Tuesday, March 31, 2009

March Book Review: The Great Gatsby


I slid in just under the wire with this month's book selection. I finished rereading it just this morning! I can't very well review The Great Gatsby in the usual way, because who the heck am I to say anything about one of the greatest books ever written? For this month, I'm just going to record some of my feelings about this novel.

I first read The Great Gatsby when I was in the tenth grade. It was required reading in my honors English class. I remember enjoying it vaguely then, but not really understanding all of it. The prose confused me at times, and I didn't feel connected to the story. Still, there were the famous images that stuck with me- the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the valley of ashes, to name a few. I knew then that this book was something special, even if I didn't completely understand it. I knew I was reading something important, even if I could only glimpse that importance from behind the curtain of my own immaturity and inexperience.

I decided to read it again after subbing in a few English classrooms where the students were engaged in slogging through this novel. I had an opportunity to present chapter three to a tenth grade honors class, much like the one I first read Gatsby in. This chapter is quite an important one to the novel. It is the first time we get to see one of Gatsby's parties and also the first time we meet Gatsby himself. As we went through the chapter, I couldn't help but notice how much more sophisticated this book seemed to me- and how much wiser. The language played and flowed in intricate ways and the characters, who once seemed stiff and unpalatable to me, came alive. I could see Nick surveying the glamorous crowd, watch Jordan's jaunty walk and feel the misguided hope of Gatsby as he isolated himself at his own party. The excesses and superficiality of the 1920s came roaring at me and also reminded me a little bit of the how the excesses of our society today has led us into our current recession. It was then that I realized I needed to read this book again.

My second reading of Gatsby found me about six years older, with a degree in English from the University of Florida under my belt. I honestly felt like I was reading a different book from the one I read before. How could I ever have been bored or confused by this masterpiece? The language is deceptively simple, conveying complicated themes in few words. I found myself stopping to read parts again, amazed by Fitzgerald's writing. Knowing the tragic end of the novel helped me understand more as well. I could see how the story was drawing towards its inevitable conclusion. I could track Gatsby's increasingly desperate behavior and see the delusion that he labored under clearly. As an immature reader, I was disappointed that the novel didn't have a "happy" ending. I was sad that Gatsby and Daisy didn't end up together. How foolish! This novel was not about that. This novel could not have ended any other way.

I found myself very interested in Gatsby throughout this second reading. I admired that was he was charismatic and mysterious until he became tragically simple. I pitied him for holding onto a dream that never really was and never really could be again. The man was completely deluding himself, and upon this reading I found that to be incredibly sad. The most striking quote in the novel for me comes when Nick tells Gatsby not to expect to much of Daisy and reminds him that he can't repeat the past. Gatsby replies with, "Can't repeat the past? . . . Why of course you can!"

You can't repeat the past- this book shows us that. Gatsby, however, went on believing he could, right up until the end. Even when things were very obviously falling apart for him, he still clung defiantly to his dream of what could be with Daisy. How could one not be moved by his story?

A lot is said about Nick Carraway as the narrator in this novel. Is he a good narrator? Reliable? Honest? He is obviously slanted in favor of Gatsby, despising some of his actions but liking the man. He is both a character and observer in the novel. He tells us the story years after the events occur and chooses to arrange parts of his narrative interestingly. He passes judgements on the rich while participating in parties with them. Is he right to do so? Are we expected to embrace Nick's opinions or refute them?

I view Nick as a regular person and a good narrator. I expect that were I in his position I would have acted in much the same way. I would have observed and went along with the crowd at times and still held my own personal opinions of people. I think I would have felt the same way about Gatsby too. I would have liked him, pitied him and been repulsed by him in some ways. No one is completely uniform in any direction. People sometimes do things they aren't comfortable with and watch as things go on that they don't agree with and say nothing. That doesn't make them bad people, it makes them regular people. I don't make any harsh judgements on Nick because I don't think it's anyone's responsibility to police the world. The best we can hope for is to go through life being a mostly good person. Nick does this just fine. I trust him.

Obviously, I like the novel. I could go on and on about the supporting characters, the striking symbolism and the moral implications of the novel, but I would not say anything that hasn't been said about this book before. If you have never read The Great Gatsby, read it! If you have read it before and didn't like it much, give it another shot. You may be surprised at how you interpret it a second time. I give this incredible novel 5 green lights out of 5.

My favorite part of the story is the exploration of the past, and how you can't go back to it. You can't change it, but that doesn't stop most of us from wanting to (or even trying to). Who can't relate to the human longing to go back and make things right, or to go back to a happier time when we didn't have the problems we have now? The last few paragraphs at the end encapsulate the hopelessness of this striving beautifully.

"As I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther . . . And one fine morning----

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

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