Skip to comments.Schulz: Why I Despise The Great Gatsby
Posted on 05/07/2013 12:00:59 PM PDT by nickcarraway
The best advice I ever got about reading came from the critic and scholar Louis Menand. Back in 2005, I spent six months in Boston and, for the fun of it, sat in on a lit seminar he was teaching at Harvard. The week we were to read Gertrude Steins notoriously challenging Tender Buttons, one student raised her hand and askedbravely, I thoughtif Menand had any advice about how best to approach it. In response, he offered up the closest thing to a beatific smile I have ever seen on the face of a book critic. With pleasure, he replied.
I have read The Great Gatsby five times. The first was in high school; the second, in college. The third was in my mid-twenties, stuck in a remote bus depot in Peru with someones left-behind copy. The fourth was last month, in advance of seeing the new film adaptation; the fifth, last week. There are a small number of novels I return to again and again: Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, Pride and Prejudice, maybe a half-dozen others. But Gatsby is in a class by itself. It is the only book I have read so often despite failingin the face of real effort and sincere intentionsto derive almost any pleasure at all from the experience.
I know how Im supposed to feel about Gatsby: In the words of the critic Jonathan Yardley, that it is the American masterwork. Malcolm Cowley admired its moral permanence. T. S. Eliot called it the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James. Lionel Trilling thought Fitzgerald had achieved in it the ideal voice of the novelist. Thats the received Gatsby: a linguistically elegant, intellectually bold, morally acute parable of our nation.
I am in thoroughgoing disagreement with all of this. I find Gatsby aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent; I think we kid ourselves about the lessons it contains. None of this would matter much to me if Gatsby were not also sacrosanct. Books being borderline irrelevant in America, one is generally free to dislike thembut not this book. So since we find ourselves, as we cyclically do here, in the middle of another massive Gatsby recrudescence, allow me to file a minority report.
The plot of The Great Gatsby, should you need a refresher, is easily told. Nick Carraway, an upstanding young man from the Midwest, moves to New York to seek his fortune in the bond business. He rents a cottage on Long Island, next to a mansion occupied by a man of mysterious origins but manifest wealth: Jay Gatsby, known far and wide for his extravagant parties. Gradually, we learn that Gatsby was born into poverty, and that everything he has acquiredfortune, mansion, entire personais designed to attract the attention of his first love: the beautiful Daisy, by chance Nicks cousin. Daisy loved Gatsby but married Tom Buchanan, who is fabulously wealthy, fabulously unpleasant, and conducting an affair with a married working-class woman named Myrtle. Thanks to Nick, Gatsby and Daisy reunite, but she ultimately balks at the prospect of leaving Tom and, barreling back home in Gatsbys car, kills Myrtle in a hit-and-run. Her husband, believing that Gatsby was both the driver and Myrtles lover, tracks him to his mansion and shoots him. Finis, give or take some final reflections from Nick.
When this tale was published, in 1925, very few people aside from its author thought it was or would ever become an American classic. Unlike his first bookThis Side of Paradise, which was hailed as the definitive novel of its eraThe Great Gatsby emerged to mixed reviews and mediocre sales. Fewer than 24,000 copies were printed in Fitzgeralds lifetime, and some were still sitting in a warehouse when he died, in 1940, at the age of 44. Five years later, the U.S. military distributed 150,000 copies to service members, and the book has never been out of print since. Untold millions of copies have sold, including 405,000 in the first three months of this year.
But sales figures dont capture the contemporary Gatsby phenomenon. In recent years, the book has been reinvented as a much-admired experimental play (Gatz) and a Nintendo video gameGrand Theft Auto, West Egg, as the New York Times dubbed it. This Thursday, Stephen Colbert will host a Gatsby book club; the new movie opens Friday. (Read David Edelstein's review here.) If you need a place to take your date afterward and have $14,999 to spare, you can head to the Trump hotel, which is offering a glamorous Great Gatsby Package: three nights in a suite on Central Park West, a magnum of Champagne, cuff links and a tailored suit for men, and, for the ladies, an Art Deco shagreen and onyx cuff, accompanied by a personal note from Ivanka Trump. Car insurance is not included.
