Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Great Gatsby - Book Club Meeting

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

Hiya Dolls!  Welcome to the April Meeting of The Vintage Project Book Club!

It seems like I just hosted a book club meeting - and that's probably because I just did.  The March meeting was incredibly late, but I'm happy that the April meeting is a smidgen more timely.  Yes, April was not nearly as hectic, but also, I picked up The Great Gatsby and couldn't put it down.  This novel was a quick read, partially because it is significantly shorter than Oil!, but also because it is so brilliantly written.  It is captivating and engrossing and transports you to a different time and place.  

And that place is Long Island and that time is The Roaring Twenties - three months during the summer of 1922, to be precise.  Our narrator, Nick Carraway functions as less of a character in this novel and more of a voyeur to the characters and events of this story making the reader feel like they are right there in the middle of the fabulous parties and opulent settings.  "When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction - Gatsby who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness...was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No - Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.'

Nick Carraway moves to a house in West Egg Village for which he pays $80 a month and estimates that the extravagant house next door, which we later find out belongs to the infamous Mr. Gatsby, costs anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000 a month...can you imagine?  In the 1920's...what would that be now???  No matter how much money there is on West Egg it is all New Money and looked down upon from across the bay by the Old Money of East Egg.  It is in East Egg Village, in the significantly larger mansions, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan live.  Daisy is Nick's cousin and she is described in such a way that you are immediately drawn to her.  'I've heard it said that Daisy's murmur was only to make people lean towards her, an irrelevant criticism that made it no less charming...It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth - but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget; a singing compulsion, a whispered "Listen," a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.'  We quickly learn that the marriage of Tom and Daisy is strained and that they do not live the enviable life that is conveyed to the outside world.  This theme of illusion is common throughout the novel - nothing is quite as it seems.  Tom is carrying on an affair which Daisy (and it seems everyone in New York) is aware of, Daisy is not happy, and Gatsby...well Gatsby is a fascinating enigma.  One that is largely responsible for this novel being considered by many to be The Great American Novel.

It is after our first encounter with the Buchanans that we get our initial glimpse of Nick's neighbor, Jay Gatsby.  'Something in his leisurely movements and the secure position of his feet upon the lawn suggested that it was Mr. Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.'  Gatsby remains a mystery through much of the story.  No one really knows who he is, but everyone has heard some story or piece of gossip and are all willing to share them.  His extreme wealth adds even more fuel to the fire.  '"They say he's a nephew or cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm's. That's where all his money comes from."  "He doesn't want any trouble with anybody...somebody told me they thought he killed a man once." "I don't think it's so much's more that he was a German spy during the war."'  And then there are some people who heard all the stories and started putting them together.  '"He's a bootlegger...One time he killed a man who had found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenberg and second cousin to the devil."'  From the beginning of the story, Gatsby is shrouded in mystery - no one knows anything about him for certain, only that he throws lavish, opulent parties.  'There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars...I believe that on the first night I went to Gatsby's house I was one of the few guests who had actually been invited. People were not invited - they went there.'  Gatsby's parties are not events so much as destinations, many people flocking or simply finding themselves there as this was a place where no one had received the message that the Eighteenth Amendment had prohibited alcohol in the United States.  As in many well-to-do places within the country, Prohibition had given rise to bootleggers, organized crime, and the idea that wealth could buy complete exemption from this restriction.  At Gatsby's the cocktails and champagne flowed freely and yet, people went to his parties not for the booze, but more so the ability to set their eyes on the infamous Gatsby, and perhaps walk away with a piece of his wealth for themselves - 'They were, at least, agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.'

