How Great Is The Great Gatsby?

The Great GatsbyRecently the radio program Studio 360 devoted its entire hour to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as part of its American Icons series. Various writers and scholars, including Azar Nafisi, author of the delightful Reading Lolita in Tehran, and the novelist Jonathan Franzen, waxed poetic about the book, which the Studio 360 website describes as “the great American story of our age.”

At some point in the program, one of the speakers — I think it was Franzen, but there’s not a transcript available and I’m not willing to listen to the whole show again to check — said something to the effect that Gatsby was a great dreamer. As I understood it, he thought the story was about someone with a great dream who got shot down for it.

“No, no, no,” I said to the radio (I yell at the radio a lot). “The trouble with Gatsby is that he had the wrong dreams. He wanted the wrong things.”

At least, that’s how I remembered the book. Gatsby’s obsession with being rich and being taken for a person with “old money” seemed to me to be worthless dreams. But the only time I’d read the book was back in high school and the only thing I remembered about it was Gatsby showing Nick and Daisy around his mansion.

Figuring that I might have missed something back then, I re-read it. And had the same reaction.

The Great Gatsby is a beautifully written novel — so short it’s barely more than a novella — about characters who range from bland to execrable and lack any capacity for introspection whatsoever. It reeks of corruption; only Nick, the observer and narrator, is not fundamentally dishonest. Gatsby has made his money through various crooked endeavors and Daisy and Tom Buchanan represent the epitome of the privileged people who assume rules are for everybody else.

Gatsby’s dreams, so praised on Studio 360, seem to be his love for Daisy — who is, at best, a trivial person — and his desire to be accepted as a wealthy person of substance even though he is making his money through fraud and other criminal activities.

Neither of those things strike me as a worthy dream. Love could be one, but Gatsby’s passion for Daisy seems to be completely tied up with her social position. He may really love her, but somehow I doubt he’d have gone so far if she’d been someone behind the counter at the Five and Dime. He’s made himself rich in part to get her, because he knows she’d never have run away with a poor man.

And making money just to be rich — this is a worthy dream? Please! Having a passion to make something, to build something, to create something, to explore something — these are dreams. Sometimes great, sometimes flawed, but all more substantive than the dream of pretending to be old money.

Maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time considering a book about “old money” (old money that probably goes back a couple of generations max) and corrupt social climbers as an example of the Great American Novel. I’m probably an idealist, but I’d like to think that the American people have some redeeming characteristics and that a novel that gets at our essence should be about more than greed, corruption, and flawed dreams.

Not that novels about greed, corruption, and flawed dreams don’t have their place. Fitzgerald did capture the essence of a small slice of privileged people in the 1920s, that decadent decade that culminated in the Great Depression. Those people are still with us, and some of the real life ones make Gatsby look positively decent. Consider Donald Trump. It’s certainly worth re-reading with an eye to the wheeling and dealing that led to the Great Recession, a time we’re still dealing with.

Fitzgerald’s novel provides historical perspective — of the kind that fiction does so much better than dry facts — on the kind of elite that led one of our previous rounds of extreme income inequality. It’s an excellent depiction of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition — though you need to be aware that Prohibition is in place, since no character in the book seems to have any difficulty obtaining a drink.

And the writing is exquisite. Fitzgerald knew how to construct a sentence, how to describe a room or a person. Here’s his description of Tom Buchanan, who played football at Yale:

a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax.

We’re all familiar with the idea of the high school or college athlete who never does anything else in his life — Bruce Springsteen has a great song about it, “Glory Days” — but few say it as well as Fitzgerald did. It could be that our awareness of this person exists in part because of him.

But it’s still not the Great American Novel. It’s a beautifully written period piece about dreadful people with too much money and too little depth.

Because if Gatsby’s dreams represent the essence of America, this country’s definitely on a road to ruin.

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How Great Is The Great Gatsby? — 27 Comments

  1. Oh, thank you. I have been trying to articulate for years why Gatsby, for all its art, stuck in my craw. Now I don’t have to: you’ve done it. Thank you thank you.