So Gatsby is on our minds, on our screens, on our credit cards, on top of the Amazon best-seller list. But even in quieter days, we never really forget Fitzgeralds novel. It is, among other things, a pedagogical perennial, in part for obvious reasons. The book is short, easy to read, and full of low-hanging symbols, the most famous of which really do hang low over Long Island: the green light at the end of Daisys dock; the unblinking eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, that Jazz Age Dr. Zizmor. But the real appeal of the book, one assumes, is what it lets us teach young people about the political, moral, and social fabric of our nation. Which raises the question: To our students, and to ourselves, exactly what kind of Great Gatsby Package are we selling?
I will grant Fitzgerald this much: Somehow, in the five years between his literary debut and The Great Gatsby, he taught himself to write. This Side of Paradise is intermittently brilliant but terrifically uncontrolled. Gatsby, by contrast, is focused and deliberate: a single crystal, scrupulously polished.
It is an impressive accomplishment. And yet, apart from the restrained, intelligent, beautifully constructed opening pages and a few stray passages thereaftera melancholy twilight walk in Manhattan; some billowing curtains settling into place at the closing of a drawing-room doorGatsby as a literary creation leaves me cold. Like one of those manicured European parks patrolled on all sides by officious gendarmes, it is pleasant to look at, but you will not find any people inside.
Indeed, The Great Gatsby is less involved with human emotion than any book of comparable fame I can think of. None of its characters are likable. None of them are even dislikable, though nearly all of them are despicable. They function here only as types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent: OLD MONEY, THE AMERICAN DREAM, ORGANIZED CRIME. It is possible, of course, to deny your readers access to the inner lives of your characters and still write a psychologically potent book: I give you Blood Meridian. But to do that, you yourself must understand your characters and conceive of them as human.
Fitzgerald fails at that, most egregiously where it most matters: in the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby. This he constructs out of one part nostalgia, four parts narrative expedience, and zero parts anything elselove, sex, desire, any kind of palpable connection. Fitzgerald himself (who otherwise expressed, to anyone who would listen, a dazzled reverence for his own novel) acknowledged this flaw. Of the great, redemptive romance on which the entire story is supposed to turn, he admitted, I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.
What was Fitzgerald doing instead of figuring out such things about his characters? Precision-engineering his plot, chiefly, and putting in overtime at the symbol factory. Gatsby takes place over a single summer: three months, three acts, three chapters each, with a denouementthe car accident and murderof near-Greek (but also near-silly) symmetry. Inside that story, almost everything in sight serves a symbolic purpose: the automobiles and ash heaps, the upright Midwest and poisonous East, the white dresses and decadent mansions.
Heavy plot, heavy symbolism, zero psychological motivation: Those are the genre conventions of fables and fairy tales. Gatsby has been compared to both, typically to suggest a mythical quality to Fitzgeralds characters or a moral significance to his tale. But moral significance requires moral engagement: challenge, discomfort, illumination, or transformation. The Great Gatsby offers none of that. In fact, it offers the opposite: aloofness. Scott Fitzgerald was, in his own words, a moralist at heart. He wanted to preach at people, and what he preached about most was the degeneracy of the wealthy. His concern, however, did not lie with the antisocial behaviors to which the rich are prone: acquiring their wealth through immoral means, say (Gatsby manipulates the American financial system and dies a martyr), or ignoring all plights from which they have the means to protect themselves. Like many American moralists, Fitzgerald was more offended by pleasure than by vice, and he had a tendency to confound them. In The Great Gatsby, polo and golf are more morally suspect than murder. Fitzgerald despised the rich not for their iniquity per se but for the glamour of itfor, in H. L. Menckens words, their glittering swinishness.
Yet Fitzgerald also longed to be a glttering swine himself, and acted like one anytime he could afford it. All big men have spent money freely, he wrote in a letter to his mother. Given the means, he was only too happy to drape Zelda in furs, buy up the local Champagne supply, and throw Gatsby-worthy parties. These conflicted feelings about wealth bled into his workand in fiction, as in life, piety and swinishness pair poorly. On the page, Fitzgeralds moralizing instinct comes off as cold; the chill that settles around The Great Gatsby is an absence of empathy. The glittering swinishness, by contrast, sometimes serves him well: Theres a reason Gatsby contains the best party scenes in American literature. But when you combine the twowhen you apply a strict moral code to the saturnalian society to which you are attractedyou inevitably wind up a hypocrite. Jonathan Franzen once described Gatsby as the central fable of America. If so, it is the fable of the fox and the grapes: a story about people who criticize precisely what they covet.
