The Great Gatsby

It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Normally when I visit my town’s public library, I deposit the last three books I took and take another three, not because I’m obsessed with this number: it is simply the maximum number of books readers are allowed to take at a time. Since I had been a long time without reading, being busy with my first academic year’s exams, most of the choices were casual.  Last time, together with The Buddha in the Attic, I took this novel and it was a surprise to me that it treated a reality so near (same period and nation) and at the same time so far from the previous reading. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 and has since then raised a large consensus; the Modern Library, an American publishing company, named it the second best English-language novel of the 20th century….well, that’s a better recommendation than anything I could write, but for all it ‘s worth, if you haven’t read The great Gatsby, this could be a good time to pay an extra visit to your local library.

The author

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to an upper middle class irish Catholic family. He was educated in Buffalo and St. Paul, however he never performed as a brilliant student. He entered Princeton University in 1913, but left it to enlist in the US Army during World War I, shortly before the war ended.

At that time he had already start dating Zelda Sayre, but was unable to convince her he would be able to support her, leading her to break off the engagement. He returned home and published This Side of Paradise in 1920. The novel was about the flapper generation, a feminist subculture Zelda contributed to. The novel was a success, so she agreed to marry him in the same year. Scott and Zelda became celebrities in New York, as much for the popularity of his novel, as for their wild behaviour and excess in drinking. They became icons of youth and success, enfants terribles of the Jazz Age, a term coined by Fitzgerald himself.

Their only daughter was born in 1921, and Scott recorded Zelda saying, as she emerged from anaesthesia, “…I hope it’s beautiful and a fool, a beautiful little fool”.

Fitzgerald made several excursions to France, where he became friends with many members of the American expatriate community in Paris, notably Ernest Hemingway. Their friendship was quite vigorous, but Hemingway did not get on well with Zelda; he despised her and once stated that she “encouraged her husband to drink so as to distract Scott from his work on his novel”. Scott was working on The Great Gatsby at that moment and it was said that, part for her boredom, part for her jealousy for his husband success (Zelda too was a writer), she was often interrupting him during his work.

Their opulent lifestyle led to financial difficulties in the late 1920s, while he was working on his forth novel. In addition, Zelda was stricken by schizophrenia in 1930 and remained emotionally fragile for the rest of her life. The two became estranged, Zelda continued living in mental institutions on East Coast, while he lived with his lover, Shelilah, in Hollywood, where he started working in the middle of the 1930s. Fitzgerald had been alcoholic since his college days, that left him in poor health by the late 1930s. He suffered two heart attacks in 1940, the second was fatal.

Reading an author biography is commonly considered a good way for contextualizing his works, in Fitzgerald’s case, it has a double importance; since he intentionally looked at his and his wife’s life as matter for his work. All of the instances of his life can be found in his novels, many in The Great Gatsby.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, January 1921

The Roaring Twenties

After World War I, the world rose again; and most of the world’s major cities underwent economic, social and cultural growth. There was prosperity like it had never been seen before; cars, telephones, motion pictures, and electricity made their way into every day life. Jazz music blossomed, the flapper generation redefined modern womanhood and Art Deco peaked.

As usually the proportion of this changes, the roar of the zipping roadsters, of the crowded clubs, of the fanatic markets, was louder in America than in any other place in the world. The XVIII amendment, The Noble Experiment, later known as Prohibition, tried to strip the United States of alcohol and alcoholics. The only progress that came out of this was the black market development into national-size affairs, followed by a burst of violence, and the rise of personalities such as Al Capone. The wish to eradicate the origin of corruption led to the widespread of corruption among politicians and within police forces. In this swarming picture lived Scott and his wife Zelda, as well as Gatsby, Tom and Daisy (the protagonists of the novel), each of them with his own desires, fears and tragedies, his own moments of enthusiasm and sadness. They’re all seeking happiness, encircled by a lurking depression.

Daisy Fay’s quest

This novel could be the story of Daisy. Daisy was born in in a good family and was “by far the most popular of all the young girls in Louisville”. Like most girls of her age at that time, she desired a romantic love story. This seemed to happen when she met a young lieutenant, a man who looked at her “in a way that every young girl wants to be looked at sometime”. When the officer was about to go overseas, Daisy wanted to go to New York to say good-by but was stopped by her family. She continued corresponding with him for a while, but could not wait for his return. She wanted to be loved, and to be loved at once.

One year after she was conquered by the strength and wealth of another man, but the day before the wedding ceremony she received a letter from her previous lover which put her into despair. She was found drunk in her room, crying. However, after giving her a cold bath and some sprites of ammonia, the incident was over. Her husband soon started taking up lovers, while she grew more and more melancholic, more and more cynical. She enjoyed being the centre of attention, liked playing with men and still hoped to be liked and popular among them. This is the state in which Nick, his second cousin once removed, will find her.

Tom Buchanan’s quest

This novel could be the story of Tom. He is a very physical character, he possessed “a body capable of enormous leverage — a cruel body”. Tom comes from an old social and immensely wealthy family, and never backward about flaunting his richness. “…even in college his freedom with money was a matter for reproach”. He had been one of the most powerful football players at New Haven. Feisty and exited as he was, he couldn’t adapt to a life with the lady he married, nor to a permanent home; he “would drift on forever seeking”. When he moved with his family to East Egg, he came to know Myrtle Wilson, a stubborn and arrogant woman, whom he started dating. He was so found of her that not only he didn’t make any effort to cover up their story, but also introduced her as his girlfriend to Nick, whom he had met at college, just few days after Nick came to visit Tom and his wife.

Jay Gatsby’s quest

This novel could be the story of Jay Gatsby (is it?). Jay as a young man fell in love with a beautiful girl of Louisville, but had to leave to serve the U.S. Army in the Great War. After the War he shortly attended Oxford college, and when back home, found his lover married with a richer man. He “made a miserable but irresistible journey to Louisville on the last of his army pay. He stayed there a week, walking the streets where their footsteps had clicked together” and made a decision, he was determined to “fix everything just the way it was before” not knowing he would pay a “high price for living too long with a single dream”.

He made every legal and illegal effort to become richer, and, when he finally obtained an outstanding wealth, he settled in a big mansion near her place. He threw parties every weekend, inviting lots of people and accepting whoever rang his bell. He “half expected her to wander into one of his parties, some night”. For a long time Gatsby’s quest materialized into a green light, minute and far away, at the end of a dock, at the other side of the bay. He would sometimes, when sure to be alone, stretch out his arms towards it, trembling. This was the man Nick, his neighbour, came to know, the only one Nick would remember without disgust after leaving the East Coast.

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