled days? Regardless, Daisy did the unthinkable and as a result, Gatsby, the only true hero of the novel, died.
Touching upon the word “hero” to describe Gatsby, I’d say he is an unconventional one. Yes, he may not have seemed fully heroic in the sense that there were many negatives to his character. Gatsby made his fortune via organised crime but really it was just a means to an end. Everything that Gatsby did was in the pursuit of his dream, something that can only be thought of as inspirational. Jay Gatsby was a man who, for all of his life, was committed to bettering himself. He completely transformed himself from someone very average and conventional, into the best version of himself. Completely selfless and wholly committed are words to describe him. What made the Great Gatsby both so tragic and enduring was his death. To me, Gatsby represented every man, every one of us. Gatsby was someone whom we can all relate to. He was a dreamer and was willing to do anything to achieve his goals. His death hits people so hard because it seemed so unfair. How is it that the only truly good character in the entire novel suffered the worst fate? How did Tom and Daisy escape unscathed? That is the real tragedy of the book. Gatsby’s death, sadly, represents the death of dreams. He fought for his dream until the very end and never gave up, despite all the obstacles he faced.
That is what we should take away from this novel, Gatsby’s resilience and fighting spirit. If we tried even half as hard as him to reach our goals, we possibly could. So yes, whilst the American Dream in its archetypal sense may be an illusion, or more of a mystery, real life smaller dreams can actually be realised. Maybe we should take Gatsby’s approach to life, and every day focus on bettering ourselves and becoming the individual who we strive to be. To me, self improvement is key to this novel, and key to life. That is what I took from the book, but what other people take may be entirely different. And that is what makes the Great Gatsby the greatest novel ever, we all learn something from it. Now let’s just hope we don’t all die on the pursuit of our dreams in the same way that Gatsby did…