Saturday, April 20, 2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby: the story from the West Egg

"EVERY ONE suspects himself of at least one of his cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people I have ever known," says Nick Carraway in Chapter 3 of The Great Gatsby, considered by critics as a "Great American Novel" and arguably F. Scott Fitzgerald's greatest work. I don't know if I'll agree or disagree with that—this is his first story I've read. (I did get to watch The Curious Case of Benjamin Button based on the short story he wrote, but that doesn't count, does it?)

You've probably read the book or heard about it somehow. Sure, many people adore it, but I wanted to be in the know before the movie comes out. It's a priceless feeling, really: seeing the book replayed in moving images before your very eyes. I've long since overcome the habit of telling my friends, "The book is better than the film," because that's almost always the case 99% of the time.

Nick's confession of honesty is vital throughout the entire book. As the narrator he must establish himself credible and nonjudgmental. In the first chapter, though, he confesses that although he prizes his tolerance of various people, a quality that earned him the title of a politician in Yale, he has failed to withhold his judgment when he came to know Jay Gatsby, his mysterious and rich neighbor.

True to its title, the story revolves around this rich man Gatsby, who holds the grandest weekly parties in his mansion at the West Egg, whose origins nobody is really certain of, who one day sends Nick an invitation to join him for the festivities. They become good friends—a contestable categorization—and Nick gradually learns of Gatsby's deepest secrets.

I'm not going to spill the beans any longer. Do get a free copy of the book. It really is a short read. Let me say this, though: F. Scott Fitzgerald illustrated in Jay Gatsby a picture of a man who idolizes material wealth and human approval. His is a rags-to-riches story. He has engaged in questionable affairs to enrich himself, hoping to win the approval of the love of his life, who, at the end of it all, deserts him anyway.

Gatsby died eventually, and the account of his burial made me re-think of whether I'm investing my life in eternal pursuits rather than a mere chasing after the wind. 

A little before three the Lutheran minster arrived from Flushing, and I began to look involuntarily out the windows for other cars. So did Gatsby's father. And as the time passed and the servants came in and stood waiting in the hall, his eyes began to blink anxiously, and he spoke of the rain in a worried, uncertain way. The minister glanced at his watch, so I took him aside and asked him to wait for an half an hour. But it wasn't any use. Nobody came.

It is a truly great book, one that exposes the idols we harbor in our hearts for goals other than to glorify God. On closer examination we realize we're not so different from Gatsby. As Nick confesses, ". . . It occurred to me that there was no difference between men, in intelligence or race, so profound as the difference between the sick and the well." We must be humbled by Gatsby's tragedy.

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Eighty-three years of book design: cover art of The Great Gatsby now featured at The New York Times Magazine. The cover of the first edition (1921) you see above is by Francis Coradal-Cugat.



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