What’s So Great About The Great Gatsby?

by Erika Koss

This was the question my friends and I asked, repeatedly, back in 1990, when we were required to read The Great Gatsby in our 9th grade English class. I was 14 years old. And how often does this question continue to be asked, by teenagers who continue to be informed that this short 1925 novel is “the” great American novel, that this is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, that the reaching and searching and despair of all the novel’s characters reflect, not only American experience way back so long ago in the Roaring ’20s, but that it reflects us, still.

At times I feel ambivalence toward such force-feeding of literature to teenagers, partly because I was a bookworm who never required the prompting of a teacher to read. My literary hunger always left me wanting more.

My older son, however, is not this kid, despite his passion for the arts. Now 14 years old, his reading of novels must be compulsory, or I suspect he wouldn’t read them at all. Over the years, my attempt to bribe him to read my favorite childhood novels has failed. Where the Red Fern Grows. Treasure Island. The Power of One. The saving grace has been his excellent English teachers who had the good sense to assign novels (The Outsiders, To Kill a Mockingbird) that, however much he didn’t want to read then initially, have now become two of his favorite books. This, and the fact that he will read non-fiction and plays without pressure from his book-loving mother. Still, I can’t help but hope that someday he’ll want to read some of my favorite novels.  The Count of Monte Cristo. Cry, the Beloved Country. The Age of Innocence.

Until then, there’s Gatsby, and, thanks to Baz Luhrmann, my son wants to see the movie. But of course, I think he must first read the novel—I gave him his own copy last week—then I’ll take him to the film, which I still haven’t seen. Despite all the buzz, I’ve been avoiding the reviews, purposefully.

Still, I’m somehow slightly nervous about taking my beloved too-quickly-approaching-15-year-old son to see the film of a novel that moves me with as much force as much as Gatsby. So much of this has to do with the shirt scene.

You remember:  Gatsby and Daisy’s first kiss led him to “wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath.” Later, he left for the war, and Daisy married Tom Buchanan. After Daisy’s cousin, Nick Carraway, happens to move to the house next to Gatsby’s, Nick agrees to orchestrate a meeting between the past lovers that begins in his sitting room and ends in Gatsby’s home. As the once-impoverished Jay Gatsby takes the love-of-his-life, the former southern belle, on a tour of his mansion, they end up in his room, with her holding his shirts, weeping:

“‘They’re such beautiful shirts,’ she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. ‘It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such—such beautiful shirts before.’”

This was the scene of the novel that messed up my teenage view of The Great Gatsby. At 14, I was so frustrated with this book that I remember once throwing it across the room. Who cares if Dr. T. J. Eckleburg’s eyes are symbols for God or any other kind of transient, sarcastic Deity, who watches us from a billboard? Why make such a big deal about a green light on some far-away dock? And why in the world was Daisy crying over shirts? Who would describe such shirts as “beautiful” anyway? How superficial is that?

Later I realized:  My anger at this proposed “greatest of all American novels” had nothing to do with Fitzgerald, or even my English teacher.  I misread the shirt scene, because at 14 years old, I had not experienced love or what it means to be broken-hearted, and not just any kind of love or broken-heartedness, but the kind that radically shapes your worldview, your sense of yourself in such a worldview, and everything that comes after it. I had not yet been shattered by regret, despair, or anxiety as a result of such choices.

After surviving such regret, despair, and anxiety – after two such broken hearts in the last decade – I found myself returning to Gatsby. There I found solace, the kind that often comes through the arts, and through the greatest of books. I realized that Gatsby’s “romantic readiness,” his “extraordinary gift of hope,” was indeed not a fault.  I could sympathize with Daisy, who made the choices before her at the time, not knowing that Gatsby would indeed return to her without any loss of limbs or love. That both characters can’t “get over” their past reflects their humanity. Or at least, it reflects mine.  Sometimes, it’s not quite possible to “grin and bear it” and just find someone else.  Gatsby knew what he wanted, and he went after her, wholeheartedly. That he died in the end reflects the tragedy that the novel is. The history of every broken heart is in this story, even as every misshapen love story has so often to do with ill-fated timing.

So if Luhrmann nails the shirt scene, I will, very likely, also weep. My son won’t understand why, and that is okay. How could he?  I’m not even expecting him to love the novel, at least for now.  But what I am expecting is that, like me, he’ll remember the moments, the symbols, and the feelings.  He’ll remember that his mother gave him a book she loved.  He’ll later remember that we went to see the film, which he may enjoy much more than the book right now, which is just fine.

Either way, he’ll have these memories of Gatsby as something to return to someone when he’s an adult, after his innocence is lost, his faith shattered, his heart broken.  Perhaps he will turn to Gatsby in such anger, despite sorrow, or merely for entertainment – but no matter what the reason, Gatsby – the novel – will be there. Maybe he’ll find solace there, as his mother has found. And maybe this will be enough for him to keep as he beats on against the current, toward his own dreams, toward the Green Light.

