In 9th grade, my class read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it bored me out of my mind. Once we were no longer studying it, I promptly forgot everything that had happened. Apparently some people think it’s the greatest American novel ever written, so with the movie coming out this year, I decided now would be a good time to reread it – if only to find out whether the whole thing was as dull as I remember or if I just happened to read it in a bout of pubescent ennui. (As a side note, I’m waiting until I finish this before I see the film. Apologies if you’re looking for a review of that.)
Full confession here: I don’t really care for classic American novels. In fact, with the exception of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and a few others, I’m pretty apathetic toward American writers in general. I don’t know what it is – the writing style, the subject matter, the fact that they’re terribly pessimistic – no idea. I don’t necessarily loathe them, but they just don’t interest me the way British novels do. I’m also not a huge fan of 20th century literature. Maybe it’s the fact that the wars tend to overshadow everything or there’s a sense of realism and despair to the writing, or maybe it’s just that I prefer to read about worlds different from my own. In spite of my prejudice, though, I still figure I should give all literature a chance. My apologies if this summary comes out a little harsher than usual.
We begin our tale by listening to our narrator, Nick Carraway, relate his father’s advice about being privileged and not judging others hastily. Most of the time Nick is a wallflower, listening to people who pour their hearts out to him, sometimes feigning sleep to allow them to do so (which makes one wonder about the social situations he’s in where sleeping isn’t considered weird or rude). Nick goes on to tell us that he is pretty open minded, except when it comes to Gatsby, who represents everything Nick scorns but who is also the most fantastic person who ever existed. That just clears things up.
Nick relates his own origins and we realize that he himself is about as exciting as a beach ball – which is, to say, he just sits there until someone inflates him and bats him around. A former soldier in World War I, Nick is now in the ever-thrilling bond business. He makes himself at home in West Egg, where his riveting hobbies include reading books about banking and investment. (Why is this a good book for ninth graders again?)
One day, Nick drives across the bay to East Egg (home of the especially glittery and refined millionaires, as opposed to the lavish and tacky millionaires in West Egg) to visit his second cousin once removed, Daisy Buchanan, and her husband Tom.
He enters the house to find them melted in the living room, complaining about the heat and draped on various pieces of furniture with Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker. (The heat, at least, is relatable – as I type this, it is currently 113º F outside my house.)
Their banter is not especially insightful, as Daisy and Jordan chatter about shallow nothings (including Daisy’s hopes that her daughter will turn into a beautiful fool – way to set high standards for women everywhere, Daisy) and Tom tries to get everyone to read his favorite book on preserving white supremacy. Things get even more awkward when Tom leaves the room to answer a phone call from his not-so-secret girlfriend. As soon as the clock strikes 10, Jordan excuses herself to flee the house as fast as she can, citing a golf tournament in the morning. After she leaves, the married couple turns on Nick and decides that they’re going to get him married off to Jordan. Subtle, guys. Really subtle.
Nick escapes, and gets home in time to catch a first glimpse of his new neighbor, Mr. Gatsby, who is staring at the stars and stretching his arms across the water toward the green light on the other side of the bay near Daisy’s house. Nick naturally assumes this means he is a deep and tortured soul.
One day, Nick and Tom ride the train through a valley of ash and get off at a stop to meet Myrtle, the wife of one George Wilson and the lover of one Tom Buchanan. Why Tom feels a need to introduce his partner-in-infidelity to Nick, I have no idea, but one assumes it is because first person narration is extremely limited and Fitzgerald couldn’t think of any other way to get Nick to describe her in person.
As soon as George Wilson steps out of the room, Tom and Myrtle agree to meet up at her city apartment. When they all find each other at the station, she decides she wants a dog and despite having nothing set up for it and living in an apartment that she only visits occasionally, she gets one anyway. (Who’s going to take care of it, huh? This upsets me more than the infidelity.)
