Hello everyone! I figured I’d start out with something that a lot of people might be able to use, since it’s a book many are assigned to read in school. Additionally, it is one of my favourite books, so I have a lot to say about it.
As you probably know, The Great Gatsby was written in the 1920s. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel, and widely considered to be the greatest achievement of his career.
This was a really complex time period. Remember that the world had just been to war for the first time. Immediately following all the tragedies of war was a terrible influenza outbreak, which killed anywhere from 30 to 50 million people, many of them young and healthy.
I think that the partying and opulence and disregard for the standards of the past become quite poignant when we view them beside the tragedy that preceded it. The world had been turned upside down, how could the nation return to the niceties of 19th century society? Who knew what tomorrow might bring? The generation that emerged from that war was made up of people determined to live it up while they could.
And they definitely had the funds to do it. While Europe had emerged from the war scarred and crippled, America was prospering. It was now an industrial world power. Manufacturing boomed, leisure-time increased, jazz bands played, and alcohol flowed freely despite Prohibition. The nation was growing a lot less vast as radio connected it and newly-affordable automobiles traversed it.
I could talk all day about the 1920s, but that is enough background and setting for us to proceed.
Who Is Gatsby?
The title character, Jay Gatsby, is not the narrator of the book. The narrator is Nick Carraway, but let’s not get carried away (it’s my blog and I’ll make lame jokes if I want to); Nick may tell the story, but he is not the protagonist. This is a good example of a book that is not told from the protagonist’s point of view. Nick is an observer, a sort of tour guide who leads us, the readers, through the world of 1920s New York.
Nick opens with an interesting piece of advice, given to him by his father:
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you have had.”
Nick goes on to explain:
In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgements.
It’s interesting that Fitzgerald decides to open his novel in this way. In effect, we are being told that our narrator is someone we can trust, someone who is objective and who is going to act like a reporter, laying out the people and events as they occurred without telling us what to think of them. And yet…
…I come to the admission that [tolerance] has a limit.
After telling us about his tolerance, Nick tells us how he has returned from the East the previous autumn, completely disillusioned. Whatever had happened there had been so bad as to earn the condemnation of someone who reserves all judgements. Here, on the second page, a dark tone is set for this story. And yet, in the midst of this, there is a glimmer of hope. The following is one of the truly linguistically beautiful passages in the book, so rather than chopping it up right away, I’m going to put it in its entirety, and then we will break it down.
Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction–Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”–it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No–Gatsby turned out all right in 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.
Excuse me while I crack my knuckles after typing all that out.
Okay, now let’s break it down. So, this is sort of the “why we should care” bit. Because why would we want to read a story if it was so depressing that this guy who doesn’t judge came back feeling really judgemental? We would only want to read it if there was something redeeming in it, and that is Gatsby. Who is Gatsby? We have no idea, but we have just been told a few things about him that make us curious to know more.
Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
Okay, so wait a minute. The only person Nick came back not feeling completely intolerant of was the person who represented everything he scorned? We have to find out why that is.
…it was an extraordinary gift for hope…
Hope is one of the major themes in the book. Gatsby is someone who is perhaps more hopeful than most people, as he has an “extraordinary gift” for it. It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time that hope has been mentioned, even this early in the novel. Just a paragraph earlier, when Nick was ‘boasting of his tolerance’ (his words, not mine) he said:
Reserving judgements is a matter of infinite hope.
So we know that hope is going to play an important role in this story, and that Nick and Gatsby are going to embody hope in slightly different ways. I might add here that, if reserving judgements is a matter of hope, and Nick has come back from the East no longer able to reserve those judgements, then whatever happened back there took away his hope, at least temporarily.
No–Gatsby turned out all right in 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.
Remember this boat imagery, because it is going to come full circle by the ending. But moving aside from that, this character who said he would reserve all judgements has just given us his judgement of Gatsby. Gatsby is all right. We don’t know much about Gatsby at this point, but we do know that he is sensitive, hopeful, and a good person, but that things did not go well for him. Gatsby appears as this larger-than-life personality whom Nick sees something “all right” in. And with that glimmer of hope, with that promise, we move into the story.