The not-so-great Gatsby

The cult around Fitzgerald’s most overrated work feeds the illusions of upper-crust Americans

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

11 May 2013

9:00 AM

You do not need to have read the book or even seen a film adaptation to feel a thrill at the word ‘Gatsby’. More than a novel, a film or a character, ‘Gatsby’ is an aspiration. The golden age of jazz, cocktails and evening dress, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel is one of those works which has been subsumed and overtaken by its own myth.

Such is The Great Gatsby’s enduring glamour that even the release of trailers for the latest film version (starring Leonardo di Caprio and Carey Mulligan) made news. You can see why. The film promises everything: beautiful people, luxurious locations and great clothes. After Gatsby has received this terrific fresh kick we will doubtless be able to look forward to imitation cocktails, imitation fashions and even — though we must hope not — imitation parties.

But just as most people now seem to remember Brideshead Revisited not as a novel about religion and alcoholic disintegration, but one of idyllic summers and teddy bears, so Gatsby is remembered as something it is not. Rather than a description of futility and envy, it tends to be recalled for its aspiration and glamour. It is just as well for his posthumous renown that Fitzgerald’s novel has attained this position. For, returning to the original, it is difficult to see how its reputation would hold if it was based on the actual work.


In any poll of great 20th-century novels, let alone great American novels, Fitzgerald’s most famous work always comes at or very near the top. Not least among the reasons must be its brevity. A number of Fitz-gerald’s works are better, but they are also longer. Gatsby’s briefness (around 150 pages) means people can get it early as well as easily. It remains a staple study-book for school-children on both sides of the Atlantic.

And though it is not a bad book, it is not a masterpiece. Fitzgerald famously stripped down Gatsby’s text to its bare bones, paring away the stylistic clogging of This Side of Paradise and other early work. But the popularity of the novel, and the acclaim it receives, remain slightly mystifying.

Of course there is good writing. But there are also terrible, clunking passages (‘There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple’). Re-reading the book, what is most striking is the coarseness of a plot, which amounts to little more than melodrama. For me, as for most readers, the intervening years had removed this memory. The climax (for those who don’t know, look away now) is a car accident where a woman happens to run out on to the highway at precisely the moment that the car her lover drives is being driven by someone else. It hits her and she dies. From this event comes a spate of deaths, including that of Gatsby himself. These are described (forgivably for the 1920s but hyperbolically nonetheless) as a ‘holocaust’.

Strip away this melodrama and what are you left with? An enigmatic central character for whom it is hard to have much sympathy and then the only thing anyone really remembers: the parties. These are the core of the Gatsby myth, just as the Oxford chapters are — for a certain type of reader — the misread heart of Brideshead. But although the set-piece descriptions have magnificent moments, how can you explain the glamour with which the parties are remembered?

Any point Fitzgerald appears to be making with the episodes seems forever to be getting lost. Far from being the sort of party you would wish to gatecrash, Gatsby’s affairs are filled with hopeless drunks and hangers-on, dull, empty conversations and the constant intimation that there are no such things as happy times, only happy memories. By the end of the book the party is over, but it is hard to feel any frisson of regret when the party was so little fun when it was going on. Why anybody reconnecting with the text would envy or wish to window-stare at the events is a mystery. The novel’s centrepiece is a hollow and unpleasant thing, curiously misremembered and taken up by its adherents as an exemplar of the good life.

For generations of young (especially Ivy League) Americans, Gatsby and the whole Fitzgerald myth has had the same destructive effect as Brideshead on a certain type of English youth. Nearly all countries have some national variant of this: novels that slipped their moorings and epitomised a certain aspiration. Read in the right — or rather the wrong — way they may be the epitome of style. But how strange it is that so many books that should be read as a warning get read as a yearning. Gatsby invites us to wallow. Doubtless in the coming weeks we will again. But we ought not to.

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  • http://ajbrenchley.com/ Swank

    ‘There was nothing to look at from under the tree except Gatsby’s enormous house, so I stared at it, like Kant at his church steeple’

    Interesting review, but what exactly is ‘terrible’ and ‘clunking’ about that passage? I find it effective, and I don’t know the book: this is the first I’ve read it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.gourlay Jim Gourlay

    I read it and thought – ‘I must have missed something because others think so well of it- ordinary’. Similarly over-rated is For Whom The Bell Tolls – thinly disguised self-worship by Hemingway.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004981542519 Tom Tom

    Brilliant book, very concise yet descriptive and full. Fitzgerald knew that “brevity” was an English word and”briefness ” was not. He could write brilliant prose Murray cannot

  • Gaudi

    The Great Gatsby is one of my favourite novels for so many reasons, most of them based on how it made me feel the first time I read it, rather than any deep literary intellectual reasoning. I don’t normally get worked up about these things but have to say I am bloody furious at what this most recent film has done to the characters and the beautiful language of the novel.

