If you grew up in America, there’s a very good chance you read The Great Gastby by F. Scott Fitzgerald in high school. You were probably 16 or 17 years old. You probably grew impatient with Jay Gatsby’s pining for Daisy Buchanan. He so needs to get over her. She’s just not that into him. What is it with rich white people anyway?
Your teacher probably tried to explain that Daisy Buchanan is more than a former fling. She’s a symbol for all that Gatsby has dreamt of becoming since he was a boy. She represents the life of wealth and leisure that self-made men like Gatsby aspire to. She is the American dream. The green light on the end of her dock that Gatsby stares at each night from his own home across the water stands for the dream every American is supposed to have.
You probably scribbled something in your notebook and wondered if any of this would be on the test.
Green light, you wrote. Yellow car. Women sitting on white sofas, curtains that billow like clouds represent the ocean’s waves. Ash heaps. The eyes of Dr. Eckleberg’s billboard. A library of unread books, pages waiting to be cut. An unused swimming pool.
“Sophisticated–God, I’m sophisticated!” someone at a party says.
Maybe you’re one of the lucky ones The Great Gatsby spoke to, even at age 16. Dreamers watching their own metaphorical green light shining at the end of some metaphorical dock night after night. Waiting for their chance to make their grasp equal their reach. Longing for something commensurate to their capacity for wonder.
I’ve always loved The Great Gatsby. The first book we read in the first class I took in graduate school, I remember a student telling me before class that now she sees she hasn’t missed much by not reading the white man’s cannon. Hasn’t missed much! I thought. You’ve missed The Great Gatsby! (I also thought if you don’t like reading books by white men, you probably shouldn’t be an English major.)
You can see by now that I’m not capable of writing an objective review of The Great Gatsby. I’m still a bit in love with it. People in love cannot rationally view the object of their love. You know what they’re like. I’m glad that I don’t teach high school. Seeing just one student reject The Great Gatsby would break my heart. And there’s always one. One on whom a paragraph like this one is wasted:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the tress that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
They don’t write ’em like that anymore.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in late 2010. I stand by every word. Re-reading this review today makes me want to re-read the book tonight. I’m pretty sure I have a copy somewhere around here….