In high school, I was one of those students who thrilled in her honors and AP English classes. A reader at heart, I loved–and love, even more so now–to discuss a good (or terrible) book. As a student, I had a few favorites–“Inherit the Wind,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Grapes of Wrath”–and a few I loathed with my guts–“The Scarlet Letter,” “Rebecca.”
But perhaps my most hated English lit book was the one that is the most universally loved: “The Great Gatsby.” Ugh.
Now, it is not uncommon for me to watch a movie, hate it with every fiber of my being, swear it’s the worst shit that ever shat, give it another look in a year or two, and say, “Huh, that wasn’t so bad.” Perhaps in the intervening year, I’ve talked said movies so very down to myself that it is never as bad as I remember. Or perhaps I go into these movies with no or negative expectations so, no matter what, I’m pleased.
Or maybe I’m just a crazy person. Movies that are nowhere near as terrible as I thought on first viewing, movies that are actually good, include “Phenomenon,” “The Wedding Crashers,” and “The Break-Up.”
So I figured the same might be true for books. As a rule, I don’t reread books but for a select (and short) few–there is so much good stuff to read, why waste time rereading something? But I thought it might be an interesting exercise to revisit some books universally accepted as “good” as see if I can’t change my opinion of them.
And I started with “The Great Gatsby.” And no, it is not nearly as bad as I thought it was in 11th grade. In fact, it might even be good. Here’s why.
Perhaps Gatsby is meant to be a tragic hero. I don’t feel his ending is terribly tragic because I don’t like him in the least. But in less than 200 pages, Fitzgerald convinces us that this man is not just pretentious, but he is the thermometer against which all pretension in the world should be measured.
A lone detail that I remembered from reading “Gatsby” as a teen illustrates this beautifully: This man is so intent upon boasting up his wealth that he stocks his library full of real books instead of fake books–but he doesn’t read them. They’re uncut, which tells us Gatsby never actually picked up any of these books. He’s spending money just to put on a facade–and it’s not even a very good one, at that.
I feel silly saying that Fitzgerald is a beautiful writer. It’s like saying Monet paints pretty pictures or Adele can carry a tune. But as a teenager, that beauty was lost on me. I knew I liked to write, but the sophistication I needed to understand and appreciate his skill was simply not there. (Maybe I shouldn’t have been in all those honors English classes after all … Shhh, no one tell Mrs. Horncastle.)
Now, I see that these pages are full of found poetry. Take the description of Daisy the first time we meet her:
“Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”
Gah. It’s the kind of description that makes a writer go, “Whelp, I may has well never write anything again. What’s the point?”
I’m not familiar with other Fitzgerald books, but I’m convinced based on this slim little novel that Fitzgerald is the king of “show, don’t tell.” It’s pure storytelling, and he clobbers his reader over the head with nothing. Consider: We don’t have to be told that Gatsby is nervous and uncomfortable the first time he sees Daisy after five years. Instead,
“Gatsby, his hands still in his pockets, was reclining against the mantlepiece in a strained counterfeit of perfect ease, even of boredom. His head leaned back so far that it rested against the face of a defunct mantlepiece clock …”
The last thing I would call “Gatsby” is a comedy, but that’s damn funny–and relatable. Who hasn’t felt so nervous that she goes all, “Um, where do I put my hands? Where does my head go? How do I say the words? WHAT DO I DO NOW?”
An untrustworthy narrator
This detail might just be a me-thing, but I love a narrator that the reader must question. We don’t get a ton of Nick’s background to know if he’s reliable, but we know he’s utterly taken with Gatsby. He recognizes that the man is a showman, but he is completely pulled in with his charm. He wants to be Gatsby’s friend, he wants to be taken into his world. I think Nick even likes that his tiny house is so overshadowed by Gatsby’s monster house–it makes Nick feel more important by proximity.
Because the narrator is so taken with Gatsby, he can’t give a dependable portrayal of the man. Nick is a little pup who’s waiting for his master to scratch behind his ear and tell him he’s a good boy–and even if the master kicks him a little, or uses him to get a meeting with an old flame, all is forgiven when master turns a kind face in his direction.
Re-evaluating “Gatsby,” yes, I do like it this time around. But there’s just one little detail about it that makes me say high school me wasn’t completely wrong:
God, this book is boring
The problem with an untrustworthy narrator and an unlovable scoundrel of a title character is that, as a reader, I don’t really care that much about what happens. I expect I should have felt terribly sorry that Daisy and Gatsby didn’t work out romantically after their first meeting.
I guess I should have been horrified when Daisy and Gatsby run down Mrs. Wilson.
Maybe I should have been saddened by Gatsby’s death.
The only time I felt anything another than mild annoyance at this character was at his funeral. Hundreds of people were willing to use him for a good time at his wild rumpuses, but when it came time to pay respects, there wasn’t a soul who respected him.
Granted, who can blame them? Gatsby didn’t exactly open himself up to the masses or bother to make himself any close friends. The one friendship we know of, with Nick, didn’t even have pure motives–Gatsby used Nick to get to Daisy.
I’m glad I gave “Gatsby” another go. I think I may do the same with “Rebecca” at some point. But not “Scarlet Letter.” Good God, never “Scarlet Letter.”
Obviously, I want to know what you think about “Gatsby.”