Is Gatsby really so great?

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Credit: Creative Commons

Emily Hay
Books Columnist

In this series Emily Hay explores whether or not classic novels deserve their sanctified places on our bookshelves. All opinions are her own as an avid reader of books. Don’t @ her.

The Great Gatsby is held up in popular culture as this idyllic, glamorous piece of art. What first comes to mind for most people are the roaring prohibition parties of the twenties, the speakeasies and the gyrating girls in flapper dresses. Ironically, for anyone who has ever read it, the novel was actually intended as the exact opposite: it was a warning against that kind of excess. Weirdly, you would think that those studying literature at the very least would see the blatant paradox of these popular culture references and parties – but you would be wrong. In my experience, they are often the biggest defenders of the 21st Century’s obsession with Gatsby propaganda. When privately educated Jasper from the Home Counties starts quoting from it at every flat party, it is beyond me how those literature students, often paying thousands to study irony, don’t see it when it materialises in front of them. It perplexes me how many people who claim to love literature will also die claiming that Gatsby is their everything. Surely if you’ve read like, any other books at all, you wouldn’t arrive at that conclusion? It’s just unoriginal if I’m being honest with you. You’re giving the rest of us a bad name.

In a nutshell: Gatsby works his way up in the world from (supposedly) nothing to becoming this mega rich playboy, only to impress rich heiress Daisy Buchanan. And, spoiler alert: it doesn’t work. Gatsby takes on an unhealthy obsession with a girl he barely knows and makes her affection the centre of all his ambition. Daisy and affluence were Gatsby’s dream, and the fall of that dream and the “tragedy” of Gatsby’s life is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s questionable-at-best attempt at demonstrating that the American Dream is nothing more than a pipedream.

I’ve read this book at least four times over the past seven years and I have many opinions on it, none of which are favourable. Here are my top three reasons why it no longer deserves to be held in its sacred limelight (if it ever did).

We never see Gatsby as poor. Or, he was at least never actually shown as properly poor during the course of the novel. Fitzgerald relies on this patchwork mystery surrounding Gatsby’s origins but never actually shows in extensive detail the impoverished ashes from which he supposedly rises. Why is he writing a novel about the inherent wealth inequality in the United States without ever showing what this “self-made man” started out like? We know Gatsby isn’t considered on the same level as Tom Buchanan and the others perceived as “old money”, because he made his fortune himself. But this rags to riches story seems distinctly lacking in rags.

For a novel which supposedly holds up a mirror up to pre-depression era America, it’s an extraordinarily rose-tinted and warped mirror. I bet all the destitute struggling migrants attempting to forge a life in the USA at the turn of the 20th century would have loved if their biggest problem had been that the girl who lived in the extravagant mansion across the water from their own extravagant mansion didn’t want to be with them. Which reminds me…

This is a novel about the inherent lack of equal opportunity in American society – so why is Gatsby young, white and male? From a representational standpoint using a white, male Gatsby just reeks of “oh poor white man” – and in 2018 it doesn’t make sense that that is still the novel to which people turn to prove the illegitimacy of equality in the USA. I never felt that Gatsby’s tragedy seemed all that tragic. To me, it always felt more like this entitled man ends up losing his mind because he thinks the world – and Daisy Buchanan – owes him something. Shock, horror– it doesn’t. We’re meant to be appalled that this man can’t work his way up to the high classes, as the US is built on the principle that if you work hard you can achieve anything. But we already knew that this only applied if you were also white and male. So the real “tragedy” of The Great Gatsby seems to be that a Caucasian man can’t get everything he wants in America. The injustice.

It’s a superficial novel in more ways than just the glitz and glam of the extravagant parties. Fitzgerald flirts with the notion of inequality, but never makes that point with any real substance. For the most part he pretty much ignores the factors of race and gender and bases everything on the alleged poverty from which Gatsby begins. In a way, far from tearing down the American Dream, this actually builds up this perfect illusion that America’s problem was only classit, and not also racist, sexist and xenophobic. What if Gatsby was black or foreign? Pretty sure he would have had far worse problems than not being accepted by the aristocrats across the water. The novel doesn’t really seem to understand inequality, and its continued popularity proves to me that our society and popular culture still doesn’t really understand proper inequality. If Fitzgerald had cared about writing a real exposé on the failings of America’s “land of opportunity” mentality, rather than merely being poetic and oh-so-literary, he would have written it from the perspective of a migrant family who had actually struggled. He would have portrayed the brutal reality of trying to make a life in a country that supposedly preached equality but not if you had a foreign accent, non-white skin or a different set of genitalia– but he didn’t.

It’s not even well written. In fact it’s just plain bad. For every twee passage that teachers and high-schoolers love to recite (something about boats and beating and currents comes to mind) there are pages upon pages of clunky, tedious descriptions and imagery that never actually goes anywhere. I mean: “Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.” Yawn. Sorry, but how does someone read and enjoy a book where that language is the norm page in, page out? I’m not ashamed to admit that, the first time I read it, I didn’t even realise they’d discovered Gatsby’s dead body floating in the pool. That’s how bored and confused I was by Fitzgerald’s monotonous attempts at literary-ness.

On top of that, the novel doesn’t really have a plot, or characters – only themes and lots and lots of melodrama thrown in. There is simply no subtlety in Fitzgerald’s writing; almost every character seems to exist solely in their function as a symbol: Daisy is the unattainable dream, Gatsby represents the dreamers, a thoroughfare of party goers might as well wear Miss World-esque sashes emblazoned EXCESS, MONEY, GREED. There’s no joy to take away from reading a book like that. A book should first and foremost be a pleasure to read; the themes and messages come second. Gatsby is painful at best, and is only enjoyed by people who seem to want to get this intellectual leg up over others by telling them that they just mustn’t have understood it. Well here’s a newsflash for you: I understood it, and I still didn’t like it. Give me Harry Potter any day of the week.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that The Great Gatsby is a bad book – well actually I am saying that – but just because I think it’s awful doesn’t mean you should. It’s just that there are some books that long ago were put up on this pedestal and labelled as “Great Books” that should be read by everyone down the ages. They were put on our library shelves, our top “to read” lists and our school curriculums – but I think it’s time we rethought that list. I don’t think Gatsby deserves the place it holds in our consciousness as the quintessential American Novel. It does nothing new or remarkable, and in a world today with far more choice and representation on our bookshelves, I don’t think it deserves to be read any more than any other book. In fact, it’s borderline dangerous that it’s still so often heralded as the definitive book about class, wealth and inequality in the US in 2018.

You’re not stupid if you didn’t “get” this book, because I don’t really think there’s anything of much worth to take away from it for a modern audience. I think it’s time to banish Gatsby to the realms of irrelevance where it rightfully belongs: let the book sit unread and collect that “foul dust”, just like Gatsby’s dreams.