After reading Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald on audio book last month, I was more than keen to revisit her Zelda’s husband’s works, most notably, “The Great Gatsby”. I first read the novel some 17 years ago when I was a junior or senior in high school, and to say that my life was forever changed by that book is an understatement. It for sure changed the way I read and looked at books. I even think that F.Scott Fitzgerald, along with John Steinbeck, were the ones responsible for me turning towards the historical novel as my go-to genre of sheer reading pleasure.
My first time reading Gatsby was my introduction into the 1920s and The Jazz Age, which would eventually become my passion decade- the decade I hope to time travel to someday (I’m not delusional, by the way, just fantastical), as well as the decade I probably romanticize the most. I remarked in an online post about one episode of Boardwalk Empire on HBO (another 1920s show) that The Jazz Age depicted on the show is no Fitzgerald’s. I’m not the only one who complains that the show is occasionally too dark and emotionally heavy. I should point out that I had “The Great Gatsby” in mind when I made that statement. Now, after re-reading “The Great Gatsby” nearly 20 years later, I may actually revise my thoughts on the decade as a whole.
What do I even remember from my first time reading the novel? What was it that stuck in my mind and soul all these years? I asked myself this before starting the book a few weeks ago. First of all, I remember there was a lot of discussion in class about Fitzgerald’s use of color (greens and blues) and the fog horn that would constantly go on and off throughout the book and what all of that symbolism was supposed to mean. Don’t even ask me if I remember the answers! I vividly remember the car crash, in which the state of the woman’s torn torso and nearly severed breast is graphically described. In fact, I found myself waiting impatiently and in dread for that part of the book to arrive on my second reading and find out if it is as gross and disturbing as I recalled (it is). The party scene stuck in my mind as the epitome of revelry and fun. As far as what touched me emotionally, I’m no longer sure what that specifically was. Perhaps it was the rich language, or the depiction of an era that just seemed to me to be so wonderful and full of life, that has stayed with me all of these years.
Was I disappointed by the book the second time around? No, but the book is definitely different for me now. First of all, I don’t recall it ever being so sad. It is truly a sad, lonely kind of book. That fog horn we talked about in school? I don’t know if there is a lonelier sound, and Fitzgerald uses it here perfectly. Secondly, I actually didn’t remember the ending to the book at all. Gatsby’s death took me completely by surprise. Even the party scenes at his home earlier on in the book were all nearly borderline depressing. At 17, having never really ever been to a raucous affair, this type of extreme partying seemed to me like the ultimate good time. Flappers, champagne, tuxedos, The Charleston, loud cars, and bobbed hair… I wanted to be IN IT. But upon re-reading the book, the party didn’t hold the same joie-de-vivre for me. Sure, Fitzgerald accurately describes folks in full gaiety and frivolity, but it’s all tinged in a drink infused haze that I am well aware now is only make-up for desperate people trying to escape the harsh realities of life. The rest of the novel feels much like a “morning after” hangover.
But, after reading “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” and knowing what I now know about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his experiences during his marriage and the 1920s party scene, I’m more than convinced that the man was brilliant. He captures struggles with identity, loneliness, alcoholism, sexual frustration, fear of success, and fear of aging so beautifully in this novel. And it’s no coincidence that the main protagonist in Gatsby, Nick Carraway, bears a strong resemblance in character to that of his creator. For Fitzgerald, turning 30 was a career death sentence. He strongly believed that in order to be considered a success, one had to fulfill his dreams before the age of 30. He wrote “The Great Gatsby” when he was around 27, and this fear and anxiety seeps into his work. Nick turns 30 in the book and he views his life as a down-ward spiral with virtually nothing to look forward to. His eventual idol and hero, Jay Gatsby, plays on another of Fitzgerald’s big fears: the fear of becoming an unknown.
F. Scott Fitzgerald the man was driven to succeed. He had the chops, he had the talent, and all he craved was the validation. After reading Gatsby a second time, it became clear to me that one of his other greatest fears was that he indeed would become successful, validated, worthy, and famous. And it would eventually be worth nothing. Gatsby dies at the height of his popularity, but he’s remember by almost no one. None of his friends, besides Nick and his own father, attend his funeral. Daisy, Gatsby’s would-be paramour, leaves him in the end without so much as a goodbye. His name and his celebrity die away as quickly as he sprung into the public eye. It’s been described that Fitzgerald was constantly terrified of being abandoned by Zelda and by the publishing industry and literati elite. Not a coincidence at all that abandonment and self-worth are huge themes in this book.
One thing I’m also sure of is that Fitzgerald was the ultimate observer. The way he crafts his characters and scenes can only come from someone who was a constant study of human behavior. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is where Nick Carraway walks the streets of New York City and imagines what would happen if he walked up to this girl or that girl. Would they fall in love? How would his life be different? It reads like an existential search for a soul mate. It’s an achingly isolated guy going through a quarter-life crisis who doesn’t know where his life is going, but he would like it to go someplace better. It was so damn well written, I nearly wept.
I found the below gem in a recent article in The Paris Review with Toni Morrison that I think touches on the very essence of why this book is a national treasure after nearly 90 years:
“I remember introducing Eudora Welty and saying that nobody could have written those stories but her, meaning that I have a feeling about most books that at some point somebody would have written them anyway. But then there are some writers without whom certain stories would never have been written. I don’t mean the subject matter or the narrative but just the way in which they did it—their slant on it is truly unique.”
She includes F. Scott Fitzgerald in her short list of writers with a truly unique slant. Is Gatsby a unique story? Not really. At the end of the day it’s a tragic love story, and one that’s been told and retold several times. But just the way Fitzgerald captured these people and their fears and struggles with and about becoming something great and how he captured a nation in the throes of excess and desperation after having endured one of the most horrific wars in history is pure magic. The beauty behind “The Great Gatsby” is that it really can’t be replicated. Fitzgerald took a written snapshot of a moment in time that was very real and raw.
“The Great Gatsby” is no longer the romanticized fantasy that I once held it to be, nor is it an outdated classic. Sure, some of the slang is dusty and no longer used today and you could argue that Fitzgerald was occasionally guilty of overly florid language, but this is a book that truly stands the test of time. Every theme is relevant today, even if “Old Sport” is not.
You never needed to worry, F. Scott, you will always be remembered. Your greatest fear turned into your greatest triumph, and I am hereto say that my life is better because you were in it.