Unpopular Opinions: The Great Gatsby

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:

The Characters 

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?”

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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…

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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!

The Language 

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.

Money.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

*Flees*

 

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How I Understand Poetry

I remember in high school being forced to take poems apart line by line. We’d do a few together as a class, which took a better part of the hour, and then we would write one long essay over a more complicated poem on Fridays.

To me, there was something weirdly clinical about the whole procedure. It felt like I was being asked to venture into the wild, find a cute animal, and then slice it into bits. 

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After I’d disassembling it, the poem seemed to have lost a lot of its beauty in the process.

It was a lot like trying to explain a joke. If you have to tell someone why it’s funny, it’s not humorous anymore.

Not to mention I hardly ever saw the poem the same way everyone else did. 

I would read a poem, thinking it was about a dog being taken on a walk, when in reality it was about a woman escaping a fire. I was so astronomically wrong with my interpretations of what each poem was about, it was as if I had been rewriting it in my head as I read.

It was like we were all given the same map to Tulsa and I somehow wound up in France. 

The thing is, I didn’t mind being wrong about what the poem was about. I minded that my English teacher minded what I thought the poem was about.

During one class period, the teacher and another student got into an argument about the meaning of a poem we were discussing for the AP English test. I can’t recall which poem it was, but most of us were in agreement that the poet was trying to say one thing, while the teacher told us he was trying to say something else entirely. 

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The student, acting as the class representative, provided ample evidence to support our claim while the rest of us nodded our heads. However, the teacher sternly ended all discussion by informing the student that he was “just wrong” and there was no disputing this.

I am not a poet. However, I don’t believe that poetry requires a uniform meaning. In fact, I don’t think most artistic creations require a definite meaning either. I am of the belief that as long as the observer/reader can obtain some benign meaning from the piece, then it has done its job.

This is especially true of poetry, which isn’t always as straight forward as other forms of literature. There’s something more ethereal about poetry than fiction.

It’s harder to get a handle on.

It’s like trying to collect mist in a jar.

It’s something you experience rather than just “understand.”

I believe that poetry should be taught in schools. However, I don’t think it should be treated the same way math is where 2+2 always equals 4.

Students should be taught that poetry is freedom and not just another assignment.