The Great Gatsby and me

As an immigrant, I figured that probably a good way to understand to nature of my adopted country was to familiarize myself with its literature, especially the ones that are asserted to be classics, since the books that a society values are the ones that reveal its sense of identity. So naturally as part of that exploration I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, often referred to as the great American novel.

It left me completely cold. I just didn’t understand its appeal. The characters were unlikable, the plot contrived, and the ending unsatisfying. I even watched the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, hoping that it would provide me with some insight. But the film was awful and I could not judge if the problem was the book on which it was based or just rotten film making.

I also discovered that saying that one did not like Gatsby would cause people to react with astonishment. I recall the former dean at my university who was a professor of English looking shocked when I told him at a party that I just did not get it. I think that he really wanted to set me straight but being the party host had to go and mingle with others. My own daughter rolled her eyes when I gave her my opinion since it provided her with further evidence, if she needed it, that I was a hopeless lowbrow, which is in fact true.

We now have a new Gatsby publicity blitz generated by the latest film version (see a review by David Edelstein) and I toyed with the idea of reading the book yet again to see if being older and more familiar with America would somehow enable me to see what I had missed before. But before I could do that I came across this review by Kathryn Schultz where she admits that despite heroic efforts to plumb the book’s depths with multiple readings, she still dislikes it. I was glad to see that I was not alone and so have decided to forego another reading and the latest film.

Of course there is no law that we all have to agree on the merits of a work of art, whether it be a book or a film or a painting or a piece of music. But when it comes to Gatsby, saying one does not like it seems to invariably evoke the same reaction, a quick intake of breath accompanied by a look that is equal parts incredulity and pity, as if one had said at a revival meeting that one does not believe in a god.


  1. says

    I recall reading it when I was younger, and my reaction was identical to yours. I completely failed to see the appeal — or the point. I’ve been wondering whether I’d get more out of rereading it now that I’m middle aged, but I rather doubt it.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    The characters and plot of GG didn’t do much for me, but I was swept away by Fitzgerald’s skill with words.

    That trait, of course, never makes it through translation to film.

  3. Stacy says

    I think it might be the best novel for an immigrant. There’s a lot going on in it about the American Dream, about class and social politics, American style, about idealism. And it’s a portrait of a particular, iconic time and place (Jazz Age, east coast America.) A lot of that stuff, you’d need some background to really grok. It’s far from my favorite, but I like it.

    I hear from someone whose opinion I respect that the movie is pretty good. I’m going to check it out.

  4. Stacy says

    I meant to write, “I think it might NOT be the best novel for an immigrant.”

  5. smrnda says

    I’ve read lots of books, and lots of classics from different eras, but Gatsby never struck me as a particularly noteworthy or special book. Part of this might be, as others have said, it’s a book set in such a particular time, place and among such a group of people that it seems almost like a document from a foreign culture. At the same time, the ‘story’ might have been pretty decent if it was condensed to less than 20 pages. I think it would have been better shorter since the world and people the story is trying to invoke could be achieved, in picture metaphors, with a few key brush strokes, and the details don’t seem to enhance it.

    Never noticed that disliking GG was a huge thing, but I experience the same when I tell people that I don’t like Hitchcock. Hitchcock just seems like the same series of shots and camera tricks and plot devices, over and over again, with stilted dialog and bizarre male-female interactions, occasionally fun but repetitive to the point of feeling like he’s shooting the same movie over and over again.

  6. Vote for Pedro says

    I do like Gatsby, but it’s been awhile since I’ve read it. Might be I’m remembering it differently than I’d feel if I read it again, though. One thing is that I don’t think there is a single character in the book which is especially likeable, so I can see that being a barrier for some folks.

    Hitchcock is definitely a super-creepy guy with an obsession with blonde women. Still, even if there are things we see over and over again, he’s shot some enjoyable and iconic stuff. I have to say North by Northwest is a fun flick. Not usually his best regarded (which if I’m not mistaken is Vertigo, which bumped Citizen Kane from the top spot in the critics’ survey), but I think it’s his best. Vertigo goes weird in the middle; Rear Window (another one usually near the top of his list) is quite good for a one-room slice-of-life drama, but doesn’t really rise to the level of NxNW for me.

  7. Ulysses says

    Like Mano and Physicalist, I was not impressed by The Great Gatsby. I liked Schultz’s critique of the book, particularly:

    He is all but inventing a new narrative mode: the third-­person sanctimonious.

