Classic Remarks is a meme hosted at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Pages Unbound, founded and run by Briana and Krysta, is one of my absolute favorite sites. In addition to adoring their content, I love the sense of community they’ve built there. So I was SUPER EXCITED when I saw this week’s prompt because I knew I had something to contribute! Without further ado, who’s ready to chat about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby?
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
WHAT CLASSIC DID YOU READ IN SCHOOL AND END UP LOVING?
When I think of the classics I read in school, the ones that come most readily to mind (in the rough chronological order I remember reading them) are Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Charles Dickins’ A Tale Of Two Cities, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, and a bit o’ Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and…uh, I’m sure there were more. Listen, this isn’t a COMPLETE LIST okay? It’s just what comes to mind when I think of my high school reading list. However, when I saw the prompt for this week’s Classic Remarks I immediately knew I’d be writing about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
When I read it in high school I really liked it, admittedly probably for the wrong reasons. I remember liking it because, in comparison to all the other books we read in English class, it a) felt so much shorter and b) the language felt so much more accessible than some of the other texts. Oh! Homer’s The Odyssey! That was another one! But I digress. To be clear, I always loved English class and I’ve always loved to read. But when you’re reading as one part of your course load, sometimes it can still feel like a chore. So Fitzgerald was a breath of fresh air. PLUS we got to watch Jack Clayton’s 1974 film with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow (far superior to Baz Lurhmann’s 2013 version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan if you ask me) in class, too. And ANYTIME you get to watch an entire movie in class, you’re living the dream.
So I appreciated it in high school but I came to love The Great Gatsby later. While I was doing my undergrad work, my friend Lauren and I had several classes with an English professor we both enjoyed and respected. In a casual conversation about classic literature he once told Lauren she reminded him of Jordan Baker. Lauren, who loves The Great Gatsby and has read it every summer since high school, was unsure if that was a compliment of an insult. She asked for my opinion and, to take her query seriously, I reread the novel. It was then, as a senior in college, I first began to fully experience The Great Gatsby. And while I don’t read the novel as often as Lauren does, I’ve read it at least half a dozen times since then (most recently just before writing this post).
Each time I read it, I find more. I connect with more. I understand more. I feel more…which shouldn’t be a surprise. I mean, how much emotional understanding, complicated romantic experience, and diverse self-knowledge can you have at sixteen or seventeen? So yeah, in high school the book was fun because it was a light read and I enjoyed spending a bunch of time in class talking about what the haunting eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg could mean (it’s God…it’s God looking out over the desolation of poverty and showing God is affected by it all). But the more of life I’ve lived, the more I’ve loved, the more I’ve come to learn about myself and relationships and the world, the more I’ve found in this novel. And what I’ve found over the years is why I love The Great Gatsby.
Um, this should probably be clear but there’s going to be spoilers, okay? Moving on…
What strikes me most about this novel is how sad it is. When I read it in high school, it was kinda sad because poor ol’ Jay Gatsby ended up shot in the pool for a crime he didn’t commit and, pouring a little bit of salt in the wound, it was the very first time he even used the pool all season. But now if I was to list my “Top Ten Saddest Moments in Gatsby!” I don’t know if it would make the list. If it did, it would be near the bottom. Because so much of this novel is so achingly sad. There is so much sadness in this novel and what I love about it (insofar as you can love such a sad story) is how universal the pain Fitzgerald explores is.
Daisy Buchanan lacks the courage to leave a marriage she’s no longer happy in.
Tom Buchanan can only see Daisy and Myrtle as possessions and doesn’t know how to articulate his grief over losing Myrtle.
Myrtle Wilson is in love with Tom who will never leave Daisy nor give Myrtle the life he’s promised her.
George Wilson didn’t even know his wife was unhappy and he learns of her affair and loses her in a few days’ time.
Jordan Baker loses her relationship with Nick as neither know how to process the trauma they’ve shared.
Nick Carraway comes to care for Gatsby yet watches, powerless to change anything as the tragedy unfolds.
And poor Pammy Buchanan, the daughter who’s only in one part of one scene – always absent from her parents’ lives so she doesn’t interfere with their drinking, partying, and lazing about.
Who can’t connect with something here? Even if we’ve never lived in a big mansion out on West Egg where we threw parties in an attempt to woo a former lover, we can all find something – or many things – to relate with.
Of course, there’s Gatsby himself. James Gatz was unhappy with who he was so he created a persona for himself – he became Jay Gatsby. For all of us, our lives are spent navigating between who we are and who we want to be. We often yearn to be “more,” to be “better.” But that journey is a difficult one to walk and it can very quickly and very easily take us down dangerously unhealthy roads. If we can’t balance mindful contentment in the moment with challenging ourselves to grow and change when appropriate, our lives either stagnate or we spend them chasing something unattainable. This is exactly what happens to Gatsby.