Thats an interesting tension, common to most of us and great fodder for fiction. But rather than explore it, Gatsby enacts it. As readers, we revel in the glamorous dissipation of the rich, and then we revel in the cheap satisfaction of seeing them fall. At no point are we made to feel uncomfortable about either pleasure, let alone their conjunction. At no point are we given cause, or room, to feel complicit. Our position throughout is that of an innocent bystander. Thats also Nicks role, so the perspective of the book becomes one of passive observation. He watches across apartments as affairs take place, across parties as fights break out, across the road where the dead Myrtles left breast flaps leerishly loose. Yet he never admits to collusion with or seduction by all the fabulous depravity around him. After its all over, he retreats to the Midwest and, figuratively and literally, tells his story from the safe remove of Americas imaginary moral high ground.
In This Side of Paradise, in many of his short stories, and especially in his nonfiction, Fitzgerald displays a quick and often mordant wit. Then, suddenly, that voice vanishes; The Great Gatsby might be the least funny book about rich people ever written. The British, who kick our ass at writing about class, know how useful a dash of humor ishow it can lift up or deflate, jostle or soothe, comfort or eviscerate. (In a literary hostage exchange, I would trade a thousand Fitzgeralds for one Edward St. Aubyn, 10,000 for an Austen or Dickens.) In leaving that note out, Fitzgerald is not just making a stylistic choice, nor even just signaling his solemnity of purpose. He is all but inventing a new narrative mode: the third-person sanctimonious. From the story of Americas self-consuming profligacy, corruption, and avarice, he omits himself and his moral proxyand, by extension, us.
I can only sketch here the many other things that trouble me about Gatsby and its place in our culture. There is the convoluted moral logic, simultaneously Romantic and Machiavellian, by which the most epically crooked character in the book is the one we are commanded to admire. Theres the command itself: the controlling need to tell us what to think, both in and about the book. Theres the blanket embrace of that great American delusion by which wealth, poverty, and class itself stem from private virtue and vice. Theres Fitzgeralds unthinking commitment to a gender order so archaic as to be Premodern: corrupt woman occasioning the fall of man. There is, relatedly, the travesty of his female characterssingle parenthesis every one, thoughtless and thin. (Dont talk to me about the standards of his time; the man hell-bent on being the voice of his generation was a contemporary of Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, not to mention the great groundswell of activists who achieved the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Yet here he is in A Short Autobiography: Women learn best not from books or from their own dreams but from reality and from contact with first-class men.)
I cant say more here about any of these. But allow me, in its fullness, one last apostasy. Every time I read the books beloved final line, I roll my eyes. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past: What a shame that Fitzgerald wasted such a lovely image on such an insufferable voice. Even as that faux we promises intimacy, the words drift down to us from on highcondescending, self-serious, detached from genuine human struggle. Im sorry, but in the moral universe of The Great Gatsby, we are not all in the same boat. We are all up above it, watchingwith prurient fascination, with pious opprobrium, watching and watching and doing nothing at all.
I think the author of this review only wanted to show off all the big words he found when he opened a dictionary.
NOBODY speaks like that in real life.
...and the book is the most overrated book in history bordering on booring.
The author of this review is exactly the type of pretensious person Gatsby is critiquing. No wonder they don’t “get it” or like it.
I didn’t like the book, didn’t like it when Redford did it, wouldn’t like it for Leo, either. Especially, Leo....a more little wimped out wuss could never be. I don’t care if he’s got a trainer and pumped up his little girly muscles, I’d still bust the twit in the chops, old man that I am.
The 1926 film version is supposed to be the best, but there are no known copies of it in existence.
Blah, blah, blah. I liked the book. It is considered witty to bash famous books. The movies generally were not so hot, but I liked the scene in the Redford/Gatsby version where he got plugged in the pool.
Homer Simpson wrote the best review of Gatsby:
I thought the book was pretty good; had some great images.
But it’s The Great American Novel? I hope not.
All horsepoop. “Sometimes a Great Notion”. Ken Kesey. THE Great American Novel. Period.
