Not a Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is not a book review for 2 basic reasons. First, F. Scott Fitzgerald does not need me to advertise for him. Aside from the fact that he is deceased, every English reader in the world has already heard of The Great Gatsby. If you somehow finished high school without reading it and still never picked it up, nothing I say here is going to convince you.

Second, this was a re-read for me and I always find it difficult to review re-reads. My opinions aren’t as straightforward or clear cut as they usually are with a first time read. I would say this is my third or fourth time reading The Great Gatsby. I can distinctly recall the chair I sat in when I read it for Grade 12 English. I finished the book in an afternoon and later searched out all of Fitzgerald’s short stories.

Reading the book now, close to 20 years later, I’m sure different things jump out at me than sitting in that chair at the age of 17. This time I was struck more than ever by the casual racism of the book. The main characters are all white Americans. The one Jewish character is almost a caricature of a villain and the way any Black person is referred to was pretty horrifying.

I found myself mulling over the character of Nick more than I had in past readings. He is famously the narrator but not the focus of the story. And yet there is quite a bit about him between the lines. He describes himself as one of the few honest people he knows but tells us very little about his past entanglements and in the end Jordan, the character who arguably knows him best, accuses him of carelessness.

It is carelessness that is, in some ways, the major flaw of the book’s characters. Certainly of Daisy who is shielded from the rest of the world by wealth and privilege and beauty, whose very voice is “full of money”. It is carelessness that drives Gatsby’s extravagant parties, full of people who neither know him or care about him.

I reread The Great Gatsby as part of my Virtuous Reading Challenge based on Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well. Gatsby is the book of choice to examine the virtue of temperance. More than one person pointed out in my original post that Gatsby had to be a reverse example because when you think of Gatsby, you think of extravagance and, well, alcohol. Prior, however, takes a broader view of what is temperance. As she puts it,

One attains the virtue of temperance when one’s appetites have been shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion.

Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well

More than simply being the virtue of sobriety, temperance is that which tempers, a balance between pleasure and understanding. Gatsby is a novel of excess. Excess of consumption, yes, of alcohol and parties and dancing and a certain type of hedonism. But Gatsby himself is a man marked by intemperance. Nick notes that Gatsby himself never drinks. We see Gatsby at his own parties as more of an observer than a participator, standing on the edge, often unknown even to his own guests. Where Gatsby’s intemperance lies, Prior argues, is in his dreams. Gatsby has pinned all his dreams on Daisy, elevating her to an impossible standard and making her a representative of an entire world of wealth and power that he wishes to enter into. Gatsby’s dreams become larger-than-life, lacking the temperance of reality and creating a vision that Daisy herself can never possibly live up to. As Prior says, “[Gatsby’s] desire has been for something that does not even exist, and he has no taste for what really does exist.” Gatsby has created a fantasy world to aspire to, one that no reality can truly live up to and one which, in the end, destroys him.

13 thoughts on “Not a Book Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald”

  1. As someone who never read The Great Gatsby but has seen film depictions, I have to say I found this post interesting. Two reasons I never got into the story is 1) I find excessive drinking boring and 2) I can’t fathom a grown adult trying to will another person to love them. Sure, I remember doing it in high school and middle school, but I was a girl. To do it as an adult and eventually think, “Oh, this is stupid” kind of blows my mind.

    1. The film versions I’ve seen have been pretty decent depictions of the book though they do put more emphasis on the parties whereas that’s only one part of the story. One thing that struck me in this reading is that Daisy does love Gatsby but her love looks different from what he hoped for and that’s what keeps them from happiness, that he can’t accept her as she is. And I think that can be true of relationships, even if it’s not to this extreme.

    2. How much of the plot do you want me to give away?

      The thing that struck me this time is that Gatsby requires Daisy to deny the life she led without him. They met and fell in love, are separated for a few years during which she gets married and has a child. When they reunite, she loves him and wants to be with him but he demands that she deny she ever loved her husband. Daisy recognizes that this would be a lie, even if she doesn’t love her husband anymore but Gatsby wants her to have only ever loved him.

    3. It wasn’t something that struck me as much in previous readings. This time I was sympathetic to Gatsby’s desire to erase Daisy’s life without him but also maddened by his inability to realize the impossibility of such a request. Daisy is a very flawed character but the fact that she refused to deny she had once loved her husband stood out to me as a worthy trait.

  2. Great post. I haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, though in my case I had to pick it up on my own as my school was actually kind of dismal about assigning reading and I felt that I was missing out. I think the things that stood out to you more this time around would probably grab my attention more as an adult as well. It’s been years since I’ve read it now but I do idly wonder about Nick as Gatsby’s narrator on a semi-regular basis and would probably enjoy rereading just to reassess that for myself. I also liked your note on intemperance at the end, though it’s a bit scary to think of dreams as being a dangerous source of it! That would probably be my weakness as well to be honest, though fortunately I don’t think I’m anywhere near Gatsby’s level.

    1. I think letting our dreams become bigger than reality and then being disappointed by what we end up with is something many of us are susceptible to. Gatsby obviously takes it to an extreme but rereading it I think all the characters are guilty of it a bit. I remember liking Nick when I first read this but now I felt like I could see his flaws more clearly.

    2. I don’t remember liking Nick much as a character the first time through but I have always been fascinated by unreliable narrators! At the time I first read Gatsby though I wouldn’t even have had that term in my vocabulary so I think a reread would be a very different experience now.

    3. I think I like Nick a little bet less each time I read the book! I feel like I’ve so often heard about Nick as an example of a passive narrator, someone who is just sharing what he observes, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. He has a lot of his own biases and flaws that he brings to the story and I think that’s intentional in the writing.

  3. It’s been so long since I’ve read this one too! I don’t like to re-read books from school like this because all I can focus on is the points I tried to prove in essays, etc. LOL it just takes all the fun out of reading for me

    1. Oh, I know what you mean! Some books are too attached to those academic memories to enjoy on their own! I clearly remember reading this for school but I don’t remember any class discussions or assignments around it.

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