I’ve read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald three times – once my junior year of high school; once the summer after I married my husband; and then again this past week.
When I read it in high school, it’s safe to say I didn’t understand the book at all. Sure, it was fascinating to read about the roaring twenties, but the love triangles, the social insights, and the domestic politics at play were completely lost on me, as was much of the humor. In retrospect, I suppose I hadn’t lived enough yet to understand the story.
The summer after I got married, we lived in an apartment complex with a pool. I grabbed my copy of The Great Gatsby and read it one morning in a lounge chair under the sun. While I found myself more interested in the story (particularly the romance plots) as a twenty-years-old wife than I had as a seventeen-years-old AP student, I still was on the fence about this book. Why is this considered such a classic? Why is it a big enough deal that Leonardo DiCaprio starred as Jay Gatsby?
I chose to read this book as one of my first for this Lifetime Reading List goal because we are, essentially, a century past the time in which The Great Gatsby was set. I’ve thought for a couple of years now that, as a society, we are attempting to roar again as we head into the 2020s. While the faring of our economy varies from dire to thriving depending which news station we watch in the USA, I can’t help but notice how so much of our culture is driven to pursing a life of extravagance. I can hardly go to the drugstore without rolling my eyes at the wall of magazines telling women how to look a certain way to give the illusion of this or that. Home improvement shows boast with phrases like “Look at all your storage space!” to give the illusion of a tidy life when, really, your drawers and cabinets are bursting with crap you’ve forgotten you even had. Technology, cars, and vacations all compete to be bigger, brighter, and bolder than another while commercials work to convince new parents that our babies need that solar-powered play-mat-gym contraption in lieu of a good ol’ fashioned blanket and toys. Our society is divided between the college-educated (with at least a Master’s Degree, too) and the “other” – the tradespeople (like my husband, a mechanic – who has a college degree but can’t use it), the salespeople who sell that Gucci purse for full price then go home to a microwave dinner in a studio apartment, the fast food workers, and, well, the rest of us.
While one group strives to achieve subsistent living, torn between the true necessities and what consumerism says is vital, the other doesn’t really have time to consider even living with less because they’re off to do whatever the well-off do with other people of similar means.
In other words, I chose to read this book now because I believe it is relevant socially in a significant way.
The decisions of Jay Gatsby in his attempts to regain the love of the woman he lost to circumstance are so strikingly similar to those that twenty-first century Americans make every single day. So many fill their lives with possessions to give it the appearance (for themselves or to others) of fullness, when in fact, the one thing they want or need is lacking. While Gatsby, arguably, had those parties in hopes that Daisy would wander over and they’d be reunited again on equal ground, I can’t help but ask: What would honesty have really cost him?
And, for those of us who are much more like Nick Carraway in terms of financial and social standing thus, I think there’s a level of universality that Fitzgerald depicts so well in this book. Fascinated and drawn to the unknown, a character as simple as Mr. Carraway here sees a side to Gatsby, the Buchanans, and Jordan Baker that their socialite peers cannot. After all, Mr. Carraway has lived a life that’s required him to judge others by their character first and appearance/possessions second, and that forms a person’s social disposition in a much different way.
Furthermore, while it may not be an integral part of every person’s human experience, I do think there’s a fairly relatable level of wistfulness to Gatsby and Daisy’s lost love. After all, there are so many love songs about “the one that got away” for whatever reason, and whether it’s something we’ll readily admit or not, I think there are pieces of past romances that stick with us all our lives, causing us to ask “What if?” In Gatsby’s case, though, he acted on the “What if?” and created the life he needed to properly woo Daisy before the war, but once he’d done it, it was too late.
What would honesty have really cost him?
More than anything else, I think that’s the theme that makes The Great Gatsby so incredibly timeless. What would honesty really cost any of us? I’m blessed with an autistic husband who absolutely cannot lie (I couldn’t even get him to play hooky in college!), so I get to see someone live an incredibly carefree life because he never has to remember a single lie. Men like Gatsby don’t compute to my husband, and I appreciate that. It’s given me a whole new appreciation for being who I truly am, rather than what a circumstance or person may want me to be. Nonetheless – if I can manage to stay off my soapbox for a moment! – I think, as we head into the potentially-roaring twenties of the twenty-first century, it’s certainly worth asking what honesty would cost us.
For some dollars, we can give an impression of grandeur – physically, residentially, automotive-ly, professionally. But why? Why do we “need” these things?
For the truth…well, that comes free with a different sort of cost, doesn’t it? And even if it comes with a loss – if Gatsby had told Daisy the truth and she would’ve left him, he would’ve been alone anyway – isn’t knowing better than blindly hoping?
You know, dear reader, when I started this post, all I had planned to really say was “It’s a great book. It is timeless. Read it!”, or something to that general point. But as I started typing and began thinking much more deeply about what I’d read, I began connecting all these dots that I hadn’t truly seen.
That, more than anything else, is what absolutely demands The Great Gatsby hold a place on this Lifetime Reading List.