The best one is the Alan Ladd version made in the 1940s. I was part of a Fitzgerald symposium back in 1997 in Montgomery, Alabama and the FSF Society rented a beautiful art deco theatre in town and screened it for us. I don’t know if it’s available.
Was this book the inspiration for “White Trash with Money”?
Wouldn’t be in my top 100.
I’m glad to see that at least someone else thinks “The Great Gatsby” is one of the most over-rated books in history. I hated it, hated all of the characters. If there’s no one to sympathize with, what’s the point?
-— He is all but inventing a new narrative mode: the third-person sanctimonious. -—
The Brothers Karamazov spoiled me. Gatsby pales in comparison.
I'm sorry, that distinction goes to The Catcher in the Rye
I did not read the book but saw the Reford movie. I walked away feeling that I had wasted my time watching it. It was empty, no real plot and went nowhere.
I had the same feeling when I saw, “Out Of Africa”. A story about a promiscuous female who died of syphillis? Can someone tell me the ‘point’ of that movie?
Thanks for clarifying that, I thought I was stupid because I couldn't understand a word he said..........
As a side note, I think I was supposed to read The Great Gatsby in high school but I don't think I did......maybe it was the Cliff Notes.
IMHO, books like that and Shakespear and A Tale of Two Cities should not be required reading for high schoolers since the majority of them, like me, don't have the intellectual capacity to understand the author. And I still don't......
I don’t agree. I read the book several times, and always found it an appalling bore. And that last paragraph always grated on me.
I see Fitzgerald as a Tarkington manqué -
“Let us show our friendship for a man when he is alive, not after he is dead” Meyer Feldman
“The 1926 film version is supposed to be the best, but there are no known copies of it in existence.”
I have to say I was forced to read the book in school and then taken to the movie, Redford/Farrow, by a lefty boyfriend (back when I hadn’t a clue) and thought it was a total boor.
I did find this trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Asajgm-ciWA
Gee, that would be when F. Scott Fitzgerald would still be alive, boy, I’d like to see that one.
Did Fitzgerald have any input on it?
I'm not as familiar with fictional literature from earlier in the century, but unending streams of consciousness seemed to be considered de rigour mid century. Tedious reading.
Frankly, I think her criticisms nail it: No likable, or even fun-to-hate characters; preachy, yet emotionally aloof and amoral; envious of the people it hates.
Bing Bing Bing Bing Bing!
Allegedly he and his wife walked out half way through. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. I imagine it’s hard to see your work translated onto the big screen, even in the best of versions.
I remember this about TGG: Laz once spammed a troll’s thread with the entire first chapter of TGG. It remains, to this day, one of the longest single posts on FR.
This was before the Mods, and Jim had to zot the trolls by himself.
Bingo! I was always fond of the book. I suspect many detractors react against the popularity of the work and simply have to find something wrong with it to demonstrate how much smarter they are than the great unwashed who enjoyed it.
I found the Redford/Farrow film wearisome and horribly cast (with the exception of Sam Waterston as Carraway). The trailers for the DiCaprio film seem to be more promising. DiCaprio is IMHO, a much better casting choice than Redford for the part (and I'm generally not much of a DiCaprio fan). One of my big disappointments with the Redford film is that it largely ignored the real backstory (Dan Cody, WWI), while the DiCaprio trailers seem to actively reference both. DiCaprio tends to run hot or cold, but if he's on his game, this could rank with The Aviator. IMHO, Tobey McGuire is really the one with the big shoes to fill here as his Carraway will inevitably be compared to Waterston's, which has to qualify as one of Hollywood's best casting choices ever.
I tend to agree. The novels of the Romance Period would be better fare. Captain Blood, The Three Musketeers, Scaramouche, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo all have interesting plot lines and action to keep a boy and girl interested. Gatsby is too tough for that age. As for Catcher in the Rye, I have never been able to make myself like it. Even less Frannie and Zooey.
If you want to enjoy Shakespeare, and you came of age in the MTV era (or at least could enjoy Miami Vice), may I recommend Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet? (The same director is about to release The Great Gatsby, starring the same lead, Leonardo DiCaprio.)
Luhrman didn’t modernize the language, but he cleverly used visual clues to help people understand what the characters were talking about.
