Monday, June 28, 2010

Classic of the Month: The Great Gatsby

Well, folks, since we're about to run out of month (again), it's time for another Classic of the Month! This month, we go back a bit farther than we've gone before, although not really far back. This month, the classic is one of those books that everyone has to read, even though they're not exactly sure why. It's a very different book from the usual fare over here at The Writer's Notebook, so here goes: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The story is simple, and if you've ever been to high school, you know it by heart. That's because there's not much to know. It's a small book, in case you've forgotten, or if terror of your junior year of English has inflated your memory of it to 600 pages or so. Gatsby follows Nick, self-proclaimed discerning narrator, as he spends some time on West Egg. His neighbor, Jay Gatsby, is shrouded in mystery. How did he get all that money? What exactly does he do? As Nick gets to know Gatsby better, he becomes entangled in two things: one being Jordan, with whom he develops a lackluster relationship; the other being a love triangle between Gatsby, Tom, and his cousin, Daisy.

The story is chock-full of symbolism-- not as much as, say, The Scarlet Letter (oh yes, we'll be reviewing that one someday), but enough to weigh the story down significantly. Everyone remembers the repetition of the green light at the end of Daisy's pier and the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleberg with the sickening clarity of one who has been in the WWI trenches. English professors spend as much time analyzing Gatsby as Atlas Shrugged, and they expect every student to approach Fitzgerald's greatest work with the same pseudo-religious fervor.

I'm going to step away from that and just talk about the book. Not the symbolism. The book. So is it good, really? Well, yes and no. In the first third of the book, virtually nothing of any real significance happens. Fitzgerald spends so much time writing about Gatsby's parties that by the end of it the reader feels as drunk as Nick gets on rare occasion. It's just excessive prose, going beyond setup and elaborate background and entering the territory of wasted space.

But then, slowly but surely, things do start to happen. You almost become involved in the characters, before you remember that Fitzgerald portrays them in such a way as to make them thoroughly unsympathetic. And Chapters 7 and 8 have absurd amounts of major events occuring withing their pages, out of proportion with the rest of the novel. No less than three characters die in the space of two chapters. The book achieves a melancholy emotion at the end, which is obviously what Fitzgerald wanted in the first place.

Looking at it now, I think The Great Gatsby is not a bad book. I don't hate it in the same way as those in the trenches do. But I'm not entirely convinced of its need to be read by everybody, and therefore it's need to become a classic. I hate to break it to you, high school English teachers, but there are better books out there. This one's only for if the 1920's are being really emphasized.

My rating: 7/10

Coming Soon: The 13th Reality-- The Blade of Shattered Hope, Frenzy, and much more.


logankstewart said...

I think the conclusion of this book is great. I love the final sentence, "So we beat on..." It's been a while since I've read this, but I doubt it would be as good now as it was when I first read it.

The Writer said...

Exactly. The writing itself is done very well, but there are enough other factors that serve as distractors for the story to disservice the overall point of the narrative. This was a tough one to review, simply because Fitzgerald's writing is richer than the story.

I love the final sentence, too.

Okie said...

I vaguely remember not-hating it in High School but had largely forgotten it until I re-read it a year or so ago and really enjoyed it. It definitely has a lot of layers/nuances to it and is generally a lot of fun. I went back and forth between feeling like the characters were flat and predictable and feeling like they were deep and amazingly vivid.

It's a great book and one that I'll gladly discuss with my kids when their time comes to read it. :)