Is Gatsby really all that great?

We all turned and looked around for Gatsby. It was a testimony to the romantic speculation he inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world.

the iconic, kinda ugly, classic Gatsby cover

Kids, if you are going to bash a book, bash a classic, this is how you it.

In this piece for New York Magazine, Kathryn Schulz makes an eloquent case for what she thinks is The Great Gatsby‘s severe historical overratedness (my words, not hers–Did I not just tell you she was eloquent?). Whether you loved Gatsby or hated it, I recommend reading this insightful, if angry, piece.

The only time I don’t recommend it is if you haven’t read Gatsby. (And hey, no judgments here; I still haven’t read Ulysses.) I would very much encourage you to form your own opinions first. Watching the movie first (or at all, even) is a bad idea, so spare yourself the two hours and twenty minutes when you could be doing something not-awful. And if you’re really that much of a lazy ass, read this comic which summarizes it perfectly.

At any rate, I loved Gatsby and still do. I don’t share Schulz’s opinions, but she explains them well–and I get it.

I think a big part of this is that I never had to read it in school. I didn’t have to take any exams asking me to explain the symbolism of the green light or the gaze of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, which reminds me of the way some people from church look at me when they see me in short shorts (clue: not lustfully). Or the ash heaps. Or the yellow car. I got to skip over all those obvious, juvenile details and appreciate it for what it is: a cautionary tale.

Gatsby commits a common human mistake: he falls in love with an idea. As a young man, he invents an idea of himself to which he “stays true to the end.” When he falls in love with Daisy, he is unable to distinguish between the Daisy of his fantasy (perfect, beautiful, entirely in love with him) and the real Daisy (beautiful, kinda dumb, kinda shallow, likes the thrill of the chase, also likes the comfort of having a rich husband who is not Gatsby). The book is the story of his attempt to possess the fantasy by wooing the person, and how all such attempts are doomed to fail. Fitzgerald warns us against the dangers of giving ourselves over to our naïve, youthful dreams.

And then there’s the issue of money. Nick, our not-so-honest narrator, resents the rich. But he is also attracted to them: why else would he stick around long enough to tell us this whole story? Like Nick, I have an intense dislike for the rich. And like Nick, I am secretly fixated, fascinated by them, my eyes glued to the colorful spectacle of their shiny, expensive lives. If I am completely honest with myself, I will say I want some of those shiny things too–but because I don’t have them, I can, like Nick, condemn them for their superficiality, carelessness and stupidity.

“Oh and do you remember–” she added, “–a conversation we had once about driving a car?”

“Why,–not exactly.”

“You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn’t I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride.”

Nick repeatedly insists that he is honest and objective, but all through the book we see him judging people left and right. He passively observes the events he narrates as if trying to convince us that he had nothing to do with it, but in doing so revealing his own complicity in their crimes. He was there and he let it happen, and he didn’t do anything about it. We see as readers what Nick will not admit about himself. This is good writing.

I don’t feel commanded by Fitzgerald to admire Gatsby, nor any other character. As Azar Nafisi said, this is not a book about role models. What I see instead is this: I am Gatsby. I am exposed by him. Gatsby, Nick and Jordan hold up a mirror to my own “phoniness,” as Holden Caulfield would put it. The only one I am not is Daisy, the idée fixe, but who’s to say I don’t secretly–perhaps secret even to myself–want to be her, despite my own stern disapproval?

Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

Like Schulz, I thought that last line–“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”–was cheesy (and dear god Baz Luhrmann made it even worse with bad delivery at the end of the movie). It’s probably one of the only things I really disliked about the book.

But I figured it must’ve been fashionable in the ’20s, and I let Fitzgerald get away with it.


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