Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Review of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

As an avid reader, there is perhaps no question I dread more than, "What's your favorite book?" This question is nearly impossible to answer and is akin to asking someone to name a single favorite song, movie, or food. Nevertheless, if my questioner kept pressing for an answer, I would probably settle on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Great Gatsby takes place in the fictional villages of East and West Egg in New York during the Roaring Twenties. The main story, as told through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway, takes place over a single summer in the year 1922 and involves several other interesting characters, including Daisy Buchanan (Nick's cousin) and her husband Tom; Jordan Baker whom Nick will end up dating; Tom and Myrtle Wilson who own a garage on a desolate stretch of highway; and Jay Gatsby, Nick's very mysterious and very wealthy neighbor on West Egg. During the few short months that the novel covers, Nick, and, by extension, the reader, will see that some of the characters' actions and motivations have actually been building up for years.

Ostensibly, The Great Gatsby is a love story that unfolds over the course of many years. And while the romantic component to the novel is indeed an important one, the reader shouldn't overlook the fact that this is also a story about the American Dream gone horribly wrong. Gatsby's life is a classic rags-to-riches tale that has been told thousands of times before, a man who ultimately discovers that money can't buy what he really wants. However, in Fitzgerald's world, there are a couple of interesting twists that keep The Great Gatsby from being just another novel.

Fitzgerald was of course one of the premier American novelists of his day. He was one of those rare writers who achieved both critical and financial success during his lifetime, so he was actually very familiar with the wealthy world of which he writes. The life of leisure that he led as a writer was quite different from his modest midwestern upbringing in Minnesota. As a result of Fitzgerald's familiarity with both worlds, his descriptions of both the upper- and middle-class characters and their lifestyles ring true and lack the cliched elements that you might find in a lesser novel.

For the most part, the storyline progresses steadily. Unlike a lot of fiction writers, Fitzgerald doesn't fall in love with his own prose and turn in pages and pages of nothing but long-winded descriptions. Instead, most of what he says serves the purpose of advancing the story. There are a few slow spots, but fortunately they don't last very long. You can easily get past those and finish the slim 185-page volume in no time.

One of the reasons that I rank this book among my favorites is that Fitzgerald does a wonderful job of creating believable characters. Sure, a few of the minor ones might be nothing more than stereotypes; but the major characters are unique and they generate strong reactions in readers. Any novelist who decides to use a narrator to tell his story is taking a huge gamble. If readers don't like or trust the narrator, then it will cast doubt on all the events that take place. Fortunately for Fitzgerald, Carraway comes off as both likable and trustworthy from the start. Therefore, we accept what he says and we agree with him when he makes his famous assessment of Gatsby: "You're worth the whole damn bunch put together."

Although The Great Gatsby is one of those novels that usually finds a place on high school or college reading lists, that's not to say that the book is too difficult or obscure to understand and enjoy. On the contrary, this is a book that can be enjoyed on many different levels. You can read it as pure entertainment, taking everything that the author writes at face value. Or, you can delve a little deeper and try to uncover the true meaning of the many symbols that appear throughout the book. Whichever route you choose, you are sure to discover why The Great Gatsby has been a fixture in the hearts and minds of literature aficionados ever since the book was first published in 1925.

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