What’s So Great about ‘The Great Gatsby’?
Reviewing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Classic Novel of Anxiety and Hope
The other night I was reading Jory John and Pete Oswald’s book The Cool Bean to my four-year-old daughter. It’s about a Chickpea trying to negotiate disruptive social change. Was I surprised to see one of the illustrations wink at The Great Gatsby?
No. Since its publication in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slender morality play has become both canonical and ubiquitous. The latter stands true on the numbers alone: In the century since its release Gatsby has sold somewhere north of 30 million copies. It’s a mainstay on school reading lists, and it’s regularly named one of the greatest American novels—with passionate partisans arguing for its status as the greatest.
When Book magazine listed its 100 best characters in twentieth-century fiction, Jay Gatsby topped the list—beating out Atticus Finch, Sherlock Holmes, Holden Caulfield, Janie Crawford, Sula Peace, and Winnie the Pooh. Gatsby has generated endless reams of study, criticism, and commentary, not to mention adaptations for screen and stage and all manner of fan fiction. Safe bet? Someone is actively procrastinating a master’s thesis on the novel right now.
But also yes, I was surprised—as Fitzgerald’s contemporaries would be, too, no doubt.
Death and Rebirth
In 1933 Gertrude Stein prophesied Fitzgerald “will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten.” Who would have believed her? By then Fitzgerald was sliding down the backside of his career.
While Fitzgerald’s 1920 debut This Side of Paradise sold about 50,000 copies, winning him commercial success, critical praise, and even the hand of his wife, Zelda Sayre, his followup two years later, The Beautiful and the Damned, matched Paradise for sales but failed to sufficiently impress critics.
Determined to remedy the defects of his sophomore effort, Fitzgerald began writing Gatsby. After a couple failed attempts, Fitzgerald produced a tightly composed, impressionistic novel that wowed some critics, baffled others, and left book buyers unmoved. It sold fewer than half the copies of its predecessors. Given Gatsby’s jazz-age creation, the womp womp womp of a sad trombone is the only fitting way to punctuate the episode.
Depressed and struggling with Zelda’s worsening mental illness, Fitzgerald kept writing short stories but took nearly a decade to turn out another novel, 1934’s Tender Is the Night, which sold just half again Gatsby’s disappointing numbers. Mostly broke and forgotten, Fitzgerald was dead of a heart attack six years later. But mostly, as Miracle Max can tell you, is an essential modifier.
Both Gatsby and Fitzgerald’s reputation, if not the author himself, experienced a stunning resurrection, beginning just months after his death, thanks to the support of friends, favorable critics, and his publisher. I tell that story here, but it’s vital to mention the role of World War II and Gatsby’s reissue as an Armed Services Edition.
More than 150,000 copies of the book circulated among U.S. troops during the conflict. That’s six times the initial readership of the book—a 500 percent increase. An influx of new readers alone could give any book a second lease, let alone a surge so massive, but just as importantly the context of those readers had radically shifted.
“A text, just like existence itself, cannot exist without conditions,” says Eugene Vodolazkin in his novel, Solovyov and Larionov. Gatsby’s new readers encountered the novel amid a civilizational crisis, the clash of two competing world systems: fascism on the one hand and Western openness and liberalism, best exemplified by American democracy, on the other. Under those conditions, midcentury readers were primed to read the book a certain way.
“Here is a story,” said the ASE back-jacket copy fingered by hundreds of thousands of readers, “that is American to the core.” How so?
An American Story
Fitzgerald’s story concerns a the rise and fall of James Gatz—self-fashioned as Jay Gatsby—as told by his almost friend, Nick Carraway. After college and serving in World War I, the midwestern narrator finds himself living in Long Island and working as a bond trader in Manhattan. Raised among old money, Nick is now trying to make his own fortune.
Gatsby is Nick’s neighbor and already flush with money, dubiously earned, it turns out. At his frequent, dazzling parties, guests speculate about their host. Some say he killed a man. Sure enough, Gatsby is a racketeer who came up under the tutelage of mobster Meyer Wolfsheim who supposedly fixed the 1919 World Series.