“Allegedly he and his wife walked out half way through. But that doesnt mean it wasnt good. I imagine its hard to see your work translated onto the big screen, even in the best of versions.”
My grandfather owned a speakeasy in NYC in those days, called the Daylighter. My great aunt and uncle were Vaudvillian performers, actually headliners.
When I was growing up I heard from my grandmother and aunt and uncle that LI was full of huge wild parties in fantastic mansions, some way out on the Island. It was all woods then.
I have to say that the only thing that novel sparks in me, though I wasn’t there, is nostalgia.
What an era.
I miss my grandmother, they don’t make em like those days anymore.
Roger that. While I like and respect Bruce Dern as an actor I thought he was totally miscast as Tom Buchanan and is nothing like the hulking brute depicted in the novel.
Two books show us that, one fiction and the other non-fiction: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Right Stuff.
Nobody talks like that in real life, but then again, no-one ever used to write like they talked. If you ever get the chance to read letters Civil War soldiers wrote home to their mothers, the poetry and formality is almost shocking to our modern ears, but can leave you wondering how is it that lowly farmboys turned warriors can write so much better than the most artful of modern writers. The key, though, is that they expressed so much better what they meant.
By the way, in many cultures, written and spoken languages are entirely different. For instance, Standard Arabic is written throughout the Islamic world, yet the local spoken languages vary greatly. And, of course, throughout medieval Western Europe, Latin remained the standard written language, while the local dialects drifted away into Iltalian, Portgueses, French, Romansch, Romanian, Spanish, and dozens of smaller languages which most people no longer even know about, like Languedoc, Catalan, and such.
It wasn’t that the Catholic Church was using some code language; it was that anyone who knew how to write wrote in Latin!
Oh, the Right Stuff... That was a great book of 20th century America. 19th century goes to the Red Badge of Courage.
Gatsby is one of the three most over rated books in American history. The others being Catcher In The Rye and anything by Ernest Hemingway.
Lol...I didn’t even know who Bruce Dern was the first time I saw that flick, but I remember thinking to myself how skinny his arms were....
“It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered, “Listen,” a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.”
—Nick’s description of Daisy (and the Jazz age, if you will) from Chapter 1 of the novel.
Hi I’m Holden Caulfield and even though not too long ago a bunch of guys manned up and lost lives and limbs liberating a continent, I’m going to bitch and moan about how tough it is as a rich kid to grow up and deal with an adult world.
I just read a quote from Roger Ebert to the effect of: “It’s not what a work of art is about, it’s about how it is about that thing.”
“And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder....He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”
Sounds like the narrator is talking about America today...
Oh yeah, Holden, I remember you. You suck!
My argument was not necessarily to say something popular is by definition, "good."
I levelled a lot of criticism against Dan Brown's DaVinci Code, not because it was popular, but because it was generally wrong and based entirely on a flawed premise...And because Umberto Eco had dealt with the same subject matter in a far more cerebral and historically accurate, Foucault's Pendulum about 20 years earlier.
If someone reads Gatsby and doesn't like it, more power to them. A lot of the crtiticism I read sounds to me like sour grapes against Fitzgerald for his success.
LOL! I'm from the Leave it to Beaver era...........and I STILL can't get into Shakespeare.
Or “The English Patient.”
Hey, a kindred spirit! I agree on all three.
Including his suicide?
Our 20th century culture was hijacked by the left long ago. Every time I read a review of art, music, movies or literature I resent the way they impose their morally and intellectually bankrupt opinions on the rest of us.
What intelligent person wants to look into the sick mind of abstract artists? Who likes atonal music? And before I take the word of ANYBODY on whether to spend my valuable time reading a book I want to know the hidden agenda of the reviewer.
Among the “goals of communism” printed in the Congressional Record of January 10, 1963 are these sad lines:
“Break down cultural standards of morality by promoting pornography and obscenity in books, magazines, motion pictures, radio, and TV.
“Continue discrediting American culture by degrading all forms of artistic expression.
“Control art critics and directors of art museums. Our plan is to promote ugliness and repulsive, meaningless art.
“Eliminate all good sculpture from parks and buildings, substitute shapeless, awkward and meaningless forms.
“Infiltrate the press. Get control of book-review assignments, editorial writing, policymaking positions.”
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