‘Oh, you want too much!’ she cried to Gatsby. ‘I love you now – isn’t that enough?’

I first read this novel when I was in sixth-form college, back in 1999, and it had a great impression upon me at the time. I note from my pencil marks on the inside cover that I then re-read it a couple of years later, and I have just re-read it again now. The qualities that so impressed me about this novel on first reading, still seem as brilliant to me now. It is truly a remarkable book.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I think the first thing that strikes me when I read The Great Gatsby is just how sumptuous (and please note that this is not a word I normally use – but, indeed, how sumptuous) the writing is. It’s such fine prose that truly every sentence is enjoyable. As an example, here is an early passage, giving us one of Nick Carraway’s first impressions of Gatsby:

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four of five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

The lush, sure, rich tone might seem out of place if used in another tale, but the language is so fitting in this novel, which chronicles the lives of some of the super rich during the  prosperous “Jazz Age” of 1920s New York. Just as the champagne flows each night at Gatsby’s parties, so Fitzgerald’s prose ripples with exuberance and life.

However, the privileged high-life of glitz and glamour is not all that it first appears to be. Soon after we have been dazzled by the wealth, the ostentation and the excesses of Gatsby’s parties, Fitzgerald begins to present us with less appealing aspects of the American Dream. We hear rumours and accusations about Gatsby; we hear of  underhand tactics employed by Jordan Baker; and we see in Tom (and to a lesser extent in Daisy) Buchanan the effects that too much money, too much success and too much self importance can have:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

I think part of the reason that the novel works so well is that Fitzgerald successfully weaves in different, conflicting angles into the narrative. Nick Carraway himself, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, changes his mind about events and people as the novel progresses and is clearly very biased in his views about Gatsby in particular. He is, in short, an unreliable narrator, yet this does not prevent him from making several highly perceptive observations about the people he is surrounded by. He is an interesting character, Nick, as he is just about far enough removed from Gatsby and the others to be able to see the futility of their plans and the self-destructive nature of their lives, and yet there is also something in him which admires the eternal hope Gatsby carries and the great self-belief held by the others.

I love the closing lines of the novel; they are perfect in their ambiguity, cleverly conveying something of both the hope yet also the futility of Gatsby and the great American Dream that he represents:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning –

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

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night or Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.