High School Summer Reading Complete
Millions are coerced to read Fitzgerald’s novel to graduate. Thankfully, it’s a decent and precise book.
I might have set myself up for failure.
I read and watched a total of six things over Fall Break: The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction, Network, To Kill a Mockingbird, I Cladius, and The Great Gatsby. The problem is Fall Break was 5 months ago (!), and this is the only outstanding item. Normally, I leave little notes to myself so if there is a gap in time I can pick up what I was thinking. Not so here. If the measure of a book is its lasting impact, I guess I will soon find out the power of “The Great Gatsby.”
So what do I remember most? That Fitzgerald was struggling to figure out how to live a good life in a world of changing social norms.
Nick Carraway is the the narrator, and he moves into a home that is adjacent to Jay Gatsby’s mansion on Long Island. Gatsby throws big parties, and Nick eventually makes contact with his neighbor. The central point of the story: Gatsby wants Daisy, a cousin of Nick, but she is currently married to Tom. Nick meets up with his cousin and learns through a friend of the family that Tom also has a “kept woman” named Myrtle who is married to a mechanic.
The rest of the novel builds a crescendo on the back of the question of who will leave who for whom.
The story synopsis is very misleading — it leads you to think this is a soap opera love quadrilateral, and that it’s purpose is a tale of intrigue and deceit. It’s got a twist at the end, but each character really represents something more. Their individual endings are the statement on 1920s America.
There is a cynicism in traditional values. While the individual is still of high importance, the pursuit of happiness is to be achieved through consumption and materialism. With the new found wealth in America’s post WWI economy, there was a clash between two classes in affluent society: new and old money. New money is represented by Gatsby as he makes it through swindling and bootlegging. Old Money is Tom who is inheritance and hard work.
While New and Old distrust each other, they really go about things the same way: they use their money to hide their problems.
“I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
False Idols of the Past.
Since morality is a scam and materialism is all that matters, people now have to find new things to worship. This is usually done by instilling something with importance it doesn’t have. The preferred topic of idolization? The past. Characters in the book think they are powerful enough to purchase the return of their memories.
“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Gatsby is busily trying to rekindle something that will never happen. Daisy to him represents a time and a place that is far gone, but worse, he now has instilled such importance to her that it was also something that never was.
The most poignant part of this book might be the way the novel starts versus how it ends. In life, Gatsby’s house is filled with people. In death, however, his funeral has only two attendees: his father and Nick.
Tom and Daisy may have each other, but it’s clear that they really are not “together.” Tom was cheating on her with Myrtle. This, of course, means that Myrtle and her husband were not “together” either.
For a class of people from a generation that had more leisure time as well as the money to take advantage of it, no one ever really ever spends time with each other. Busily trying to posture and out due, social events became more of a way to virtue signal by attending rather than finding meaningful relationships.
“I slunk off in the direction of the cocktail table–the only place in the garden where a single man could linger without looking purposeless and alone.”
Each generation has new skirmishes with old problems: How is one supposed to approach life? The Great Gatsby is the 1920s version to this question. Oddly enough, the lessons wouldn’t differ from any other generation. Cynicism leads to superficial replacements that poison you enough to return to the values you thought so impractical before. Nick Caraway escaped this 1920s incarnation, and hopefully we can do the same in the twenty tens.
Other People’s Takes:
- Bookish Fame: “So much to read in this book, so much to absorb, and so much attention it would demand from you.”
- Living in Pages: “The Great Gatsby was written exploring the Jazz age and in the context of the ‘American Dream’, But is the general theme still not as relevant today?”
- Read ‘Em and Weep: “There are few novels I will read and re-read, especially with so many new novels being published every year. Gatsby is one of those rare novels, as this is my third reading of it.”