  • http://twitter.com/EdHart6 Ed Hart

    Gatsby is seen through a compound eye: the oculist’s advertisement; Nick Carraway’s narration, the hero’s own enigmatic utterances and our own take on them. In essence, though, Gatsby is a blank page on which everyone writes their own narrative. The whole piece forms a tantalising but unresolved dialectic, which juggles the real and the imagined. The one thing you cannot take out of the novel is any solace in, or, on behalf of, the hero or any of the characters. They are but players in an unresolved drama; they are us. Gatsby is a metaphor. He’s lost – he doesn’t know what he is – but he shares that with everyone around him. He’s a study in the existential dilemma of humanity. He exists with one foot in humanity and one in nature; the dream and the reality. He doesn’t appear to belong anywhere. He is not from the Mid-West or the Eastern Seaboard or the Old World from which everything – well, the prevailing culture at least – has stemmed. If you can draw any solid conclusions, they would be on the classic human dichotomy of having or being. This remains unresolved throughout the piece as Gatsby constantly oscillates between dimensions. It’s a great book because it is both everything and nothing at the same time.

    The film looks like shit.

    • fred

      English lit degree? Oxford?

      • http://twitter.com/EdHart6 Ed Hart

        That poor, eh?

        • fred

          I was admiring the quality of your rhetoric and the nuanced critique of the novel. Maybe I should have said Oxford Brookes; far better academic departments

          • Eddie

            Far better teachers and teaching. At Oxbridge, both are rubbish (tutors just sit and listen to essays being read, expect to be treated like gods, and just mumble some feedback to students who they have utter contempt for, (as they interrupt the dons’ precious research of 14th century bee-keeping or women’s oppressed lives under Edward II).
            But it doesn’t matter because of the high bar all students have to jump over to get there. Ditto for selective schools.
            Rubbish schools and unis can have great teachers. The teaching only adds a bit to the students’ final marks – 10% max.

          • steakfrites

            As a student currently reading history at Oxford, I can tell you I’ve never had to read out my essay to an indifferent don in a tutorial. Your picture is an out of date caricature; whilst there are plenty of exceptions, the quality of teaching is high, and I am not treated like a distraction from research. And what makes you think academics at any other university are devoted wholly to teaching, as opposed to research?

    • Eddie

      ‘Gatsby is seen through a compound eye: the oculist’s advertisement; Nick Carraway’s narration, the hero’s own enigmatic utterances and our own take on them.’
      And the same can be said about any novel with a narrator where another character speaks too, and of course all readers will have ‘a take’. And the symbolism really falls flat in Gatsy – the oculist’s advert on the highway, for example. But you’d get a frisson of excitement and ticks from any exam marker for that.
      However, your use of the word ‘dialectic’ is enough to lose 20% at least from me. ‘Dichotomy’ is almost as bad. These words will send the average academic and exam marker into orggasmic shudders of delight, however. At least you didn’t mention ‘paradigm’ or ‘diverse’ or ‘vibrant’ or the omnipresent ‘diaspora’…
      And all characters (and some would say all language too) are metaphors, surely?

      • http://twitter.com/EdHart6 Ed Hart

        Yes, all books cover the same or similar turf but some do it better than others. The Ice Palace, a Fitzgerald short story, was better. But simple though it maybe, it is still a good book. We could argue forever whether this or that works.

        I’d have added 20% for the ‘dialectic’, taken off 20% for ‘dichotomy’ and awarded myself an A* for advancing the development of bullshit as the world’s fastest growing lingua franca.

        Still, the whole point of these things is try and evaluate what they mean to us; what anything means. As for the last paragraph, yes, it’s true. However, it’s gauging the worth of how well they do it that enables us to distinguish great books from pot boilers. It’s the same for the product of any creative process.

        • Eddie

          I am always opposed to the artifical divide between ‘literary fiction’ and the ‘popular fiction’ the literati sneer at.
          I think, for example, Roald Dahl, PG Wodehouse, Tom Sharpe, John Le Carre, Robert Harris and many others are far better writers than most Booker prize winners, who do not have a clue about story or dramatic tension and think being lyrical and writing pretty prose are what writing is all about.
          For what it’s worth, I have a degree in English lit (and am a professional writer amongst other tings) and know exactly what these wiseacres are trying to do and which little club they are trying to join – but really, most self-consciously literary fiction is tedious, derivative, pretentious and deeply dull. Just really reeealllly pointless and boring.
          There is of course popular fiction that is utter downmarket drivel. However, some who are seen as literary giants are not to far off that and sometimes even wallowing in it (Virginia Woolf being one purple prose pixie of note).

