How Nick Carraway gives Gatsby his glow

Reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

When I read this book, I am stunned, and I have no trouble accepting its greatness.  Where I struggle is in articulating why, or how, it is great. It is the most perfect aesthetic expression of the pure, floating Dream/Idea/Hope/Memory and its corruption in its relationship to reality.  To try and articulate this theme in any other way than what the novel is would be to cheapen it.

It is also a novel of stunning prose: it is understated yet alive with color and light.   Breezes blow, characters sweat and feel.  Nick Carraway’s voice evokes mood and feeling with color, with lighting, with flowers and plants, with weather and space (a not atypical line: “So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home”).  It is prose you’d like to get lost in, though Fitzgerald won’t quite let you lose yourself. When I set this book down, the scenes and settings lingered with me.  I feel like I know the rooms where these characters exist, that I can feel the moonlight and sunlight that shines on these places.   Fitzgerald fills his novel with feet on gravel, with breezes blowing curtains, with heat, color, light, and feel.  There is not wasted lengthy description: Fitzgerald uses just the right evocative details to bring the scene together.  And in some ways, it is the moods of the characters and their interactions that really creates the rooms.

Nick Carraway stands out for me more than Gatsby or any of the rest.  His distinct voice and power of both observation and reflection (frequently a power of speculation that encompasses both) carry the novel.  In some ways this is a story about what things (Daisy, money, places, a green light) mean for Gatsby.  But moreso, it is a story of what Gatsby means to Carraway, for all we know of Gatsby’s inner life is given to us through Nick, and not just what Nick says Gatsby told him.  Nick goes further, speculating and dreaming of what Gatsby must have thought and felt, so Gatsby comes to mean and represent something distinct to Nick.  What “Gatsby” means is not Nick’s creation in the same way that what “Daisy” means is a creation of Gatsby’s–but it is in the same realm.  Nick imbues Gatsby with his significance.  If Gatsby now has the stature of a mythic, iconic figure, it is because Nick saw something grand and angelic in Gatsby and his rise and fall, and Nick gave him the stature of a myth and an icon (yet without diminishing his stature as a real human being).

How did I come to be reading this book?

Mostly, I’m reading this book because my kids love watching me play The Great Gatsby video game.  My eldest enjoys it with particular relish, and now has a bit twisted understanding of the plot; my youngest recognizes the book that’s been sitting around the living room while I’ve been reading it.

Also, I discovered Slate’s podcasts, and enjoyed listening to the audio book club discussion of books I have read, including this one.  Furthermore, one of my favorite directors, Baz Luhrmann, is making his own version of The Great Gatsby (and it must be brilliant.  I need this.  The Minnesota Vikings may never win a Super Bowl.  I need Baz Luhrmann to create the most spectacular Gatsby visually imaginable).  I take this as enough: God or chance pushed me to read The Great Gatsby.

Of course I’m also reading this book because of “the canon” and academia and culture and all the things that pass this book down and prop it up (rightly) as a masterpiece.

I read the book on my own in high school, and then again for class my freshman year of college: years before I understood that the lyrical beauty of a novel’s prose could be an end-in-itself pleasure.

After this reading, I’ve decided to teach it next fall.

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