F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 – 1940) is the author of This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, Tender is the Night, and The Great Gatsby. A fifth, unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, was published posthumously.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, stands as the supreme achievement of his career. This exemplary novel of the Jazz Age has been acclaimed by generations of readers. The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” it is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.
I tell my students, “Never read without a pen or pencil in your hand.” They look at me like I’m crazy, a destroyer of books, tagging illegible praise from cover to cover. The truth is, the notes I have written in my books over the past twenty years have become sort of the yarn of my life, a spooling reminder of where I was at that time, and how much I liked being in that place.
So imagine my surprise when I opened my battered copy of The Great Gatsby, only to find it was blank. No love letters adorning its margins, no shaky thin lines sprawling out their arms under a witty turn of phrase. Nothing. Blank. Just the prose F. Scott Fitzgerald intended.
Then I remembered. The last time I read The Great Gatsby, I was twenty-two years old. I was in an unhealthy and unhappy relationship and I was stuck in a job that I absolutely despised, grinding myself down to a nub just to help the rich get richer. So what did that have to do with Gatsby? I’m not sure. Maybe I was jealous, envious of the way Jay Gatsby seemed to be so solo in this world, gliding through his adventures with only the memory of a girl he loved locked away in his mind. Maybe it was Fitzgerald’s prose, maybe it ignited something inside of me: my desire to write, to string brilliant words together to create sentences that students everywhere will one day underline. I had put that dream on hold, shoved it deep down inside of myself, and for what? To pay electric bills on time?
Whatever the reason, when I revisited The Great Gatsby last month, twelve years after I had read it last, I left the pages of what some call “The Great American Novel”, stained with the ink of a thousand pens. Blanketed in admiration. But why now? What has changed? Well, I’m in a better place, for one. I’m happily married, teaching literature to college students, and working on a book of my own. Also, I’ve had some formal training: the letters M.F.A. stamped on parchment to declare me fit to interpret these sorts of things. Or, maybe, just maybe, I’ve grown up a bit. I see the characters in the story as symbols, as images, as archetypes of society. The way, I believe, Fitzgerald intended.
The Great Gatsby is many things to me now, as a mother in my mid-thirties. It is a social commentary, a story about the haves (the Buchanans) and the have nots (the Wilsons, and even Gatsby himself). Nick Carraway and I both share an “unaffected scorn” for the uber rich, and I have a deep appreciation for the way he plucks at Tom Buchanan:
“[Tom was one] of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax.”
“‘Tom’s getting very profound,’ said Daisy with an expression of unthoughtful sadness. ‘He reads deep books with long words in them. What was the word we — “
It is also a book of empowerment, a reaffirmation of the female influence. While the men in the story, Nick included, banter back and forth over the decisions of which they are seemingly in control, the person who holds all of the power is Daisy. Tom and Gatsby fight over her, Nick fights for her, and Jordan fights with her. Daisy is a soft light to which every man as moth flocks. And Fitzgerald paints her with the most beautiful language:
“It (Daisy’s) was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.”
But I think what The Great Gatsby is at its core, what it is meant to be, is a great love story. It’s a sweet, simple song about a boy who loves a girl, and what he will do to win her heart. He will go to war, travel the world, amass a fortune through whatever means possible, and risk losing it all, just for a glimpse of her.
And when I read that infamous last line –
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
– I can’t help but remember that twenty-two year old version of myself, lying in a different place, in a different life, reading this same book, and feeling so scared of what would happen if I chased down my dreams.
Fitzgerald, who was ahead of his time in so many ways, was right again with this timeless image. We are constantly battling that from which we are born, and therein lies Fitzgerald’s wisdom. He leaves us with a message that Gatsby himself would have been better for knowing: We would do well to never forget where we came from, to never forget who we are, and to never forget that which makes each of us great. And the answer, the thing that exudes greatness, is seldom counted in dollars and cents.