They get to the apartment and Nick turns into an awkward third wheel, but he goes wherever he’s dragged, so he sticks around while they throw an impromptu drinking party with some equally obnoxious neighbors. Nick informs us that this is the second time he’s been drunk and, after some very dull conversations in which everyone regrets being married, Tom punches Myrtle in the face because she keeps repeating the name of his wife. One of the guests, an effeminate man named Mr. McKee, wakes up at the sound of screaming and Nick drunkenly follows him out. Our narrator’s narration glides into an ellipsis until we see McKee in his underwear on the bed talking about his artwork, and then Nick wakes up at a train station. I don’t know if that’s meant to be a wink and a nudge, but stay classy, everybody.
Gatsby takes to throwing elaborate parties every weekend and (for whatever reason) invites Nick. He’s one of the few people actually invited, but the world is full of party crashers and Gatsby doesn’t seem to care. When he isn’t standing around like a cardboard cutout, Nick mostly hangs out with Jordan at these parties. He eventually circulates and at one point, ends up chatting with one man who recognizes him from their military days. It takes a few pages before the man remembers to introduce himself as Jay Gatsby. Awkward shuffling commences before Gatsby resumes his circulation. The nearby partygoers start to exchange rumors, trying to figure out his history.
Nick spends the next few pages on his dull and ordinary life, going to work and coming home, occasionally imagining himself stalking random women on the street. Eventually he realizes he’s sort of a loser, so he starts dating Jordan Baker in spite of her complete dishonesty and horrid driving abilities (of course, all women in this book are terrible drivers). He humbly informs the reader that he is the most honest person he knows. Part of me suspects that as a character, Nick is so dull he couldn’t come up with a fabricated story if he tried, but another part of me calls shenanigans on unreliable narrators and wonders if he’s just trying to build Gatsby up by leaving out all the interesting parts of himself. (And yes, I do realize Nick Carraway isn’t a real person.)
Gatsby’s parties continue to attract a mob of famous and infamous people, but Gatsby himself decides that Nick is either his new best friend or his ladder up to what he really wants. He appears at Nick’s house one day to announce they’re having lunch. Fortunately, Nick is apparently not working today and doesn’t have a social life beyond Gatsby.
He goes along with Gatsby, who gives us lots of exposition in the form of his life story. Well, parts of his life story. Well, parts of his life story that he may or may not have made up. Point is, there’s something about him being educated at Oxford, inheriting great gobs of money, collecting jewels in European capitals like Indiana Jones, and becoming a hero in the war. Nick is skeptical at first, but Gatsby’s got proof to back his claims up (and of course it’s not suspicious that he has the proof with him – I mean, who doesn’t carry around army medals and Oxford photographs in case people want to hear one’s life story?). At lunch, Gatsby introduces Nick to his friend, Mr. Wolfsheim, who is a gloomy old fellow who may or may not work for the mob. These people really aren’t good at keeping a lid on their secrets, are they?
Later that day, Nick has tea with Jordan Baker (because Gatsby told him to), who delivers the whole story of Gatsby’s love life, primarily consisting of his infatuation with Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby met her during the war and she ended up marrying Tom when he shipped out. Jordan then tells Nick to invite Daisy for tea so that Gatsby can “accidentally” show up and meet her. I guess this is Plan B, since holding numerous massive parties did not entice her over to Gatsby’s mansion.
Nick does as he’s told (because he lacks any spine of his own) and when he invites her over, he informs her not to bring Tom. This kind of request doesn’t seem to bother her at all. Gatsby shows up before tea and judges the heck out of Nick’s house, but when Daisy arrives, he’s gone like the wind. Not for long, though , as he has apparently run around to the front of the house to knock and be introduced properly, like a friendly neighbor just stopping by for a visit and not a creepy stalker orchestrating a meeting with his former love. Very smooth. Nick the Third Wheel stands there awkwardly as Gatsby and Daisy chat like middle school kids with crushes on each other. The whole thing is more than a little embarrassing.
Gatsby offers to take them back to his own house and show the two of them around. As he does so, Gatsby stares at Daisy like her opinion on his belongings is the only thing that matters. Daisy acts like everything is worthy of the highest praise. Nick wonders if he can go now. Eventually they do forget all about him and, having completed his narrative duty, Nick slinks out of the house.
As the rumors swirl around Gatsby’s fantastic life, Nick informs us of the reality of his past, in which a young man named James Gatz hops on a yacht owned by a rich old man named Dan Cody and reinvents himself as first mate Jay Gatsby. This is only part of the truth.
