The Great Gatsby ‘real-life’ book club discussion

By Guy Somerset In Book Club

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11th June, 2013 Leave a Comment

Spoiler alert … spoiler alert … spoiler alert

Let’s just blame it on all the bathtub gin and be done with it: May’s “real-life” book club discussion of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Text, $15.99) is indeed coming to you weeks late … in June. Like Fitzgerald never missed a deadline?

It’s third time around for the Wellington book club talking about the novel, it having done duty for both Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and Zadie Smith’s NW.

Returning members taking part are Tina Joel, Tiffany Thomas, Cat Major, Amelia Jones and Deborah Mayo; Honora Harris and Kate Masters are newcomers.

Listener Book Club co-host Megan Dunn spoke to the book clubbers via Facebook.

Megan Dunn: Let’s start not by talking about Gatsby, but about the object of his desire, Daisy. As a book club of women, what did you make of Daisy and what does this novel tell us about the value of women?

Tina Joel: I actually snorted out loud at this line of Gatsby thinking about Daisy: “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.” Even narrator Nick called it “appalling sentimentality”! Daisy seems like a moth banging against a light/the ceiling/the window, seeking any escape but not having a destination. Tom treats her with disdain and as little more than a check in the box of social status, and Gatsby blindly idolises a five-year-old idea of her. Daisy’s somewhat hysterical persona may be a reaction to being defined by others. Jordan is the only major female character living her own life, but she’s devious, withholding and a liar. Fitzgerald writes Tom as a blatant sexist, but doesn’t really balance him out. Did the author write his own opinion/experiences of women into the book? Hmmm.

Tiffany Thomas:  I didn’t like Daisy. She claims to have loved Gatsby but she up and marries Tom reasonably quickly when Gatsby is delayed in coming back from the war. Perhaps, though, that was the reality of upper-class women at the time. Your sole job in life was to marry (and marry well) and reproduce. Please note that I said “reproduce” rather than raise a family. Daisy seems to do precious little actual mothering in the book.

Cat Major: Yes, did you get the impression that her little girl was another accessory in her perfect life? I was also highly irritated by how very consciously charming Daisy was, from the first time that we see her and hear her “absurd charming little laugh”, etc. She just as much as Gatsby has constructed a story about her life – in hers she’s sophisticated, impersonal, bantering, beautiful, charming, every man is a little bit in love with her. The difference is, her constructed life seems to be more important to her than a chance of real love with Gatsby. She stays with Tom despite him cheating on her throughout their marriage, resists declaring her love for Gatsby, and then lets him take all the blame for her driving accident (accident?) and presumably comes away from that little affair scot-free.

Honora Harris: Initially, I felt sympathetic towards Daisy being stuck in a loveless marriage with a philandering husband. However, despite her obvious unhappiness, she was unwilling to better her situation by leaving Tom. I felt she was just another character who used Gatsby. Nick describes her as “careless” and she certainly seems to be so with her affections. Her failure to attend Gatsby’s funeral is unforgiveable, especially for someone who is meant to love him. She is fickle.

Tiffany: Completely fickle. I really hated her for not going to the funeral.

Kate Masters:  I felt that in some ways Daisy was trapped in a gilded cage. She didn’t have the strength of character to wait for Gatsby, but instead conformed to society’s expectations and pressures that it was time for her to get married. I do think that she loved Tom, in her own way. That meant that when she had the opportunity to make the break from him and go with Gatsby, then the life she knew – even though it wasn’t with the love of her life – was much easier to stick with than making that leap into the unknown – potentially socially, morally and (although she didn’t know it) financially. Having made that decision, she followed through with it by cutting all ties with Gatsby, even though that meant not going to his funeral. Having said all that – she is a shallow, fickle character, who I didn’t much like, but I think she was ultimately a pragmatic one. And the “accident” – totally intentional. It made her decision to stick with Tom that much more palatable, and the fact that it was pinned on Gatsby was just a fortunate accident for her.

Tina: Okay, I will add a movie spoiler comment here (stop reading if you want to preserve the surprise). Baz Luhrmann clearly wanted to turn up the romance between Daisy and Gatsby in his adaptation, and make Daisy a far more likeable character for the movie audiences (shades of Breakfast at Tiffany’s?). In his film, there is one brief mention of the child near the start, but we only see her briefly right at the end, when the family is packing up to leave Long Island after Gatsby’s death. At that point, the child is still merely a symbol to show Daisy reassuming her “rightful” societal position as a wife and mother, rather than a whimsical, partying adulteress. As you noted above, Tiff, she’s barely a mother.