  8. Henry Gale says

    It left me completely cold. I just didn’t understand its appeal. The characters were unlikable, the plot contrived, and the ending unsatisfying.

    Perhaps in a few hundred years, people will be saying this after reading about the rise and fall of the U.S.

  9. says

    I never really got the appeal of The Great Gatsby either, though it has been decades since I read it now. My reaction was much as yours: “The characters were unlikable, the plot contrived, and the ending unsatisfying.” And yet many people I know, people who enjoy literature as I do, consider it one of the great American novels. And there are other things Fitzgerald wrote I have enjoyed.

    And by the way, I really detest Hitchcock. But I don’t understand or enjoy movies in general, so that is not particularly surprising. (I can still remember my friends dragging me off to see The Birds insisting that it was really great and I would enjoy it. I hadn’t been particularly impressed by the story, and didn’t see how Hitchcock was going to get a movie out of it, and when I was bored stiff by the film felt that my misgivings were fully justified.)

    Anyway, I’m perfectly willing to concede that Hitchcock is probably a great director, and The Great Gatsby is probably a great novel, but that doesn’t mean that I personally am going to enjoy them. I should probably give The Great Gatsby another try some day; it wouldn’t surprise me if I missed something all those years ago. But I did give Hitchcock another try a few years back and found nothing to change my opinion.

    Oh well, differences of opinion make the world go round, or whatever that old saying is.

  10. Jared A says

    When it comes to reading literature, it is worth differentiating between understanding something enough to like it and understanding why people like it. If somethign doesn’t suit my taste, I try not to worry too much about the former and mostly concern myself with the latter. Sometimes it does help me enjoy it better, sometimes not, but always it helps me appreciate it more.

    For what it’s worth, I think Gatsby is pretty good. There is some drama, but really it is about the wonderful prose and creating an allegory for The Jazz Age. Jay Gatsby is a force of nature–an era made flesh–so looking for a compelling plot and likeable characters around him is futile.

  11. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    I read it … considered it an over-long character sketch, as if Fitzgerald was working out characters for a novel and never got around to the novel.

  12. steffp says

    I grew up in Europe and live in Asia, so for me the “American Dream” has never had the monumental, almost universal dimensions it seems to have in the US. I recall a British comedian stating:
    “We don’t live the American Dream over here. It’s because we are, you know, awake”
    So I checked my bookshelves and found I had indeed read that book, forty years ago. And it meant nothing to me. The language, of course, is polished and borders the poetic sometimes. But the content… Just old money folks and nuveau riche imitating them, women understanding themselves as trophy, all this garnished with Jazz playing Uncle Toms, speakeasy romantics, and organized crime. Everybody is flat & unchangeable, and in the end dead, or in jail or back in “true life” in the mid west.
    Superficiality, emptiness, and horrible morals. OK, if that’s The Great American Novel, if that’s the American Dream…
    All this concentration of the 1% of the 1%, to use a modern expression. I concede that the book was written innocently in the mid-twenties boom times, but the reception, even glorification of it totally forgets about the end of that period, the Big Crash 1929, and the following Big Depression, both clear results of the dream of unlimited growth and the positive notion given to unabashed greed. The book gained popularity after, for whatever reasons, 450,000 copies were distributed to the US armed forces during WW II. The chiefs of staff patronizing high literature, really? You bet.

  13. steffp says

    @Jared A
    Jay Gatsby is a force of nature
    That’s exactly the core of the American Dream, and it is what makes it a wet dream, not something rational people should entertain.
    Jay Gatsby is a get-rich-fast short-sighted financial speculator standing on a heap of ruined competitors, provoking traditional elites with his vulgarity, showing off his freshly acquired wealth, vulnerable only by his long held stubborn wish to own that Jacky K.. He’s defeated because that trophy doesn’t behave properly, jealously killing an inappropriate rival instead.
    No force of nature, Natural forces don’t fail epic.

  14. voidhawk says

    One thing which struck me about this book was how monumentally dull it was. Absolutely nothing happens of any drama until about page 80/110 and by then there isn’t enough space for a story to emerge. As entertaining as having to keep looking up online twenties pop culture references is, a good story it does not make.

