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May 20, 2024

Revisiting "The Great Gatsby"

By Richard Voza

Book Review: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Either late in high school or early in college, I was ordered to read The Great Gatsby. I regarded it as the most boring thing I had ever picked up. However, roughly 20 years later, I decided that it may have been me who was boring, so I decided -- after a recommendation from a college student who was ordered to read it -- that I should try again because I, as an adult, would now be in a better frame of mind to appreciate the literary genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Why is it that many writers, and especially so many writing teachers, are so quick to proclaim The Great Gatsby as one of the greatest novels ever written? Shortly after the book's publication, H.L. Mencken -- a rather significant writer and journalist -- referred to The Great Gatsby as just a "glorified anecdote," and I completely agree. It's a worthless and boring collection of words that does nothing more than allow a handful of shallow-minded society folk to show off their ability to do nothing more than uselessly and wastefully spend money and pursue extra-marital affairs with people more dull than themselves. Without the convenience of a few contrived coincidences, not even that would have happened.

It is wrong to refer to this story as "fiction" as there is no driving plot and no likable characters. If Moby Dick could swallow the entire cast of non-characters, the world would improve. Usually, good fiction can be summarized with the following statement: "Somebody wants something, but someone or something else is in the way." Nobody in this story wants anything except to indulge in themselves. Nobody in this story has a want or need that is so compelling that I actually wanted to read the book. Maybe Gatsby wants Daisy, but why should I care? Daisy seems to want Nick and kisses him several times, even though they're cousins, while still proclaiming her love for both Gatsby and her husband Tom, who is having his own affair with Myrtle, the wife of George Wilson. Affairs can be interesting, especially if there is a great deal of tension between the cheating parties when their legitimate better-half is in the same room. The drama stage is set when Gatsby declares in front of all that Daisy doesn't love Tom. Tom's reaction? Basically, "Yes she does." Oh, the drama.

Maybe what Gatsby wants is to be liked. People seem to enjoy his parties, but nobody really seems to like or respect him. They tell stories about him, but they don't really care about him. Why should they? He never answers a question when people try to get to know him. He bullies people while smiling and sending a butler to refill their drinks, possibly to keep them drunk so they can't remember what a dullard he is.

The only tension or drama was when Tom realized that he was simultaneously losing both his wife Daisy and his lover Myrtle. However, I could not feel sympathy for Tom because he was a brut who broke Myrtle's nose because she mentioned his wife's name. That drama lasted about half a page, and before we could really get into a conflict between husbands, wives, and lovers, Fitzgerald did a very convenient thing: he killed Myrtle and made it seem Gatsby's fault so that Myrtle's husband would kill Gatsby. This was way too convenient and could only lead me to one conclusion: Fitzgerald was done. He had nothing interesting he could say or do with those characters at that point, so he killed them, which has been a pretty good trend.

Did you see the film Love Story? How about Terms of Endearment? Beaches? Gran Torino? Those highly regarded films are cleaned up the same way, and it shows only one thing of those writers. They introduced us to characters, showed a slice of their lives, and had nothing else to do, so they could only end the movie by killing someone. It's very hard to end a story in a way that makes sense and ties the whole plot together. Just ask Stephen King because he can't do it either. If you saw Gran Torino you might argue that the main character was dying anyway, and his death was a sacrifice, his way of at least accomplishing something for someone else. That is all true, but it's likely that the original story didn't include that and it was added to avoid martyr issues.

There are other ways that convenience rules here. The story is told in first-person point of view by Nick Caraway. However, there are times in the story where Nick tells of scenes that he could not have possibly known. For any attempt of drama to begin, we had to know that Tom was messing around with Myrtle, but we only learn this because Tom mentioned it to Nick, his wife's cousin. Why would a man tell his wife's cousin that he's cheating? It's either because he's plain stupid -- leading me to not care about him -- or it's because the writer is plain stupid if he or she expects me to accept that.

There is no driving conflict. There is no clear protagonist to follow in order to learn if that character achieves success. There is no motivational element driving the protagonist. There is no clear antagonist to hinder the unclear protagonist. There are no likeable characters. Nobody wants or needs anything vital, there's nothing to care about, and there are no results for which to wait.

Can someone please explain why this book is often called one of the greatest works of American fiction?

Article © Richard Voza. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-05-11
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