Kate: To paraphrase – anyone can be a mother, but it takes someone special to be a mum.

Megan: Daisy says early on: “That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world – a beautiful little fool.” Is she a fool? Who is the fool in The Great Gatsby?

Tiffany: I think she’s right about the beautiful part. Beautiful people do seem to get away with a lot more bad behaviour in fiction – and in real life.

Kate: I think they were probably all fools – on the surface living the way they thought successful people should, but each of them miserable underneath and not truly fulfilled. Is that perhaps what Daisy meant – to be deemed successful, you had to sacrifice your true desires and self? Or maybe if a woman behaved like a fool, and was beautiful, she could get away with anything? Much like Daisy and the accident. Even those who knew she was driving didn’t dream of turning her in.

Megan: I was really puzzled by Gatsby’s demise. I found myself wondering about the plausibility of his funeral; no one other than his father and the fat drunk from the library (in the party scene) attends. And, of course, Nick Carraway. Gatsby’s comeuppance is harsh. The party is over. What does the novel tell us about society? The American dream? Celebrity culture?

Tina: Yes, where was the media? The “lonely gravesite” scene was just another attempt to milk sympathy from the reader.

Cat:  I think the lonely gravesite is just the confirmation of what we now already know – that the whole “Great Gatsby” was one big glamour/fake/myth. No one liked him, most of the people who went to his house didn’t know him, even Daisy liked the romanticism of the mythology but backed away from the reality of running away with him. Result: no one comes to see him buried except those who are grounded in more lasting values, like the love of a father for a son. The bankruptcy of the dream (not my phrase) is starkly evident at the lonely wet gravesite. Translate: destruction of the American dream. Candyfloss doesn’t last in the rain.

Tiffany:  I think you summed it up really well, Cat. The rest of Gatsby’s “friendships” were based on what he could do for them – hosting parties, participating in various shady business deals, bringing some temporary romance to a bored housewife. Once he was dead, his usefulness to those people was gone. Only the people to whom he had a more lasting bond, like friendship or family, came to pay their respects. I’m not sure why Owl Eyes from the library was there. Perhaps finding out that books in the library were real endeared Gatsby to him.

Kate: I wonder if the ending shows the hollowness of Gatsby’s later life (and his constructed persona) – that all of his success was built on a lie, or a dream that only he clung to, as Daisy had deserted it. After that, because he wasn’t real, and the dream was just a dream (and not a shared one), everything else in his life that he built to achieve it was a sham. Is it possibly also a comment on the means he employed to achieve his wealth? That the American Dream can only truly be achieved if you are both true to yourself and morally upright? You may achieve the window dressing without these things, but it’ll never feed your soul or mean anything real.

Megan: Is Gatsby a mere fake, or is he sympathetic? A victim of his own ambition. Nick looks at him through rose-tinted glasses by the end, and the scene with his father seems designed to provoke an emotional response from the reader. The father’s remoteness from Gatsby seems sentimental, pathetic and sad.

Tina: All the major characters are on a “self-improvement” path in some way or other. They all want to be different, better, more successful versions of themselves, and Gatsby’s arc is the most pronounced. His earnest teenage To Do list illustrates just how much he strived to be someone other than the child of his parents and their meagre situation. Perhaps the only character true to his roots was George, and his belated realisation of Myrtle’s infidelity destroys him, because the “real” cannot coexist with the “fake”.

Tiffany: I feel immensely sorry for Gatsby. Yes, he was a fake. But, to paraphrase Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he was a fake and a phony but he was a real phony because he believed all the crap he believed. I think he honestly believed that if he spoke with the right accent, made his millions and bought the beautiful house and the fancy car people would like him. And Daisy would fall in love with him all over again. It’s shallow and foolish but haven’t we all at one time or another been that kid who desperately wants to fit in with the cool crowd? I do feel sad for Gatsby. He achieved it, almost, and it was all for naught. He didn’t get the girl. He didn’t get respect. He lost himself and his family, and his life, and it was all for nothing.

Honora: I definitely feel sorry for Gatsby. Nick, at the beginning of the novel, describes Gatsby as having an “extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness… No Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby”. Maybe it isn’t Gatsby who is distasteful, but rather those who exploited him. However, I must admit there is a rather symbiotic relationship between Gatsby and his “prey”; both need each other to create their facades.