photo credit

Nick Carraway is different.  He is not looking to gain anything from a relationship with Gatsby and Gatsby seems to sense this; they quickly develop a legitimate friendship despite the fact that Gatsby is looking to rekindle his relationship with Daisy.  He has been in love with her for 5 years and after he went off to war and she married Tom, he still has hope that they can be together again.  'I think he half expected her to wander into one of his parties, some night...but she never did...'  After years of throwing his parties in hopes that Daisy would attend one, he finally finds someone who knows her.  He gets Jordan, Daisy and Nick's friend, to ask Nick to invite Daisy for tea.  The first meeting for them is incredibly awkward, but after a short time, they rekindle their romance.  Gatsby invites Nick and Daisy over to his house so that he can show Daisy how well he's done for himself.  'He hadn't once ceased looking at Daisy and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response that it drew from her well-loved eyes. Sometimes, too, he stared around at his possessions in a dazed way as though in her actual astounding presence none of it was any longer real..."If it wasn't for the mist we could see your home across the bay," said Gatsby. "You always have a green light at the end of your dock." Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon.'

A few days before Nick invited Daisy to tea, Tom had taken Nick into the city, to the flat that Tom kept for his mistress Myrtle.  There, Myrtle's sister Catherine told Nick '"Neither one of them can stand the person they're married to."' as if that was all reason that was needed for this to be perfectly acceptable.  The party went all day and well into the night and as Nick took everything in, he felt an odd detachment from the whole scene.  'I was within and without simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.'  At the end of the night Tom lost his temper and broke Myrtle's nose - and I believe that seeing that is what made Nick agree to bring Gatsby and Daisy together.  The fact that they had been in love since before the war and that Gatsby made something of himself so that they could be together again makes this affair acceptable - even preferable to Nick.

For a short period of time, everything was fabulous.  Nick was seeing Jordan.  Tom was seeing Myrtle without her husband being the wiser.  Daisy and Gatsby were happy and in love and she was ready to end things with Tom.  It was exactly what Gatsby had waited five years for.  'He wanted nothing less of Daisy than that she should go to Tom and say: "I never loved you." After she had obliterated three years with that sentence they could decide upon more practical measures to be taken..."I wouldn't ask too much of her," I ventured. "You can't repeat the past."  "Can't repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!...I'm going to fix everything just the way it was before...She'll see."'  And one afternoon, Daisy and Gatsby ask Nick and Jordan to come to the Buchanan house as a kind of insurance policy - Daisy was finally ready to leave Tom.  As would be expected, she becomes very nervous and decides that they were all going into the city; in all the activity, Daisy lets her guard down and Tom finally understands what has been going on under his nose the whole time.  The group takes two cars - Tom drives Nick and Jordan in Gatsby's custom yellow Rolls Royce while Gatsby takes Daisy in Tom's blue coupé - and they head in the stifling summer heat to New York City.  Once there, they rent a room at the Waldorf and it is there that everything comes to a head.  '"What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house anyhow?" They were out in the open at last and Gatsby was content. "He isn't causing a row." Daisy looked desperately from one to the other. "You're causing a row. Please have a little self control." "Self control!" repeated Tom incredulously, "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that's the case you can count me out...."'  Tom's anger makes Daisy even more adamant in her choice and when she insists that she does not love Tom, he protests, insisting that she does, in fact, love him.  '"And what's more, I love Daisy too. Once in a while I go off on a spree and make a fool of myself, but I always come back, and in my heart I love her all the time."'  It is not until Tom pushes Gatsby too far with his comments that no matter how much money Gatsby has, he will never be as good as everyone else, that Gatsby loses his trademark calm demeanor and attacks Tom that Daisy becomes so upset that she starts questioning her decision to leave Tom.  So in an extremely agitated state, Daisy and Gatsby leave in Gatsby's flashy yellow car and the rest leave in Tom's coupé a few minutes later.  The drive back to Long Island is the point of no return for Gatsby.  What started out as such a promising day, ends in tragedy and seals the fate of our characters.