Daisy and Tom eventually do appear at one of Gatsby’s parties, but neither they nor Nick have much fun. (Tom, of course, accuses Gatsby of being a bootlegger.) After they leave and Gatsby laments the fact that Daisy didn’t have much fun, Nick points out to Gatsby that you can’t repeat the past. This thought has not occurred to Gatsby, who exclaims he’s going to fix everything to how it used to be, and he’s going to do it by throwing a lot of money at the problem. He has apparently forgotten the little fact of her being married, but no one else in this novel seems to think that’s a relevant issue.
Gatsby’s plans of seducing Daisy appear to have worked, as he soon goes into full-blown hermit mode – not throwing parties and firing his servants so that he can spend his afternoons alone with Daisy.
One hot summer day, Nick goes to visit Daisy and finds the entire gang engaging in their favorite summer past time, oozing on the sofas. When Daisy’s husband goes to get drinks, Daisy walks over to snog Gatsby, which again shows how good these people are at keeping secrets. Daisy also shows off her daughter to prove that she exists (even though she acts like a wooden doll and unlike any child I’ve ever seen). Gatsby is just as stunned as everyone else who has forgotten that Daisy is actually a mother. Tom comes back in and offers his scientific opinion that the sun is getting hotter every year (which is as close as his generation got to global warming, I suppose). Daisy continues to flirt with Gatsby in front of everyone, including her husband, and everything gets awkward again until she announces that they’re going into town. Somehow this is expected to cool them down.
Tom offers to drive Jordan and Nick in Gatsby’s yellow car while Gatsby drives Daisy in Tom’s car, though why he would make such a suggestion, I don’t know. To grill Nick about his newfound mortal enemy without them overhearing? To impress his other girlfriend at her husband’s garage? Either way, I don’t know why he trusts Gatsby with his own car.
They do stop at Wilson’s garage, only to find a disheartened Wilson planning to move west with his wife in order to get her away from her infidelity. Tom, in the exact same situation of having recently realized his own wife is having an affair, is still upset by the news of his mistress leaving. Nevertheless, he offers to give them his shiny yellow car to help them on their way. Never mind that it’s actually Gatsby’s car.
Fortunately, Wilson offers to buy his other car, and after agreeing to the deal, they head into New York and order a suite. Tom chooses that time to start up an argument with Gatsby, accusing him of not being an Oxford man (to which Gatsby replies that he went there for five months after the war) and for sleeping with his wife (to which I reply that the pot has met the kettle). They start squabbling and when Nick and Jordan try to sneak out, they’re dragged back in and made to sit through a long discussion in which Tom and Gatsby try to figure out who Daisy loves. It turns out she’s loved them both at one time or another, but apparently this does not satisfy them and Gatsby informs Tom that Daisy is leaving him. Daisy does not appear to know about this agreement and would really just like to postpone the argument, but Tom goes on to bring up Gatsby’s bootlegging business (disguised as drugstores back in Chicago). Tom sends Gatsby and Daisy home in Gatsby’s shiny yellow car with the smug assumption that Gatsby knows he’s been beat and won’t do anything more.
Out of nowhere, Nick suddenly realizes it’s his 30th birthday. No one cares.
On the way home, they drive by a car accident. Tom, Nick and Jordan pull over like the rubberneckers they are and discover the victim is Myrtle Wilson, who has been hit by a shiny yellow car.
On discovering his girlfriend is dead, Tom drives straight home, sobbing all the way. He’s so distressed, in fact, that he forgets to drop Nick and Jordan off, so they wait at his house for a taxi. Nick decides he’s had enough of the lot of them, shuns Jordan’s advances, and waits out on the porch. Gatsby, it turns out, has been hiding in the bushes, camouflaged in his pink suit (totally unnoticeable). He asks about the accident and claims he was driving, even as Nick figures out pretty quickly that he’s covering up the fact that Daisy was behind the wheel. He asks Nick to check on her to make sure Tom isn’t being a brute, but Nick finds them quietly eating dinner, talking intimately to one another. He leaves Gatsby standing by himself in the dark.
