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The Great Gatsby is a 1925 novel by F Scott Fitzgerald that I'd imagine most people must have read by now. It's a short novel but generally regarded to be one of the greatest works of fiction of the last century. The story is set during the early part of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age. A time of great prosperity for America. Wild parties, prohibition, bootleggers, new money, people becoming rich. It isn't destined to last though. The great stock market crash of 1929 is just around the corner and will serve as the sober hangover and symbolic ending for this glitter strewn decade of excess. The shadows are already beginning to loom well before in the story. It's an era that can't possibly last forever. So the novel is a snapshot of the age amongst a particular money washed strata of American society before it all goes belly up. These people are distracted by ephemera and can never seem to see the big picture. They don't realise that happiness doesn't come with having money in the bank, a famous family or reside at the bottom of a champagne bottle. Sometimes it's much more complicated than that. They are the beautiful and the damned and the children of the age. The story is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young man who has moved to Long Island's West Egg from the Midwest to start a new life and work in the New York bond business. Across the bay at East Egg are some old friends he soon becomes reacquainted with and both will play a pivotal part in the story. A couple named Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Nick went to Yale with Tom while Daisy is his second cousin. We soon see for ourselves how bored and superficial Tom and Daisy are despite their wealth and glamour.
The Buchanans are old money. They inherited their wealth and symbolise the age with their shallowness and somewhat reckless and frivolous attitude to life. The less fashionable West Egg is where those with new money live and Nick finds his modest house situated next to the grand mansion of the mysterious and enigmatic Gatsby. Gatsby throws huge swanky champagne sozzled parties at his mansion for the fashionable and rich but he's never actually seen at any of them enjoying himself or taking part in the revelry. "In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names." Who is Gatsby and to what end does he arrange these lavish parties if he seems to have little interest in them and largely keeps himself to himself? When Carraway eventually meets Gatsby everything slowly begins to become clear. I remember reading this at school and finding it rather dull and then returning to it later and absolutely loving the book. You get a very vivid and beautifully written window into the era through the eyes of the main characters and the themes are always interesting. One of the principle themes is the emptiness of the American Dream. The pursuit of wealth and popularity. Money does not buy you peace of mind or make you happy. You can be the richest person in the world but wealth can't always buy you the things you want - or think you want.
It's also interesting the way there are different types of wealth. Those with inherited wealth (old money) have a social standing that is much more secure amongst the vacuous society types they mingle with. For those with new money though it's another story. These people are more vulnerable and even slightly looked down upon for their nouveau riche status - as if they are transient interlopers trying to gatecrash the natural order of things. The narrator is nowhere near as rich as the people he is mixing (if anything he's very ordinary) with now so feels like an outsider in this world. Over the course of the story he will come to look at these various characters in very different ways. Tom is conducting an affair with Myrtle Wilson in Queens, near a place known as the Valley of the Ashes. "This is a valley of ashes--a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud which screens their obscure operations from your sight." Myrtle is married to a man named George Wilson who owns a garage and Wilson is secretly sneered upon by both his wife and Tom. Tom is restless despite his money and although he considers himself to be intelligent we realise he is rather stupid all things considering.
There is a lot going on in the novel around the theme of snobbery. How people view one another through the prism of bank balances and where they were educated. Daisy is like an overgrown child. Beautiful but whimsical and easily bored. A party girl or "flapper" with not much between the ears. Daisy married Tom for his money and one gets the impression this is the most important quality she looks for in any prospective lover. She is uncertain, vulnerable and ultimately self-interested. Meanwhile, there is the mysterious Gatsby with his mansion and extravagant parties. The narrator is sort of caught in the middle of all of this and so is our link to all of these characters and how their lives will intertwine. The most important theme though and the most moving and compelling element to the book is that of the lost moment. A brief fleeting time in someone's life that they romantcise out of all proportion. Fitzgerald is like a romantic and an anti-romantic at the same time. Prone to romantic yearnings but sophisticated enough to be self aware of his own excesses of the heart. The key to the centre of the novel is the line by Keats about heard melodies being sweet by those unheard sweeter. Can you recapture a lost moment, a missed opportunity in your life or is it impossible? Is the tragedy failing to act or wasting your life by mourning the fact that you were unable to act? I think this theme is really fascinating. It's about trying to recreate something that happened long ago and how difficult this can be. The novel is about the difficulty of living with one's past and how we cope with memories. The tension between life as we know it and life as we imagine it might have been if we had done something differently. "Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
Although Nick is the narrator, Gatsby is the real core of the novel and a great character that you become eager to learn more about. "He smiled understandingly -- much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced -- or seemed to face -- the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey." This is one of the great novels and full of amazing passages. Even little things like the characters idly languidly sprawling around ruminating on things like missing the longest day of the year are beautifully captured and brought to life. More than anything though you get the impression that the author knew these sort of people. The way he way captures their world is sublime. The Great Gatsby might not be for everyone but it's certainly a book that everyone should try to read at some point.