on 1 May 2013
F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with inventing the term "The Jazz Age" to describe the 1920s, and he is often regarded as the greatest chronicler of that age in fiction. Today the "Roaring Twenties" are often regarded as a brief, prosperous, carefree and hedonistic interval between the war-torn 1910s and the economically depressed 1930s, the age of jazz, of cocktails, of Art Deco, of flappers and of the Charleston. Like all attempts to summarise a whole decade in a single phrase, or even in a single sentence, however, this one can never be more than a half-truth. The decade was certainly a time of relative prosperity in the United States (less so in Europe), but it was also an era haunted by memories of the Great War and its attendant bloodshed and by a sense of foreboding about the future. The era's much-vaunted hedonism can be seen as the reaction of a largely urban, well-to-do minority against the Puritanism of the not-so-silent majority. This was, after all, the decade of Prohibition and of ultra-conservative forms of religion, exemplified by the notorious Scopes trial in which a schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching evolutionary theory.
Jay Gatsby, the central character of this novel, is a quintessentially Roaring Twenties figure. Originally a North Dakota farmboy named James Gatz, he served with distinction in the United States army during World War I and then went into business, becoming a self-made millionaire, wealthy enough to afford a luxurious mansion where he hosts lavish parties. Gatsby's mansion is on the North Shore of Long Island, an area with so many wealthy residents during this period that it became known as the Gold Coast. The sources of his millions are originally obscure; at times Gatsby claims to be the son of a wealthy San Francisco family, at others he makes vague references to the drugstore business or to oil. Eventually, however, it emerges that he has made his money though bootlegging, and possibly other illegal activities.
The story takes place during the summer of 1922, in New York and on Long Island, and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a trainee bond salesman and a neighbour of Gatsby's in the village of West Egg. (Fictitious, but based on the real Long Island community of Great Neck). The plot revolves around the web of relationships between Nick, Gatsby (who becomes a close friend), Nick's cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. The Buchanans live across the bay from West Egg in the neighbouring village of East Egg. Their marriage is an unhappy one, and Tom has taken a mistress, Myrtle Wilson, the wife of an unsuccessful garage proprietor in a run-down area of New York, named by Fitzgerald the "Valley of Ashes". Myrtle and her husband George will play important roles in the novel's denouement.
One of the novel's themes is the American class system. Some Americans would claim that theirs is a classless, or at least a meritocratic, society, but Fitzgerald shows that America also has its forms of class distinction, perhaps more subtle than those that exist in Europe but no less real. Gatsby's lie about coming from an established San Francisco family is only partly inspired by an understandable reticence about the real sources of his wealth; part of the reason is that, in a society which maintains a sharp old-money/new money distinction he has no wish to be regarded as a parvenu. Even so, he makes his home in the "new-money" enclave of West Egg, East Egg being the preserve of traditional "old-money" families like the Buchanans. His modification of his original, German-sounding, surname "Gatz" may have been motivated by wartime anti-German prejudice, but another factor may have been that an Anglo-Saxon surname carried more cachet in high society. He makes use of characteristically upper-class expressions such as "old sport", which annoy the genuinely upper-class Tom Buchanan.
"The Great Gatsby" is a novel of its time in that it analyses 1920s New York high society and in its allusions to the literature and theatrical productions of the period and to contemporary events such as the "Black Sox" scandal of 1919 or the notorious Rosenthal murder case. Fitzgerald makes use of genuine buildings in and around New York, such as Pennsylvania Station or the Plaza Hotel. Automobiles, a relatively modern invention in the twenties, are frequently mentioned, and play a key role in the plot. It is not, however, a celebration of the gay Roaring Twenties; its tone is one of pessimism rather than of hedonism or gaiety. Jay Gatsby is at heart a melancholy figure, who derives little pleasure either from his wealth or from the extravagant parties he throws.
In other respects this is a very traditional work. Fitzgerald writes a poetic literary prose, eschewing modernist devices such as the "stream-of-consciousness" style associated with contemporaries such as William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf. The plot centres upon that very traditional device, the love triangle. Daisy is not only Nick's cousin, but, it turns out, Gatsby's former girlfriend; the two were at one time very much in love, even though she ended up marrying Buchanan instead.
The reason for Gatsby's melancholy is not so much disillusionment with his opulent lifestyle, although that plays a part, as nostalgia for the past, for a time some five years ago, before he made his millions but when he and Daisy were in love. His one great obsession is with returning to that time. When Nick objects "You can't repeat the past", he replies with a defiant "Of course you can!" His melancholy is heightened by his realisation that Daisy's marriage has been a failure and that in breaking his heart she has also broken her own, and he cannot help wondering whether her life, as well as his own, would have been happier had she married him rather than Buchanan. (Having had a similar experience myself, I can certainly identify with Gatsby on this point).
"The Great Gatsby" is today widely regarded as a literary classic; it is even one of many novels to have been hailed (in that overused cliché) as the "Great American Novel". In my view its reputation is well-deserved. Fitzgerald combines a fluent prose style with sharp social observation and perceptive psychological analysis. He succeeds not only in capturing the essence of an era but also in creating a flawed but compelling hero who serves as a timeless everyman. There is not enough space in this review to discuss many aspects of the book, but I will close by saying that I found very helpful the introduction and notes by Professor Ruth Prigozy in my edition. (Oxford World Classics).