A native Californian, Erika Koss was formerly the Director of of the Fitzgerald Literary Conference in Rockville, Maryland, where, for seven years, she lived less than one mile from F. Scott’s and Zelda’s graves. She worked at the National Endowment for the Arts on the founding creative teams for Poetry Out Loud and The Big Read (where The Great Gatsby was one of the first four books). She now works at Northeastern University as an Assistant Dean in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. She lives near Boston with her two sons.
The Great Gatsby character map is from here.

14 thoughts on “What’s So Great About The Great Gatsby?

  1. I’ve always been a reader, and for reasons now lost to the dust of time, I hated The Great Gatsby when I read it in school. Several years ago I recognized somewhere in the back of my mind that I should probably reread it as an adult since I remember right next to nothing about it. Now the movie gives me a little extra motivation.

    1. Hi Brandy, Thanks for posting your comment! I’ve met so many people in the past few months, mostly strangers in somewhat random situations, who have shared your reaction to Gatsby. Some barely remember it! The greatest books can withstand these turns of hate or love . . .I hope you will give it another chance. I bet you’ll enjoy it much more. ~Erika

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post as a Gatsbyphile and one who just saw the film. I will say that although I loved the film overall, he botched the shirt scene with a narrative “set-up.” I’d be interested in your thoughts!

    1. Hi Tania, thanks for reading my blog post. I saw the film last week, and I really enjoyed it. My next (and final) Gatsby post will appear here early next week. I hope you’ll respond to my full blog if you have time. ~Erika

  3. Wow, this is great! I don’t remember the booking being riveting when reading it but after this post… I might have to go read it again! And yes… I’ll read it again BEFORE seeing the movie! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Hi Edith, thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. If this inspired you to return to The Great Gastby again, then you have made my day! I just re-read the book again before seeing the film, too. The depth of this short novel never ceases to amaze me. ~Erika

  4. It has been ages since I have read Gatsby and the more it appears in newspapers and media outlets due to the movie, the more I find myself longing to read it again. I remember reading the novel for the first time in school and thinking that every character in the book was nothing but a rich, stuck-up, dramatic, and narcissistic idiot who acted like they had all these problems when in reality they were living a lavish and beautiful lifestyle. My mother still feels this way about them. But something changed in me over the years; I began to understand people and life a little better. It took me a long time to realize that though someone may be rich and seem to have it all, they still experience the same emotions, heartbreak, tragedy, and hardships that I do even if it is in different ways. It is novels like Gatsby that have helped me see that the most basic of human experiences happen across economic, racial, ethnic, and sexual identity lines. Despite all the ways we “other” people in our world and despite all the ways we see difference in each other, we still, at our cores, are bound by the emotions of our human souls. I see myself in Daisy, Gatsby, and Nick as I see myself in the people I work with or even people that I don’t always agree or get along with. There are connections, events, emotions, that bind us all together. I have been changed by this book and I can’t wait to see what Baz has done with it.

    1. Hi Natalie, thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. You’re right: when we judge the “other”, how often do we misjudge “them” as well as ourselves? I think Fitzgerald intentionally sets his characters against a lavish backdrop so that the contrasts are clearer. For example, what does all this wealth mean, after Gatsby loses Daisy for good? How hallow are the parties when one lacks loyal friends? No matter how many times I read this novel, I am repeatedly moved by Nick’s futile effort to convince anyone to attend Gatsby’s funeral. I suspect you’ll enjoy Baz’s interpretation of this tragic scene. ~Erika

  5. I have a teenage daughter (10th grade) who I was also considering using the film as a reason to get her to read the book. She is a bookworm but getting her to read the classics is difficult for me. Lucky for me, she is convinced that one should always read the book first and gets very angry at any friend who has only “watched the movie”. Your point on not understanding heartbreak is a great point and I wouldn’t have thought of the fact that she really hasn’t had any heart breaks and therefore would probably not understand the depth of that scene. Maybe that can be our talking point after she reads it and before we see the movie. Thanks!

    1. Hi Jessica, thanks for sharing your story. Literature and film are such different art forms; isn’t it difficult to compare them? Whether or not your daughter reads the novel before seeing the film, it sounds like you’ve fostered a love of reading in her! Alas, my own son never did finish the novel, but we saw the film anyway . . . that next post will come next week. ~Erika

  6. I actually liked the movie a lot more than I thought I would. I have minor quibbles (Jay Z, really?), but overall I enjoyed it. I took my AP literature class to see the film after we had read the book. I think it made the book come alive a little more for them. I agree with your assessment that understanding comes with age/experiences. I am so, so proud of you and your work. xoxo

  7. I read the book a lifetime ago, and I didn’t mind Redford in the 1974 version at all. Perhaps I am out of place here, but I really dislike all Luhrmann’s films, and do not rate DiCaprio as an actor at all, beyond ‘Gilbert Grape’, and ‘This Boy’s Life’. So, your review has confirmed what I had more or less decided. Absolutely no need to bother with this film at all. With that in mind, thanks very much for your insightful and amusing appraisal. Best wishes from England, Pete.

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