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The International Writers Magazine: A Novel Reappraised

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Penguin Classics; New Ed edition (24 Feb 2000)
ISBN-10: 0141182636
ISBN-13: 978-0141182636
Matt Alison

On my recent rereading of The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald I felt that I truly grasped and appreciated the importance of this classic. Since a class I took in undergrad concentrating on Fitzgerald’s works I have been a fan. The short stories and his five novels I read and mostly enjoyed for the language and writing style.
Tender is the Night is one of my favorite books because when I read it the second time I understood the themes, the play on human psychology, and the depth of emotion. Yet, even though I valued Fitzgerald’s writing I did not read The Great Gatsby after college. For awhile in my twenties I had the misguided belief if a book is taught in high school it is not meant for adults. Reading authors like Henry Miller, Hebert Selby Jr., and Gunter Grass fueled this pretentious and ridiculous perception.
This past summer I had a change of heart, when I thought a lot of the books taught in high school are part of the canon, our culture, and the literature educated people should be aware of. So I read The Great Gatsby at age seventeen and twenty-two, and again this summer at age thirty. This rereading brought up a lot of questions or thought about the impact of books at different stages of ones life. After a lot of pondering, I concluded reading this novel at age thirty the reader can relate to the major themes more than as a teenager.

During my high school reading that I don’t remember that well, I concentrated on the extravagance and wealth, not being able to relate to it at all. The characters seemed as fantastical as science fiction heroes. During my college reading I was aware of a green light and probably wrote a paper at the last minute. Analyzing why this current reading was more beneficial for me is in the characters themselves. They go through dilemmas that are inherent to people on their own; networking, making a reputation or fitting into society, ethics, dealing with love, emotions, and loss. In most cases high school students have felt some of those universal traits, but not compared to adults who have more years of life experience.

Let’s start with the dynamics of the relationship between the narrator, Nick Carraway, and Jay Gatsby. Carraway is the outsider looking in and trying to figure out who Gatsby is. When he finally meets him, he is in awe of his power, of his young age, and the mystery behind him. Being in awe with someone in adulthood is different from that same feeling as a teenager. In high school one sees a peer star athlete, a gifted musician, writer, or whatever talent and thinks that that person will be something someday. In high school all assumptions are about the future. That’s different from adulthood when you notice someone impressive and you think he or she made it. Granted most of these impressions are wrong and superficial. Criteria based on the car they drove, the house they own, or career track. That was Carraway’s first thought of Gatsby, but as the story unfolds they become allies and collaborate in their set social scene.
They deal with the Buchanan couple and other characters that come from old money. Carraway and Gatsby relate to one another because of their Midwestern as opposed to Eastern roots. As a child in America you grow up with other children in your low, middle or upper class school. While in adulthood you meet people from all economic backgrounds through careers and hobbies which Fitzgerald shows by highlighting rich versus poor.
The novel ends with Gatsby’s fall and failure which makes an impact on the narrator’s life giving him a hatred for the elite rigidity of people like the Buchanan’s who carried on as if nothing happened. Barring tragedy, young people have not dealt with these emotions. To a lesser degree than the story line of this novel plenty people have felt this in adulthood. An example is seeing your former peer star high school athlete that you thought would go pro punching a cash register at the local grocery store twelve years later. If as a reader you’ve experienced or seen failure The Great Gatsby is more powerful.

Gatsby’s parties and they social situations in this novel also got me thinking about then and now. High school parties do have beer and drugs, but most are testing the waters and getting new experiences in a closed small social network of other students. When I read Gatsby for the first time I was probably in awe of the decadence and intrigued by it, but with no comprehension of what Fitzgerald’s intention was. Now, even without wealth drinking as an adult in adult scenarios does give a reader some understanding of Gatsby’s parties. Jay Gatsby did not drink himself, but by offering others that outlet gave him a sure way to notoriety, especially during prohibition. These parties gave him a name which he dearly wanted to attract Daisy. The partiers ruined the lawn, crashed their cars, and passed out business cards. There is a scene where the narrator walks into Gatsby’s library and one older man babbled about the books on the shelf being real, that they had pages, and that one could read them. This man was drunk and later in the novel Caraway sees him again and notices he had no recollection of that night. One has to spend some time in bars to meet alcoholics aged fifty or over that are out of their minds. I hope high school kids can’t relate to that. Fitzgerald’s earlier book The Beautiful and Dammed also covers the issue of alcoholism very well. At the end The Great Gatsby the narrator feels that no one cared about Gatsby or even remembered his parties. This shows how situational, artificial, and impersonal partying can be.

Daisy Buchanan was the reason that Gatsby got rich, and made a reputation, which is a complexity not easily grasped at a young age. In the middle of the novel it becomes known that Gatsby in the military was stationed down south and had a romance with Daisy. Daisy married Buchanan based on established wealth. So Gatsby over the proceeding years made insurmountable wealth in illegal activities. He risked all for money, the requirement for a girl like Daisy. He moved across the river to a mansion where at night he would see the green light of the Buchanan property. A light he could see and contemplate but not grasp and control.

Reading this in high school, I might of thought of him as a loser, that with his wealth he should have multiple girlfriends instead of yearning for Daisy while only having one frumpy mistress. But reading it now I have felt harsh rejection myself, and know that feeling. You can adore someone, change your ways and status, but it was already over. Getting dumped in high school can be rough, but it doesn’t match obsessing about a null relationship over a number of years. This is probably a very common emotion that Fitzgerald touched upon, when you get older, the past becomes more important.

Reading The Great Gatsby at exactly age thirty I got an additional thrill. During the intense hotel scene where Buchanan triumphs over Gatsby for Daisy’s hand, Nick Caraway realizes something. At this point he became vital in these characters’ problems, and it absorbed all of his life. After the situation resolved itself, Carraway remembers that that day was his thirtieth birthday, and Fitzgerald wrote a perfect paragraph on the feeling of turning thirty. Fitzgerald was not yet thirty when he wrote that paragraph, but anyone who is thirty might well be moved when they get to that paragraph near the end of the novel. Students in high school would probably read over that paragraph quickly if they got to that part.

Reflecting on this rereading I thought of failure, rejection, aging and many other occurrences adults face though life which makes me recommend that people give it another chance.

© Matt Allison October 2007

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