So, like most people, i used CGP notes while doing my GCSE's and found them mostly good (especially on the poem anthologies) - the humour though, while sometimes fun on many occasions got in the way of serious learning and the notes were brief when dealing with full length plays and novels.
Step in York Notes. For my A Level English i got one of these books for each of my set texts and they were massively helpful in prompting class discussions, writing essays and revising for the exams. They offer detailed chapter summaries and analyse them in an extremely informative way.
There's quotes too, maybe a little too few, but the ones they pick out are good and then at the end of the book you get a wealth of extra info relating to characters, themes and symbolism. If you're an A Level English student or a parent who wants their kids to do well, i'd get these notes - they make your life a lot, lot easier.
on 21 October 2016
The Great Disappointment.
Honestly, that is how I have come to refer to this book. I had such great expectations… only for everything to be… well, disappointing.
I’d been meaning to read this book for a very long time. Recently, I started up a book club at work. We decided to start with a classic. I thought ‘hey, it is my chance to actually sit down and read The Great Gatsby’. It turns out this one bored us all. It took me so long to read. I procrastinated in every way possible. Admittedly I was busy with university life (essay deadlines and examination preparation), but I also found countless other ways to procrastinate as well. Hell, I was so desperate to procrastinate on this one that I went ahead and created a blog simply so I would have countless features to partake in so I was doing something other than reading this.
I really don’t understand why it is considered a classic. Nothing much seemed to happen. When something did finally happen, the book ended. It seemed to me like a throw together of lines that the author thought sounded good, yet they failed to hit the mark because the story failed to excite.
I realise I’m part of a minority for disliking this one, but I really couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it at all.
on 25 November 2002
'Gatsby' is the American Dream; but more than that, 'Gatsby' is about dreaming. It is an incredibly concise novel of lyrical genius. It is poetry and social commentary. A work of art and a historical document. A light breeze through the jazz age and a complex layering of narrative perspectives. A hedonistic trip through gloriously decadent capitalist excess and a crushingly melancholic musing on lost love.
If you're a romantic read this because Fitzgerald's employment of prose will make you weep.
If you're an english student read this because it will tell you everything you need to know about the influence of cinema.
If you're a historian read this for the way Fitzgerald doctors his text to avoid censorship laws in 1925.
If you're a social scientist read this because it has only one equal in its study of the illusion of American idealism. Alexis de Tocqueville's 'Democracy in America' is 100 years older, 250 pages longer, and not written in melting prose.
That is not to say that this work is without fault. Crucially for anyone who is compelled to regard such things in a novel that doesn't warrant it, the logic of Carraway's narrative does not follow. Fitzgerald originally wrote what now constitues the ending to sit at the front of the novel, and in its new-found position Carraway has access to information that in reality he would not have. This, as might be apparent, is the criticism of a man who was forced to read the work at A-Level.
Strangely, this has not diminuished from his continued enjoyment. Indeed, even after numerous returns to Fitzgerald's astonishingly few pages this is the single fault I find in this work.
Daisy will make you want to love. Tom will make you want to earn millions. Gatsby will make you want to dream.
Read it first as a fantastically crafted story, second as an insightful social commentary, and third as a work of perspective genius. Read it because you haven't already. It is as brilliant as that green light.
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." These are the last words in the novel, and sum up its theme. Our minds (like moths to the light) are drawn irresistibly to the most wonderful moments we have experienced. Our mistake is then to build our future around them, not realizing that they can never be recaptured. In pursuing the past into the future, we deny ourselves the real potential of the future.
The Great Gatsby is developed in novel form around the story line of a Greek tragedy. Nick Carraway, Gatsby's neighbor, is the narrator, serving the role of the chorus. This choice of structure creates a marvelous reinforcement for the book's theme. The novel is constricted by the tragic form, even as Gatsby's future is by his immobilization by the past. If you like that sort of irony, you'll love The Great Gatsby.
Nick knows both Gatsby (his neighbor in West Egg, Long Island) and Daisy Buchanan (his cousin who lives in East Egg, Long Island). Daisy knew Gatsby before he was Gatsby and before meeting Tom, her husband. Gatsby has made himself into a rival for Daisy over the five years since they have last seen each other, and makes his play for her again through Nick about mid-way through the book. Daisy and Tom's responses shape the tragedy that is this story. I won't say more because it will harm your enjoyment of the novel.
The story itself is somewhat dated by the romantic perspective of the Roaring Twenties, and few will read it for the instant connection they will feel with the characters. Why would someone want to read this book? I see three reasons. The first is to explore the theme of moving illusions about the future built from the happiness of the past. The second is to see a fine example of plot development. There are no wasted words, actions, and thoughts. The third is to enjoy the language, which is beautifully expressive.
These are not characters you will find uplifting.
Why did Fitzgerald create such characters? Precisely because he did not approve and did not want you to approve. Everything that glitters is not gold is a way of summing up the lessons of this novel.
Why should someone not read this book? A reader who wants to be inspired by positive examples will find little to uplift oneself here. Someone who wants a story they can personally identify with will likely be disappointed. A student of how to create love and happiness will mainly find out how to create heartache and unhappiness. So the book is not for everyone.
After you have read the book, I would encourage the self-examining reader to consider where in one's own life the current focus is dominated by past encounters rather than future potential. Then consider how changing that perspective could serve you and those you love better.