When F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the tender age of 40, his reputation as a writer was anything but assured. But in the decades since, it enjoyed an afterglow that have shone brighter and brighter by the light of two of his last novels: The Great Gatsby (1925) and Tender is the Night (1934).
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald assesses the social whirl of America in the 1920’s. This was gilded age in which pedigree, position and relations, rather than merely riches supply significance, a significance that by definition, is ephemeral, no matter how sweet.
We don’t meet Gatsby, the titular character until a third of the way into the novel. Instead, Fitzgerald lets Nick Carraway, a young Midwesterner fresh out of Yale, lead us into the universe of glittering parties and fierce social rivalries. Nick has rented a house on Long Island and befriends Tom Buchanan, a fellow Yalie, and his wife Daisy. He falls for Daisy’s friend Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, who cheated to win her first tournament. All of them have heard about Nick’s mysterious neighbour, Gatsby. Although scores of New Yorkers show up to his lavish parties, almost no one knows who he is or where he’s from. He’s rumoured to be a bootlegger, or perhaps a sinister criminal, but the liquor flows at his expense and the fun never ends. All they know about Gatsby is his bright yellow car and shirts so beautiful they make women burst into tears.
Then, as now, it is old wealth and privileged prejudice that keeps outsiders like Gatsby outside, no matter how impressive his riches. In an attempt to fit in, he pretends that he studied at Oxford, but alas, for all his savvy, he misses the relevant social signals. And despite his life of excess and vivid notoriety, it is the pursuit of love that was his undoing. Gatsby’s ultimately futile attempt to recapture his youthful passion for Daisy is fodder for Fitzgerald to paint him as a more sympathetic character than his entitled counterparts, whose cruelty reaches monstrous levels by the novel’s end.
The Great Gatsby is a novel of shimmering social surfaces and broken dreams. In depicting how the intensity of life ultimately ends in a vapor, Fitzgerald’s makes a poignant statement of how the American Dream never quite fulfil its promise, then and now. Why read Gatsby? The political commentator George F. Will gave a good answer: “for the perils of a life lived in a series of gestures.”