Sunday, July 31, 2011

Books That Grab Me: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

Yes, you had to read The Great Gatsby in high school literature class where your teacher enthused about it long enough to turn its sweeter attractions crabbed and sour.  It's worth reading again -- and enjoying this time.  Teachers of literature like to offer it up because it is reasonably short, well-written, and full of twists and turns that should keep adolescents interested.  A showy life of the idle rich, Jazz age parties, romantic obsession that doesn't slip to the erotic or pornographic, a series of unremarkable events that lead up to tragedy.  At the center, a mystery of a character who dies for his obsession, killed because he walked into a vapid culture he didn't understand or plan for.

It works off old patterns, the same one used by most of the great love stories: a boy loves a girl but isn't established enough to keep her, he does well in some war or illegal venture, and he comes back for her, fighting through enormous odds to get her.  (The core of the basic beginning story of The Count of Monte Cristo before disaster struck there, parodied in The Princess Bride to great success.)  We, as readers, have seen all the variations of this pattern.  But Gatsby is different.  Our plucky boy hero comes back from his illegality with a ton of money, but he doesn't search out his girl directly.  He begins throwing lavish, ridiculous parties a few miles from where the girl lives with her new husband -- he wants her to come to him.  He wants the grand romance of it rather than the squalid lying that happens when he does begin an affair with her.  He wants to keep her forever rather than the summer diversion she makes of him while telling him it will be forever.  He wants to live happily ever after, rather than what does happen to him as a result of some careful words spread about by Daisy's husband, a man defending what's his in the most feudal way.

"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 clear up the mess they made..."

Gatsby's obsession wins him what he wanted and lost him everything.  All his shining, glittery parties work and fail him.  We read him because of the depth of who he is and how he's defeated by the shallow woman, the villain of this unhappy tale, he so wanted.  There was no master criminal.  Just people who act from short-term plans, from desires so ordinary the worst that should happen is unhappiness or loud arguments.  But the bodies stack up in this tale, fatal accidents give way to misguided revenge plots.

The Great Gatsby possesses no good people and no pure bad people.  It's a bunch of flawed specimens tossed into a fishbowl to see what they might do.  Nothing good is the answer.  That is art, but it also demands your attention, tempts you with beautiful words before it rips away your illusions.  It's good writing and a great story, a sad one that soared toward happiness for a brief moment before it came crashing back to earth.

No comments:

Post a Comment