Like many Americans I watched the PBS series Downton Abbey with great fascination, and the new season will explore the Twenties, a time of flappers and liberation after WWI. This Christmas that PBS series will be joined by the release of a new film version of The Great Gatsby, based on a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and published in 1925 by Scribner’s. If you are a product of public education in America you probably read this—or the Cliffs Notes—in high school. A classic novel with layers of meaning, The Great Gatsby is well worth an adult read because it beautifully describes the human yearning to make dreams come true, often at a terrible price. And—bonus—it contains only nine compact and enchantingly written chapters.
In his novel Fitzgerald attempted to answer two questions about the nature of humans: Can you repeat the past? Can you plan and work hard—no matter what means you use—to make your dreams come true?
The very first time narrator Nick Carroway observes the mysterious Jay Gatsby, he actually sees a shadow, a silhouette of a man, arms stretched out in the darkness toward a green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. Beyond that dock live Daisy and her husband Tom, members of the inherited money class, careless people who smash their way through life with total ambivalence toward the feelings of others. Nevertheless, Gatsby remembers Daisy as the golden girl, the love of his life when he first left for WWI. Gatsby believes it is their destiny to be together. Can they repeat the past and make life again contain the innocent love they once had?
Piece by piece the truth of Gatsby’s background comes together in a story woven of fairy dust. He came from nothing but had the enormous imagination to remake himself into a glamorous image of wealth in order to catch the attention of the enormously rich Daisy. His will alone pushed him relentlessly on in his quest for his lost love. In that plan he surrounded himself by the new rich of the Twenties, scandalous people who had been in prison, bootlegged alcohol, and killed people. But they aided him in his climb to reach the rich, well-guarded plateau of the Buchanans.
Only tragedy can result when he finally recaptures his love, but finds the past cannot be repeated, innocence cannot be regained, and, in the morally corrupt era of the Twenties, his endeavor comes at a terrible cost. Despite his heartbreaking ending, Fitzgerald fills his novel with rapturous descriptions of perfect love and wondrous dreams, two of the uplifting themes that define human yearning.
Nick Carroway, in the end, is left to explain that America was the dream of the old sailors who first discovered her green, untouched location, and they realized that this New World could become a place of great hope and dreams. By the Twenties, however, reality had changed that dream into a place of moral corruption and hopelessness beneath its Coney Island facade. Gatsby too did not realize that sometimes the very best of human yearnings get smashed in the very worst of human nature.
The Great Gatsby is a literary classic and, as such, causes the reader to think about his own time and the nature of humans no matter what the time period. “Classic” means a reader also sees new ideas he didn’t discern with the first reading. If you haven’t picked up a copy of Fitzgerald’s book lately, think about doing so. It’s well worth your time.