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The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s magnificent The Great Gatsby, has all the ingredients I love in a book. I love this time period more than any other. I love Art Deco, I love the fashion of the 1920’s. I love the crackle of this naughty, exciting time in America.

Yet, it is nothing but the gloss of sparkle that hides a country that for most people was not so good. It was a time of excessive greed (sound familiar) where the rich were very rich, and most everyone else was not.

And the wealthy? Oh they flaunted their wealth. Fitzgerald is spot on in his description of Long Island rich, and their parties going on night after night, their spare-no-expense galas featuring tables laden with food and flowers, their extravagant homes, their manicured lawns.

Nick (or guide) introduces us to the characters that inhabit this world, and we soon discover that beneath the surface, plenty of ugliness can be found.

Fitzgerald explores this world, of beauty that hides such ugliness. Of class warfare and the valuelessness of so much of the rich. We are prepared to adore Daisy who so clearly missed her chance to marry her Sir Lancelot, until we and she discover that he was but a poor boy, and his money derived from rather “nouveau” enterprises. Such things, we find, in the end, matter to Daisy

In the end, Gatsby’s wealth is not enough. Class wins out. While his parties are filled with hundreds of guests who come night after night to eat and drink, at his funeral no one appears, all having found “reasons” to avoid “getting involved.”

Gatsby, is tragic. He comes from humble beginnings, and yet finds himself, by virtue of an army uniform to be “equal” to all the other young men in uniform courting Daisy. They fall in love, and after the war, Gatsby, holding this dream of Daisy, struggles to make the wealth that will enable him to reclaim her.

Fitzgerald brilliantly shows us how these dreams of ours are almost always better than the reality can ever be. We all can relate. We all have spent hours gazing out windows, or floating in that near-sleep, imagining the world we expect to inhabit “someday.” The “someone” or “something” that will be achieved, and our lives will be glorious.

Both Daisy and Gatsby live in the dream so long, that when finally the time comes to make it real, reality shatters the dream into millions of pieces that can never be assembled to even resemble what was waited for. She learns that he comes from nothing and his money is not “old”, and he discovers that Daisy was not “true” to their love.

When Tom, Daisy’s husband, discovers the love, he demands to know whether it was an “affair”. When he discovers it wasn’t, he has no further concerns. Yet Gatsby demands that Daisy tell her husband that she never loved him. When she cannot, he later tells Nick, “that even if she loved Tom a bit at the very beginning, it was just personal.” By this he tries desperately to keep the dream alive. Daisy’s love for Tom was just “human” he suggests, not that “perfect” love they have shared over the years of being apart, the perfect love we hear of in Plato–platonic. Their love is superior, unsullied, god-like.

In the Gatsby, Fitzgerald indicts the class structure of America, and the Roaring Twenties as well.

Two quotes struck me especially:

I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling, and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. ‘all right,’ I said, ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.’

Spoken by Daisy at the birth of her daughter, it sums up the depressing state in which Daisy finds herself. A philandering husband, and a true love seemingly lost, she wishes for her daughter to be stupid, and unable to feel all the misery she feels. Be a silly (but beautiful) fool, and you will do fine in this world. Hope for nothing more.

The other, is I think the epitome of what it means to be charismatic. Nick speaks this of Gatsby upon their first real conversation:

He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Does not this sum up the idea of those rare people we encounter whom we define as charismatic? It is how they make us feel about ourselves, and it is so strong and so palpable, that we can feel it even through a television screen.

There is a reason books are called classics. This was wonderful.

Read The Great Gatsby here.

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