So, then, what’s Gatsby doing in Long Island? Across the bay lives Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and it turns out Gatsby had a fling with Daisy before the war—before she married Tom Buchanan. At the time she was wealthy, Gatsby penniless. Romance surrendered to practicality and Daisy wed Tom instead. But now he’s dripping money, and Gatsby thinks he can win her back. And, besides, Tom is an undeserving cad, serially unfaithful, carrying on an affair under Daisy’s nose when the principal action of the story takes place.
Gatsby wants Nick to bring Daisy to his home so Gatsby can show off his wealth, convince her to leave her philandering husband, and pick up where they left off. It almost works. One death intervenes and then another, and Nick soon finds out what friendship is worth.
When the book first debuted, H. L. Mencken could dismiss the story as “a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.” But knee-deep in WWII and coming off the Great Depression, readers brought different sensibilities and assumptions to it. Soldiers away from home could pine for their girls along with Gatsby, and his improbable rise felt heroic and inspiring against a decade of penury and deprivation.
When Gatsby’s humble father finally sees his son’s opulent, gaudy home, he’s impressed and proud. The man presents Nick a tattered book from Gatsby’s childhood. Scrawled on the inside back cover, Gatsby had listed items in a strict daily schedule designed for self-improvement, including exercise, elocution, and studying “needed inventions.” Below that the little striver had jotted several resolutions:
No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable]
No more smokeing or chewing.
Bath every other day
Read one improving book or magazine per week
Save $5.00 [crossed out] $3.00 per week
Be better to parents
Fitzgerald was ambivalent about wealth. These twin lists are ironic. The last item is the tell; Gatsby ran away from home. But Gatsby’s father sees it as prophetic. “It just shows you, don’t it?” he says. “Jimmy was bound to get ahead.” Even with his tragic ending, could anyone be more American than Jay Gatsby? His plan for self-improvement could have been cribbed from Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Gatsby is another self-made man, at least nearly so. But there’s more to it than that.
Anxiety and Hope
For one thing, unlike other nations, America was—and is—conceived as a project. At any given moment, it’s marked by hope for its success and suffused with anxiety about its performance. It’s why people can speak of the American Dream, even if only to sneer.
Fitzgerald paints the backdrop of the novel with those pigments, yielding an impressionistic picture of the democratization of wealth and class and all the social unease that goes along with it. “It captures a world in which nothing is fixed in terms of status, fortune, and self-fashioning,” says Reason editor.
It’s about the breakdown of class differences in the face of a modern economy based not on status and inherited position but on innovation and an ability to meet ever-changing consumer needs. Ultimately, Gatsby is the great American novel of the ways in which free markets (even, and perhaps especially, black markets) overturn established order and recreate the world through what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction.”
That dynamic naturally scales all the way down to the individual. Whether societal or personal, is anything more relatable than hope and anxiety?
Fitzgerald’s story buzzes with both: Lovelorn Gatsby, of course, but also Nick, the WWI vet, who seems emotionally detached until the end; indecisive Daisy, who stays in her sham marriage; Tom, Daisy’s faithless husband who frets about multiplying minorities; Tom’s lover, who imagines she’ll somehow get the best of Daisy; the husband of Tom’s lover, intent on settling the score; and Wolfsheim, who deals with loss by callous withdrawal.
It’s in part because Fitzgerald wrote a novel so small that he can tell a story so big. The Great Gatsby is just nine short chapters, not even fifty thousand words, in which much is left unspecified and unsaid and individual concerns play out amid the wider scope of sweeping change. The economy of his narrative approach allows the book to travel, to speak in the 1920s as well as the 2020s. Maybe that’s what Gertrude Stein could see back in the thirties.
Born as a jazz-age tragic tale of failure, Gatsby was resurrected as an American story of striving and overcoming, and persists today as a universal narrative in which readers can see their own hopes and anxieties reflected. It’s maybe why I wasn’t surprised a children’s story would call back to it while its Chickpea hero struggles to navigate the upheavals of life. Aren’t we all?
The Great Gatsby was the first book in my classic novel goal for 2024. Here’s what’s in store for the rest of the year:
January: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
February: Alice Walker, The Color Purple
March: Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey
April: Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha
May: Chuang Hua, Crossings
June: Willa Cather, My Àntonia
July: Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
August: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat
September: Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
October: Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes
November: George Eliot, Middlemarch
December: Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
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