The Great Gatsby was first published in 1925
“There was music from my neighbour’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.”
The neighbour in question is Jay Gatsby. A flamboyant yet mysterious millionaire, Gatsby throws legendary parties at his glittering mansion in the fashionable community of West Egg, New York. Hundreds of flappers, bootleggers and affluent revelers mingle at his frequent soirées, but Gatsby himself remains an elusive figure, a man everyone has heard of but nobody knows intimately, a ghost swaddled in the glamorous trappings of America in the roaring twenties.
It’s 1922, and the US is booming. The horror of the Great War still lingers in the memory of former soldiers like sarcastic socialite Nick Carraway, who, arriving to begin a new life on the fashionable East Coast, befriends Gatsby after realising they served in the same regiment. In any case, Gatsby is surely better company than the oafish and racist Tom Buchanan, husband of Nick’s charming but weak-willed cousin Daisy. While the summer evenings disappear in a whirl of cocktails, flirtation and jazz, the long days reveal a seedy world of organised crime, ill-judged love affairs and outbursts of sudden violence.
The Great Gatsby is scintillating and beautifully written. The style of the prose seems languid – as though it were written after a couple of glasses of champagne – but Fitzgerald has a unique and delicious way with words. He invites us to linger over the language he uses, tasting its texture. Every description is full of colour.
But this is no celebration of the idle rich; Fitzgerald subtly depicts a high society that has lost any sense of purpose and is sauntering towards disaster.
The Great Gatsby has been much lauded as the “Great American Novel” of its time – a book that perfectly captures the spirit of 1920s America. What’s interesting about this is the way that fiction and reality begin to blur; great novels are often credited with accurately depicting the essence of their age, yet they often play a big role in constituting in our imaginations what that essence is supposed to be. Our romantic view of the “roaring twenties”, so often depicted in fiction, TV and film, owes much to the vision of society in The Great Gatsby.
Fitzgerald’s characters seem haunted by their own dreams of themselves which they habitually fail to live up to. Nick is fleeing his own Mid-Western shadow; the bullish Tom can never return to his football-playing peak; Gatsby seems belittled by his own charismatic reputation.
In this, Fitzgerald seems to have grasped something important about American culture, a sometimes brutal society cloaked in bittersweet fantasies, caught between reckless optimism and regret: “…gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent…face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
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