The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
About a year ago there was an article in the New York Times that made me laugh and cringe and that ultimately baffled me.
She [Jinzhao, a Chinese student who immigrated to the United States two years earlier] is inspired by the green light at the end of the dock, which for Jay Gatsby, the self-made millionaire from North Dakota, symbolizes the upper-class woman he longs for. “Green color always represents hope,” Jinzhao said.
“My green light?” said Jinzhao, who has been studying “Gatsby” in her sophomore English class at the Boston Latin School. “My green light is Harvard.”
I thought, is the Times playing around here? Where is this article going to take me? They couldn’t possibly be mocking this poor girl. But then, here is a quote from one of the teachers:
“They all understand what it is to strive for something,” said Susan Moran, who is the director of the English program at Boston Latin and who has been teaching “Gatsby” for 32 years, starting at South Boston High School, “to want to be someone you’re not, to want to achieve something that’s just beyond reach, whether it’s professional success or wealth or idealized love — or a 4.0 or admission to Harvard.”
Though nothing in this quote indicates that Moran thinks the students are wise in their dreams — that the dreams, whether or not attainable, are good dreams — the article itself is apparently unaware of the irony (or sheer honesty) of comparing one’s hope with Gatsby’s greenly lit spurious aspiration. Not once does it bring up the tragedy that is The Great Gatsby.
Many of you know my passion for Joseph O’Neill’s novel Netherland. Well, I have to admit, much of that passion arises from the fact that O’Neill latched on to The Great Gatsby, one of my favorite books (perhaps my favorite book (but I can never be too sure about that statement)), and did it proud. It was more than a decade between the first time I read The Great Gatsby and the second. When I began it the second time, I remembered almost nothing of the story. But the images . . . as I read it again I could remember the vivid images and how they made me feel when I was young (it was a great trip into my memories, like hearing a forgotten song). Here’s a particular fresh and refreshing image from the first chapter:
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall.
The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man from Minnesota who has just moved to Long Island to work in bonds in New York. New to the city, a bit unsure whether it’s really the right place for him, he accepts an invitation to visit his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, with whom he grew up and who now lives in a neighboring town on Long Island with her husband and young daughter. It is on this excursion that he meets his cousin and her friend Jordan Baker lying on that couch in the image above, seeming to float in the room. But the buoyancy and dreamlike feel are somewhat subverted when we get a sense of the somber tone of the novel. Daisy tells Nick a bit about her life since she married and moved to New York, and a bit about the birth of her daughter:
I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in the world, a beautiful little fool.
Upon returning to his own home, Nick looks next door and sees his neighbor, the eponymous Jay Gatsby, standing on the dock behind his home, looking out across the sea.
But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone — he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward — and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.
There we meet the dreamer. Gatsby has fixated his life and all he does on attaining something potentially unattainable: his lost love, Daisy. Learning that his new neighbor is Daisy’s cousin, Gatsby enlists Nick’s help in securing Daisy from her waspish husband. Gatsby is not the only one who uses Nick or who abuses Nick’s good-natured neutrality. Daisy’s husband, for example, thinks nothing of taking Nick along as he meets up with his mistress. Slowly Nick comes to realize that he despises everything about all of these people, their social games, their wasteful lives — that is, he despises everyone except for the myopic Gatsby, who has done all he could to achieve the kind of life he thinks will help him win Daisy back.
The Great Gatsby is a quick read, surprisingly accessible given the depth of the subject. The American Dream seems alive and well in Gatsby. Sure, being newly rich we get a sense that he is more veneer than substance, but he’s filthy rich. And his true dream is in sight. There are few works so meaningful and few that can convey that meaning so simply.
I put the last chapter as one of the greatest conclusions in literature, alongside James Joyce’s “The Dead” or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. A book I think about often and try to read annually, The Great Gatsby stuns me every time. But how could it not with a passage such as this:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.