Tiffany: A bit like the way “celebrities” today loathe and simultaneously court the paparazzi, you reckon?

Kate: I think he’s both a fake and sympathetic – largely because he’s believed the lie that if he does all the “right” things he’ll get what he wants. If he’d stayed true to himself, he’d probably have found a lot more happiness in life, even if he didn’t end up as rich or publicly successful. I’m tempted to blame this on his love for Daisy, but perhaps this was just a convenient excuse for him? He’d started out on that path long before he met her, with changing his name, etc. Maybe his love for her was more a love for what being with her represented in terms of the success he wanted – and he couldn’t see that that success would be hollow because he was ultimately hollow himself.

Megan: What did you get out of Nick and his relationship with Jordan? How did this differ from Gatsby and Daisy, Myrtle and Tom, all the other romantic arrangements?

Tina: I didn’t find any of the relationships to be working properly – they were all asymmetrical. Even when Daisy and Gatsby had refound love, it was wrong because it was trying to reanimate a passed moment in time. Nick and Jordan as a couple seemed forced – a “summer fling” that wouldn’t have gone anywhere, even if the tragedies hadn’t occurred.

Kate: Perhaps Nick and Jordan’s relationship was the most real because it acknowledged that it wouldn’t necessarily last, that the emotions weren’t real enough? Nick seemed to keep hoping that the relationship would go somewhere, or last, but neither he nor Jordan had the energy/commitment to force it into the socially acceptable realm of marriage. Were they more true to themselves because they didn’t force things along, unlike all of those who ended up unhappily married?

Megan: What are your first memories of reading The Great Gatsby? Have you read it before?

Tiffany: I first read Gatsby in 1997 when I was 24. I was visiting my penpal (remember when people used to write letters?!) who lived, and still lives, in Rhode Island. She took me to Newport to look at some of the absolutely mind-bogglingly gorgeous mansions there. If you think beach houses in the Coromandel are fancy, you ain’t see nothing. Apparently, Rosecliff was used as Gatsby’s house for the 1974 Robert Redford film version. I had to embarrassingly confess to not having seen the movie or read the book. I rectified that pretty quickly by buying a copy from the mansion’s giftshop.

Tina: I can’t remember when I first read it – sometime in high school, but not as a required text. I wasn’t particularly impressed and found it hard to relate to the writing and the characters. Rereading it for this book club, I had moments of “oh yeah, that’s right”, but the fact that I didn’t recall much of it says I didn’t like it.

Cat: LIke you, Tina, I first read it in high school. The only memory I retained was that scene where Gatsby is standing alone in the dark looking out at the light on the end of Daisy’s pier. It was a really vivid picture that has stayed with me for decades, and came to mind whenever The Great Gatsby was mentioned. Something about absolute loneliness, aloneness, yearning for the unattainable.

Amelia Jones: I read it a few years ago. It was/is a great favourite of an old friend of mine and he handed me a copy with enthusiasm and eagerness that I returned it. I’d heard of it, of course, but didn’t get what the fuss was about. I thought the characters were unappealing. Even though I knew that it was known for conjuring up a decadent zeitgeist of the time, it didn’t for me.

Kate: This was my first time reading the book. Overall, it felt to me like a commentary about a dying age in American society – a bit like the sun setting on the Roman empire. Everything was falling apart, and felt dry and dusty.

Megan: Why is the novel so enduring?

Tina: Why indeed?

Tiffany: For me, it’s the whole 1920s glamour aspect. I’m rather besotted with 1920s fashion and culture – it’s so gorgeous and decadent, that post-war hedonism maybe. Gatsby is a glimpse into that era. Rather like I adore watching Downton Abbey for a peek into the fashion and stately homes of that period. I really enjoy the party scenes and the mansions in Gatsby, oh how the other half lived. Okay, admittedly the other half (the top 1% might be more accurate) in Gatsby lived pretty shallow superficial lives, but I find it entertaining as an outsider.

Kate: Possibly the shallowness of the characters and their actions makes them memorable, and while repellent, there’s certainly not many others like them. At the same time, the period and the environment are so vividly evoked – to me (and I have no idea if my reading is correct) the valley of ashes and the ash men show the looming Depression, the huge gap between the rich and poor, and the wrongness of the way that the main characters are living their lives.

