This is not a book review for 2 basic reasons. First, F. Scott Fitzgerald does not need me to advertise for him. Aside from the fact that he is deceased, every English reader in the world has already heard of The Great Gatsby. If you somehow finished high school without reading it and still never picked it up, nothing I say here is going to convince you.
Second, this was a re-read for me and I always find it difficult to review re-reads. My opinions aren’t as straightforward or clear cut as they usually are with a first time read. I would say this is my third or fourth time reading The Great Gatsby. I can distinctly recall the chair I sat in when I read it for Grade 12 English. I finished the book in an afternoon and later searched out all of Fitzgerald’s short stories.
Reading the book now, close to 20 years later, I’m sure different things jump out at me than sitting in that chair at the age of 17. This time I was struck more than ever by the casual racism of the book. The main characters are all white Americans. The one Jewish character is almost a caricature of a villain and the way any Black person is referred to was pretty horrifying.
I found myself mulling over the character of Nick more than I had in past readings. He is famously the narrator but not the focus of the story. And yet there is quite a bit about him between the lines. He describes himself as one of the few honest people he knows but tells us very little about his past entanglements and in the end Jordan, the character who arguably knows him best, accuses him of carelessness.
It is carelessness that is, in some ways, the major flaw of the book’s characters. Certainly of Daisy who is shielded from the rest of the world by wealth and privilege and beauty, whose very voice is “full of money”. It is carelessness that drives Gatsby’s extravagant parties, full of people who neither know him or care about him.
I reread The Great Gatsby as part of my Virtuous Reading Challenge based on Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well. Gatsby is the book of choice to examine the virtue of temperance. More than one person pointed out in my original post that Gatsby had to be a reverse example because when you think of Gatsby, you think of extravagance and, well, alcohol. Prior, however, takes a broader view of what is temperance. As she puts it,
One attains the virtue of temperance when one’s appetites have been shaped such that one’s very desires are in proper order and proportion.Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well
More than simply being the virtue of sobriety, temperance is that which tempers, a balance between pleasure and understanding. Gatsby is a novel of excess. Excess of consumption, yes, of alcohol and parties and dancing and a certain type of hedonism. But Gatsby himself is a man marked by intemperance. Nick notes that Gatsby himself never drinks. We see Gatsby at his own parties as more of an observer than a participator, standing on the edge, often unknown even to his own guests. Where Gatsby’s intemperance lies, Prior argues, is in his dreams. Gatsby has pinned all his dreams on Daisy, elevating her to an impossible standard and making her a representative of an entire world of wealth and power that he wishes to enter into. Gatsby’s dreams become larger-than-life, lacking the temperance of reality and creating a vision that Daisy herself can never possibly live up to. As Prior says, “[Gatsby’s] desire has been for something that does not even exist, and he has no taste for what really does exist.” Gatsby has created a fantasy world to aspire to, one that no reality can truly live up to and one which, in the end, destroys him.