  2. Total agreement here, and boy howdy does it privilege the male gaze. This is one of those books that cause me to wonder how long the so-called ‘classics’ of the Twentieth Century, as we were taught in the mid-century, will hold their place.

  3. When I was forced to read “Gatsby” in high school I wasn’t mature enough to understand it. All I got was that great song in “My Fair Lady”:

    Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…

    Maybe I should try again.

  4. I’m so glad to discover I’m not alone. I couldn’t believe all the praise heaped on Gatsby on Studio 360, so I had to look at it again to make sure I hadn’t missed something. And I hadn’t.

  5. Agreed and agreed again. You’ve given voice to my perspective. When I read The Great Gatsby, I remember being baffled by all the acclaim. My teenaged assessment of it boiled down to one syllable: “Huh?” However, I always thought there was something wrong with me.

    Like you I’ve thought about reading it again, and perhaps I will, but then I’d have to spend my time on a novel that has less relevancy to my life than all of Ray Bradbury’s Martian musings. Actually, I would love to read the novel that The Great Gatsby could be.

    Perhaps something like: Why are all these stupid people so stupid? Or perhaps there is a novel that could be written from the point of view of one of Gatsby’s gardeners or cooks, or what about the closeted lesbian decked out in flapper clothes, or maybe the two flappers who are in love with each other and pretending to like men because they think they have to hide? Or maybe we could write it from Daisy’s point of view, and she secretly can’t figure out how to get out of all this stupidity?

    Or well, you get the idea. The possibilities are endless.

    • What a lot of great ideas. We could have a lot of fun with this.

      Something from the pov of the household staff would be particularly interesting, given the implied class issues and the income inequality of the time, which is so parallel to ours.

      And even if you don’t tie it to Gatsby, a novel about lesbian flappers would be fascinating. Flappers were considered so outrageous, but a story about lesbians would make it clear that there were limits to how outrageous women could be.

      • Although one runs across the occasional lesbian in the Phryne Fisher mysteries (Cocaine Blues is free, because Kerry Greenwood knows that you’ll be hooked after the first one). Of course, even in Australia, they are fairly well closeted, but…ok, I’m an addict.

  6. Fitzgerald grew up at the edge of the “old money” community in St. Paul. He semi-belonged, but his family didn’t have enough money to really belong, and his father was a drunk and loser. But Scott went to the “right” private schools and knew the “right” people. I worked for several years at the Ramsey County Historical. The Society’s board was full of “old money” people. They haven’t changed since Fitzgerald wrote out them. I used to say, after dealing with that community, that I understood why Fitzgerald drank. It was — and still is, I am sure — a narrow, self-involved, elitist, pretentious community made of people whose ancestors made money in lumber and railroads in the 19th century. Because St. Paul stopped growing about a hundred years ago, the St. Paul upper class has gotten few new people and hasn’t had to deal with any kind of diversity or change. I figure Gatsby is about that community, not the more fluid upper class of the East Coast. As a portrait of that community, it is terrific. I’d pick Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn or Left Hand of Darkness as the Great American Novel.

    • Your suggestions of Huckleberry Finn or Moby Dick are intriguing to me, especially in light of Sherwood’s comments above about classics of the 20th Century, given that they’re 19th Century books. I pretty much ignored 19th Century American novels when I was young. I missed the humor in The Scarlet Letter and didn’t read much further than that. But now I might be inclined to argue that some of the 19th Century stuff was a great deal better than the acclaimed early 20th Century work.

      As for The Left Hand of Darkness, I’d call it a great novel by an American, but I think its themes might be more worldwide. Maybe it’s the Great Earth Novel.

    • Perhaps the East Coast was suffering the same effect. It was, after all, past the Gilded Age, the great era of fortune-making, and things were stiffening up.

  7. Correction to typos above: “I worked at the Ramsey County Historical Society” and “since Fitzgerald wrote about them.”

