The 90th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby happened on April 10, 2015, and while I am late to the party in terms of paying my tribute to this magnificent piece of work, I am no less enthusiastic. When people ask me to declare my favorite novel, this is the one. I have such strong feelings for this book that it is hard to encapsulate it in these few blog posts I intend to write. Why do I love it so much? Well, for starters, it is everything that I think a great novel should be:
- I discover something new each time I read it (since I rediscovered it about 8 years ago, I have read it every summer since 2007) – I love books that make me think and make me want to analyze them and conduct additional research
- I identify strongly with the main characters, Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby, both of them in search of identity and principles to live by, and both of them striving to make their own way and a better life for themselves
- It contains some of the most beautiful and poetic language I have ever encountered in the English language
- The plot is compelling from beginning to end – there are never any parts I want to rush through in order to get to better parts
- It contains glamour and vivid descriptions of everything happening which takes readers on a wonderful journey where we can live vicariously through the characters
- It is about the 1920s – the era I adore (I read other novels which are not set in this time period, but the fact that this one is set in this time period is a major bonus)
- It is cinematic (it has been made into movies at least four times) – I adore movies as much as I do books, so I always like to see books dramatized on screen – each time I view the movies, they make me think about things all over again
Maureen Corrigan, another lifetime fan of The Great Gatsby, published a book last year called So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. Corrigan has been teaching this book for several years as a college professor, and she recently threw herself into conducting research for the book. She also runs a literary show on NPR called Fresh Air. I am sharing some of the information from the book that really stuck with me:
- “Fitzgerald’s plot suggests that the American Dream is a mirage, but his words make that dream irresistible.” She is right – for all of the morally questionable things that happen in the novel, there is a hopeful almost buoyant tone to the telling of the story.
- She refers to the fact that the American Dream is about diving in and sinking or swimming – everyone supposedly has the opportunity to succeed, but can you swim fast enough and far enough to make it. One of the central questions in the book is about whether meritocracy really exists in America. Fitzgerald’s best characters dive into life full tilt and then must fight hard to stay afloat. The thing that he did so well in Gatsby is show how the rich among us have extra advantages to help them stay afloat and swim farther and faster than the rest of us – money, connections, and a confidence that things will always, or more often than not, work out in their favor.
- Scholars often talk about how the book is time haunted, but she does an excellent job of presenting a new perspective by showing how the book is also full of imagery related to water and drowning.
- Despite all of the good luck and advantages Fitzgerald experienced in life, he always felt like he was on the outside looking in when it came to his interactions with the wealthy. This came from the uncertain fortunes of his family while he was growing up and his feelings that his father was a failure as a provider.
- There are four short stories, known by critics as the Gatsby cluster, with similar themes to The Great Gatsby where the characters fixate on the act of reaching for something or someone just out of reach: “Absolution” (American Mercury, 1924), “Winter Dreams” (Metropolitan, 1922), “The Sensible Thing” (Liberty, 1924), and “The Rich Boy” (Redbook, 1926). I have read all of these stories, and they are all excellent and easy to locate online.
- Corrigan talks about how Francis Cugat’s cover art for the book captured perfectly the sense of longing which permeates the story. It was created before the book was completed, and Fitzgerald has stated that he wrote it into the book, but no one knows exactly which parts of the novel coincide with his writing. The detail that people often miss in the cover art is that there are nude women floating in the eyes of the figure.
- Corrigan talks about how the last line of the story with the dash suggests that it is like Gatsby’s dock. People in pursuit of the American dream either jump in gracefully and keep swimming or they drown from exhaustion once they have been struggling to swim forever without getting anywhere. I find this fascinating because I had always puzzled over why he left the line open ended with that long dash, and this seems like a plausible explanation given the context in which it was written.
- The summer that Fitzgerald was writing The Great Gatsby was the same summer that Zelda cheated on him with a French aviator named Edouard Jozan. There are theories that he rewrote parts of the book to incorporate the devastation he experienced while going through that difficult time with Zelda. There is no doubt that there is a lot of cheating going on amongst the characters in the book, so this seems entirely plausible.
- The novel has continued to endure for several reasons. It was widely distributed as an Armed Services Edition sent to soldiers serving during World War II (these soldiers continued to share it with others and teach it when they became educators). Fitzgerald’s literary friends continued to analyze and review the story so it remained in the public eye. The dramatizations of the book as movies, plays, movies made for television, and so on have helped to keep it alive and well in the hearts and minds of various generations. Scholars such as Matthew J. Bruccoli generated biographies, critical editions, articles, and monographs about Fitzgerald and his work. There is an F. Scott Fitzgerald society with devoted members who meet to celebrate and share his work. Plus the book continues to sell about 250,000 copies per year and is on most of the reading lists provided to high school students within American schools.
I hope I have enticed fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his master work, The Great Gatsby, to do further research on his life and work. You should start by reading So We Read On!