Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork, is one of those books that is so well known, it’s tempting to believe you don’t actually have to read it. You do, though. Or at least you’d be depriving yourself of a tremendous experience if you did not. This novel is #2 on the list of Greatest Novels of the 20th Century for good reason.
The plot of the story is based on some classic themes: love triangles, infidelity, class conflict, crimes of passion. It is a morality tale and it is quintessentially American. It is also a work of art.
Many attempts have been made to turn this book into a movie, which is to say, to turn this piece of writing into a piece of cinema. The temptation is obvious, what with all the costumes and the music and party scenes. But film rendering fails. The book has things going on that film cannot do justice to. For instance, the structure: Nick narrating; Nick orchestrating meetings; Nick running into people out of scene (as it were, who “are” or “were” end up being key players to Gatsby’s story); Nick philosophizing; Nick hypothesizing; Nick remembering; Nick observing. A successful film translation might leave Nick out, and have the filmmaker be Nick’s eyes and thoughts. But why bother? The book is perfect.
The art of writing allows a person’s experiences—Jay Gatsby’s—to be seen and also to be remarked. To be noted through the eyes of people who do not know his story fully. To be interpreted through the experience of the observer—Nick Carraway. The art of writing allows the reader to layer upon the narrator’s interpretation of the character’s life his or her own experience and philosophies and attitudes. To shift points of view along with the narrator and also along with the characters in opposition to the narrator. The art of writing allows a story to be told that is burdened and layered with philosophies existing outside the narrative. The art of writing allows words to be collected in one place that not only create a scene, describe a character, evoke an atmosphere, but also in themselves create rhythm and sound as in the last line of the novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessy against the past” has the hard beat of the repeated “b” and the liquid pull of the repeated long “e”. The trio of phrases and the doubling up of “against” create a lyricism that is actually unnecessary for the conveying of the core idea of the sentence. It is a metaphor bordering on senseless that manages to evoke an image of hard human labor and brings to mind, if only subconsciously, the myths of ancestors. It captures the essence of the story just told and stands in poetic juxtaposition to the prosaic (though also eloquent) first line of the story: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” which introduces us, quite efficiently, to our narrator and the stance from which he approaches the story he is about to invent.
This story is about Jay Gatsby, the Great Gatsby, with his social climbing and ill-placed obsessive love, his need to receive admiration and create wealth and exude philanthropy, who is the pulse of the Jazz Age, that great cultural upheaval, but it is a story invented by Nick Carraway. Another character as narrator would have told a different story. As written, this story is a novelist’s story. Nick is a novelist. He is tolerant and unjudging but engaged and sensitive. He needs to attach meaning to these scenes he witnesses and participates in, even the parties, which in themselves have no meaning whatsoever. He makes Gatsby a tragic figure, where someone else might have made him a pathetic one, or a throwaway news item. Through Nick, we readers see Gatsby’s story as the Great American Story. And in the end, Nick makes melancholic poetry of Gatsby’s traumas but leaves Gatsby and his world behind and moves on to something else. He goes on with his own life.
Nick is not Fitzgerald. It would be a simplistic mistake to assume he is. Fitzgerald is the great creator of Nick and of Gatsby and of West Egg and of the whole glorious beautiful thing we readers get to enjoy.
Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.