My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There are some books and authors that I read in high school when I am not 100% sure I was mature enough to truly appreciate them. Now, more years than I care to admit later, I have been re-visiting some of them to see if my opinions are still the same or has time and perspective allowed me to see the work in a new light. Some, like Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and James Joyce’s The Dubliners, are just as loathed now as they were when I was 18 years old. Others, like the works of Hemingway, appeal to me a great deal more now than they did back then. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby didn’t make the strongest impression on me in high school, despite the fact that I was born and raised on Long Island, NY – about halfway between the locations that inspired the two “eggs” and the valley of ashes. I didn’t hate the book but I didn’t love it either. Years later in a discussion with my husband about the book, we were both amused to realize that all we really retained from our long-ago English classes on The Great Gatsby was the scene in Gatsby’s library with the owl-eyed man and the image of J.T. Eckleburg’s billboard, nothing really about the plot or Gatsby himself.
After reading Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” (an excellent follow-up to Gatsby) in a short story class and seeing that there is a movie version of the book coming out soon, I decided to refresh my memory and re-read the book. I found that, although Fitzgerald CLEARLY had some issues with women since not one female character was likeable or trustworthy in any way, I really enjoyed the book, particularly the character of Jay Gatsby. Although he lied about his past and who he was as a person, although his fortune was made in bootlegging and other illegal activities, and although his goal throughout the entire story was to steal another man’s wife, he is one of the only characters in the book to have any claim to integrity. He was completely faithful to his vision of himself and of Daisy (however far from reality those visions may have been – and maybe that is why eyes are such a recurring image in the story). There is something about the visual of Gatsby reaching out his arms across the water towards the green light that shines from the edge of Daisy’s dock that really captures me.
In some ways, I look at Gatsby as a modern, more intentional version of Don Quixote, someone whose dreams of who they want to be and how they look at the woman they love is transformative, so strong that it is able to shape reality rather than the other way around. It is the essential tragedy of the story that Daisy (unlike Dulcinea) cannot commit to Gatsby vision and ultimately undermines his ability to maintain his fantasy. Faced with this kind of betrayal and forced to confront reality for the first time, perhaps it was a sort of kindness that Gatsby was killed and spared the task of trying to re-build his dreams. At the end of it all, the task of bearing witness to the truth and bearing the weight of disillusionment is left to those who are better equipped to face it: Nick Carraway, the owl-eyed man and the reader.