The Great Gatsby: Happiness and Illusion (RRHS)

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Oh, The Great Gatsby. The bane of so many high school students’ existence. I feel as though I am a rare case, as I remember liking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous magnum opus. However, my memory of the novel stops there. I couldn’t even remember the name of the main character (Nick Carraway), if that tells you anything about how much of an impact the novel had upon fourteen year-old me. I remembered that Jay Gatsby was shot, but even then I couldn’t have told you why. The book eclipsed my abilities to take in good fiction when I first read it. Even now, just remembering that I liked it, I can easily say that when I first read it that I couldn’t say anything more than I am now in recollection. Freshman me liked it but had no idea (or ability to tell you) why.

Upon revisiting the novel, I’m struck by the magnificent talent Fitzgerald had for turning a phrase. It’s an entirely different style of prose than is used in a lot of postmodern, post-ironic, or contemporary writing. It is beyond adventurous with its adjectives and verbs, relying on them heavily to add to to the character of the novel. As I thought about what it would have been like to read this as a high school student it took no time at all to see why I have rarely met a person who has fond memories of the novel. To expect a high school student to read, enjoy, and critically address such a work is nearly preposterous. There is almost nothing in the novel that is of any interest to a teenager. Sure, you can frame the book as being loaded with affairs and violence, but this is deceptive. These things occur in the novel, but they aren’t the sustained sections.

The Great Gatsby is exactly what every critic says it is: a novel about disillusionment and the American Dream. To me it has been surpassed by such critiques of American culture as Infinite Jest. Fitzgerald is pointing out a couple things: 1. The basic idea that living the American Dream (Moving from the bottom rung to the top, finding immense success) doesn’t bring you happiness; and 2. That those who have lived comfortably within the realm of richness and success are a completely different kind of person who does not operate under the same rules of the world that everyone else does. The Great Gatsby is a critique that simply points these things out, not diagnosing why they are true.

These two pursuits of the novel are accomplished mainly through two characters: Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby (Immediately some of you are shouting about Daisy, but give me a moment). Tom is married to Daisy Buchanan and Jay is in love with her, having dated her before the war and then lost her when he didn’t return quickly enough. Jay is an example of #1 (mentioned above) while Tom is the example of #2. Daisy is where these two main concepts intersect. Jay Gatsby has realized the American Dream, albeit through less-than-clean avenues. He was raised lower class in the Midwest as Jimmy Gatz before being taken under the wing of a bootlegger. Though he has money and access to things most people cannot dream of, what he does not have is the love he lost: Daisy Buchanan. His worldly possessions matter nothing to him. Nothing has real value. His happiness is not found in possession. Jay Gatsby makes the story a cautionary tale.

Tom Buchanan takes the role of out of touch, ultra-conservative rich man with a tendency to sound like a white supremacist that holds others to a far different morality than he does himself (Buchanan 2016: Make America Great Again). Daisy is where the novel pivots and truly reveals itself to be a tragedy. After rekindling her love for Gatsby upon their reunion, she is given the opportunity to leave Tom, who has been cheating on her with another woman (Daisy is well aware of this), to be with Gatsby. Despite Tom’s insane ramblings that don’t seem to reflect Daisy’s ideals and approach to life at all, she chooses the status and safety of Tom over the love and affection of Gatsby simply because Gatsby has attained his wealth through nefarious methods. Daisy may well be a prediction by Fitzgerald of America’s tendency to strive to be something that isn’t good for us as being impossible to break.

The Great Gatsby is an interesting novel that is worth the time to read. Yet I feel that it would be best avoided until college when students begin to grasp the idea of just what the American Dream is, whether it exists, and whether or not it can be attained. Sadly, I don’t think it did me any good to read it in high school, and now I feel that I have read other (better) things.

Recommended to: College Freshmen becoming disillusioned, people who want to see Trump written into a book from 1925, and those looking for a place to start with reading American classics.

Avoid as if trying to type a blog post with a cat on your lap that insists on making lazy but stubborn attempts to move onto the keyboard: Those who have already read tons of novels on the nature of the American Dream that probably do a better job of revealing the why of it all. The Great Gatsby is the starting point, sure, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been built upon to the point of making it feel a bit empty.

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