Disappointment is an unfortunate fact of life. Let’s face it: all of us have had more than our share of it in our lives. Many things can trigger this: someone’s actions, a vacation spot, a meal at a restaurant, a show, a movie, a book. The list is almost endless. If the source of the disappointment is something that has won widespread praise you may wonder during or after your experience what all the fuss was about. High expectations often can lead to major letdowns. Fortunately this book did not elicit that response from me – just the opposite in fact happened.
When I began reading The Great Gatsby I was well aware of the high esteem the book enjoys in the literary world. It was a book I had long-planned to read and somehow never did despite its brief length. One quarter of the way through the book I had the dreaded sense that this was going to be a literary disappointment for me. Yes I could appreciate Fitzgerald’s writing talent but I could not help but wonder why it has been consistently ranked one of the greatest works of American literature.
And then the magic happened. The book which had started so slowly soon picked up tempo so that by the time I finished it I felt I had been taken on a wonderful journey. It amazes me that Fitzgerald could create such an incredible tale and such fascinating characters in a mere 180 pages. This is the story of Jay Gatsby’s rise from his humble origins to a life of great wealth, of his obsessive and doomed love for Daisy (née Fay) Buchanan, a love that ultimately results in his downfall. Though set in Jazz Age Prohibition-era 1922 in the fictional village of West Egg, Long Island, the story has an almost timeless quality about the rewards and dangers of pursuing the American dream. The story is told through the eyes of Gatsby’s next-door neighbor, Nick Carraway, a bond salesman, who like Gatsby served in World War I. While Nick appears to live a comfortable life, living in a small house that he rents, Gatsby’s home is a lavish mansion where he frequently holds extravagant parties. The two men become friends after Nick attends one of Gatsby’s elaborate gatherings. Nick’s presence at this event and the brilliant images the author used to depict the party scene was for me the point when the pace of the story began to accelerate. In hindsight I now appreciate that Fitzgerald in the measured first forty plus pages was setting the stage for what would follow.
Gatsby’s efforts to reignite the love affair he had with Daisy five years earlier and to convince her to leave her husband is of course the centerpiece of this story. At one point Nick warns his friend of the futility of pursuing Daisy by simply stating, “You can’t repeat the past.” To this Gatsby cries back incredulously “Can’t repeat the past? But of course you can!” This stubborn blindness and refusal to let go of the past drives Gatsby’s every movement which sets in motion events that have tragic consequences. By the time the novel ends, it becomes evident how shallow, dishonest and self-absorbed all of the characters are with the notable exception of Nick. Early in the novel, Nick makes this comment about himself which by story’s end proves quite accurate. “Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
This is truly a masterful story with so many memorable quotes. Here are a few of my favorites:
“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”
“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”
“There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind.”
“The rich get richer and the poor get – children.”
“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.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” The novel’s final sentence.
This was a novel which had little in common with the book I am writing but has so inspired me to be a better writer. Thank you Mr. Fitzgerald. I feel forever indebted to you.