I came to age in the era of Romeo + Juliette and Moulin Rouge!, so you might think that I’ve recently read The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so I can rush out and see Baz Luhrmann’s latest flick. No so – I’m apparently the only one of my friends who can’t stand the movies Luhrmann makes. So, what inspired me to read The Great Gatsby now? Stephen Colbert. He had a show this week in which the cOlbert Bookclub discussed the book and, to fully appreciate that episode, I felt I had to read the book. Never let it be said that I don’t appreciate the zeitgeist – I just do it in my own way.
Okay, The Great Gatsby. A word on the plot: Fitzgerald’s work tells the story of, who else, Jay Gatsby, an eccentric millionaire in inter-war era New York/Long Island. We are introduced to Gatsby through Nick, who moves next door to Gatsby and acts as primary observer to the drama that unfolds. Nick, who is a cousin to Daisy (who is married to Tony), ends up playing matchmaker in brining Daisy and Gatsby, who knew each other before the War, together. The love triangle that emerges, and the consequences, is at the heart of the story. I won’t say anymore, because I don’t believe in spoilers.
The first time I read this book, I only got through the first half of it – I found the characters less than enjoyable and so I walked away. I don’t know if I was in a more appropriate head-space this weekend to enjoy this work, or what, but I found I didn’t have that problem this time. The opening chapter contains an injunction from Nick about judging people – his father encouraged him to be non-judgmental as much as possible to those who were worse off than he.
Taking that piece of wisdom into the rest of the work is key to understanding it. On the surface, Gatsby, and Daisy and Tom (as well as a host of other lesser prominent characters) are completely unredeemable; adultery, shifty deals, self-delusion, and lies are all easily identifiable in the characters Fitzgerald created. One part of my mind refused to judge them. But, as the plot developed, I realized that the advice Nick got from his father didn’t necessarily apply here; in the world of
Long Island, Nick was the lesser of the gang. He was renting a small shack in comparison to the people around him. So maybe a little bit of judgment on their foibles wasn’t all that harmful. But as the plot continued to developed, it became clear that all that glitters is not gold; Nick, though a little light in the pockets in comparison to his social set, was far better of in terms of morality and self-understanding. Once again, my mind-set shifted, and I found I couldn’t pass judgment on the other characters.
I just want to make some observations about Gatsby as a character. The Gatsby we meet is like the spider at the centre of a glittering, drunken web – he is the coolest cat on the block with his mansion, his parties, and his seeming self-assurance. But, in reality, Gatsby is crippled by self-doubt and fantasy. It was like finding out that Gerard Butler is a cuddler – ladies, you know what I’m talking about… The Gatsby we meet is so far from the Gatsby we leave, that I’m left pulling out my dictionary for the various definitions of ‘great.’ I suppose the first Gatsby we meet is great in the traditional sense – that is, he’s amazing and you want to be around him; however, the Gatsby at the end is ‘great’ in a different sense – it’s more that he is a legend with a lot of history behind him, but the truth to who he is is ultimately lost.
So, final verdict? I never thought I say this (because I had this book classed in the same category as Catcher in the Rye), but I do recommend you read this book. It’s short, and a quick read, and the characters and plot comes with depth and dimensions I never expected. I know this is a book that I’ll be re-reading again in the future, so that I can pick up on more of the nuances that I’m sure I missed the first time around. While I look forward to re-visiting Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I’m pretty sure I’ll be skipping Luhrmann’s. Why? Because Nicole Kidman can’t sing, that’s why….