"The Great Gatsby" stands as F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, written as his gifts reached their acme, and before his life began its inexorable spiral into alcoholism.
Many readers decry "Gatsby" as being dated, perhaps overrated. I agree, inasmuch as much of "The Great Gatsby" is anachronistic 90-ish years after it was published. To understand this novel, one must see it in its context.
The words so often bandied about with "The Great Gatsby" are "Jazz Age." Indeed, the main characters echo such Jazz Age themes as prosperity, decadence, and the new freedom of women. In "Gatsby," nearly everybody drinks, and among Gatsby's hangers-on, there is a depressing lack of sincerity.
The novel's narrator--Nick Carroway--describes himself as the only truly honest person he knows. After a summer moving through Jay Gatsby's world, that honesty is tattered.
The story is familiar: Nick Carroway moves to a small Long Island house next to Jay Gatsby's ostentatious mansion. Across a small bay live Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Tom and Nick attended Yale together, and Daisy is Nick's second cousin. Daisy's best friend is Jordan Baker, a golfer and libertine, who ends up being Nick's girlfriend. Gatsby knew Daisy five years before: they dated in her hometown of Louisville, where she was a debutante and he was a young Army officer preparing to ship out to Europe. They were very much in love, but Daisy ended up marrying Tom, who was rich and available, while Gatsby was broke and stuck in England.
There are various themes explored, especially Gatsby's mysterious past and unsavory connections, as well as his unabated passion for Daisy.
At its heart, though, "The Great Gatsby" is a love story on two levels. First and foremost, it's about Gatsby's love for Daisy, and the lengths to which he will go to win her back. It also functions as a love story between a certain segment of America and The Jazz Age.
Here, women are brash. They drink and smoke and sleep around. A few years before "Gatsby," this behavior would have been scandalous. Nick and Jordan obviously have a complicated romance, but he also describes other women he's been with that summer.
Mostly, though, it's Gatsby's love for Daisy. He bought his huge mansion, simply because it's directly across the water from her dock. Many nights, he'll sit and stare at the green light on her dock, the light marking his unattainable desire. Undaunted, he will do anything to win back her heart.
In describing one romantic moment from their pre-war courtship, Fitzgerald composes one of the most beautiful prose descriptions in literature:
His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy's white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips' touch, she blossomed for him like a flower, and the incarnation was complete." (p.119)
There's a reason this passage ended up in one of those 1990's Calvin Klein "Eternity" ads.
Indeed, Fitzgerald's prose throughout "The Great Gatsby" is sensual and evocative, rich in description and emotion.
Compare this to the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Magnificent Ambersons," written a mere eight years earlier, and you can see how scandalous "The Great Gatsby" is in comparison. Both involve the rich who drink too much. The difference is the rather casual attitude the Roaring 20's crowd has toward social misbehavior and sexual propriety.
Fitzgerald's first two novels--"This Side of Paradise" and "The Beautiful and the Damned"--were in essence a talented writer describing his own life. "Paradise" captured Fitzgerald's college-age self, and "Beautiful & Damned" followed his dealings with wealth, alcoholism, and Zelda, a wife who was just as alcoholic as he was, and mentally ill to boot.
"Gatsby" works as Fitzgerald's best novel. It seems odd that it is the one least connected to his own life. The characters are so well fleshed-out, though, that I wouldn't doubt that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a Daisy Buchanan somewhere in his past, or bunches of friends like Gatsby's party guests.
"The Great Gatsby"--both the man and the title--ends sadly. Nick grows disenchanted with the whole of Jazz Age New York, and prepares to move back to the Midwest. Daisy and Tom disappear on an extended sojourn to who knows where, and Nick and Jordan end things less than amicably. Gatsby's ultimate fortune is even worse.
In the end, nobody has really changed, except for Nick. He'd moved to New York to make his name in the bond market. That enthusiasm evaporates. With Gatsby gone, Nick has lost his anchor to that fast world.
As he prepares to leave, everyone comes full-circle: Tom and Daisy are off on an expensive trip; Jordan prepares for her next tournament--Nick he utters one of the best ending lines ever: And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.