Now, usually I do not give the end of the novels away, but in this case, I'm making an exception since the last pages of this novel make the story beautifully tragic.  Nick, Jordan, and Tom come across police activity in the road halfway home - there has been an accident.  Myrtle has been struck and killed by a car.  A yellow car.  A yellow car that did not stop.  Myrtle's husband is devastated and swears revenge on the person who took his wife's life - something which Tom is glad to hear.  When the three of them arrive back at the Buchanan house, Nick finds Gatsby hiding in the bushes, watching the house.  Daisy is already inside and he wants to make sure that, in his rage, Tom does not harm her.  Despite the events of the day, Gatsby still believes that things will work out for the two of them...he is as in love with her as ever and will do whatever he can to protect her.  In speaking with him, something dawns on Nick, '"Was Daisy driving?" "Yes," he said after a moment, "but of course I'll say I was. You see, when we left New York she was very nervous and she thought it would steady her to drive - and this woman rushed out at seemed to me that she wanted to speak to us, thought we were somebody she knew."'  And he was right.  Myrtle had been married to the man who owns the garage that Tom stopped at on the way into the city earlier that the time, he'd been driving Gatsby's yellow car.  Gatsby never learned of this small detail, never knew that her husband had sworn himself to revenge in his desperation.  The consequences of that night's actions were the furthest thing from his mind - what consumed it was the hope that Daisy was going to call the next day and that they were still going to be together.  'No telephone message arrived...I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn't believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream.'  It is a hauntingly poetic thought that, internally, Gatsby had given up and already started to mourn the life he had so long dreamt of with Daisy, when Myrtle's husband fatally shot him later that morning and then turned the gun on himself.

Since reading this novel for the Book Club, I've opened it up to the end a few times - deep down hoping that the ending would change, but so far it has not.  It's just too sad - and perhaps this ending is what prevented me from actually putting this post together sooner as I had finished the novel on time.  Everything that Gatsby did was to make a life with Daisy - and he paid the ultimate price for that.  After his death, everyone turned on him - not that any of his party-goers were really his friend to begin with, but the newspapers reported that everything was his fault, which guaranteed that everyone stayed away.  The only loyalty was Nick's.  'I found myself on Gatsby's side, and alone. From the moment I telephoned news of the catastrophe to West Egg Village, every surmise about him and every practical question, was referred to me. At first I was surprised and confused; then as he lay in his house and didn't move or breathe or speak hour upon hour it grew upon me that I was responsible because no one else was interested - interested, I mean, with that intense personal interest to which everyone has some vague right in the end.'  And in the end, the only ones who attended his funeral were Nick, Gatsby's father, and a handful of servants.  The party was over.  The lights had been turned out, and no one was ever coming back.

Fatal flaws not withstanding, Jay Gatsby was a good man.  Perhaps his biggest flaw was that he had too much hope.  Throughout the course of the novel, we learn that he was born dirt poor and decided to leave in order to make something of himself - to reinvent himself.  He embodied the American Dream in that he made himself who he wanted to be - he was driven and enterprising and determined.  He owned a beautiful house and beautiful cars and beautiful clothes.  He was successful by most people's standards, but he remained poor.  What he wanted most in this world was to love and be loved by Daisy in return...what he never realized was that he was too good for Daisy.  The day he died, she did not call and she did not attend his funeral...instead she and Tom left town.  'They were careless people, Tom and Daisy - they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money on their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made...'

In the end, everything was different and everyone was gone.  The night before Nick left West Egg, he spent a long while on Gatsby's dock, reflecting on Gatsby - and himself.  '...I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dreams must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him...Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms father...And one fine morning--- So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.'

And so Dolls, I raise my champagne coupe to Gatsby, The GREAT Gatsby!  Will you do the same?


  1. Two of my students are writing research papers on this book right now.. maybe I should point them to your blog! :)

    1. Obviously this does not go into too much analysis - a post on all the symbolism would have been much too long (as if my posts aren't already too long by many blogging standards), but definitely feel free. Publicity is always a good thing!

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