That which is good for us , that which will improve us, we stay away from; that which is bad for us draws us like a moth to a flame . No surprise then that we watch Seinfeld or Two and a Half Men instead of the Discovery Channel or Masterpiece Theater on PBS , gobble up burgers instead of healthful salads , read a mystery instead of a literary masterpiece.
I am as guilty as anyone else, having binged on Westerns and mystery novels instead of literature. Mea Culpa . It is only recently , as I help a high schooler improve his English scores , that I have begun to read the great novels . I’ve already enjoyed Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and thrilled to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird . “My ” latest assignment was The Great Gatsby and it has been a revelation.
Before I read it , I had wondered at its lofty reputation. I knew what it was about, but the story , set in the post WW I years , didn’t interest me. It is narrated by Nick Carraway , a young bond trader who lives in the mythical town of West Egg on Long Island . The nouveau riche Jay Gatsby is his neighbor, a wealthy , mysterious man who throws extravagant parties in his mansion next door. Nick knows Tom and Daisy Buchanan who live in the exclusive neighborhood and, unlike Jay Gatsby, come from socially prominent families. Nick attends one of Gatsby’s parties and is importuned by his host for an introduction to Daisy Buchanan. It turns out that Jay and Daisy were lovers before he went off to war. Unable to wait for him , Daisy married Tom Buchanan , who like her, came from old money but turned out to be a serial adulterer.
When Daisy and Jay meet , the old fires are re-kindled and they resume their romance. Tom grows suspicious , ferrets out Jay’s questionable background and spills the beans . Jay and Daisy speed away with the distraught Daisy driving Jay’s distinctive yellow roadster . She runs over and kills Myrtle Wilson who , by coincidence , happens to be Tom Buchanan’s married lover. Jay Gatsby is ready to take the blame, and say that he was driving but , before he can do so, he is shot dead by Myrtle’s husband George who then commits suicide. Tom and Daisy reconcile and slip away . Much later, we find it was Tom Buchanan who framed Jay for the accident , resulting in the murder-suicide.
That , in essence , is the plot. It not a compelling one but then one doesn’t read The Great Gatsby for the storyline . The writing is marvellous and readers can clearly visualize events as they happen. The novel is heavy on symbolism and inconsequential little events are fraught with meaning . For instance , Jay is given to standing in his garden and staring at a green light that we later find is at the end of the Buchanan’s dock. It is a symbol of his yearning for Daisy , his dream and in a sense , The American Dream . Then there is a billboard , an advertisement for Dr. T. J. Eckleburg , an optometrist. It shows two large staring eyes and they are repeatedly likened to the eyes of God watching over all of us , seeing and judging what we do.
None of the characters are likeable . Daisy is beautiful , but shallow ; Tom Buchanan is a sexist, racist hypocrite who sees nothing wrong in conducting a string of tawdry affairs but is outraged at the thought that Daisy could be cheating on him . Jay Gatsby himself is a crook who has made his fortune by nefarious means and , subconsciously , sees Daisy a symbol of what aspires to be . And yet , there is something noble about his love for Daisy, misguided though it may be .
Reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life , it is easy to see how much of the fictional Jay Gatsby is autobiographical. Fitzgerald too was born in modest circumstances. His father, Edward, was a failure in business and his mother, Mary, an eccentric . Because several of her children died in infancy , Mary coddled Scott and spoiled him no end. From his youth onwards, he was an inveterate writer and neglected other subjects to spend all his time writing.He was lucky to get into Princeton but squandered the opportunity because of his obsession with writing. Like Jay Gatsby , he was ashamed of his family and fervently aspired to rise to the upper class. He fell in love with Zelda Sayre , a beautiful but spoiled Southern belle, and married her in 1920 after the success of his first novel , This Side of Paradise.
Their’s was a doomed union . Zelda was beautiful and charming but had absolutely no other personal resources. ( Not unlike Daisy ). With success , the Fitzgeralds embarked on an incessant round of parties ( like Jay Gatsby) . All the drinking and carousing left little time for writing and meant that they were perpetually in debt. Zelda ‘s behavior, always been a little strange ,soon developed into full-blown schizophrenia , causing her to be intermittently committed to asylums. Scott made good money writing short stories and was briefly a screen writer at MGM but never wrote another successful novel after The Great Gatsby ( 1925).He died an alcoholic at age 44 in 1940 ; Zelda survived him by eight years passing away in 1948.
The Great Gatsby was a critical success but did not become a popular hit until after Fitzgerald’s death. What is remarkable is that he wrote it when he was not yet 30. I can’t think of any other novel in recent times that has received such acclaim and been analyzed so exhaustively. There must be hundreds of scholarly articles , dissecting it , critically examining its different aspects . Partly it is because of its many layered complexity and because it is regarded as the definitive novel of the Jazz Age , a term first coined by Fitzgerald. Not only is it the story of Jay Gatsby but it is a metaphor for the dissolute , hard partying society of the Roaring Twenties: The heedless pursuit of pleasure , the lust for quick money , the snobbery and class consciousness of the rich and the general disregard for the law.
It is also because of the mystery of Jay Gatsby. In the beginning , when Nick tells us about him and his fantastic claims of having attended Oxford , of being a war hero and of having lived in the mid West and coming into money, we are convinced he is a fraud . Then it appears that some of his tales , at least, are true. Much later , we come to know more about his background but we are never certain we have the whole picture.
While most of us see him as the classic romantic , there are some critics who stress that ,at bottom, he is just a sinister gangster OR a pathological narcissist OR a fairy tale hero for the middle class. There are even some who see him a profoundly comic character. I am mystified by such judgements. In my eyes , he is a flawed hero , ennobled by the depth of his love , his headlong pursuit and his willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of the unworthy Daisy Buchanan. Towards the end of the novel , Nick tells Jay Gatsby “” They’re a rotten crowd . You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together” ,and the reader is inclined to agree. Or at least , I am…
Such novels do not end with the last line . If they are good , the end is really the start of a new phase of cogitation in which the reader tries to marshal his thoughts , to decide whether his first impressions need to be modified. Such is the case with Jay Gatsby’s story. I will think about it a bit more , read what has been written about it and I will see the movie . The 1974 movie starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow . I can see Redford as Jay Gatsby but Mia Farrow is not my idea of Daisy Buchanan. Still I’ll keep an open mind. There is also a 2012 version starring Leonardo diCaprio due to come out shortly. It has the iconic Indian actor Amitabh Bachan in a bit role as the unsavory crook Meyer Wolfshiem . Physically , Bachan is the polar opposite of the ” small flat-nosed Jew with the large head ‘ that Fitzgerald describes . It should be interesting to see how he tackles the role.