  8. Yeah, it’s frustrating to hear people on the radio think that the book is about Jay Gatsby being Great: some readers have an irony problem. That said, I would caution you against inferring that a guy is honest when he assures you that he’s honest, like Nick does . . .

    • I thought about that after I wrote it, Josh. I think you’re right. It comes to me that the golfer didn’t think Nick was honest, though Nick does seem to believe that about himself. Truth is, I think Nick has no center, but then no one in the book is at all introspective. Great examples of the unexamined life.

  9. Well, Gatsby grew up in rural North Dakota, not even in St. Paul at the edge of ‘old money.’

    I’m the only nay-sayer in this bunch: I think it is a great, great novel, and if not the Great American Novel, it is one of the great American novels. (I also am convinced you cannot have a single greatest whatever.) As well, living where I do live, which is where Fitzgerald’s novel is set — partly anyway — I live in Manhattan, not Long Island, but we sure are over-run by the obscenely wealthy who achieved their wealth by legacy or skulldudgery — I’d say he nailed a huge facet of what this nation is: all about the worship of wealth and the display of what we are able to consume.

    Also Nick? He’s much more complicated than an ‘honest’ character — which I’m not sure about — he sure keeps himself on the down-lo as much as possible ….

    This is why there are horse races. 🙂

    Love, C.

  10. Fitzgerald’s first novel, the one that made him, is also brilliant, in a different way. But what they do have in common is the evocation of the place(s). I listened to an audio version of This Side of Paradise after my first visit to Princeton — which included taking the famous Dinky Train, which is mentioned more than once in the novel — and which has recently been taken out of service, finally, to make way for more parking lots. And the first time I was there was in the spring, the second time in the fall — both seasons so important in the novel. Huge new dimensions to the novel were revealed to me.

    He’s really good. This Side of Paradise in structure and content was truly ‘modern’ in the perfection of what was meant when he wrote it as ‘modern.’ Brilliant stuff.

    Love, C.

  11. Reading all this, I think the problem I have with the book is not that all the characters’ dreams are small or wrong, but that no one–including Fitzgerald–seems to notice it. Gatsby is ultimately more interesting as a failure: if he had managed to achieve his dream he’d simply be another successful parvenu with a vapid wife–next generation’s old money. And that seems to be perfectly okay with Fitzgerald.

    I don’t mind reading about the rich (I went on a several-novel Wharton binge last winter, and enjoyed it immensely). Gatsby strikes me as very much a book of its time, as if someone had taken the film Wall Street as a statement on the human condition in the entire, rather than a look at a particular time and place.

    • Madeline brilliantly wrote: “Reading all this, I think the problem I have with the book is not that all the characters’ dreams are small or wrong, but that no one–including Fitzgerald–seems to notice it.”

      YES!!!!

  12. The title “The *Great* Gatsby” is irony, I’m sure. Gatsby is not great. But he was what passed for great when rabid consumption became the new definition of The American Dream. Like some other novels of that period – Brave New World comes to mind – it’s almost a warning. And as for Gatsby’s dream being a trivial version of The American Dream? Just look around and ask the person on the street to define The American Dream for you. Or worse, listen to our politicians, promising pie in the sky, define it for you. Alas, Gatsby lives on. OR rather, like 17-year-locusts, keeps on returning.

  13. Interesting though Reading Lolita In Terhan was, the thing that struck me was the writer defended the book on the grounds of making us sympathize — and I wondered if anyone felt more sympathetic to real-life Toms and Daisys after.

    • Not me. If anything it increased my dislike for them. But while I really liked Reading Lolita in Tehran, I didn’t always agree with her assessment of the books.

    • These articles make another important observation: Fitzgerald’s women don’t ring true. The observation from Fitzgerald quoted by Schulz explains why: “Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.” When I was young, some men tried to pick me up using that attitude. Somehow, going to bed with them would be intellectually valuable to me because they were so smart. It made me furious then and it still gets my blood boiling.

      I’ve also been discussing the book on Facebook. I’ll give it this: it certainly provokes a lot of conversation.