Book Review: The Great Gatsby

Book Name: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
First Published: 1925

F. “Scott” Fitzgerald was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota to an upper middle class, Irish Catholic family. He was named after his famous second cousin, Francis Scott Key who wrote The Star Spangled Banner.

The young Scott Fitzgerald lived his early years in New York attending catholic private schools. He showed an early affinity for literature which was encouraged by his doting parents. In 1908, when his father lost his job, the family returned to Minnesota where Fitzgerald was transferred to another catholic private school. His first story to publish was a detective tale in the school newspaper when he was thirteen years old.

Eventually, Fitzgerald was admitted to Princeton University and there he continued to practice the craft of writing. He became friends with future critics and writers and wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club, Nassau Literary Magazine, and the Princeton Tiger. The connections he gained in the Triangle Club, a sort of musical/comedy society, prompted him to submit a novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons where the editor rejected his book, but encouraged him to continue with his writing. To this day, the Princeton University Cottage Club, where he was also a member, still displays Fitzgerald’s desk and writing materials in its library.

Fitzgerald’s writing and socializing interfered with his general studies at Princeton. First he was placed on academic probation, and then later he dropped out of university altogether in 1917 to enlist in the U.S. Army. “The Great War” was at hand and young Fitzgerald feared that he would go to war and die on the battlefield without fulfilling his dreams of publishing a novel. In the weeks before reporting to duty, Fitzgerald quickly wrote a novel called The Romantic Egotist. Once again, he sent the novel to Charles Scribner’s Sons and while the publisher made a point to note the novel’s originality and encouraged Fitzgerald to continue writing, they did not publish his work.

Young second lieutenant Fitzgerald was assigned to Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama as he awaited deployment to the front. Enjoying an evening at a local country club, he spotted his “golden girl”, Zelda Sayre, the daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court judge. Later, Scott proposed marriage to Zelda, but he could not convince her that he was able to support a wife and family. In those days, a married woman did not work or have a career of her own, she depended upon the success of her husband. Zelda decided to break their engagement due to financial reasons, but not because she did not love Scott.

Fitzgerald was eventually discharged from the Army, never being sent to Europe at all due to World War I ending in 1918 before he could be deployed. Instead, he moved to New York City. He hoped to develop a career in advertising that would be secure enough to convince Zelda to marry him. He worked for an ad agency in New York for a time, but never found the money he needed to survive in the Big Apple. His dream of enticing Zelda vanished along with his money.

As his pockets became depleted, Fitzgerald moved back to the home of his parents in Minnesota. He was poor enough that he was forced to take on a job repairing car roofs while he attempted to put his life back together. In desperation, he returned to his old novel, The Romantic Egotist. Heavily revising the novel, Fitzgerald renamed it This Side of Paradise. He sent the novel to Scribner’s in the fall of 1919. At last, the publisher bought his book. This Side of Paradise went on to be one of the most popular novels of 1920 and became the financial success that Fitzgerald needed to win his “golden girl”. Scott and Zelda were married that year in New York and one year later their only child, a daughter, was born.

Scott and Zelda began to live the life of celebrities due to the success of This Side of Paradise. They moved to Paris where Scott became friends with author Ernest Hemingway. His friend did not get along with Zelda. Hemingway accused her of being insane and driving her husband to drink instead of working on the novels that he loved. Fitzgerald turned to making a living writing short stories for magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s Weekly, or Esquire instead of working on longer fiction. He would also turn his short stories into scripts to be produced in Hollywood by major studios. This was considered “whoring” his talents and both he and his friend despised themselves for making money in this manner instead of remaining focused on writing their beloved novels.

The lifestyle that Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived was expensive and eventually it drained them of all their funds. Fitzgerald was forced several times to ask for advances from his publisher or his literary agent to not only pay for their bills, but for Zelda’s growing medical expenses. When The Great Gatsby came out in 1925, it was not a financial success and the couple moved deeper into debt. Although this novel would later be accounted as Fitzgerald’s greatest work, it was not helpful to him at the time.

In the end, Zelda would be diagnosed with schizophrenia and be put away in an asylum. Fitzgerald, who had been an alcoholic since his early twenties, would suffer from a pair of heart attacks in the late 1930s that would claim his life at the tender age of 44. He would publish five novels and numerous short stories.

The Great Gatsby follows the lives of four wealthy people as they are observed by the narrator, Nick Carraway, a man that studied in an ivy-league university and yet was not born to wealth. He settles in West Egg, Long Island, an effluent neighborhood, and finds himself surrounded by the nouveau rich, exemplified by his neighbor, Jay Gatsby.

Gatsby is a young man with a mysterious past. Many rumors surround his identity, and he fascinates the guests that attend the many lavish parties that he throws at his lakeside estate. The purpose of these parties is to woo the beautiful Daisy Buchanan who lives across the bay. From the lawn of Gatsby’s mansion, it is possible to see the green light at the end of Daisy’s boat dock on the other side of the lake. The light becomes a symbol of unobtainable treasure as Gatsby continues in his quest to win Daisy. Gatsby and Daisy had met years before when he was a young military officer and she had pledged to wait for him while he went to war. Instead, she married Tom Buchanan, who is a friend of the narrator, moving on with her life. The fact that Daisy is a married woman with a child, does not deter Jay Gatsby in his desire. He has earned a great fortune during the years he was away and with money on his side, he is determined to win Daisy back again, whatever the cost.

The Great Gatsby is a tragic love story, a mystery, and a social commentary on American life. It is regarded as Fitzgerald’s best work and is known as a literary classic, capturing the essence of the roaring twenties. Yet, The Great Gatsby was not a commercial success for the author during his lifetime. It was not until many years had passed that this novel became an acclaimed masterpiece that is read throughout the world and is part of the curriculum of schools all over the world.

The Great Gatsby Book CoverI was assigned to read The Great Gatsby in high school, as I believe many students are. I did not enjoy the book at that time because I was too young to understand the undercurrents about this elite society and the reasons for the destruction that occurred to the characters in the end. As I have grown older, I have gained a new appreciation for the novel. In a way, this novel is like a deception to the reader. Fitzgerald writes with glorious prose that tantalizes you with its elegance. With such poetic words, you expect greatness of deeds from the characters, rather like how we might view the rich and powerful around as being larger than life. As all the characters crumble into the chaos that they have created via money and greed, the American Dream that they live becomes a nightmare. Nothing is quite what it seems as the layers of the mystery surrounding Gatsby unfolds. Our dream of the good life evaporates along with them. Perhaps this is part of the power of this story and why it has remained a fixture in American literature to this day.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Great Gatsby”

  1. This book is on my to-read list. And I’ve held off watching the film too because obviously I have to read the book first. And I have a retelling Great that is on hold too until I read the book. So I just need to suck it up and do it! A bit disappointed to hear that it was a bit of a struggle though. Especially as I will more than likely feel the same, as we rarely differ!

    1. It was a little hard to read, but well worth the time. 🙂 The images that the author creates and the story certainly stays with you. Which is what makes it a classic! 🙂

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