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Book review: <i>The Great Gatsby</i> by F. Scott Fitzgerald

the cover of the book

If this was a dance, it would be the Lindy Hop.


Irrelevant, let's face it. This was first published in 1925, so you can pick your own design. Mine was text only.


The narrator, Nick Carraway, leads us into the book by narrating his move from Minnesota to New York's Long Island Sound. There he rents a small house on an island called West Egg. His new home is squished between giant beachside residences, and across the water lies East Egg, home
of even swishier houses and a better class of people. Or so we think, until Nick journeys to East Egg to visit his cousin Daisy and her wealthy, WASPy husband Tom. In short order he discovers that Daisy now has a daughter, and that Tom is a dim, racist, overconfident jackass with a mistress of whom his wife and friends are quite aware. So proud is Tom of the affair that the next time Nick meets him, by accident, he strongarms Nick into meeting his mistress. Alongside her drunken, oddball friends he discovers that Tom is also a thuggish drinker and occasional beater of women.

One of Nick's new neighbours is a young man mentioned darkly by Tom, one Jay Gatsby. He's bright, cunning and fun, and Nick comes to consider him a friend. Gatsby is very rich, but his lineage is hazy and he's considered beyond the pale by many of the smarter set, not that this stops them attending his extensive, glittering parties in droves. But where DID Gatsby come from? His uncertain origins serve as endless fodder for the gossipy upper crust, and Nick is as entranced as the rest by the glamour and mystery which surrounds him. As Nick comes to know Gatsby, he learns the reason for his purchase of the house, and the parties he's throwing - Gatsby is in love with Daisy, and has been since before he left for the war five years ago. He correctly suspects her husband of dickitude, and wants nothing more than to sweep her off her feet and carry her away like some kind of young, scrappy, heterosexual Richard Gere. Romantic, huh?

The good

May I just quickly state that, as with everything I review, I can finally only judge this on how much I personally enjoyed it. Obviously, old fruit, The Great Gatsby is a classic bit of literature. Despite selling pitifully while Fitzgerald was alive, it's now considered to be both his best work and an American classic. But did I enjoy it, eighty years later? Hells YEAH. This is just great. The story is simple and swift, but also full of symbolism and subtextual questions about America's future. It stands in a special place in history and is quite aware of this. The characters ring true as tricycles, and the narrator, this intelligent, kind, honest man, is obviously Fitzgerald himself. His attitude toward humanity I found quite telling in a moment half way through the book, where he says something along the lines of: "It is always depressing to look through another's eyes at that on which you have already expended your powers of judgement". And I'd have to say, OK, perhaps I am missing something, but in the most literal meaning of this sentence, no, F. Scott, I do not always find that depressing. But I am not an eternal optimist, innocent yet unsentimental, with powers of observation whose median value can only sag in pairing with another's.

And the prose, my darlings, the prose. About a third of the way in, Gatsby casually invites Nick to one of his epic parties. After glimpsing the preparations and aftermaths through the hedge for weeks, Nick at last crunches up the raked gravel driveway and passes into a world of light, chatter and champagne. It's one of the best pieces of descriptive action I've ever read. It's just gorgeous. Fitzgerald dances back and forward in a gay Charleston of life, kicking a leg up there, zig-zagging into the next room, twirling details into the corner and flipping the reader over his head without moistening his brow. It takes a truly great writer to convey, through cold print, not just the nature of a thing, but all its incidental emotive effects onto the reader. If you can read the scene where Nick first walks through Gatsby's shindig and not feel your senses heighten and eyes twitch toward the bar then you've either never gone to a party or never wanted to, and that's all there is to it. Like the book's 'good' characters, the writing feels young and bright, fresh-faced and admirably uncluttered. But it is never sentimental or silly, and neither are they. As for the 'bad' characters, if Fitzgerald can't instantly fill you with a desire to kick Tom fair up his giant stupid riding pants then I'll be very surprised.

I can see why this is considered by some to be the archetypal novel of the "Jazz age," i.e. 1920s - of course, more even than Waugh, Fitzgerald lived the life alongside his characters and became as famous and ritzy as they were. With The Great Gatsby he deliberately set out to evoke the time itself, in all its freshness, fun, liminality and foreboding. But more than this, I think the reason that it's now considered so emblematic of the era is that, eight decades on, Fitzgerald's writing just feels the way we imagine the age to have felt - glittering and gay, yet always grounded in a grim past, transient present and a looming future. The fact that he's a born writer probably helped.

So, we have prodigious prose, bullseye characters, and a plot which thematically embodies the dream of a nation encountering the reality of a new era, and which is commonly thought to be the last word on a decade of Western history. Did I mention that Fitzgerald achieves this in well under two hundred pages? I've never read a modern equivalent. It took Bret Easton Ellis five times that much text to put a chainsaw in the eighties with American Psycho, and he still waited until they were over to do it. (Now that I think of it, MacInnerney's short, superb Bright Lights Big City owes much to Fitzgerald, and his prose is closer (ie better) than Ellis'. It's fluid and funny, like The Great Gatsby, and knows all about glamour, but MacInnerney can't match Fitzgerald's seemingly effortless concision or gift for imbuing the simple with symbolism.) Fitzgerald said he took enough out of The Great Gatsby to make another novel. He was right to do so. I simply do not see how this book could have been improved additively, but it certainly could have been made worse. It considers, but never sits still, and the perfectly judged momentum and hoverboard poise give it the glamour it seeks to convey. Clive James says that Fitzgerald here predicts what fame will become later in the century. He certainly captures its ephemeral dazzle, and the magnetic effect this brings with it, and he comprehends perfectly the reciprocating nature of the experience of seeing oneself as part of it all - part of the bright lights, part of the big city, if you will.

The bad

Perhaps, if we're being merciless, Fitzgerald's early death and dearth of later writing helped this out somewhat, in a retrospective sense. Had he gone on to greater things, this may be considered too trivial and weightless to be a classic. Of course, none of this would lessen The Great Gatsby's status as a fantastic work of art. At times it just seems like something this light and bright can't be literature.

Honestly, I can't think of anything bad to say about it. I wished it had a happier ending, but what kind of pissweak criticism is that? Read it, it's fucking bonzer.

What I learnt

That, even half way through the twenties, young people were nervous about what was going to happen next in politics.

In short

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 0743273567
Year published: 1999
Pages: 180
Genre(s): Literature, Fiction
Review Type: 


There is so much talk about "The Great Gatsby" that I felt I had to read this book. Many think of it as a classic and I can now understand why. The story is fast-moving and somehow, these characters of the 1920s don’t seem any different from the people we see today. Fitzgerald has captured the basic nature of human beings, with all its flaws, and woven a fascinating tale around it. Life is full of ups and downs and the life of these characters, most importantly, Jay Gatsby, is no different. We are told a story of love and revenge, of lust and greed, and emptiness. And yet, what is printed in our minds when we finish the book is the lavish, extravagant parties that Gatsby throws. Such is the power of words. I read through this book with some helpful insights from Shmoop that gave a good perspective of this all-American classic.

At the start of your review, you state that the cover of the book is, due to its age and vast iterations, irrelevant. You may be interested to know that the painting on the cover was not only chosen by Fitzgerald, but also served as an inspiration for the story as he was writing. The complete story is told here: