WARNING: Contains a substantial amount of bellyaching. Those who do not wish to subject themselves to ranting about American literature should flee immediately. Hide your librarians.
The Great Gatsby was one of the few novels I remember people liking in high school.
I was not one of those people.
In fact, I thought it was one of the more tedious required readings we had to tackle in English class.
For the record, this account is not to convince you, dear reader, to dislike the book. I am merely trying to explain my perspective on it. Below are some of the reasons I found this book a drudgery to get through:
I know they aren’t supposed to be likable.
I don’t have a problem with that.
In fact, I love reading about terrible people. One of my favorite characters I’ve ever read about is a girl that allows her gypsy boyfriend to murder her father just so she can turn around and kill him for having the gaul to harm a member of the upper crust (read Wideacre, it’s phenomenal).
My issue is I felt completely indifferent towards the characters in Gatsby.
When you create a cast of mostly unlikable characters, you have to incorporate something that compensates for their lack of pleasantness. For instance, Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind is a selfish brat, but her level of determination to keep Tara prompts her to do many daring and unpredictable things that make her an interesting person.
Some people argue that the poetic style of the book is meant to to make up for the characters’ dickishness, but it was never enough for me. In my view, they were just a bunch of snooty white people with almost no dimension whatsoever. I started off by not knowing much about them or their motivations (besides Gatsby), and I ended in the same boat. As a consequence, I didn’t care what happened to them.
The Damn Colors and Other Symbols
“You see, Fitzgerald wrote that everything was yellow as symbolism! You know, to represent wealth and the Golden Age, get it? Gatsby’s car is yellow, Daisy’s house is yellow, everything is yellow! Do you see how brilliant it is?”
Who knows, maybe if this book hadn’t been force-fed down my throat in high school the symbolism wouldn’t annoy me nearly as much.
However, as it stands, the literary devices in this book are so painfully obvious it feels like Fitzgerald grabs you by the collar and slams your face into the book until you lose a tooth.
I’m getting horrible flashbacks of the class period we spent talking about the damn green light that represented Gatsby’s hope. As I recall, we had to remark on all the things green symbolized for an entire hour and why it was important and….and…
Okay, so I thought the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg and the Valley of Ashes were kind of cool. Obvious, but cool. Everything else, however, felt like it was being smeared in my face.
You will embrace the message of the American Dream’s futility. The Valley of Ashes compels you!
I’ve heard countless teachers and authors alike give tongue baths to Fitzgerald’s writing style (I’m looking at you, John Green).
I don’t think it’s terrible, I just think it’s a bit overrated.
In many areas it just becomes downright repetitive.
Nick says Daisy’s voice “sounds like money” and that the flowers outside Gatsby’s house “smell like gold.”
We get it.
Lots and lots of money.
For most of the novel, it felt like I was being held captive at a really boring party, forced to listen to some socially inept guy drone on and on about what he did over his summer vacation. Nothing about his account seemed all that personal or intriguing.
That’s not to say I thought all of it was meh. I liked the description of Daisy and Tom’s ceiling as “wedding cake” and how Gatsby had a smile that seemed “prejudiced in your favor.”
Nonetheless, it was never enough to hold my interest for very long.
While I doubt I’ll ever truly appreciate the novel’s brilliance, at least it has given joy to millions of literary nerds throughout the decades.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to my grievances. I hope I haven’t offended you too much.
However, I’m afraid I must deal fans of the book one final insult.
……….I thought the movie was better, Old Sport.
3 thoughts on “Unpopular Opinions: The Great Gatsby”
Being indifferent towards the characters is kinda the point. Fitzgerald gives inanimate objects ‘life’ (check the way the phone is the fifth guest at dinner, or the way he describes Tom & Daisy’s house for examples). This is a great insight into what happens in a consumer culture, as seen today with people naming their cars, or treating their mobiles like they are alive. Fitzgerald oppositely takes the life out of a lot of the characters, except Gatsby and maybe Nick. This is also a good reflection on the problems with the excess of capitalism of the 1920’s and perhaps why the book is seen as being relevant today. You’ve thought about the book, written a blog on it, go on….admit you love it!
I don’t know, Nick. You may be right about the characters. Regardless, I tend to be more character-oriented when it comes to the novels I read. That may be why I’m prejudiced against The Great Gatsby. It could also be due to the fact that it takes place in a time period that, for whatever reason, doesn’t hold much interest for me. I even tried rereading the book in preparation for this post, but I only got to chapter 3 before I became bored and decided to call it quits. I will say one thing in the book’s favor: it does prompt a lot of discussions regarding the American Dream and materialism, as you mentioned. Thank you for reading!
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Di Caprio certainly did not shine but he may not have the charisma required. I liked Mulligan’s portrayal – she caught the conflicts and weakness rather nicely I felt.. Nick’s position is of course ambiguous anyway and feels like an awkward narrative device. I guess the asylum ploy is a nod back to the 50s genre rather than 20s but is perhaps a ‘retro orientation.’ I have not read the book so cannot comment on its ‘unfilmable nature’, but that may be more to do with what is essentially on this showing a thin plot line presumably bolstered out, by all accounts, by some wonderful writing.