Book #48: The Great Gatsby

"For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing."

This quote comes around the halfway point of The Great Gatsby, my third reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece of the "jazz age" which he coined. The reasons that prompted me to pick it up each time differed, as did the impact the novel had on me. The first two times I read it as a student, picked for its brevity in high school for a summer reading program, and as part of a college course focusing on American Literature of the 20th century or something capitalized to that effect.

This time it was an article on writing and language and, even though I was in the middle of another book, I decided to dust off my old copy and go through it one more time. Being sick and in bed for much of the weekend lended itself beautifully to reading uninterrupted (the only time I'm exempt from Dad duties is when I'm sick and possibly contagious, so I make the most of it), and over the course of a few hours I poured again through the novel.

On the surace The Great Gatsby is about the destructive love between Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire and Daisy Buchanan, the married woman who lives across the bay. It's also a look at the "jazz age" through the myriad of relationships on display - between friends, spouses, and lovers, all taken through the eyes of one innocent pair of eyes - Nick Carraway, who attempts to make his way in the city and falls under the charisma of Jay Gatsby. And you can read the novel at either of these levels and come away satisfied, because what Fitzgerald can do is write, write with a terse poetic lilt that's akin to Hemingway in its brevity, but has a flowering all its own.

And that language dives through both of the above readings of Gatsby and cuts to what I think is the heart of the novel, that we as people are composed of every action that has happened to us. We are the sum of our past as well as the present, and to deny that past is to open the door to our own destruction. We find out that Jay Gatsby is actually a carefully constructed persona, built to hide Jay's very humble origins in order to successfully win the heart and hand of a young Daisy, who moves in different social circles. Everything is a thin veil meant to obscure his origins, and when this sense of deception becomes more overt in his affair with Daisy and the tragic consequences due to mistaken identities and infidelities all around, Nick is left to consider the very famous last words we read in the novel:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."