Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Great Gatsby

The real joy of rereading a book is getting to experience it in a different way; generally, you already know what happens, so instead of concentrating solely on the plot, you're free to notice other things. For me, in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, it was the other way around. The first time I read the novel I was so struck by the language and the imagery Fitzgerald conjured up that several months later my memory of the plot was hazy at best. Although Fitzgerald's prose didn't dull with time, by my second reading I could give myself over more to the characters because I already knew what to expect from the language.

It a strange way, The Great Gatsby is a love story both on the surface and at its core, but less so in all the layers between the two. Fitzgerald sets up levels of emotion and depth of feeling, and in between them he slots all the other details of day to day life. It's a curious thing, really, because conventional wisdom says not to waste time explaining how characters get, physically, from one place to another. But Fitzgerald's characters always seem to be in motion; they walk across lawns, drive places, take the train, walk up steps, etc. And instead of being dull, all their movement heightens the story, making it about real people instead of just archetypes of the upper class in the roaring '20s.

The story goes like this: Nick Carraway, who comes from money in the mid-West, moves east to try out the bond business. He fought in the war and is well educated, but finds himself restless. So, he moves to Long Island (living on West Egg) and works in New York. As luck would have it, the little house he rents is next to an imposing mansion, which happens to belong to a mysterious man named Jay Gatsby. Gatsby throws wild, sprawling parties, but despite the debauchery, remains aloof. Most of the people who attend have never really met him and there are many, many rumours about who he is and what he's done. On East Egg, directly across the sound, live Nick's second-cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, with whom Nick went to school. Tom, who is seems has a history of philandering, has a mistress who he meets up with in New York. There are other characters as well – Jordan Baker, Nick's sort-of love interest and a friend of Daisy's, for example – who are necessary to the plot, but who don't capture your attention the same way. 

As I mentioned, this is a novel about love (as well as excess, the trappings of wealth, deceit, etc.), and mostly about the love of one man. Gatsby is in love with Daisy. They had an affair years ago, before she was married, and he never got over it. Neither, it ought to be said, did she; although, she managed to move her life along, nonetheless. Gatsby's fantasy is that he will be able to whisk Daisy away from Tom (and, I assume, her daughter) so that they can live the life he always dreamed of. It's a beautiful fantasy and really makes Gatsby the saddest character in the story, because you just know that things won't work out for him the way he's planned.

But Gatsby's love is quite straightforward compared with Tom's. Tom is not a character you warm up to, which almost seems intentional on his part (as if he wouldn't let Fitzgerald write him any other way). And yet, for all his distain and disinterest and fooling around, when his life with Daisy is threatened he seems genuinely wounded. True, Tom is jealous of possessions (his wife, no doubt, falls into this category at least some of the time), but when it comes down to it, he sees Daisy as more than a status piece and his hurt at hearing her say she never loved him surprises him as much as it does us. Then, of course, there's his mistress, Myrtle. There is nothing rich or status-enhancing about her (her husband runs the local gas station), but Tom dotes on her and has a life with her that suggests the attraction is more than physical. 

The plot is incredibly intricate, and just like in real life, certain things couldn't happen without what happened four steps back. But Fitzgerald's foreshadowing is very subtle, and although you know a story about this kind of lifestyle can't have a happy ending (that would just be too boring), the ending you get is quite unforeseeable until you're there, at which point you're stuck – like Nick – watching with shocked eyes and uncomfortable posture.

But the plot all winds together and comes back to the same themes. Love, is certainly one of them, but perhaps the most important element of The Great Gatsby is beauty. Fitzgerald's prose is beautiful, and he uses it to invoke a kind of unexpected beauty – the kind that hides the mundane. The settings are beautiful, the clothing is beautiful, the cars are beautiful. And, at the beginning at least, it seems the characters are all beautiful too. But as their safe, lovely little world erodes, the beautiful characters become less entrancing. There's nothing obvious about it; Fitzgerald certainly doesn't come out and comment on it, but you can tell that their formerly pristine edges are wearing away in places, that there are scuff marks and the like.

It's that decline in beauty that allows the shocking end to the story. In this world, beautiful people are untouchable, except by love, and for anything truly horrible to happen they must be exposed as regular. Their money doesn't insulate them, but their beauty does, until it can't any more. Because of its beauty, The Great Gatsby is more than a love story and a tragedy, it is a story about people. And strangely, for all the light and beauty and love, it's and a rather dark portrayal of humanity.

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
First published in 1925 (cover image from 1995 Scribner edition)

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