The Great Gatsby is my favorite book.
I don’t have a lot of definitive favorites. I have a favorite movie for every genre, time period, and situation. I have a different favorite song every year. I don’t even have one favorite color. (For the record: hot pink and black.) But I have a favorite book. Only one. Only Gatsby.
Today, Baz Luhrmann’s film version of The Great Gatsby opens in theaters. Today, the world is introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby. I actually have no doubt that DiCaprio will make a compelling Gatsby, but he won’t be my Gatsby.
No, my Gatsby lives only in the pages of my dog-eared paperback copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. I met my Gatsby during a rainy Easter vacation week when I was 13, and it was love at first read. Gatsby turned out all right in the end, and I turned out all right because of the myriad of things he taught me and continues to teach me 11 years after I first discovered his story.
My Gatsby taught a 13-year-old little girl about the importance of dreaming and doing everything you can to achieve that dream. My Gatsby taught a 17-year-old high school senior to remember to pick a goal worthy of being chased with your whole heart. My Gatsby and his fate taught a 21-year-old college student to balance romanticism with pragmatism. My Gatsby continues to teach me today, at 24 years old, about the true meaning of greatness and the way one life can significantly alter the course of another.
As I grew up, I realized that The Great Gatsby isn’t really Gatsby’s story at all. It’s Nick Carraway’s. And, in being Nick’s story, it’s our story. We’re all Nicks each time we encounter Gatsby on the page, trying to figure out what to make of this mysterious man, judging his actions against our own values, and ultimately being changed in whatever small way we allow ourselves to be changed by having encountered his innocence and fervent belief in a singular dream.
That’s the true greatness of Gatsby—he’s whoever you want him to be. For some, he’s an empty, naive fraud chasing after a horrible woman who deserves the fate he gets. For others, Gatsby is a dreamer whose ability to dream in a world that has no place for such innocent belief any longer makes him a hero. For me, my Gatsby is a tragic hero—a man whose spirit couldn’t survive in such a careless world but was strong enough to change at least one person for the better.
The true victory of Gatsby’s life wasn’t getting Daisy back and recreating his past; it was helping Nick to make a better future for himself. After Gatsby’s death, Nick leaves the East and heads back to the West, trading the moral corruption of the “big city” for the innocence that was still associated with the West at that time. Nick separates himself from the world of Daisy, Tom, and Jordan—the world of the careless. Even before Gatsby’s death, Nick knew he was “worth the whole damn bunch put together” because Nick can see what the others—including Daisy—could never see: Gatsby was innocent. He may have been a bootlegger, he may have lied about his identity, and he may have ben involved in plenty of other illegal schemes. But his quest was innocent: to win back the love of the golden girl and return to the life he had before he went off to war. In the end, Gatsby’s death teaches Nick (and teaches us) about the true value of human beings. The people of value aren’t the ones with wealth, power, and prestige like the Buchanans. They’re the ones like Gatsby, whose greatness isn’t in his ability to throw great parties (though they are quite fantastic) but is instead in his ability to dream.
That dichotomy between the garish nature of Gatsby’s parties and the quiet beauty of the lessons Nick learns from Gatsby is something I sincerely hope isn’t lost in the film adaptation. The true beauty of the novel is found in its quiet moments—moments where the big questions are asked but never clearly answered, moments of reflection, moments of truth. In many ways, I feel sorry for people discovering Jay Gatsby for the first time through this movie. To know Gatsby should be to know Fitzgerald and his beautifully lyrical prose. It should be to know paragraphs like this one:
He had one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced, or seemed to face, the whole external world for an instant and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.
