Friday, 30 December 2011

Book Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

A classic of American literature, The Great Gatsby flows like a mystical dream, author F. Scott Fitzgerald creating unforgettable characters living passionately turbulent lives.

It's early in the summer of 1922, and narrator Nick Carraway moves to New York to train for a job in bond sales, renting a house in the community of West Egg, Long Island. Nick knows few people in the New York area, but visits the radiant and soft-spoken Daisy Buchanan, his second cousin once removed, who lives in the more upscale community of East Egg with her husband Tom, a former athlete. Tom hardly makes a secret of keeping a mistress on the side, a lady named Myrtle Wilson, herself married to garage owner George.

Nick's next door neighbour is the mysterious Gatsby, who lives in a grand mansion and throughout the summer throws the most lavish night-long parties, attended by the elite of New York's society despite few of them knowing what Gatsby looks like and none of them knowing his background. Gradually, Nick befriends Gatsby, and finds out that Gatsby has set himself one mission in life: to regain the love of Daisy, whom he knew before the war. Gatsby's parties are an effort to attract Daisy's attention, and as the summer progresses, Gatsby makes his bold move to pry Daisy away from Tom.

With his depiction of the parties at Gatsby's mansion, and indeed the frolicking lifestyle of Daisy and Tom, Fitzgerald captured the Roaring Twenties among the elite, a world propelled by a booming stock market and illegal smuggling that would eventually crash headlong into the Great Depression. The Gatsbys and Tom Buchanans of this society seem to have no need to work, their wealth streaming in through the market or other undefined self-propelled ventures. While the money lasted, the descriptions provided by Fitzgerald became the template for those who wanted to share in the dream.

With the Roaring Twenties came a new role for women in society, and one of the progressive themes in The Great Gatsby is the shifting balance between men and women. Gatsby, Tom Buchanan and George Wilson are emotionally miserable. Gatsby will measure his success or failure in life based on whether he can win back Daisy's love. Tom is so emotionally lost that he is looking past the beautiful Daisy and seeking emotional fulfilment in Myrtle's coarse arms and George has already lost Myrtle and has few other prospects.

Meanwhile, Daisy is the central object of desire, Myrtle is stomping all over George, and Jordan Baker, Daisy's friend who becomes Nick's companion, is an independent, confident professional golfer. Although the men are the source of financial muscle, it is the women who hold the real power in The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald's writing style breezes with rich yet well-toned prose, sometimes pausing to describe at length a single smile, while at other times breathlessly racing to recount life-altering events. In about 170 pages, Fitzgerald creates everlasting portraits of people and places embroiled in a high intensity human drama. Gatsby may forever pine for his great love, but in The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald found his great novel.

171 pages.
Published in paperback by Penguin.

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