As one of my students told me, “This book goes hard.” Whatever that means.
The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925 and has been read in basically every high school and university English class ever. I personally have read it for five different classes. However, it wasn’t until a reprinting of the book in the 1940s and 1950s that it gained the monsterous popularity that it has today. It’s taught as a parable of the “American dream” and what happens when it’s acheived.
Nick Carraway is the passive narrator to the story of Jay Gatsby, Nick’s neighbor, and Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom. Nick has moved to New York from the Midwest to “learn the bond business” (spoiler alert: stay home from work in October 1929) and moves to West Egg, a community on Long Island Sound. Daisy, who is Nick’s second cousin, invites Nick to dinner with her and Tom and their friend, Jordan Baker. Tom and Daisy live a pampered lifestyle. Daisy is said to have been partially inspired by Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda; the statement Daisy makes about hoping that her daughter is a “beautiful fool” because that is all a girl can hope to be is an anecdote that is attributed to Zelda on the birth of her daughter. During the dinner, Jordan reveals to Nick that Tom has a mistress in New York City. Tom has been making frequent trips to New York where he meets up with Myrtle Wilson, who’s husband, George, is an oblivious garage mechanic.
Gatsby is a mystery to Nick for the first few chapters, until he receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s notorious parties. While at the party, Nick hears all sorts of rumors about Gatsby (that he is the nephew to Kaiser Wilhelm, that he’s killed a man just to watch him die, etc) and is underwhelmed when he finds out that a stranger he has been talking to is actually Gatsby. Nick and Gatsby form a friendship of sorts, and Gatsby tells Nick about his life as a war hero who is from a wealthy family, all the while calling Nick “old sport” more times than he uses his name.
Jordan informs Nick of Gatsby’s real story — in 1917, Gatsby was an Army lieutenant stationed in Louisville where he met and fell in love with Daisy. When Gatsby left Louisville to make enough money to support and marry Daisy, Daisy married Tom in Gatsby’s absence. Gatsby then made his fortune and bought a mansion close to Tom and Daisy, hoping that Daisy would somehow make it to one of his lavish parties.
This is where the characters begin to infuriate me. Daisy is shallow. If she wasn’t willing to wait for Gatsby, why on earth would he think that stalking her and hanging around her neighborhood like a creeper would help win her over? And if it DOES win her over, now that he has his huge house and fancy clothes, why would any self respecting guy want to be with her knowing that the only reason she is with him is because of his money? To quote the immortal Kanye West, now I ain’t sayin’ she a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke, broke. Get down girl, go ‘head, get down.
Gatsby wants Nick to arrange a meeting between him and Daisy, so Nick invites Daisy over for lunch. At first, the meeting is awkward, but once Gatsby takes Daisy and Nick to his house and Daisy has a Scrooge McDuck moment with some of his shirts:
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
Now that Daisy is aware of Gatsby’s wealth and prestige, they become involved in an affair. Everything goes along fine until Daisy has the wonderful idea to invite Nick and Gatsby out with Tom. Tom becomes aware that Gatsby loves Daisy. Tom insists that he and Gatsby switch cars before they drive up to New York for the day, and when he stops for gas, he flaunts Gatsby’s car to George Wilson.
When they get to New York, Tom suddenly becomes a loving attentive husband to Daisy and confronts Gatsby about the affair. Gatsby acknowledges it and informs Tom that Daisy never loved him, as she had always been in love with Gatsby. The scene turns into a bit of a soap opera.
Gatsby walked over and stood beside her.
“Daisy, that’s all over now,” he said earnestly. “It doesn’t matter any more. Just tell him the truth — that you never loved him — and it’s all wiped out forever.”
She looked at him blindly. “Why — how could I love him — possibly?”
“You never loved him.”
She hesitated. Her eyes fell on Jordan and me with a sort of appeal, as though she realized at last what she was doing — and as though she had never, all along, intended doing anything at all. But it was done now. It was too late.
“I never loved him,” she said, with perceptible reluctance.
“Not at Kapiolani?” demanded Tom suddenly.
From the ballroom beneath, muffled and suffocating chords were drifting up on hot waves of air.
“Not that day I carried you down from the Punch Bowl to keep your shoes dry?” There was a husky tenderness in his tone. . . . “Daisy?”
“Please don’t.” Her voice was cold, but the rancor was gone from it. She looked at Gatsby. “There, Jay,” she said — but her hand as she tried to light a cigarette was trembling. Suddenly she threw the cigarette and the burning match on the carpet.
“Oh, you want too much!” she cried to Gatsby. “I love you now — isn’t that enough? I can’t help what’s past.” She began to sob helplessly. “I did love him once — but I loved you too.”
Gatsby’s eyes opened and closed.
“You loved me TOO?” he repeated.
When they leave the hotel, Daisy insists on driving Gatsby’s car, to calm her nerves. Tom, Nick, and Jordan follow a bit later and as they’re driving, they notice a commotion at George Wilson’s garage. It appears that Myrtle has been struck and killed by a car — when she saw Gatsby’s car, she assumed that it was Tom’s, as he’d been driving it earlier that day, and ran out to meet it. Daisy, who was driving, accidentally hit her.
When Gatsby tells Nick this the next day, Nick urges Gatsby to leave. Gatsby is depressed and is waiting for a phone call from Daisy. Nick tells him that “they’re a rotten crowd” and that Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together!”
Later that day, however, George Wilson has found out who owned the car that killed Myrtle, and shoots and kills Gatsby before committing suicide. Only Nick, Gatsby’s father, and one other person attend Gatsby’s funeral.
At the end of the book, Nick has decided to return to the Midwest and reflects on the cyclical nature of past:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The Great Gatsby is often taught in school as a parable of the American dream, that someone can rise from nothing to achieve greatness. But it’s also a bit of a warning and a critique of the decadence of the time; what you want may not necessarily be what you need. Fitzgerald himself is a testament to that: after living a life of excessive through the Jazz Age, the remainder of his life was spent in financial strife until his premature death of a heart attack at age 44. His wife Zelda, was in and out of psychiatric clinics until her death in 1948. Perhaps Fitzgerald should have written a better ending.