Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Thoughts on the Classics: The Great Gatsby

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald brilliantly captures both the disillusionment of post-war America and the moral failure of a society obsessed with wealth and status. But he does more than render the essence of a particular time and place, for in chronicling Gatsby's tragic pursuit of his dream, Fitzgerald re-creates the universal conflict between illusion and reality.

The Great Gatsby
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1925)
Source: Own copy, on Kindle

I don’t think I’ve ever felt as conflicted about a book as I do about The Great Gatsby. I both loved it and hated it, for very different reasons. Why did I love it? Fitzgerald has a gift for capturing the essence of time and place. You feel like you’re in 1920’s New York as you see through Nick Carraway’s eyes. It’s in the way the characters talk, in the way places are described and in the imagery Fitzgerald invokes in his writing. I love books that truly transport you and The Great Gatsby did that.

Even more stunning though was the sheer strength of Fitzgerald’s writing. There were places where I was stopping to read sentences over and over again so that I could fully appreciate the imagery of what Fitzgerald described. Phrases like “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars” and “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” just make me pause – as beautiful writing should.

So I loved The Great Gatsby. But I also hated it, because as much as the writing was beautiful it couldn’t wipe over my horror at the storyline. I realise that the horror, and Fitzgerald’s commentary on it, is intentional. Nonetheless, I found myself recoiling from all of the major characters as they continually demonstrated their selfishness and uncaring-ness at what was happening around them. And as the story marches towards its tragic crescendo, I found myself questioning whether Fitzgerald’s commentary on the human condition, illusion and reality was worth the tragedy. His beautiful writing becomes as much of a curse as a blessing, as the graphic scenes towards the end of the novel (which I won’t spoil, for those that haven’t read it, even though I think most know the story) impact with full horrific force – to the extent that the description of one event in particular made me feel physically ill.  Even though this is a short novel, I was happy to leave it when it finished. I’m glad I read it for the writing alone and I would certainly pick up some more of Fitzgerald’s work. But I’m not sure if The Great Gatsby will ever be a reread for me.

The Great Gatsby crosses a book off my Classics Club list. I'm also counting it towards the 'An American Classic' category of the Back to the Classics challenge.

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