You have to read it again.
If, like most of high school-educated America, you read F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in some long ago class under orders from a teacher, you owe it to yourself to revisit this strange American fable -- now that you're wiser for the years, humbled by loss and longing, better able to appreciate the stubborn, absurdly persistent idealism of one of American literature's most mysterious, mythic characters.
A 2009 study by the National Center on Teaching and Learning showed the novel to be required reading in 64 percent of Catholic schools, 54 percent of public schools, and 49 percent of independent schools; and, that doesn't include all those classes in which teachers not required to teach the novel assign it anyway. Why is the book so often taught to teenagers? For a classic it's considered accessible -- in language, content, and subject matter (but is it?). It's supposed to be a solemn treatment of the American dream, the notion that any man can pull himself up by his bootstraps (are we sure about that?). It's replete with easy symbolism, including green lights at the end of piers, women who reminisce about their white girlhood, and weather-beaten billboards advertising the services of an optometrist whose eyes stare blankly over the Long Island Sound.
All these wondrous images do occur in the book, but Fitzgerald keeps asking us to think twice about them. Daisy's bragging about her white girlhood is framed by her husband's racist rant about the superiority of the Nordic race. Jay Gatsby's rags-to-riches story -- all that social climbing undertaken in quest of the girl of his dreams -- is contrasted with the less fantastical, far more realistic pursuit of success made by Nick Carraway, who serves as the novel's narrator and has moved in next door to our title character. And of course Gatsby's own outsized existence -- he throws huge, brilliant Long Island parties in an epic attempt to attract the attention of a woman he lost because he had no money when they fell in love -- is juxtaposed with the lonely, ugly end (shooting, swimming pool) to which he comes.
The strangest quality of Gatsby is that it's a book almost without a protagonist. Nick tells the story, but he's a mere cypher. We understand (thanks in part to James West's admirable critical edition of Trimalchio, a late-in-the-game draft of Gatsby) that Fitzgerald had scattered sentences and observations here and there offering greater insight into Nick in the pre-publication draft, but slowly stripped such material away. And what do we really know about Gatsby? He's a liar and con artist, someone who makes himself up as he goes along. It's implied that he earned his money in bootlegging or some other criminal activity; he may have killed a man along the way. He cavorts and does business with people who run scams and fix the 1919 World Series. The only thing we are certain is upright, sincere, or trustworthy about Gatsby is his steadfast love for Daisy. What sentiments should such a thinly drawn hero inspire in us?
The Great Gatsby isn't made lesser for all the apparent flaws of its hero, or the flimsiness of its plot structure. And perhaps the book's status as a classic, its revered place in the high school curriculum, keeps us from recognizing the real surprise in its marvelously cryptic characters. It's a strange fable of the 1920s -- fable being the operative word. Critic H.L. Mencken worried that the plot of the Gatsby was nothing more than a "glorified anecdote;" even the esteemed writer Edith Wharton chided Fitzgerald for failing to provide adequate backstory for his main character. And while Gatsby seems too couched in mystery, the other major figures in the novel often border on caricature.
Mencken may have been right, but it's clear that Fitzgerald made these so-called mistakes deliberately. Discussing the book with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, the still young but cocky author said that he'd originally written the 1926 short story "Absolution" -- a tale about a boy given to telling great lies and then feeling guilty about them -- as part of Gatsby's backstory, but later omitted that material from the novel to cultivate the aura of mystery around the title character. Of course, it is Nick who takes measure of Gatsby's mystery, a practical young man who otherwise resists the title character's preposterous self-invention every step of the way. In one scene, in which Gatsby seems unnecessarily secretive, Nick confesses, "I don't like mysteries."
