Classic novels are usually classic for good reason: they offer memorable characters, gripping plots, intricate psychology, compelling history, linguistic brilliance. But surely very few novels can claim to have glamour. Actually I can think of only one: The Great Gatsby. First published in 1925, Gatsby continues to dazzle readers today—even to inspire parties, which can’t be said of many novels (try throwing a Bleak House party, or having guests come as their favorite 1984 character). But what exactly makes The Great Gatsby so, well, great?
Gatsby is a connoisseur’s guide to the glamour and glitter of the Jazz Age—but it’s also a nearly prophetic glimpse into the world to come. Writing at the height of the boom, in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, Fitzgerald detected the ephemerality, fakery and corruption always lurking at the heart of the great American success story. Four years later, the market would crash—but the age of advertisement that Fitzgerald was among the first to condemn had only just begun. Nearly a century later, his cautionary tale has become all too apt once more, anticipating as it does our own boom and bust, our tarnished dreams and tawdry failures.
Although slight—about 50,000 words—The Great Gatsby is well-known for its style and shimmering beauty. But although Gatsby is a haunting meditation on aspiration, disillusionment, and romantic love, it isn’t just a lovely cipher, the novelistic equivalent of Greta Garbo. It’s also a blistering exposé of the materialism, duplicity, and sexual politics driving what Fitzgerald calls America’s true “business”: “the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.”
And this is precisely the business of Fitzgerald’s hero, the farm boy who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, who “sprang from a Platonic conception of himself.” Gatsby epitomizes the self-made man; Fitzgerald’s narrator, Nick Carraway, says talking to Gatsby is “like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines.” Gatsby tries to create his own fortune in every sense—but although he can make money, Gatsby can’t make destiny. What makes Gatsby none the less “gorgeous” to Nick is his “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” That heightened sensitivity is shared—and transmitted—by the novel.
It might seem startling that a novel so rooted in time has become so timeless: the story takes place across the summer of 1922, and ends tragically in September, as the leaves are falling and death is in the air. Time is seasonal, suggesting history, mortality, perishability and impermanence. Gatsby wants to recapture the past, recover lost opportunities, even as he chases “the orgastic future” (it is not, incidentally, the “orgiastic future,” as so many editions print it). Fitzgerald sensed even then that the orgastic future would never come: and he was right. What would come were Crash, Depression, World War, and Holocaust—all so catastrophic they would be capitalized. Gatsby may be a product of his age, an American emblem of hope, faith, and self-fashioning—but he is also our tragedy, a universal symbol of the impossibility of those hopes, and the poignant grandeur of splendid failure.
All of which Fitzgerald understood. When he composed Gatsby, Fitzgerald was one of the most successful writers of his era, who had shot to fame with two bestselling novels (This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned), and was the highest-paid short story writer of the decade. He’d been young, brash, ambitious; when he became his own success story he won Zelda Sayre and the pair rapidly became legendary for their revels, the incarnation of the “flappers and philosophers” who populated the Jazz Age—the name Fitzgerald himself bestowed upon the era he and Zelda would forever embody.
But Fitzgerald also had serious artistic ambitions, and in 1924 he set out to write “a consciously artistic achievement.” Published in the spring of 1925, The Great Gatsby barely sold out its first printing, and Fitzgerald didn’t live to see its pre-eminence recognized. It received some good reviews, while a few great older writers, including T. S. Eliot and Edith Wharton, recognized its significance. But Gatsby was generally dismissed by its first readers as trivial, an “anecdote,” in the dismissive opinion of influential critic H. L. Mencken.
There were two primary reasons for this critical lapse: first, the novel was so much of its time that its first readers couldn’t see beyond its topicality; it seemed so much ephemera. And second, Fitzgerald was perceived as a popular writer, not a serious artist. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Gatsby began to be recognized as a tour de force, in part because Fitzgerald’s prescience could only be appreciated in hindsight. By then it had become clear that he wasn’t merely farseeing, he was himself an uncanny incarnation of America’s fortunes: just as Fitzgerald rode in on the Boom of the 1920s, he would crash with the Bust, despair in the Depression, and die just as America entered the Second World War.
The greatness of Gatsby derives not only from Fitzgerald’s perceptiveness, however, but also from his astonishing prose. The novel is so vivid in part because its language is so consistently surprising: “The world and its mistress returned to Gatsby’s house and twinkled hilariously on his lawn.” Only in Fitzgerald do people “twinkle hilariously” on lawns. He is painting with words, using bright shocks of color like a prose Fauvist. In Gatsby’s “blue gardens,” Nick says, “the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher”. A woman whose husband is drunkenly flirting appears at his side “like an angry diamond.” It is world of “triumphant hat-boxes,” and low-slung cars “crouching” in garages—a single word suggesting the danger that cars will pose to the novel’s characters. The almost synaesthetic mixing of sensory effects creates impressionism in prose, evoking an image without getting trapped in the prison of realism—precisely the trap into which Gatsby himself falls.
Bringing objects to vivid life doesn’t just enable Fitzgerald to set the scene—it allies the reader with Gatsby, who inhabits a world of enchanted objects. Daisy is the most important: she represents the lost paradise Gatsby seeks, but however rich he becomes Gatsby will never be able to afford her. The only man who can afford Daisy is her fabulously wealthy and even more careless husband Tom Buchanan.
Viewed cynically, Gatsby is a stalker—he falls in love with his own projections onto Daisy, refuses to accept rejection, and spends his life constructing an elaborate fantasy, trying to force a happy ending. But Fitzgerald aligns cynicism so firmly with the repellant Tom and his unlikeable (if pitiable) mistress Myrtle Wilson, that unless we want to join the likes of Tom and Myrtle, we have to choose romance. When Nick shouts to Gatsby at story’s end that “they’re a rotten crowd” and Gatsby is “worth the whole damn bunch put together,” he speaks for us. The Great Gatsby makes hopeless romantics of us all.
And hopeless romanticism is the book’s great theme: Gatsby’s glorious romance with possibility itself—and the tragedy of wedding such “unutterable visions” to anyone’s “perishable breath”. Gatsby’s dreams may “romp with God,” but they are corrupted by materialism. As Fitzgerald understood, realizing a dream is sufficient to kill it; and so he keeps the novel’s romantic dreams indescribable. Instead of insisting upon the power of communication, Gatsby is littered with words like “unutterable” and “uncommunicable,” sustaining the novel’s romantic intensity through suggestion. Populating the novel with “owl-eyed” characters and giant unblinking eyes on billboards, Fitzgerald invokes vision but also suggests that it can be unseeing, a signboard rather than a sign.
Gatsby dwells in possibility, to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson: his visions are fragile, ineffable, numinous; he is destroyed not by the dreams, but by “the foul dust” floating in their wake. Gatsby is a visionary whose world is inadequate to his romantic intensity.
In the novel’s unforgettable ending, Fitzgerald makes clear that if his story is American, it is also a universal tale of human aspiration, of our facility for hope, and for wonder. Nick wanders to the shore and imagines Dutch sailors seeing America for the first time, a moment when man came “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It is his desire to be great, his craving for “the incomparable milk of wonder,” that makes Gatsby great. And it is Fitzgerald’s ability to evoke that incomparable wonder without diminishing its enchantments that makes the novel so wonderful itself. We can, in fact, come face to face with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder once more: when we read the wonder that is The Great Gatsby.
First published in the Times, 1 October 2009. (c) Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.