Friday, June 28, 2013

The Great Gatsby, Round 2

Sometimes the meaning of things go over children's heads.  Such was the case for me when I read The Sun Also Rises in the seventh grade.  I remember wondering why Lady Brett Ashley wouldn't commit to the love of her life, Jake Barnes.  She cried about it, even.

It wasn't until I had to read the book again in college that I realized what exactly was going on.  Jake had been a soldier in the first World War and because of an injury, he was impotent.  Ohhhh . . .  But there was more to it than that.  Impotence is often used literature to symbolize helplessness and hopelessness.  After the Great War, a lot of people felt helpless and hopeless, including Ernest Hemingway.

Because such a bright light went off for The Sun Also Rises that second time around, I thought maybe -- just maybe -- it would be the same for The Great Gatsby.  The first time I read it was nearly 15 years ago, when I was a sophomore in high school.  It was one of two summer reading books, and I absolutely hated it.  Mind you, I got the best grade on the exam, but as far as I was concerned, the book had zero merit.  In Man on the Moon, Jim Carrey plays Andy Kaufman, a comedian who reads The Great Gatsby as punishment to an audience that doesn't laugh at his jokes.  I thought it was brilliant.  The Great Gatsby as punishment?  Someone understood my hatred!

But hate is a strong feeling to harbor for 15 years, and so I did what I thought I had to do to rid myself of the toxic emotion: I read The Great Gatsby for a second time.  I picked as good a time as any, I suppose -- Baz Luhrmann's film adaptation had just been released, so it seemed like everywhere I went, someone was talking about it.

Well.  Here's what I thought of the book after the second reading:
  • The writing is wonderful.  Thankfully, my adult self recognizes good writing in a way that my teenager self did not.  It kind of amazes me, though, that I didn't catch on to the remarkable quality of this sentence, for example: "At 158th Street the cab stopped at one slice in a long white cake of apartment-houses."  I mean, c'mon.  That's good stuff!
  • None of the main characters are likable, and most of the rest are awful, too.  There is one exception: Gatsby's father.  Fitzgerald devoted maybe a page to him, but he was the only character I was in any way rooting for.  Even Nick, the narrator is kind of a jerk.  He's a self-righteous son of a gun who helps two people commit adultery.  Not cool, Nick.  Not cool.
  • The story is depressing.  That's probably why I ultimately hated it when I was a sophomore.  I mean, although I can be somewhat melancholy at times, I don't like books that make me feel depressed.  And this book does it.  My teacher at the time, Mrs. Harmon, went on and on about how this book was all about the American Dream, and maybe it is, but at this point in my life, all I can think is that Fitzgerald was writing a book about a time when America seemed to be losing its sense of morality and wealth was just a synonym for indulgence, frivolity, and emptiness.  If that's not depressing, I don't know what is.
  • "Gatsby Parties" are suspect.  Why do women ever decide that throwing a Gatsby Party would be a good idea?  Do they plan on getting drunk and sleeping with married men, too?  I'm sure they're thinking of thousands of twinkle lights and music and flowing white dresses with matching hats and red lipstick -- but after reading that book again, I can't help but remember that Gatsby Parties are just meaningless wastes of time.

So there you go.  After all these years, I can say that although the writing is incredible, the story is not, and I will never read The Great Gatsby again.

Thing I'm thankful for: warm showers again


Anonymous Blake said...

I'd like to hear your post teenage thoughts on Catcher in the Rye. I read it a few years ago. It's one of those classic books where the writing is wonderful but you're left feeling like "uh, okay" at the end. Seems like a lot of early 20 century books end like that, with little to no payoff, written by what I can only presume are conflicted, miserable, but gifted authors.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Leigh said...

"Twinkle lights". You're one of my favorites Sara!

10:00 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

:) Thanks, Amanda!

And Blake -- I never read Catcher in the Rye. I always meant to, but I didn't for two reasons: 1) I'd heard there was a lot of cussing, and 2) I'd heard it was kind of a book for guys. Maybe I'll try it, though. I think you're right about 20th-Century authors -- at least, the postmodern ones. Postmodern lit is my least favorite. :/

10:22 AM  
Blogger bh said...

I love that book, but we can disagree about things and still be friends.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

I also liked the book quite a lot. Not because the characters are likable, but because I like books for different reasons. Some books I like for entertainment, some for escapism, and some for their broader social commentary. I think it is an incredibly well-written and scathing commentary on a variety of social corruptions. And, the last page of the novel contains some of the most enduring writing in American literature.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Sara said...

Mmm. Thanks for your comments, bh and Carrie. I do think The Great Gatsby is wonderfully scathing, so maybe I can like it for that. :)

I'll have to disagree about the last page, though; it was a bit too heavy-handed for me. :/

4:47 PM  

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