I was recently motivated to re-read The Great Gatsby while listening to Iris Leu‘s EP “Permanent Transient”. In one of the songs she says “your Gatsby smile conceals delusion,” which besides being elegant poetry, revealed that I had no idea what the book was really about. I managed to escape high school without reading it, but was curious and read it in college. Apparently I was not mature enough to understand it at the time. It turns out to be a story of a man who cannot give up a past love, a commentary on the wealthy classes, and a set of character studies.

The narrator, whose name we deduce to be Nick Carraway as the story progresses, moves from somewhere out West to New York to work as a bond salesman at some indeterminate time during Prohibition and before the second world war. The book opens with him visiting his second cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, both very wealthy. We are introduced to the characters—Daisy was one of those girls that seem to make men feel cared about when she talked to them; her professional golfer and tennis player friend Jordan Baker was self-sufficient, somewhat self-absorbed; her husband, a former star football player. Their life was a life of leisure, of figuring out what to do with the day. We are also introduced to the rumor that Tom has a mistress.

The rumor proved true. Tom took Nick to visit his mistress, who lived in Queens, a grey, industrial part of the city (the “asheaps”). Myrtle Wilson was a sensuous, slightly fat, self-absorbed woman. Fortunately, Tom was quite willing to spend money on her—he even kept an apartment in a Manhattan apartment complex. The afternoon was spent with Tom, Myrtle, her sister and the McKees. It seems that her affair with Tom allowed her to occasionally live the life of a gossippy, wealthy, Manhattan. The whole afternoon was pretty dismal, both from Nick’s point of view and the readers. (In fact, this scene was the only thing I had remembered from my first reading, precisely because it was so dismal)

Some time afterwards, Nick’s millionaire neighbor, Jay Gatsby invited him to one of his weekly parties. These consisted of large quantities of food and drink, as well as large quantities of people who showed up to enjoy the time. They generally did not know Gatsby, nor did they much care about him. They mostly just wanted to eat his banquets, drink his alcohol, and enjoy the band, pool, and mansion grounds. Nick eventually meets Gatsby (and Jordan, who invites him to call her), who invites him to his hydroplane the next day.

Gatsby struck up a relationship with Nick, whereby Nick discovered that the illustrious history of going to Oxford, being in the war, etc. were all real, despite all the appearances of being an elaborate lie. He also discovered that there was some basis of truth behind the rumors of the party-goers that Gatsby was involved in some shady business, such as moonshine. There seemed to be some connection between gambling and a certain fixing of the 1919 World Series. The purpose of the relationship was revealed when Gatsby took Nick to lunch one day and asked him to organize a tea for him and Daisy.

It seems that Gatsby had fallen in love with Daisy back before she was married and had a steady stream of suitors. They had hit it off quite well, enjoying each other’s company immensely. But he went away to the war and she apparently could not wait for his return. He sent her word about his return the night before her wedding and she almost broke it off, but didn’t. He bought a mansion across the harbor from Daisy’s house and hosted weekly parties in the hope that she would show up one night. But she didn’t, so he used Nick to facilitate a meeting.

After some initial difficulty at the tea, the two became quite cordial, with Daisy eventually visiting his house with such frequency that Gatsby fired his servants and hired new ones who wouldn’t be inclined to gossip. Daisy and Tom were invited to one of his parties, but Daisy did not have a good time, Gatsby promptly ceases having the parties. The relationship eventually reaches a crisis point when he visited Daisy’s house. The party included Nick and Jordan, as the two of them were dating, and the five of them decide to go the city to rent a hotel room for a private party. Tensions between Tom and Gatsby broke out shortly after the ices were delivered (there was no air conditioning at this time), with Gatsby asserting to an astonished Tom that Daisy loves him instead of Tom, that, in fact, she had never loved Tom. Daisy, while agreeing that she did not love Tom, under questioning from Tom, did concede that she did love him before. The party broke up rather tumultuously and the five return to Daisy’s house.

Gatsby and Daisy were together in Gatsby’s car on the way over. On the way back, Daisy (as we discover later) was driving the car. The road back to her house passed by Myrtle’s residence; she came out to meet them for some reason (perhaps to inform Tom that her husband was moving them because he had caught wind of some affair with his wife). Daisy, who apparently knew about Tom’s mistress, ran her over with the car and continued driving. Tom, Nick, and Jordan were following more slowly and by the time they arrived a police barricade had been set up, so they (and the reader) spend some time learning what happened.

Myrtle’s husband got a description of the car from the bystanders and after some detective work, discovered that it was Gatsby’s car. He arrived at Gatsby’s mansion and shot him while Gatsby was cleaning his swimming pool, killing himself shortly afterwards. Nick ended up arranging Gatsby’s funeral, both because of his physical proximity and the fact that he seemed to be Gatsby’s only friend. Nicks attempts to inform his business partners of the funeral ended with all of them avoiding the issue, in a way that seemed to imply that being somehow associated with Gatsby’s death might bring unwanted investigation upon them. Gatsby is buried in the rain, with only his father, Nick, and one of the party-goers.

Fitzgerald has created a story with messages on a number of levels. The most obvious is how Gatsby’s failure to endure the rejection of Daisy was his undoing. Ultimately he was unable to believe that Daisy had chosen to do without him—they worked so well together, they loved each other, he was better for her than Tom. Yet, she had already chosen, and Gatsby could not accept that. The most explicit comes at the end of the book, where Nick states that Daisy and Tom will use their money to cover things over and live apparently happy lives ever after. At least, happy on the surface. It seems hard to escape a feeling that Fitzgerald was also condemning the lifestyle of the rich as shallow and self-serving.

