I spun The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Classic Club’s most recent spin and admit to groaning slightly when I saw the result. I first read this book thirty years ago and at that time didn’t like the characters or the plot and couldn’t understand what made the book a classic. Watching and enjoying the over-the-top decadence of Baz Luhrmann’s movie several years ago caused me to add The Great Gatsby to my current list in the hope of appreciating this book better as an older reader.
While I didn’t find the characters to be any more likeable this time around, I have achieved a better appreciation of the book.
The story is told by Nick Carraway, a young man who has to make his way in the world despite having very good social connections. When Nick moved to Long Island after the Great War he reconnected with his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom, who were part of New York’s young, rich and beautiful set.
Although Nick didn’t particularly care for Tom he accompanied him on one occasions to New York, stopping along the way at a garage in an area dominated by a rubbish dump to collect Tom’s mistress Myrtle, who was the wife of the garage owner. When they arrived in New York To and Myrtle hosted a small party in a hotel room which ended when Tom slapped Myrtle and broke her nose.
Nick lived on Long Island next door to Jay Gatsby, a mysterious millionaire known for hosting extravagant open-house parties for people he didn’t know. Nick only met Gatsby after having been invited to one of his parties.
Gatsby, who was obsessed with Nick’s cousin Daisy, used Nick to engineer a meeting between himself and Daisy. Daisy and Gatsby had been in love before the war but at the time Gatsby was penniless and Daisy married Tom while Gatsby was still a soldier overseas. Rekindling their affair made Gatsby think he had achieved the American Dream, although Gatsby doesn’t realise he is in love with what Daisy symbolises for him socially, rather than with her as a person.
Eventually everything came to a head one extraordinarily hot day when Tom discovered that Daisy had been cheating on him. Gatsby and Daisy raced off to New York in Tom’s coupe, followed by Tom, Nick and Nick’s girlfriend, Jordan in Gatsby’s sedan. When they arrived the couples fought some more, then raced off home again, only for there to be a fatal accident at the garage where Myrtle and her husband lived. The tragedy is compounded by further reprehensible actions.
Jordan cheats at golf.
To me, this sentence sums up the morals of most of the characters in this story. They want to win without putting in the hard work required to deserve their success. They seek out amusement and love but they aren’t interested in earning anyone’s respect. They attend Gatsby’s parties and drink his boot-legged alcohol but they won’t befriend him because despite his wealth he will never be one of them. They grab whatever they want without taking any responsibility for their actions. If this story represents the American Dream, then in my opinion, this group of extraordinarily shallow and selfish people are welcome to it.
Disillusionment is what makes The Great Gatsby a classic. Exposing the shoddy morals of these fabulously wealthy characters is disappointing. I expect people who seemingly have everything to also have good morals, to be kind and giving. While there are plenty of extremely rich philanthropists who are wonderfully generous people in real life, their type are not represented by any character in this book.
The Great Gatsby was book eighteen in my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of August 26, 2023.