          • http://twitter.com/EdHart6 Ed Hart

            I agree with you. I’m not making a conscious case for that divide, though, I’m writing about what I like. As regards that, I couldn’t care less who agrees with me. This is one instance where it is much more important to please yourself. Some of those you cite are certainly more interesting than those Booker prizewinners you don’t; many of them are unreadable. I know, I’ve tried. Whereas Dahl’s Boy…, for example, is an excellent piece of writing. So, too, are the works of Wodehouse, Sharpe and Le Carre. I’ve never read anything by Harris, so I can’t comment. Take Martin Amis, for example, he’s father was a much better writer and he didn’t have the studied objective of trying desperately hard to be novel and memorable.

            There are a lot of highly vaunted writers out there that I can’t read. Then there others, like T F Powys, who are extremely interesting, but never got a look in. Mind you, it’s the same with all creative processes, time usually does for the duffers because they have no resonance outside of their own time and space. Others move in and out of fashion as people come to see they had more substance than was first thought.

  • Corbus

    Prefer to see FSF’s Pat Hobby serialised. The old soak who’d moan if his Tom Collins tasted a “little thin”.

    In fact, Rob Redford’s effort in the ‘original’ GG, was one of the better performances among his 2D, humorless, cardboard repertoire.

    Di Caprio I like. A far better actor than RR. But like all reworkings this suffers from too much effort, renovation, slickness and that annoying ruining of one’s virgin response to the original (however shit it was).

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonny.castro.372 Jonny Castro

    All style and no substance. Like most costume dramas, the hard work is on image and not on the script!

  • Clarke

    I think the book is an easy read, but also works to demonstrate the superficiality of humanity. None of the characters are people you would want to be friends with, perhaps with the exception of Jordan Baker. It’s a good read in the sun with some lemonade, and I think the trailers for the upcoming film capture that feeling. Also, the glamour in the trailers is a perfect demonstration of the hollow and superficial attitudes of people. I think the film looks like it will be good.

  • Eddie

    I did this novel for A level. People do rather swoon over it, and yes, I did and do enjoy it, but:

    1) it is pretty much unfilmable because it’s a character study rather than a story with a plot – so the 3 act structure has to be tacked on for any movie script; and 2) it means little without the author’s rich and luscious prose.

    Personally, I disliked the whole symbolism thing in the novel – though I did write about the last passage on the last page (about people all being bobbing boats looking for a green light) in my A level exam (didn’t understand it that well then, and don’t now). Nice short easy read though – and people always love reading about the super-rich (and still do) perhaps because they are different (yep, they have more dosh!)

    The previous film was tedious and this one probably is too – it has tobe forced into a template or mould that Hollywood demands, just like Brideshead Revisited (which they changed into a love triangle!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/DavidHilton79 David Hilton

    You’ve taken the novels of F Scott Fitzgerald out of their historical context, thus the melancholia which infects the self-destructive partying makes no sense. This was the generation which had just lived through WWI. That event cast a pall over the entire century, often overshadowed in our collective memories by its more momentous and morally affirming sequel. The ennui, the boozing, the search for purpose and meaning in a shallow world; all of these express the existential nihilism of a generation wasted brutally with no result, it seemed, except its own brutalisation. What else was there to do but get wasted? The continued resonation of the novel with especially young readers taps into, I contend, this sense of a shattered moral universe in the West which has never been quite reconfigured.

  • Essell

    For me – a literary pygmy, Gatsby’s desperate obsession with capturing the heart of one woman by the lure of riches and power needed the charade of all those frothy, champagne swilling, unquestioning parasites. They were surely his spin doctors.

  • OldHairbag

    If you think that Gatsby is about Gatsby, or “Heart of Darkness” about Kurtz, naturally you worry about the destructive effect on “generations of young (especially Ivy League) Americans, Gatsby and the… the same effect as Brideshead on a certain type of English youth.” But what if Gatsby is about Carraway, and H of D about Marlow? (Brideshead, I think, anyway, is about Waugh, or Waugh’s dream-Waugh, and not of the same class.) But Fitzgerald is doing something more complex even if certain parts of the audience that provide the most lucrative market for Gatsby-derived styles, pink suits, etc. don’t get it.

  • pearlsandoysters

    After watching the film I can attest to it that the film has nothing of subtlety of the original. The whole enterprise is a way over-glamorized and the end result is rather superficial than focusing on showing the superficial.