How great is The Great Gatsby?

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them”, as Shakespeare had his character Malvolio say in Twelfth Night. Shakespeare is a master of words, and often cloaks wisdom in the guise of fools. Malvolio is a foolish character, who, it can be argued, has greatness thrust upon him, in his mistaken belief that Olivia, the royal heroine, is in love with him. He is a court hanger-on, set up by others to make a fool of himself, capering round in yellow stockings and crossed garters, because he’s been told this will make Olivia hot for him. He is humiliated, and in the process, becomes tragic because he exposes himself to ridicule and is all but destroyed in the process. In the end, disillusioned, he swears vengeance on “the whole pack of you”, and even Olivia admits he has been  “most notoriously abused”. His greatness is in his folly and lack of self-awareness, which exposes him to the shallow ridicule and pranks of an effete mob of courtiers, turning the satire back on them and making him a scapegoat. But at least Malvolio has a fictive life beyond the ending; he is not destroyed.

Gatsby, the anti-hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel The Great Gatsby, is Malvolio without crossed garters. He wears, not yellow stockings, but a pink suit. He lives in a vast mansion with only his servants, and populates it with the trendies and hangers on of the rich and famous in wild, extravagant parties. He is nobody from nowhere, who has constructed a false identity for himself, made his money through some sort of illicit trade, and is flaunting his extravagant lifestyle, not because he enjoys it, but because he wants to impress and attract his lost love, Daisy, who is married to a man of family (old wealth), and who jilted him five years ago because he was poor. And in the end, he is destroyed, and the narrative perspective shines the spotlight on the cast of fools who idolised and then betrayed and deserted him.

Fitgerald has written a complex story, which has many gaps in it; in many ways, he was ahead of his time, when in 1925, he published this satrical/lyrical/tragical story of a man undone by a dream of love and trapped by the illusion that money can buy you your heart’s desire. This has become the iconic novel of the roaring twenties, the prelude to The Great Depression, which burst the bubble of wealth. The interesting backstory to this novel is that much of it is autobiographical, based on Fitgerald’s own dance of death and love affair with wealth and fame and the wild, mad Zelda, his wife.  Like Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, he longed for, but saw through the illusion of wealth and fame, in a love/hate affair which ultimately destroyed him. We don’t know what happens to Carraway in the novel, though in the film, the story of the doomed love affair of Gatsby and Daisy is framed by Carraway’s rehabilitation for chronic alcoholism and depression in a clinic; his psychiatrist urges him to write his story, and that is the story of Gatsby.

Much more could be said about the novel, and Luhrman’s filmic remake of it. I am undecided whether this book is great, but I”m sure it’s not as great as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But it’s unfair to compare Fitzgerald with Shakespeare. There is beauty and pathos in the novel, and much of the prose is meltingly lyrical. For instance, when Carraway describes his first meeting with Daisy’s husband Tom, in their mansion, and Tom takes him on a tour of the establishment:

We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling—and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, makeing a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

What troubled me about it, though, each time I put it down and turned out the light, was that I couldn’t care much about what happened to the characters. There’s a sort of faded, distanced, disillusioned tone to the narration that holds it all at arm’s length. Whereas, in the movie, for all its absurd, over-the-top effects, the central story of the three main characters went to my heart.

Have you seen the film or read the book? I’d love to hear your responses.



Filed under what makes a character or a novel great?

10 responses to “How great is The Great Gatsby?

  1. Louise Allan

    The Great Gatsby, the novel, is one my all-time favourite novels ever. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve read it, and every single time it moves me and I notice something new about it. I even love it’s flaws, or what I perceive as flaws. I find the writing, albeit beautifully lyrical as you say, a bit over-the-top florid at times. And I really feel for the characters. They’re so flawed and, well, human: Daisy, the airhead; Tom, the arrogant arse-hole; and Gatsby himself, a criminal who tries to steal another man’s wife, but for whom I feel so sad. I love the themes, and am in awe that Fitzgerald managed to fit all of it into 50,000 words. The thing is, it still rings so true today …

    By the way, apart from Leo, I squirmed and cringed throughout the movie! Please note, I write all this with much humility and I’m glad someone liked the movie better than the book.

  2. Fascinating, Louise, I’m so glad you’ve shared your responses to it. I’m sure it is a book you could fall in love with. It is amazing how Fitzgerald could be so close to the wave of wealth and fame, ride it himself, and yet be able to stand back from it and describe it. Yes, I had the same response about the writing, thought he laid it on a bit thick at times. As for the movie, it is OTT++, and I thought it almost ruined itself, but the characters and their story I found compelling. I think Daisy is more engaging than she is in the book. I can’t say I liked the movie better, and I certainly don’t think it is a masterpiece, which TGG undeniably is, although I am uncommitted to it.

  3. Lovely review Christina. I re-read The Great Gatsby ahead of seeing the movie. I had last read it as a teenager I think. I like compact novels like that and I enjoyed it anew particularly as I could barely remember it. It’s funny but that scene about Tom taking Nick through to that room and the windows and curtains stayed with me too and I looked forward to seeing how that they would displayed in the film.
    I really enjoyed the Luhrman version, I knew I had let go of normality and did so happily. I started to watch the older Redford movie version too having seen the latest version but couldn’t stay with it. It seemed static and the actor playing Nick Carraway seemed too old. In fact all the actors did.

    • I can’t remember that scene in the film…
      Luhrman certainly doesn’t do normality. He does excess to excess, and I think, gets away with it most of the time, but sometimes as in Gatsby, I found it distancing. I longed for some stasis!

  4. Thanks for such a thoughtful review. I reread the book a couple of years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but felt as you did its distance. Like I was enjoying it from afar. The characters and the issues they raise never really engaged me. I haven’t seen the movie because I have feared for its excesses.

    • Thank you. So far my readers are divided on whether they were engaged by the book or not. I admired it, but it didn’t stir me.

      • I have tried to reach you through your editing site. I have a review of volume 1 ready to go. Shall I send it to you? If I don’t hear from you I will go ahead and post it. I really liked the book, but have little that I think is new to say about it. I hope your review will push me to see more.

      • I have answered your emails to my website, and I”ve sent you my personal email address; please use that, not the editing site. I”ll spell it out here again:
        I presume you mean post it on your site; you wouldn’t be able to post it on mine; I need to do that. But I’d love to read it if it is ready. I’m not ready to review Book 1 of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony yet; still reading it!

  5. Nice review Christina. The cast does what they can, but the direction isn’t too concerned with them. It’s all style, all the time.

    • Yes, I guess you’re right. The actors did a good job with their parts, but they were competing with the effects, and as you say, the style, the emphasis on the material and superficial.
      To some extent, I think this could be said of the book too, though I’d have to read it more closely to support that; I think Fitzgerald was in love with words, and lets them carry him away, as in the passage I quoted; another reader who’s commented here also found it too florid at times. Perhaps Luhrman picked the novel partly for that reason,

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