THE GREAT GATSBY by F.Scott Fitzgerald (1926)

I have spent my adult  life feeling less than open-minded towards this novel.

I attempted to read it on two previous occasions but something about the glamorous exterior and privileged lifestyle it depicts made me think that this was not for me.

I have finally completed it, overcoming what I now realise was a wholly misplaced  prejudice.

I haven’t seen the movie adaptations so I read it without knowing Gatsby’s fate. If you are one of the minority who don’t know the story, this post contains spoilers so you should look away now.

F.Scott Fitzgerald in a Gatsby-like pose.

My misjudgment was in the inability to see beyond the superficial details of the novel. This meant that I perceived it as an uncritical celebration of wealth and luxury. I failed to appreciate that is actually a story of false hope and unfulfilled dreams.

Fitzgerald knew full well that the artifice of the so-called Jazz Age was built on shallow foundations that were crumbling fast. It is therefore a novel which is portentous rather than pretentious.

This great American novella contains writing of true brilliance, such as in the marvellous description of the valley of ashes, a road linking Egg on Long Island with New York, overseen by a brooding advertising hoarding with the “blue and gigantic” eyes without a face of  oculist Doctor T.J. Eckelburg.

The masterstroke is to have the story narrated by one who resolutely resists falling under Gatsby’s spell. Nick Carraway is a serious, even stern, young man who is both enchanted and repelled by the decadent lifestyle he witnesses.

This does not mean that he is blind to Gatsby’s charm and charisma. On their first encounter he notes that the man’s winning smile and gaze was so powerful that it made him immediately feel:  “It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey” .

Despite this, Carraway is not one to be as easily seduced as others, even when the parties at his mansions were in full swing. Instead, he says that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn” and ,near the end of the novel, says unambiguously that “I disapproved of him from beginning to end”.

Gatsby resembles an advertisement for an impossibly cool lifestyle and Carraway likens accounts of his apparently enchanted life to “skimming hastily through a dozen magazines”.  There is constant speculation about the true source of his enormous wealth; some say it was the result of an inheritance, others that it the fruit of illegal activities like bootlegging.

He is also a lonely, tragic figure:  “Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves”.

Although he seems destined to be a man whose star would shine briefly, the violent nature of his end still comes as a shock.

The description of the aftermath of his death is a truly astonishing piece of controlled writing. Fitzgerald could have given us the details of the murder by bluntly telling how Wilson shoots Gatsby as he lay on a mattress in the swimming pool and then took his own life. Instead, here is the amazing description of what Carraway sees:

“There was a faint, barely perceptible movement of the water as the fresh flow from one end urged its way toward the drain at the other. With little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool. A small gust of wind that scarcely corrugated the surface was enough to disturb the accidental course with its accidental burden. The touch of a cluster of leaves received it slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water.

It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the holocaust was complete”.

This is writing of the highest calibre. I read and re-read this incredibly powerful passage several times and remain in absolute awe of the subtlety and poetry with which Fitzgerald renders this terrible scene.

With Gatsby’s demise, there isn’t much more to say other than to observe the sad and pitiful turnout for his funeral. The caddish Tom Buchanan and his wife Daisy, the love of Gatsby’s life,  “retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness” while Carraway and unnamed others paddle desperately “against the current, bourne back ceaselessly into the past”.

The dream is over.

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