The Letter G (A-to-Z Challenge)

The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m pretty sure this is middle-class snobbery, but of all the things I can be insufferable about, the purest distillation of my disgust is reserved for those who without shame will say that they haven’t read the book – any book – but they have seen the movie. This may be because I appreciate books so much because it took me so long to find them.

I was just starting college far from home, fresh from a childhood spent reading only church-published missionary stories and I was desperately trying to figure out how to find the great books of the world.  A few tantalizing glimpses had told me that there were some out there, somewhere, but I had no idea how to look for them.  There was no Google; there was no facebook with its helpful quizzes on “How Many of These Classics Have You Read?” and for better or worse I had tested out of all the required college English classes so if there was something to have been learned there I missed it.

One Sunday afternoon while babysitting for one of my professors I happened to pick up his little girl’s copy of Anne of Green Gables.  The next day I went to the bookstore and bought the whole series, devoured them, and went roaring out for more.  But what? Where?  I didn’t know where to start or what to look for.  All I had was an old-fashioned children’s author who had confirmed through a character I desperately wished I could be like that there was a whole world of literature out there if I could only find it.  Fortunately a friend introduced me to used bookstores and boy did I go on a spree then.  There was one bookstore that charged by the foot – we stacked up our selections and they measured the stack with a ruler and we paid something like eighty-five cents per twelve inches of what might or might not turn out to be good literature.  At less than a dime a book even a student can afford to take chances.

Eventually through much trial and error I began to refine my search habits.  The obvious strategy was to buy all the books written by any author I liked.  The next step was to make a note of any writers or books mentioned in books I liked and track those down too.  I think it was during the first year or two of this mad orgy of book lust that I found my way to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Unfortunately, I just wasn’t ready for it.  I had no background that would enable me to understand what the words represented.  I could tell there was a profound plot there, great sadness, great tragedy, great despair over something Gatsby strove for all his life and could not attain…but what was it?  Why couldn’t he have it? The book was a masterpiece, the writer a genius.  I knew this, but I could not grasp why.  I read and re-read the scene where the confident Gatsby, thinking he has won, comes to dinner at Daisy’s house and is so quickly reduced by Tom to a cheap, stuttering upstart…I read it again and again but I could not see how Tom had done it or why Gatsby was so easily felled.

So I put it away and tried not to think about it.  It’s never pleasant to admit that there are things beyond our scope, things we’re not bright enough to understand, especially when we think we’re pretty bright.

Then decades later the movie came out.*  Technically I’d read the book, even if I had not been capable of internalizing it. So technically I was allowed to watch the movie.

It was a revelation.

It instantly became clear that part of my failure to understand the book was because at a sheltered nineteen I had not been exposed to the kind of jazz age excesses that were going on at Gatsby’s house, nor had I seen any house grander than what might be owned by a moderately well-to-do small town physician.  I remember my mental image very well.  In my imagination, Gatsby’s house and Nick Carraway’s house had stood side by side only a few yards back from a badly paved two lane country road, their properties separated by a narrow path of gravel and a row of lilacs.  Nick’s house was a peeling bungalow set in a lawn of crabgrass.  Gatsby’s house was a two-story split level with a big double front door (with brass doorknobs) and a plain rectangular concrete swimming pool in the backyard surrounded by a four-foot chain link fence. There were picnic tables scattered on his manicured green grass and this was where the parties happened.  Is it any wonder I could not get ahold of this story?

So I went back and read the book again.

And upon this reading the other deficiency of my childish understanding was made plain.  In those early years I believed without really thinking about it that mobility was possible within the American class system, that it was only a matter of making enough money to buy the kinds of things that would mark you as rich and therefore upper class. I had no inkling of the tools the old classes so effortlessly use to remind social inferiors of their place. That Tom actually with his voice articulated out loud the difference between himself and Gatsby is unusual.  Words are not required for class differences to be understood by all parties involved.

And now I fully appreciate The Great Gatsby for the brilliant work that it is.  Thanks to the lavish movie production I no longer picture Gatsby dead on a KMart floaty toy in a crummy subdivision pool.  Thanks to years of observing social interaction I wince with Gatsby as all his efforts come to nothing in the face of Tom and Daisy’s cruel and casual disregard.

So, the moral of the story is, sometimes it’s okay to watch the movie.

Sorry this was a day late.

See you later this evening for Letter H,


*the 2013 movie


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2 Responses to “The Letter G (A-to-Z Challenge)”

  1. gwbled Says:

    Good post. As an aside, The Great Gas by was published 90 years ago today, August 10.

    I came to the book early, about 12, don’t remember why, but was entranced by the Jazz Age stories, and the Black Sox gambling relationship.

    Nick Carraway was my hero.

  2. gwbled Says:

    Good post, as an aside, today, April 10, is the 90th anniversary of the publishing of the book.

    I came to Gatsby around the age of twelve. I was entranced by the Jazz Age references and the Black Sox gambling associations from reading Puzo’s The Godfather. Flashy living with a dangerous subtext.

    I wanted to be Nick Carraway and I wanted a girl like Jordan Baker. To see a little of the high life, but not its problems. Oh, and to write of course.

    It was about this time and perhaps with this novel that I noticed that a lot of classics rely upon a storyline of adultery as its hook and tension. Most unfortunate. Difficult to find love story plots without it.

    I tore through all of Scott shortly thereafter and enjoyed all of them. Gatsby and Tender Is The Night are my favorites.

    I saw the movie after reading the book. Your moment of realization after seeing the film makes perfect sense in this case. I agree for similar reasons.

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