Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tom's Two Cents : The Great Gatsby

An American Classic

A bit hard to believe it, but in 2025 Scott Fitzgerald's most famous novel, "The Great Gatsby," will be one hundred years old.  It has long since achieved the status of an American classic, one virtually on a par with the masterworks of Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Not so, originally--contemporary critics called the novel a "dud," a "trifle," and "no more than a mere anecdote."  A grievous response indeed to the man who had worked harder and longer on this, his third novel, than any he had written before.  Nowadays in the contemporary triad of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, he seems to rise above the other two, and on the strength of this one work.  I'm not so sure.

The principal reason I'm recommending this work is that it's a good short read.  What you get out of it personally is up to you.  In many ways it's slight, and I'm using that word purely in a descriptive sense.  It's slight in length, in plot, in characterization and perhaps even in theme, though the latter is certainly debatable.  What it's long on is the two big "S's" in fiction, style and setting.  The recent film adaptation captured both those qualities superbly in its set and costume design and photography and in the unusual way it interwove the actual text of the novel into scenes on screen.  For whatever else it may not have, "Gatsby" has style, in fact it has some of the most beautiful and evocative prose ever written in any American novel.

What it's about could be the subject of an entire classroom or book club discussion.
Literally it concerns an ambitious young man's attempts to "recapture rapture" (a clich├ęd but true expression in this case), specifically to win back his lady love in a youthful past experience from her rich but brutal husband of the present.  A modern fairy tale?  Yes indeed, and one that is destined to end very badly!  On a more symbolic level the character of Jay Gatsby represents the materialistic achievement of the American Dream--work hard, get rich, and live happily ever after.  On an even deeper level, Gatsby and Nick Carraway, his friend, neighbor and the narrator of his story, are both caught up in a vast illusion that ultimately destroys one and brings the other finally to a catharsis, or recognition,  of what "success," at least in American terms, can mean.

Do you need to comprehend all that just to have a good read?  Probably not.  Always remember that the first rule of a good book is to take you to another place and time.  If it does a lot more than that, consider yourself lucky!

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