In fact, this is perhaps the message of the book. All the characters in the book are completely self-seeking, with the exception of Nick (who professes himself to be unusual in the introduction). Tom is looking for excitement. Gatsby is looking for his lost love. Jordan is looking for love without being willing to give it back. Myrtle uses Tom to escape her effectively lifeless husband as well as to live like the rich for a moment. Daisy is a little harder to identify, but it seems that she is looking for men to dote on her. She almost-flirts with men and does not seem to be very emotionally loyal. So perhaps Fitzgerald was intending readers to ask themselves whether they are self-serving like the characters in the book.

Fitzgerald’s characters are the main greatness of the book. He shows a clear understanding of human nature, describing the characters succinctly yet vividly, appealing to the reader’s experiences of similar people. Unlike many books, the characters do not change, but the nature of their characters is progressively revealed through their actions. (Just as in real life)  And when the revelation is complete, which takes a different amount of time for each character, they all stand equally ugly, shallow, and self-centered.

At the risk of sounding preachy, Fitzgerald’s message, that all mankind is self-serving, is the foundation for the Christian message. Sadly, it appears that Fitzgerald did not realize that. Ultimately our sin, our disobedience of God’s laws, is caused by our self-centeredness. The real goal of each person is to achieve their personal happiness. What constitutes “happiness” is different for each person, just as it was for each of Fitzgerald’s characters, but that is the goal that we are pursuing. Instead of returning the love of the infinitely Good and Great God who created us to bless us with His unselfish love, we selfishly seek our happiness apart from Him (where it cannot exist). We are like Fitzgerald’s characters: shallow, unloving, unloyal, and in addition, failing to have the perfect character of God. As a result, we can have no relationship with God, and will be punished in Hell for our despicable character and disobedience. Fortunately, God became a perfect Man, in the person of Jesus, to die in our place, to be punished instead of us. If we renounce our self-centeredness and accept His death for our sin, He will forgive us, so that we may enjoy loving Him forever. Additionally, He will begin to change us to build in us the character that we do not have, slowly, throughout our lives, creating in us His perfect character. Fitzgerald has written a book that eloquently displays the Original Sin of self-absorption that permeates all of mankind. I hope that readers of this review will come to know Jesus, who is the solution for that sin.

Having read several pieces of Literature now (see The Reivers for another example), it seems that the purpose of plot is the main difference between Literature and regular fiction. The Great Gatsby uses plot for just one reason: the reveal the characters. In contrast, most fiction is the reverse: the characters and their actions advance the plot. This results in the primary character of Literature noted by high school readers: Literature is rather less exciting that normal fiction since it is introspective. In fact, Literature seems to be an exploration of human nature, while normal fiction is story, a tale. Thus Literature requires a greater maturity. Stories are fun to read, while Literature is more analytical, but substantially deeper afterwards. Stories are entertainment; Literature is a portrait of the human condition.

The Great Gatsby is definitely a 100-year book. (It is already over 85 years old.)  Each sentence is well-crafted, combined into clear paragraphs, each revealing a little more of the nature of the characters. Although the book is somewhat slow, its memory ages well, growing in depth. I question the efficacy of having high schoolers read it, since they lack the life experiences to be able to understand the book, but it is certainly a fine example of writing.
Review: 10
Eloquent characters. The descriptions are succinct, accurate, and effective. The book is deep, revealing the evil in all of us, for there is no Nick Carraway who is a good person.


Daisy “[Daisy] laughed again, as if she said something very witty, and held my hand for a moment, looking up into my face, promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see. That was a way she had. She hinted in a murmur that the surname of the balancing girl was Baker. (I’ve heard it said that Daisy’s murmur was only to make people lean toward her; an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming.)”  (p. 13-14)

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of—" I hesitated.”
“Her voice is full of money,” [Gatsby] said suddenly.
That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle in it, the cymbals’ song of it. ... (sic)  High in a white palace, the king’s daughter, the golden girl. ... (sic)”
 (p. 107)

Jordan Baker “Jordan Baker instinctively avoided clever, shrewd men, and now I saw that this was because she felt safer on a plane where any divergence from a code would be thought impossible. She was incurably dishonest. She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness, I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.” (p. 55)

Tom “This was a permanent move [the move to New York], said Daisy over the telephone, but I didn’t believe it—I had no sight into Daisy’s heart, but I felt that Tom would drift forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game [of his greatness as a tight end in college].”  (p. 11)

Jay Gatsby Always friendly, but never caring. Always an elegant host, but rarely locatable. Generous.

“Don’t mention it,” he enjoined me eagerly [regarding Nick’s failure to find him earlier in the evening of his first invitation]. “Don’t give it another thought, old sport.” The familiar expression held no more familiarity than the hand which reassuringly brushed my shoulder. “And don’t forget that we’re going up in the hydroplane tomorrow morning, at nine o’clock.” (p. 51)

Myrtle Wilson “She was in the middle  thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some women can.” (p. 27)

George Wilson Has practically no character. Extremely dull, appears to have no interests. Does not really appear to live life, so much as float in it. Is definitely not enough man for his wife.

“Doesn’t her husband object?” “Wilson? He thinks she goes to see her sister in New York. He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.”  (p. 28)

“‘... You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!’
Standing behind [Wilson], Michaelis saw with a shock that he was looking at the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg [a billboard], which had just emerged, pale and enormous, from the the dissolving night.”
 (p. 141)

“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existant nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”  (p. 25)

Nick Carraway Seems friendly, amiable, normal. Is loyal to Gatsby, although somewhat out of duty.

“Every one suspects himself of at least one cardinal virtue, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”  (p. 56)