Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Review: F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

I read this novel for the first time shortly after reading Nghi Vo's The Chosen and The Beautiful, a retelling of The Great Gatsby told through the eyes of Jordan Baker but in a magical realism world. I find it impossible to disentangle the two books in my mind -- they share several scenes, and often even exact lines. Where Vo's interpretation examines the choices and societal pressures faced by the female and racialized characters, the original tale looks at Jay Gatsby's obsessive idolization of Daisy and Tom's self-centered possessiveness of Daisy.

The role of women as decorative, sexual objects — to be possessed, obsessed over — was highlighted in several passages that stood out to me. Here, at the death of Tom Buchanan's mistress, her corpse is described in an offputting, vulgar way:

when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for the heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped a little at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.

Here, two musings from Gatsby, conflating Daisy and treasure:

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.

That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it… High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…

He had intended, probably, to take what he could and go—but now he found that he had committed himself to the following of a grail. He knew that Daisy was extraordinary, but he didn’t realize just how extraordinary a “nice” girl could be. She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby—nothing. He felt married to her, that was all.

When they met again, two days later, it was Gatsby who was breathless, who was, somehow, betrayed. Her porch was bright with the bought luxury of star-shine; the wicker of the settee squeaked fashionably as she turned toward him and he kissed her curious and lovely mouth. She had caught a cold, and it made her voice huskier and more charming than ever, and Gatsby was overwhelmingly aware of the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, of the freshness of many clothes, and of Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

The tone of the story made me think a little of a more modern, more cynical Jane Austen; a critique of the unique problems and snobbery of the Very Rich, woven together with romance, portrayed mainly through conversations in carriages and living rooms. A stand-out scene for me along this theme was the absurd banter as Jordan, Daisy, Tom, Nick and Gatsby discuss who knew who at Tom and Daisy's high society wedding as Tom simmers furiously at Daisy flirting with Gatsby.

The narrator's imaginative, at times romantic, and humorously humorless prose was captivating. I thought a little of Frankenstein — a similar sort of dreamy broodiness.

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