    (seriously, I found I had to read it with one eye on the book and another on Wikipedia to understand the ‘witty’ remarks about jazz musicians, politicians or artifacts)

    One page which jumps to my memory is just a long list of all the people at the party. After five lines of “There was Mister Jones and his wife, Mr Smith and his mistress, Doctor Brown who came into money in…” I felt like hurling the book out of the window! I get it, there were lots of rich people at the party and they’re all fairly awful, just get on with this excuse of a story!

  15. Ysanne says

    I agree. I read Gatsby just a couple of weeks ago and felt absolutely nostalgic for all those hours literary analysis in German class (in Germany). This novel definitely lends itself to essay questions on a lot of levels… 🙂
    I was also painfully aware that while I understood the literal plot and could appreciate the writing, most of the between-the-lines stuff I didn’t get, along with the unspoken assumptions about mentality, what was considered appropriate at the time, or even just an idea of what feeling the “Jazz age” evokes in Americans today. So yeah, have to agree totally with voidhawk there, it would probably improve the reading experience a lot to not have to read Wikipedia in parallel.
    Btw, my favourite edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy solves this problem by prefacing each canto with an intro to cultural background just enough to make the reading enjoyable, and then following it up with an explanation that pointed out the references and double meanings. It’s a suprisingly fun read that way. That would probably be a bit of an overkill for Gatsby, though.

  16. twosheds1 says

    I always understood the shallowness and vapidity of the characters to be a sort of criticism of that sector of American society and of the American dream. That Gatsby’s wealth doesn’t make him a good or likeable person, and indeed, his pursuit of wealth shows what a horrible person he really is. But I could be wrong. I haven’t read it since high school.

  17. flex says

    Several years ago I was writing a LARP set in Paris in the 1920’s and decided to re-read a bunch of the ‘Great American Literature’ written in the 1920’s.

    So I read a large amount of the works of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Eliot. I was less than impressed with all of them. I liked Fitzgerald’s short stories the best, but he described them as being written as stories which were then given a twist after the writing was complete in order to sell them to the magazines. (Doubtless because the O. Henry twist was still very much in vogue.)

    Hemingway’s non-fiction (well, it is rather fictional non-fiction) was pretty good. I really enjoyed his autobiographical sketches, even accounting for the ego inflation which occurs in them.

    Eliot (like Pound and Joyce) wallows in his symbolism to the point where it is necessary to either fluent in 5 languages and have degrees in theology and mythology or get foot-notes simply to follow what is going on. Joyce is saved by his lyricism, but it always seemed to me that Eliot’s fingers were calloused from counting feet. Give me Housman over Eliot any day.

    All that being said, I can appreciate that they were trying new literary forms which often didn’t work well. The Great Gatsby is a character sketch, trying to show how people are, not how they develop. I find that to be unsatisfactory in a dramatic novel, but I like it in a humorous novel. Wodehouse was writing at the same time and often using the same backdrop, but as his books are largely slap-stick and never get further than very light satire you don’t expect the characters to learn or grow.

    But I can’t say that I enjoyed The Great Gatsby as a novel, and if I see the movie (which I doubt) it will be mainly to see the sets.

  18. garnetstar says

    I didn’t remember Gatsby much after reading it, and haven’t re-read it, as I usually do with books that strike a chord.

    I didn’t even know until the latest movei release that it was said to be *the* American novel. I thought that there was unanimous agreement that that was Huckleberry Finn.

  19. stardust says

    I grew up in Latin America and had to read A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in high school. I hated it, but it´s called a classic, and he´s a Nobel Prize so I read it again in my twenties. I hated it even more. Decided in my thirties to give it another go…read the first page, tossed it aside. Classic or not, I don´t care anymore. I’ve read some of his other books and they’re great. This one is not.

  20. J says

    I preface this comment with the fact that I am almost completely without a desire or need to read fiction – at some point, fiction becomes irrelevant – I presume after one’s philosophy is fairly worked out. I read Gatsby in college and also saw the film. I thought the film and the book work equally thin. Fitzgerald captured a teenage desire to belong – to be cool, hip, part of the in-crowd, to belong. That was it. That was all he did. It may be American, especially with regard to immigrants, but on the stage of human experience, it is relatively unimportant except to understand our formative years. Also, I agree with Jared A

  21. filethirteen says

    I haven’t read it. But now I just might, if only to see what the fuss is all about. A writer who I have a lot of time for has just posted a review where he lauds the latest film ( and writes how one of its merits is faithfulness to the book. And yet this post and the comments here about that book are at best lukewarm, despite several conceding that it holds a central place in US literature. I wonder what my own reaction will be.

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