And it should be to know the quiet, ethereal beauty of the novel’s ending, an ending that is written in permanent ink on the surface of my heart, an ending I can recite from memory and still recall the wonder, awe, and bittersweet hope I felt upon reading it for the first time:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
No movie, however strong it may be, could ever hope to capture the power of those words. No voiceover by Tobey Maguire could ever recreate that unique mixture of hope and despair felt by all who read those words—a final image of a nation of dreamers struggling against the current in pursuit of a dream that’s just out of reach, but never giving up that pursuit because that one fine morning could be tomorrow morning. This ending is so beautiful because it makes Gatsby’s quest our quest as Americans; it connects his dream to the idea of the American Dream. Because we beat on—not just Gatsby, not just Nick. All of us. We’re all Gatsbys just like we’re all Nicks. That universal emotional connection to such a specific quest is impossible to make visual on film. It belongs to the written word, to ink and paper and imagination. It belongs to readers. Those last two paragraphs are ours to hold and cherish and cry over until the pages become stained with teardrops. They’re ours to highlight and underline and trace with a finger like we’re touching a sacred text.
There are so many more things I could say about The Great Gatsby, but I find myself at a loss for words. How can I articulate the way this book has imprinted itself on my soul and has woven itself into the very fabric of my identity? How can I express my resignation that no movie—however brilliant—could ever really get it right?
I suppose I’ll just let the novel speak for itself:
No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.
I have been considering going to see the movie, but I’m not sure if I will get around to it (mostly because we are out of the habit of going to see movies very often these days). I have read the book, once or maybe twice. I never really got it though. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not very good with literature, or if it was because I lacked any understanding of the historical context, or if perhaps not being American and not growing up with the American Dream ideal makes a difference. I’m inclined to go and see the movie so that I can get an immersive, visual, big picture look at what the book means, and then I might be able to read it with more understanding and appreciation.
I definitely think Gatsby is a novel so wrapped up in a kind of uniquely American mythology that I could totally see it not being as appealing to someone who didn’t grow up with those ideals. It’s such a specific examination of American ideals and America in general that I’m sure that had something to do with you not being able to get through it easily. I do think going to the movie might help you see the most important points of the novel laid out, but I’m also afraid from all I’m hearing about the movie that it misses the point on a lot of the book’s nuances. But if you do end up going to see it, I’d love to hear your opinion!
I have never liked Gatsby. There is a great piece in Vulture that breaks down why Gatsby doesn’t work for many readers. I do think you’ve touched uniquely on why. The mythology is very specific and it is something you either connect to or don’t. I’ve read it twice and at very different points in my life. Both times I had great difficultly getting past my inability to identify with any of the characters and as much as I was taken by the language and vivid descriptions the plot and by extension the characters left me empty. All prose and without soul. It reminds me why I hated Ophelia in Hamlet. She is a symbol not and actual person. What I do however adore is your accute connection to the novel and why it breathes through you. I feel that way about Ralph Ellison’s Native Son and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It is so true we all have novels that live through us, they permanently take up residence in our psyche in a way few things can. I said to someone once that when I often chose to see a film based on a book it is a book I don’t intend on reading. It is very rare for me to do both and that is because once something is placed on film you are seeing the vision through the screenwriter and ultimately the director’s vision. A novel tells a story in purest form allowing the reader to take away from it what they need. I think what is so lovely about your love of Gatsby is that purity. Everyone should have that connectivity to novels it’s a magical experience.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts because even though you may not love Gatsby the way I do, you understand the hold this novel has on my heart in a way only another reader could understand. (By the way To Kill a Mockingbird is another book I also hold close to my soul.) I think Gatsby means so much to me because it was one of my first forays into real literature, my first encounter with symbolism and poetic language and a book that meant more than an American Girl story or a Nancy Drew mystery. You never forget your first, and Gatsby was my first taste of the world that would blossom for me like a gorgeous flower as an English major in college. It was my gateway drug to the world of classic literature, and I think that’s part of why it has such a special place in my soul.
You hit the nail on the head. I have an almost obsessive protectiveness to Native Son, not because it is my favorite novel or because it is the best novel I read but because it was my gateway into literature, critical thinking and symbolism. It is the book that opened a pathway to a lifelong love affair. Terrific stuff.