The Great Gatsby is structured as a series of parties or get-togethers. In the first chapter, Daisy and Tom Buchanan, Daisy's friend Jordan Baker and Daisy's cousin, Nick, have dinner at the Buchanan's. Early in the novel, wealthy characters affect an air of cultured boredom that can't be offset by any of the prohibition era booze, live music, fancy cars, dancing or food. In chapter two there is another depressing party with Nick, Tom and his mistress Myrtle. Chapter three features a Bacchanalia at Gatsby's mansion. The parties stop when Gatsby commences an affair with his old love, Daisy, and there is no longer a need to capture her attention. The climax of the story occurs during another awkward party. Nick, Jordan, Daisy, Tom and Gatsby drive to a New York hotel where Tom confronts Gatsby about his affair with Daisy. In a way, the novel ends with an unhappy gathering as well: Gatsby's funeral is poorly attended and it just highlights the emptiness of the earlier crowded events.
In the introduction to my edition, there is an anecdote about the famous cover art of the first publication (a pair of floating eyes in the sky above an amusement park). Apparently, the cover art was commissioned before the manuscript was finished in an attempt to goad Fitzgerald into wrapping it up. Fitzgerald was so impressed by the design that he re-wrote some significant passages (the description of the eyes on T.J. Eckleberg's billboard that triggered George Wilson's decision to murder Myrtle's killer). What I especially like about the design are the husky naked women folded into the irises of the floating eyes. It suggests Daisy's understanding that Myrtle is her rival.
To me, the most innovative aspect of The Great Gatsby's style is the lists. In particular, chapter four begins with a multi-page accounting of guests who typically attended Gatsby's summer parties. It cleverly makes the point that "more" doesn't necessarily equate with "better." For example, Mrs. Ulysses S. Swett runs over the hand of a bum named Etty, who fell asleep in Gatsby's driveway. Gatsby has tried to pack his house with interesting and important people but he is utterly without discrimination. That idea is echoed later in the novel when Gatsby impresses Daisy by the sheer volume of silk shirts that he pulls out of his closets to show her. The piles of material objects can't give weight to their shallow relationship, however.
Superficially, The Great Gatsby is a flapper variation of Romeo and Juliet or a book about the misguided pursuit of the American dream. Jay Gatsby falls in love with Daisy Fay, but her family prevails upon her not to marry the poor army officer. Five years later, rejection has inspired Gatsby to become fabulously wealthy and he buys a mansion in Daisy’s neighborhood, intent on redressing that wrong. In fact, the novel doesn’t have much to do with romance or ambition, the crucial theme embedded in its plot is a lament for the lack of consequences to bad behavior. It was published in 1925, four and a half years before the famous stock market crash punished a generation of selfish, misguided, shady individuals. In the world the novel creates, it’s possible for Jay Gatsby to stalk Daisy for five years and reasonably claim his delusion is romantic. Tom Buchanan can break Myrtle Wilson’s nose and feel utterly justified. Daisy Buchanan can deliberately run Myrtle over, killing her, and blithely move to Europe. The narrator, Nick Carraway, happens to be Daisy’s cousin and also happens to rent a small house next door to Gatsby’s ostentatious pile. Nick spends a summer interacting with his rich neighbor, his cousin Daisy and her friend, Jordan Baker. Nick can’t help pointing out their deep character flaws. Jordan and Gatsby are both compulsive liars. Tom is a violent, bullying philanderer. Daisy is manipulative and grossly inconsiderate of those around her. But Nick has difficulty passing judgment on them, mainly because he realizes that it would have no effect. Nick ultimately recognizes that they “were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” Sadly, there is no sense that anyone need take personal responsibility for damage done. In The Great Gatsby, there is no dependable standard of decency that can be appealed to because bad behavior is being consistently rewarded, and there is no indication that things will ever be different. The shock of World War I seems to have permanently shifted society’s axis. People take what they want, even if it doesn’t make them happy. The only check on such behavior is that an individual might be outmaneuvered by someone equally reprehensible.
Book Reviewed by Mark Thomas
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