He builds his ENTIRE LIFE for Daisy. Everything was designed to impress her, to be good enough for her, to win her…but he never really loved her. Rather, he loved an ideal he created around her. This too, is all too common. Anytime anyone’s broken up with someone only to hear their friends and family say, “See?? We tried to tell you! This is what we’ve been saying!” has had to navigate the tension between their collapsing image of a person and the intrusion of reality. But we can also be victim of inflating this ideal, as Gatsby has, as well.
As I wrote about once before (in regard to Spider-Man (and is this the first time The Amazing Spider-Man and The Great Gatsby have shown up in the same essay together?? (I hope!))), I think the “What If…? Person” is universal. We all have someone(s) from our past who we look back on and wonder how things would’ve been different if it worked out between us. And I think the “What If…? Person” can often be idealized in our minds and – more dangerously – in our hearts. This breeds a whole mess of pain, as we compare other relationships and experiences to something we never even had with an image of a person that’s not real.
With The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald takes this universal longing and extends it to its most tragic extent. Gatsby’s whole life is built chasing something he can’t ever have. And he never even really loved Daisy! He was in love with the life she lived. He was in love with what she represented to him. When the reader begins to learn of their brief courtship together we see Gatsby’s vision of “who” he was falling in love with:
He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a ‘nice’ girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life leaving Gatsby – nothing. He felt married to her, that was all….She had caught a cold and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever, and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.
This – this beautiful escape into the world of the wealthy – is how he sees her. And that’s what he loves! Gatsby loves her money and her life and he cannot let go of the flirtation they shared that he saw as his entry into a life of comfort with a beautiful woman by his side. When it all comes to a head between Gatsby, Daisy, and Tom – with Nick and Jordan watching on – Gatsby insists again and again that Daisy never loved Tom, that she was only with Tom because she couldn’t be with him.
“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.
Gatsby couldn’t understand or accept how Daisy could love him too. This, I believe, is where it all comes undone for Gatsby. If he could’ve understood this, accepted this, maybe he could’ve been with her. Maybe they really could’ve had a relationship (the tragedies awaiting both Myrtle and Gatsby notwithstanding). But in his mind it always had to be the two of them. It could only be the two of them. Yet we are complex creatures and nothing is more complex, more mystical, more untamable than love. We will love many people in our lives in many different ways. Human existence is a journey of love and growth! That’s literally what we were made for! Tragically, Gatsby couldn’t accept that and in being unable to accept that, he proved he couldn’t accept, couldn’t even know, Daisy. Gatsby couldn’t even understand how Daisy could have a daughter until he saw Pammy with his own eyes.
Gatsby’s idealized vision of Daisy robbed her of her personhood and made her an object – another possession he could have. This leaves Daisy, struggling in a marriage where her needs are not being met and she’s not being heard, wondering how can she trust – let alone love – someone who can’t understand there is more to her than a few weeks of flirting when she was a teenager.
For me, this is all perhaps best highlighted in a conversation Nick and Gatsby have about Daisy. This is one of the saddest passages I’ve ever read in any book ever.
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”
He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life has been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…
Oh Jay…that breaks my heart. He doesn’t really love Daisy. He doesn’t understand himself. His whole life has been a manic quest to regain something that never really existed anywhere other than in his head. In no situation could this ever work. There was no “happily ever after” here, even if Myrtle was never killed and George never sought his revenge on the wrong person. Every time I read that passage, every single time, it breaks my heart.
It’s weird, I grant, to talk about how much I love this novel and then go on for three pages about how terribly sad it is. But all of this is why I’ve come to love it! There’s the universality of it all, yes. One of the most important things art can do is reflect our own lives – our hope, joy, pain, and love – back to us across time and space. But I also love it because, in seeing all this inside The Great Gatsby years after first reading it, it shows how great literature is something that lends itself to being continually rediscovered. In many ways, The Great Gatsby was the first novel to really drive this lesson home for me. So yes, it’s very human and it’s very sad…and I saw none of that (or perhaps it’s better to say I felt or understood none of that) when I first read it.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a beautifully tragic tale that taught me about all literature may still hold unseen to me, even after I’ve read the book once. And for that, I will always love it.
Now you should go over to Pages Unbound and read Krysta’s answer to this question! She picked…hahaha, ahhhh c’mon! I’m not spoiling anything! You should read it for yourself. If you’d like to participate in a Classic Remarks yourself sometime, here’s a handy link to all the topics clear through the end of the year (something I could never plan out that far in advance myself but something I love that they’ve done and am so impressed by 🙂 ).
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. (New York: Scribner, 2004), 149-50.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 117.
 Ibid., 110.