My goal here is to record my impressions upon re -reading this classic novel for the first time in decades. I wanted to do this before gathering background information or perusing any critical material in preparation for a book club discussion.
[Spoiler Alert: I am writing this with the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the plot of The Great Gatsby. If you are not, or if you don’t recall some key plot points, you might want to postpone reading this until you’ve had a chance to read – or like myself, re-read – this novel.]
My very first impression was that this was surely the most vapid, frivolous, just plain irritating group of people I had encountered in or out of a novel for a very long time! They fairly set my teeth on edge: Tom Buchanan, that mulish hypocrite, and his fluttery wife Daisy who, because of a certain superficial charm and lack of guile, is able to mesmerize men, and Gatsby himself, with his wild parties and sinister hinted-at underworld connections. One could be forgiven for given for shaking one’s head in wonderment: Just who the heck are these people, and give me one good reason to care about them!
That they were modeled on Scott Fitzgerald’s boon companions during the so-called Roaring Twenties, I know. Still, a small amount of time spent in their company seemed like an eternity. They come across as a money-grubbing, ignorant bunch – and worst of all, they seem utterly lacking in any kind of moral compass.
Okay, I’m done fulminating (although it really is such fun, I hate to stop). Other initial impressions:
Some of the descriptive writing is wonderful. Here is Nick’s first glimpse inside Daisy and Tom’s 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.” This passage is a great example of less being more. At other times, though, Fitzgerald strains too hard for a literary affect: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees–he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” Well, really…
The occasional literary allusions are skillfully deployed and show what a Princeton education means – or at least, what it meant in the early part of the twentieth century. I cheated a little here and googled two of those allusions. In one instance, Nick stares at Gatsby’s mansion “…like Kant at his church steeple.” As he wrote his philosophical treatises, Immanuel Kant was apparently steadied in his efforts by gazing out his window at the steeple of a nearby church.
I was also intrigued by Nick’s referring to Gatsby as Trimalchio. It seemed to me that I had heard that name recently, and in fact, I had. Trimalchio is a character in the Satyricon by Petronius, an author who lived in Rome during the age of Nero. (This work was briefly discussed by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver on the Teaching Company course on Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition.) The Satyricon contains an extended passage in which a riotous feast, given by one Trimialchio, a freedman of great wealth, is described in lurid and colorful detail. A great many people attend the festivities, which go on for many hours. The similarity to Gatsby’s bacchanales is at once apparent. In fact, it turns out that Fitzgerald’s original title for this novel was Trimalchio in West Egg. (One can only be grateful that he decided against it. Just imagine twenty-first century high school and college students gazing upon the title on their syllabi and exclaiming, “Who?? From where??”)
I had completely forgotten about the casually expressed racism and anti-Semitism that occasionally appear in Gatsby. They are repugnant now; they should have been repugnant then. Okay, that sort of thing was part of the zeitgeist – but that doesn’t mean I have to forgive it. On the contrary, it served to increase my antipathy toward these people and their superficially elegant milieu.
I had also forgotten the ubiquitous servant class. Chauffeurs, maids, child minders, even butlers are ever ready to service the needs of these nouveau aristocrats. And speaking of child minders, there is one thing I do remember from my previous reading of Gatsby: children, the fact of them, impinges not at all on the lives of these characters. This is true whether the children are your own or someone else’s. (This seems to me like an affectation from borrowed from the old English aristocracy, one of many.)
There’s the scene in which the “freshly laundered nurse” brings Daisy’s daughter into the company to be admired, albeit briefly. Daisy caresses her and coos over her; in a rather absurdly formal gesture, Nick and Gatsby shake her hand. Tom, her father, does nothing. Re Gatsby’s perception of the child, called Pammy by her nurse, Nick observes, “I don’t think he had ever really believed in its existence before.” Small wonder! (And notice the use of the pronoun “its.”) Motherhood appears to have had virtually no impact on Daisy’s psyche. Once Pammy has been whisked out of the room by the nurse, she immediately ceases to be an object of interest to the adults.
Looking over what I’ve written thus far, I’m struck by the negativity of my comments. The fact is, I did experience a growing empathy for the main characters as the narrative gained momentum. I began to feel more forgiving of Daisy, Gatsby – even Tom. Their basic humanity began to assert itself. For me, the turning point came during the confrontation at the Plaza Hotel. Even someone reading this novel for the first time would have gathered by that point that disaster was lurking in the wings, waiting to ambush this increasingly unhappy group of people.
Unfortunately, just as I was beginning to soften, I got annoyed all over again, especially at Gatsby for continuing to obsess over Daisy. It was as though the terrible accident that had claimed the life of Myrtle Wilson were of no consequence (not to mention the terrible part Daisy played in that accident and its aftermath). Nick’s last words to Gatsby are, “They’re a rotten crowd…You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” This, to man who has just colluded in the cover-up of a hit-and-run!
Still, as I just said, my sympathy had by then been aroused. I felt most intensely for Nick, whose birthday, a momentous one, is ignored, and who is forced into the role of the bystander who watches these events play out with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. How bitter he sounds as he famously pronounces judgment on the Buchanans: “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…” As he, Nick, was in fact forced to do.
Finally, at the very end, Fitzgerald throws open his story so that it encompasses the history of Long Island, of New York, of America itself, where the urge to re-invent oneself seems all but irresistible. Those who succumb to that urge sometimes achieve greatness and wealth, or, just as likely, they are overwhelmed and destroyed. You cannot know how it will finish when you first start out, the author reminds us. He almost seems to invoke Camus’s benignly indifferent universe. The writing in the last two pages soars; you would have to be made of stone not to be moved by it.