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Author Topic: [110] The Great Gatsby--F. Scott Fitzgerald  (Read 9428 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: December 23, 2010, 07:33:43 AM »

Fool's Gold
December 23, 2010

In college, my best friend managed a movie theater, and, as a result I saw for free damn near every film that came out between 1971 and 1974.  I saw A Clockwork Orange, Harold and Maude, The French Connection, The Godfather, Deliverance, Cabaret, Sleuth, Frenzy, Chinatown, The Exorcist, The Sting, American Graffiti, Blazing Saddles, and on and on and on, including some far less famous films.  I distinctly remember in 1974 how the audience gasped during The Great Gatsby when Tom asked the gas station attendant how much he owed for filling the tank, and he said, "$1.20."  I experienced a similar shock this semester when I read the line in the novel.

F. Scott Fitzgerald published Gatsby in 1925 and set it in New York city during the summer of 1922, three years after the beginning of Prohibition and with no hint of repeal on the horizon.  Drinking figures heavily into almost every scene, and all the characters took it for granted, never giving a second thought to its illegality. Even the narrator, Nick Carraway, who protests more than once that he seldom drinks, doesn't even see fit to offer the law as his excuse.

The story unfolds in a very cinematic way, with many more flashbacks than I usually find in novels.  Nick Carraway moves into a small house on West Egg, one of two (fictional) islands outside of New York City.  His cousin, Daisy, lives with her husband, Tom, on East Egg.  Nick's neighbor, Jay Gatsby, throws big parties every night.  It turns out that Gatsby has lusted after Daisy for five years--longer than her marriage--and has bought this house and hosts these parties entirely on the off-chance that Daisy might drop by and discover him.  He first met her when he was a soldier and she a rich heiress.  He met and apparently had an affair with her, pretending all the while to the same wealth and class as she.  He went off to war (WWI) and survived, but he didn't come back quick enough, so she married Tom.  Gatsby then set about becoming rich enough to win her back.  Obviously, few legitimate businesses would get him the kind of money he needed, so he became fabulously wealthy through some mysterious, unexplained connection with organized crime.

Gatsby finally manages to meet Daisy, and they become infatuated with each other.  Meanwhile, Tom has a little thing going on the side, himself.  He has for some time carried on an affair with the wife of a garage owner.  Tom becomes jealous of Daisy and suspects Gatsby's involvement.  In a climactic scene in New York, Gatsby declares that Daisy has always loved him and never loved Tom.  Daisy, however, lacks the will to corroborate Gatsby's claim, nor can she bring herself to leave Tom.  So far, one could predict the events.  But a mishap precipitates the rest of the story, and, although almost everyone in the world has read the book or seen the movie, I'll nevertheless refrain from spoiling anything.

I can't care about any of the characters.  They all have many bad qualities and few redeeming ones.  Tom, of course, despicable by any standards, has exactly the sort of unexamined life most of us would find not worth living.  Born fabulously wealthy, he has no talents, interests, or skills beyond money and physical prowess. He cheats on his wife and acts surprised and hurt when she cheats on him.  Daisy seems totally brainless.  She has no qualities to recommend her other than her sexy voice, and, of course, her taste for diamonds and furs.  Gatsby, admittedly, has his infatuation.  I suppose we could forgive him for having no life beyond his fantasy of a life.  But his entire existence consists of ABSOLUTELY nothing but pursuing Daisy.  NOTHING.  This highly memorable scene, I thought, captured their hollow lives.  On their first becoming reacquainted, Gatsby shows Daisy and Nick around his extravagant mansion.  In his bedroom, he shows them his shirts, which he hired a man to go around the world buying for him every year.

        He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them one by one before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.  While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher--shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange with monograms of Indian blue.  Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
        "They're such beautiful shirts," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds.  "It makes me sad because I've never seen such--such beautiful shirts before."   

That's the closest thing to a sex scene you'll find.

Nick himself seems to despise the trio, but hangs out with them nevertheless.  He tells us at the outset that Gatsby "represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn." ( p. 20)  Of the other two, he remarks, "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...."  (p. 153)  He observes, and judges silently, but stays with them, as I will sometimes stay, slack-jawed, at a very bad movie, hoping that something will get better.  In the end, in fact, at Gatsby's graveside, his disapproval of Gatsby's life gave way to a growing resentment toward the hundreds of so-called friends who had gladly attended the lavish nightly parties but shunned the funeral.

Tender Is the Night did not impress me, so I approached Gatsby with suspicion.  Despite my feelings about the character, I have no reservations about the greatness of this little gem of a novel.  It experiments with language and with narration, as does Tender Is the Night, but its fine craftsmanship makes it succeed at every step whereas the other often faltered.  He packed so much into each page, into each sentence, that it reads less like a novel than like a polished short story.  But then it holds that high pitch of narrative intensity throughout.  I'll add that it brilliantly captures a brief moment of American cultural history--that giddy, interbellum decadence of the so-called Roaring Twenties--with the same crystal clarity that On the Road captured the essence of the Beat Generation.

« Last Edit: December 26, 2010, 06:04:13 PM by Robert Skipper » Logged
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