I’ve read Gatsby several times before. What keeps me coming back to this skinny volume, with its absorbing tangle of jazz-age glitz and glam?
The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man involved in business in New York City. He stands on the fringes of the glamorous party scene inhabited by those wealthier than himself, particularly Daisy, his flapper cousin and her husband Tom. Then Nick stumbles into a sort of friendship with his mysterious and phenomenally wealthy new neighbor, Jay Gatsby. We learn that Gatsby has invented himself–and come to town with one objective–to win back Daisy, the sweetheart of his youth. Nick gets more and more deeply entwined in the sordid private lives of Tom and Daisy, and has a front-row seat to the confrontations that ensue when Gatsby re-encounters his old flame. In the intervening years, Daisy has become for Gatsby much larger than life. She’s a sort of symbol or promise of beauty and happiness–always burning and always just out of reach, like the blue light on the end of her dock across the bay.
Tom and Daisy and their friends are full of glamour but we are made to realize the stones behind the sparkle are artificial. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy–they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made . . .” (114). Watching them closely as we do through the eyes of Nick Carraway we feel at the end that somehow we should have known–that the conclusion should have been neither stirring or unexpected. But it is. Fitzgerald’s writing is masterly and his language nearly poetic. If you’ve read this read it again some time just to note his evocative use of light.*
The Great Gatsby has been called the quintessential 19th Century American novel. What makes it so prototypical? Somehow in it I can see glimmers of Steinbeck, of Salinger, even of Harper Lee. I can see the themes of narcissism, materialism, corruption. One could say the entire novel serves as an unforgettable description of the dawn of the technological age.
*I am indebted to Guy Reynold’s introduction to the 2001 edition of the novel for drawing my attention to Fitzgerald’s descriptions of light and to his emphasis on the theme of “production,” both of which enriched my experience.