On Rereading The Great Gatsby

Last week I reread The Great Gatsby.

In writing a few days ago about the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming 3-D film adaptation starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan, I wrote that “it’s inspired me to reread Gatsby for the first time in a few years.”

This also prompted me to check my blog to see what, if anything, I’d written of Gatsby over the years, and I mentioned here that it’s been fifteen years since I last read Gatsby. Maybe it was. I actually think the last time I read Gatsby was in the last year I was in Raleigh, if not in full then at least in parts.

I have no great insights into The Great Gatsby; high school students looking for blog posts from which to pilfer for essays should move on from here.

Instead, some observations.

Gatsby is novella-length — I think it runs to just a hair over 40,000 words — and the plot is fairly straightforward and, to a great extent, a story of contrived coincidences. What makes Gatsby worth reading is the quality of the prose; Fitzgerald writes interesting sentences, he uses and abuses dashes, and his imagery is never less than compelling.

The thing about the imagery of Gatsby is that it’s quite controlled. The excess of Luhrmann’s trailer doesn’t reflect Gatsby itself, instead it captures the idea of the Jazz Age. There’s a line from Fitzgerald’s essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age” that has stayed with me since college — the era was “an expensive orgy.”

The characters of Gatsby may be hollow — The Great Gatsby itself is something of an ironic title — but the romantic ideal of the story remains compelling.

In my cubicle at work hangs a Peanuts strip from May 25, 1998 — the only time the Little Red-Haired Girl appears on panel in Peanuts — and the final panel, which shows Snoopy and the Little Red-Haired Girl dancing together, quotes (with a brief excision) from the sixth chapter of Gatsby: “Daisy and Gatsby danced. I remember being surprised by his graceful, conservative fox-trot.” Two chapters later Gatsby’s dead, a couple of comic strips later Snoopy’s been booted from the formal dance. Things don’t end well for Snoopy or Gatsby.

I know that many people read Gatsby in high school. I didn’t. In fact, other than on my own, I don’t know that I ever had to read any Fitzgerald in high school or college. I know I read Hemingway and Steinbeck in high school, Hemingway and Faulkner in college. Heck, I even read some Joyce in college. Somehow my schooling completely bypassed Fitzgerald. I read Fitzgerald because I wanted to, not because I had to, and because of that I don’t know what I was supposed to get out of reading Gatsby. I only know what I got out of Gatsby.

For instance, I know that Nick is supposed to be an unreliable narrator and that the “green light” is supposed to represent something. I know these things because I’ve heard or read others say them. But Nick comes across to me as someone fairly honest, and the “green light” was always to me just the light at the end of Tom Buchanan’s dock. “Moby-Dick doesn’t work as a symbol if he doesn’t first work as a whale.” And, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I’ve no doubt that Fitzgerald intended for things in the book to have significance, but he also intended for the book to be read, not torn apart and deconstructed, and he certainly never intended for the book to be fodder for high school essays eighty years after he wrote Gatsby. In short, maybe things in The Great Gatsby have meaning, but that meaning comes from the reader’s interpretation of the words and shouldn’t be confused with what’s actually on the page.

Finally, about a month ago I posted a list of panels that I’d pitched for this summer’s Shore Leave convention, and one of those panels would look at whether or not you could drop a TARDIS into the middle of a story — movie, television series, book, what have you — and see if the story would still work. That doesn’t work with Gatsby; I cannot conceive of anything the Doctor would do of any meaningful import within the confines of The Great Gatsby. Crash one of Gatsby’s parties? Sure. But that’s of no meaningful import. I can imagine the Doctor in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises quite easily — he’d totally be a part of the bullfighting expedition to Spain. But Gatsby? No, it doesn’t work as a Doctor Who story at all. (High school students: If you want to prove me wrong on this point, feel free.) However, as I mentioned just a few days ago, The Great Gatsby does work as an X-Men story. Go figure.

I think, in total, I’ve now read Gatsby four times, which is three times more than some of Fitzgerald’s other work. Which reminds me that someday I need to hunt down the heroic fantasy stories Fitzgerald wrote that I’ve not read. Yes, the man wrote heroic fantasy. Fitzgerald had range.

There you have it. Totally random, idiosyncratic thoughts on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Oh, one final thought. After disliking Luhrmann’s trailer because it looked totally unlike the book I remembered (and thinking that DiCaprio and Maguire are each a decade too old for their roles), I get the trailer with each successive rewatch. It may not be literal to the book (the party scene in the trailer is far in excess of anything Fitzgerald wrote), but it’s evocative of the idea of the Jazz Age. This doesn’t mean I’ll see the film — reviews will have to be phenomenal, I think — but I don’t hate on the trailer the way I did.

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