The genius of this novel lies in the narrative tension between Nick's perceptions and Gatsby's mythmaking. Nick is no ready-made disciple. He attended Yale with Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan, and recognizes their wealth and privilege as far above his own place on the class ladder. He resents it when Tom, as a member of the social elite, claims never to have heard of the bond firm for which he works, but then concentrates his own somewhat snobbish skepticism on his self-made neighbor. Though Nick almost succumbs to Gatsby's charm on their first meeting, he quickly reminds himself that his neighbor is only "an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd." He's right, of course: Gatsby is ridiculous in his pretensions, in his faux-gentlemanly habit of saying, far too often, "old sport," in his too perfect closet full of suits and his ambitious library of unread books. There's something sadly comical about such a character, in keeping with Fitzgerald's underappreciated brand of humor. When Gatsby talks about himself, he utters so many clichés about his personal and professional history -- about the "something very sad that had happened" to him long ago -- that it's all Nick can do to keep from laughing.
It's that double-edged quality in Nick -- as someone resentful of his own class deprivations, yet critical of Gatsby's class strivings -- that energizes Fitzgerald's American fable. Far from being simply enamored of the rich (a sentiment Hemingway famously attributed to his friend and rival), Fitzgerald understands the trap of class better than most of us. Often characterized as the drunken scribe of the roaring 20s, Fitzgerald was also the decade's most trenchant critic. In interviews he gave to newspapers in the late 1920s, well before the Wall Street crash, Fitzgerald predicted that Americans would soon pay the price for the decade's glorious excesses. He wasn't a prophet -- he was simply declaring what The Great Gatsby had already shown in the form of a fable.
Fitzgerald's take on the American dream is, in the end, a cautionary tale. And yet, for all his resistance, Nick starts to sympathize with Gatsby and his quest -- and the reader gets drawn in. There may be something pathetic in Gatsby's class striving, but there's something innocent about it, too. He's a stranger in the world he inhabits, floating through his own parties without enjoying them, bestowing his largess on mostly uninvited guests who are really just users. The book is populated by liars, cheats, and characters out only for themselves. In the middle of the novel, Nick recalls a newspaper article he read about Jordan Baker, his romantic interest: she had kicked her ball from a divot to improve her lie; it was a minor scandal in the golf world until the witnesses to the incident renounced their testimony. Tom and Daisy Buchanan, after cheating on each other and making each other miserable in married life, prove to be soulmates in their "carelessness" about other people. The truth is you cannot begin to understand this novel until you take account of Nick's simple declaration: "I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known."
In a novel filled with liars, Gatsby is the grandest of them all. He's a legend to all those around him, but they have no idea who he really is (humble James Gatz) or what it is that sets him apart from them (unrelenting devotion to Daisy). He is simultaneously ruthless and innocent in his bizarrely single-minded devotion. "Oh, you want too much," Daisy will eventually say to him, and no remark could be truer.
Gatsby is dreaming an impossible dream, and perhaps the real question for us is simple: why do dreams matter? Cervantes's wonderful 17th-century romance Don Quixote, another high school favorite if only via its watered-down Broadway recapitulation as Man of La Mancha, asks us to join the hero in his quest and "dream the impossible dream." Fitzgerald's Gatsby is American literature's very own Don Quixote. He won't settle for a reality too small for his imagination. He's a dreamer chasing the lapsing idea of nobility. Just as Don Quixote wishes to be a knight, Gatsby longs desperately to be a gentleman. Don Quixote devotes himself to the simple peasant Dulcinea by reinventing her as a beautiful princess; Gatsby dedicates himself to Daisy based on his aspiration to regain what he has lost. In his purely American way, James Gatz is someone who believes that if you can't realize your idealistic goals, you might as well settle on delusions. And the great irony of Fitzgerald's novel is certainly that for all of his preposterous posturing, our title character is the only real thing in the book.
So read the book again, now, with a mature and sobered soul -- on the anniversary of its publication (April 10), weeks before the release of the much anticipated Baz Luhrmann film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire -- during a cultural moment when our political economy recalls the great crash that followed the glorious party of the 1920s. It will remind you how hard we have to fight for the nobler version of ourselves, even when reality isn't yielding the results we desire. When, near the end of the novel, Nick remembers having once said to Gatsby, "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together," he's right. Gatsby's great dream is about holding hypothetically to a better form of himself, even after it's become unlikely. Because in Fitzgerald's vision of the world -- and mine -- wanting too much will always prove more interesting than not wanting enough.
R. Clifton Spargo is the author of the novel "Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald."
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