Deborah Mayo: I have to echo Tina and say why indeed? Although I imagine the themes have stayed relevant over time, in particular the appeal of excess and the dissolution of reality.

Tiffany: Something else we haven’t touched on is perhaps the glamour factor of the author. Fitzgerald and his wife were a fascinating couple. Maybe their reputation also lends a certain allure to the book, too.

Tina: True. I will admit to having read books with half an eye looking for evidence that a notorious author has woven in snippets of their own life.

Megan: How would you describe the language and do you have any favourite lines or scenes from the novel?

Tina: If Gatsby was published today, I wonder if much of the overheated description would have made it through editing. For me, the insistent insertion of adjectives interrupted the reading flow. For example, “His heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the washstand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor.”

Kate: I love the quote at the beginning – the “gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover”. There is a lot of description and language to wade through, but I wonder if you just have to accept that this is one of those books you read as much for the mastery of language and descriptions as you do for the plot? Certainly, I watched this video on Huffpo yesterday, and it brought home to me that unless I had already prepared a synopsis of the plot in my head in advance, it was going to take me some thinking to describe the plot! Back to the language, though – while it feels there’s a lot of superfluous words, looking at it now I think it’s all very much at the heart of what makes Gatsby. When you look purely at the use of the imagery and language on the page, it’s a lot tighter than you originally thought. Things like “at intervals she appeared at his side like an angry diamond” – great imagery!

Megan: Apparently, at the last minute, Fitzgerald asked his editor if they could change the novel’s title to Under the Red, White and Blue, but it was too late. Would the novel have the same pulling power with this title? I notice all book clubs for students make a question out of the title, the dubiousness of Gatsby’s greatness…but at one level he is completely great and the novel/Nick Carraway mourns his fall from grace.

Tina: If the novel had been titled Under the Red, White and Blue, I’d have been reading it with a different eye. Is boring Nick supposed to be the quintessential all-American male? Or Gatsby, with his dreams, ambition and flaws? Hopefully not the odious Tom. Perhaps Fitzgerald was saying that, in the post-war era, there is no perfect America to be found – only deceit and betrayal.

Kate: I think this is a really hard question to answer. Certainly I’d have been looking a lot harder at themes around American patriotism – perhaps then, too, the book would have immediately presented as a much more obvious attack on the way the American Dream is viewed, and the illusions and realities around achieving it?

Megan: Is this the Great American Novel?

Tina: I haven’t read enough other allegedly great American novels to compare against Gatsby. But if it’s supposed to be a commentary on the Human Condition, that we’re all alone, essentially selfish and with nasty streaks, then I can see that. I do think it’s a Great Novel Of Why You Should Never Publish What You Write Drunk.

Tiffany: It’s barely a novel. It’s more a long short story. It seems too short to merit such a title. It does, I assume, accurately capture the mood of a nation between the two wars and it does contain that beloved, to Americans, theme of rags to riches. I can see why some might argue in its favour but, for me, the Great American Novel is The Grapes of Wrath or Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird. But I’m not American so perhaps my opinion as a foreigner is somewhat irrelevant anyway.

Amelia: Not “the”, but because I think there’s no such thing. It is considered one of them, presumably for the reasons you say, Tiffany. More than anything, it reminds me that I haven’t read enough of the American canon to be able to place it within it and rate it against its peers. I don’t think it’s a great novel, but it presumably gets points for Americanness as well as greatness by those who count such things. Mostly, I like being reminded by things like how they think hard about whether something is a Great American Novel that our US cousins are colonials too and that underneath the superpower lurks some insecurity that shows in the desire to define things like a Great American Novel. Is being the Great American Novel like being the smart kid in a dumb class? Better than the others, but not necessarily all that smart. American fiction is a big enough class, and more than smart enough, that I don’t think so. It seems to me right now to be particularly American to want to focus on the Great American Novel.

Kate: I agree. I’m not sure that it’s the Great American Novel. Perhaps A Great American Novella? Some of the themes do remind me of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, perhaps around people constructing identities to escape from their roots? It doesn’t appear to make either Jay Gatsby or Holly Golightly particularly happy. What is the Great American Novel, anyway? Is it a literary masterpiece, or something that reflects truths about American life and society? If the latter – I truly hope this isn’t the great American novel! Perhaps in this case, it might be something that reflects and exposes the untruths of a way of viewing the American Dream?

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