The next morning, Nick has breakfast with Gatsby and suggests that Gatsby leave Long Island. Gatsby of course brushes this off and launches into his history of idealizing Daisy, putting her beauty and riches and vitality on a pedestal. As they finish breakfast, the gardener offers to drain the pool and Gatsby tells him to leave it another day so he can use it at least once (and where was that suggestion yesterday when everyone was melting on the furniture?).
Nick is hesitant to leave Gatsby, but eventually does catch a train to work after telling Gatsby he’s worth the rest of them put together. (Granted, the bar has been set very low for that compliment.) At work, Nick gets a call from Jordan and realizes he doesn’t actually care if he ever talks to her again.
On the train home, Nick describes what was happening elsewhere with George Wilson. George apparently found a dog leash on his wife’s dresser, which led him to the assumption she was having an affair (and not, for example, that she was buying it for a friend or that she wanted to try something new in bed that night). After her death, George comes to the conclusion that her lover (whose identity is still unknown to him) is the one who ran her over. Eventually he learns the name of the owner of the shiny yellow car, tracks down Gatsby’s house, and finds him floating on an air mattress in the pool. Then the chauffeur hears the shots.
Nick gets home in time to join the staff in finding Gatsby’s body peacefully drifting around the pool. Wilson’s body is nearby.
Later, the police conclude that Wilson went mad and went on a murder/suicide rampage. Nick tries to get a hold of Daisy, but she and Tom have packed their bags and vanished, leaving Nick to figure out who to call. He sees Gatsby’s corpse, who seems to be telling him that he should call someone because Gatsby can’t go through the whole death thing alone. I start to worry about Nick’s sanity. Eventually they get a telegram from Gatsby’s father, one Henry C. Gatz , who comes down to take care of the estate. In an effort to drum up some funeral goers, Nick also visits Wolfsheim, who claims to have raised Gatsby after he left the army but refuses to get mixed up in the funeral. It turns out the rest of the world does not like Nick’s parties as well as Gatsby’s. In the end, only Nick, the servants, and Mr. Gatz are there to listen to the minister deliver the funeral sermon, with one owl-eyed man showing up at the very end.
Nick eventually decides to move away from the island of psychopaths, so he breaks up with Jordan (who admits she’s already engaged to another man – stay classy, Jordan). He later encounters Tom in New York, and during a brief conversation, learns that Tom is the one who told Wilson who the car belonged to and that Gatsby was driving. (I have a theory that Tom, too, is covering for Daisy because he knows what happened and part of him still loves her. Perhaps she confessed everything that night and he became an accomplice?) Tom admits he cried over seeing a box of dog biscuits at his old affair apartment, and I sit and wonder what happened to that poor dog. Did it die because no one was there to take care of it? Did it find a new home with Myrtle’s sister? This is a very important unresolved plot point.
As Nick prepares to leave West Egg behind, he wanders down to the beach behind Gatsby’s house. He recollects Gatsby’s contemplation on the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock as a kind of hopeful beacon, not realizing that the dream was long past gone.
I’ll admit this book is a little more exciting now than it was when I read it in high school, but not as much as I would have liked. I can still pick up the metaphors (some very blatantly obvious – thanks for writing that essay on the green light for me, Nick!) but overall, I’m not thrilled by it. Yes, it does have some interesting things to say on the culture of the Roaring Twenties and the class divide, but it never establishes Nick as a character I want to read about. And yes, I realize the story is ultimately about Gatsby, but since Nick is the narrator and lens through which we see this world, I naturally want to find out more about his motivations – why does he hang out with these people if he despises them so much? Why do they hang out with him even though his personality resembles a soggy blanket? How does he keep getting into predicaments where he witnesses something he probably shouldn’t? (He mentions this at the beginning of the book, and if the world of this novel were written as a comedy, I would love to read about the hijinks and misunderstandings that ensue.) As it is, Nick comes off as a very dull and disillusioned person and even the most exciting party is made dreary by his description. However this, too, may just be a very deep part of the social commentary that Fitzgerald is making. We’ll go with that, shall we?
As for my part, I say we kick out all the fuddy-duddies, turn up the music and dance like there’s no tomorrow! (Metaphorically speaking, of course. Right now it’s too hot to get out of my chair.)