The Great Gatsby

I couldn’t sleep last night. To begin with, that was because my brain was buzzing from watching Grabbers. Then it was because a massive, house-shaking storm came into Singapore and between the thunder and the lightning and the constant rain, there was no way I was going to get to sleep. So I took the opportunity to reread The Great Gatsby.

The first time I read The Great Gatsby, I was fifteen or sixteen, and if you’d asked me to describe the plot, I think I would have said “there’s this bloke called Gatsby, innit?” Suffice it to say I didn’t like the book. My English teacher had told me how great it was, in fact everyone had told me how great it was, but when I read it there was just a bunch of rich Americans. And that was all.

A couple of years later, my next English teacher was waxing lyrical about The Great Gatsby (because, evidently, that was what English teachers did) but I was confused when the plot she described was rather different to the one I remembered. Rather than there just being this bloke called Gatsby, there was all sorts of issues of identity, deception, crushed dreams and doomed romance. Chastened by this, I reread The Great Gatsby, and even though the twist had been effectively ruined for me by my teacher, at least this time I understood a bit more what the fuss was all about.

Eighteen years or so later, I was surprised to find that The Great Gatsby had metamorphosed once again. I seemed to remember Gatsby being a character who was suddenly revealed to be different to who you thought he was at the denouement of the story, but, knowing how it would all turn out, as I read it again, I was dumbfounded that I’d ever thought this. Almost from the first time Nick Carraway, the narrator, encounters Gatsby it’s clear there’s something sinister, or at least odd about him.

It’s also much darker. On my second read-through, I thought Daisy, Gatsby’s love, was just the victim of a loveless marriage to the oafish Tom, and Gatsby was another victim. Reading on the sofa with the advantage of another couple of decades, it’s clearer that Daisy is rather more complicit in the marriage. She may aspire to some romantic ideal with Gatsby, but she won’t commit to it. As Fitzgerald wrote:

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…

Tom and Daisy are part of the upper crust – crumbs, held together with dough – and there’s a clear lineage you could trace from them to Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman, the well-dressed, vacuous star of American Psycho. The Great Gatsby ends sadly, but there was never an alternative, as I’d thought after the second time I read it, where things could have ended happily, if there hadn’t been the car crash. The doom, the unhappiness of the characters was always inevitable.

So, although I now agree that it’s a great example of English literature, I’m not so sure that it’s the kind of book one needs to read before middle age. There was so much of it that just whistled over my head when I was a callow youth that it feels it would have been better if I hadn’t read it that first time at all.

Then again, it’s a short book: chop off the publisher’s introduction in the version we have on our bookshelf, and it runs to 145 pages. Even if you’re not an insomniac speed reader like I am, it’s not going to take you a long time to read it. But if you do get your children to read it, please don’t just tell them it’s a great work of literature – talk to them about it, and try to verify they haven’t just read about “this bloke called Gatsby, innit”.

3 responses to “The Great Gatsby”

  1. Books! Wish my kids read books. The Great Gatsby is that type of book that you can read as a child (it’s short and got a reasonably engaging storyline), but more layers are revealed as you read it as you grow older. I think I need to read it a third time – this time thinking more about the characters as people rather than as a comment on the empty, glittering society.

  2. […] The Great Gatsby is a very short book so it’s surprising that it makes such a long film. The pacing of the film is itself quite strange: to me it felt not enough time was spent establishing the friendship between Carraway and Gatsby. Instead, after a few anachronistic parties (excuses for Jay-Z, the musical director, to show off his record collection) we’re swiftly plunged into Carraway performing favours for his friend. […]

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