The Great Gatsby – a Capacity for Hopefulness, Sparkling Decadence, and Tragedy That Touches Us All

The Great  Gatsby, written in 1925,  is one of the greatest American novels.

The Great Gatsby book
The Great Gatsby book

Yet its author, F.Scott Fitzgerald, died in 1940 believing himself a failure.

The Great Gatsby has been among my top favourites ever since I first read it, for my Contemporary American Literature course at university.

Two days ago I saw the latest  movie of The Great Gatsby, and was reminded once again of how powerful this story is.

Back in my undergraduate days, such was the effect of this novel on me, that one evening in the bar, when asked what I’d like to drink,  I requested mint julep.

My friend looked at me, and said reflectively, “they never even got round to drinking it, did they?”

And we both knew we were talking about that tragic scene in the Plaza Hotel, New York, in the later pages of Scott Fitzgerald’s novel.

I loved the new movie of the novel. Leonardo di Caprio and Toby Maguire were both excellent in the roles of Jay Gatsby and Nick Carroway.

And I asked myself yet again, Why does this novel touch me – and many others – so deeply?

For the answer to that, I must point you to one of the bloggers  I follow. Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking writes: “A good book should return you to your reality better able and prepared to cope with new challenges“.

When the movie ended an audible sigh arose in the cinema – the kind of sigh people give which means, I recognise this as truth, in my own life.

These were the words that gave rise to the sigh:

They were careless people…they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together.

One of the most outstanding things about the book for me is the sheer poetic beauty in Scott Fitzgerald’s writing.  Phrases from this book have stayed with me over the years, without any need to return to the book to check the quote:

Daisy and Gatsby looked at me  remotely, possessed by intense life

and

Gatsby bought a mansion where he dispensed starlight to casual moths

and finally, the famous end to the novel:

so we  beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Such is the symbolic power of the story, taking us from the immense wealth of a Long Island millionaire  lifestyle into the industrial dumping ground of the Valley of Ashes,watched over by the huge eyes of a long-forgotten oculist, Dr TJ Eckleberg, that I believe The Great Gatsby is the kind of book we should be  reading for our times, not pure  escapism.

As my fellow blogger, Vivienne Tufnell, notes, there is a tendency for people to respond to life’s toughness by “turning more to entertainment that is pure escapism.”

I believe the exact opposite can be said of The Great Gatsby, and that is why this powerful story endures.

Read The Great Gatsby for a tragic contrast between careless hedonism and accumulation of vast wealth, versus harsh reality. But don’t read it for escapist romance.