A good story is worth revisiting. Such beauty requires multiple attempts at comprehension. One must keep coming back, keep expecting more, keep hoping for one more prolonged moment of imagination. And “The Great Gatsby” certainly deserves a re-read.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Rosaria Butterfield once said, “Christians aren’t just readers. Christians are re-readers.”[1] This simple yet profound thought caused me to reflect on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third book, The Great Gatsby, recently. Gatsby hit store shelves in 1925, initially as a commercial flop, selling only 20,000 copies in its first printing and less than 3,000 in its second.[2] By 1960, however, The Great Gatsby sold 50,000 copies a year—more than double the amount of copies during Fitzgerald’s lifetime.[3] Arthur Mizener, a friend of Fitzgerald and literary critic, hailed the novel as “a classic of twentieth-century American fiction,” explaining that “whatever disagreements we may have over Fitzgerald’s work as a whole, there remain few doubts of the greatness of Gatsby or of its imaginative relevance to [the] American experience.”[4] Such high praise suggests that it is precisely the sort of book that ought to be read and re-read.

So what kind of man writes such a book?[5] In this case, a troubled one. Fitzgerald was known for his extravagant spending habits and the monetary troubles that came along with them, a problem he often managed to write his way out of by producing short stories and essays at an accelerated pace. The destructive nature of his marriage to Zelda Fitzgerald polarized their mutual friends, even after she was committed to a psychiatric ward in 1932. He was an alcoholic as well, which ultimately contributed to his death in 1940 at the age of 44. By his own estimation, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a complete failure.

So why should you read The Great Gatsby? I remember my first encounter with Nick Caraway, Jay Gatsby, and Daisy Buchanan. Tenth grade was a low point, literarily speaking, as I was forced to slog through such works as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon, the poetic ramblings of William Carlos Williams, and of course Fitzgerald’s great American novel. My sophomore experience is not a unique one, as teenagers are easily repelled by the idea of reading what one more person considers great literature. Indeed, you might say that where “the Law came in,” so too did “the transgression… increase.”[6] I read it, I loathed it, and I put it far away from my mind. It wasn’t until college that I would again encounter the “disembodied face” of Daisy, and even then, I still did not understand what all the fuss was about (though to be earnest, my love for another great American writer may have colored my perspective at the time).[7] Reading should either bring pleasure or provide something to ponder, and after two reads, I concluded that The Great Gatsby did neither.

Though the basic plot of Gatsby might be easily recognized, if only because of exposure to the stylings of Baz Lurhmann’s 2013 film, bear with me as I recap the story. Fitzgerald’s work occupies three months in 1922, a turbulent time in America as the economy seemed to be creating millionaires overnight. It was the Jazz Age, a phrase that Fitzgerald coined, with all the speakeasies, flappers, and bootleggers which have come to serve as stereotypes for the Roaring Twenties. When Nick Caraway moves to New York, seeking something more than the empty comforts of the Midwest, he finds himself the neighbor of the elusive Jay Gatsby. After connecting with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, Nick eventually becomes one of Gatsby’s many guests, unaware that the mystery man is harboring designs on stealing Daisy away from her husband Tom. It is through his new girlfriend, Jordan, that Nick navigates the undercurrents of the social life of Gatsby and the Buchanans, including the tumultuous relationship of Tom and his mistress, Myrtle. While Nick seems awed by Gatsby’s mystery and charm, it is his longing for the “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” that captures Nick’s interest.[8] Or does that come later? Now that I think about it, was that before the bodies began piling up? Or was it after the motorist murder in the rain? That is one of the perplexing things of The Great Gatsby. Time seems to blur and bend until you come across Nick’s final words: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”[9] The future, the past, the present all bear down upon the closing of the novel, thrusting the reader to become an active participant as the story ends. At least, that’s my reading.

It is a new reading for me, though. While I remembered much of the previous details when I picked the book up on a recent Sunday, there were things I had yet to discover. Early in the book, while Nick is speaking, I came upon a line which struck me for the first time: “I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded’ man. This isn’t just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.”[10] I do not know why this phrase had never piqued my imagination before, nor do I think I fully understand why it does now. The phrase catapulted me through the following pages, until the words on the page began to literally fade. I looked up to realize that I had just devoured 90 pages of the story and that the sun had set in that time. Like any good English student, I started scouring sources for an analysis of the phrase, only to find myself continually disappointed. Most commentators seemed to take the phrase to indicate that Nick was unreliable or that the narration was intentionally limited, but that just didn’t ring true. I turned to the next most reliable source for interpreting literary quotes, Pinterest, and found nothing to help me, not even an out-of-context quote pasted on top of a sunrise! Yet, I could not get the image out of my mind: this solitary window, peering out of a house on the shore, as waves washed the grey beach of Long Island, lapping closer and closer to the vibrant blue of the manicured yard… Well, you see what I’m getting at. The image is with me still.

My imagination did not stop there though. The figure of Gatsby became harder for me to perceive, while previously he had been just another overambitious, middle-class scoundrel. This shroud of mystery grew with each of his revelations to Nick. And as Gatsby told the reader more and more about his life, and it became more obvious that he was still hiding something, the disdain I once felt for him seemed to slip away. Not because his flaws shrunk in my perspective, but because his lies and deceits finally appeared for what they were: an unavoidable way of living. Why does Gatsby lie? To impress his lost love, Daisy? To maintain his underhanded business deals with the mob? If any of that is true, why, in the moment of his triumph, would he confess his affair with Daisy to her husband, Tom? For a man whose whole life is built upon falsehoods, this moment of truth seems poorly chosen indeed. In fact, this confession serves as the catalyst for the ensuing barrage of deaths that sprawl across the closing chapters of the story. While Nick’s singular perspective seems to suggest that we are all finite, limited beings, the dishonest yet mysterious figure of Gatsby smacks of the things which Fitzgerald sought to critique with his novel. Profundity mixed with disdain. Perhaps I had truly missed the point all along.

If this jaunt into the literary past has taught me anything, it is an affirmation that a good story is worth revisiting. Many of Fitzgerald’s readers already know this. In fact, The Great Gatsby sold 500,000 copies in 2013 alone, while also hitting its 403rd week on the New York Times bestseller list, surpassing the milestone of over 25,000,000 books sold since its publication.[11] The story has been explored in film, once including Robert Redford. The same year of 25,000,000 was also when the latest movie incarnation hit the box office, glitzy and showy like a speakeasy come to life. While Fitzgerald’s granddaughter said ol’ Scott would have been proud, I’m not so sure. The very things Fitzgerald seemed to protest, the extravagance of the Twenties, the immorality of the nouveau riche, the belief that dreams only have one outcome, namely fulfillment, all seem ideas that the film suggests are imitation worthy. And Nick Caraway in an insane asylum? Well, I do believe someone is a bit off his rocker, but it is certainly not Fitzgerald’s narrator.

But perhaps this is the mark of truly great writing? One must keep coming back, keep expecting more, keep hoping for one more prolonged moment of imagination. Would I think this way about the movie had I only read the book once? Would I find myself empathizing with Nick, horrified at the abandonment of Gatsby by his friends, if I had only given the book a good once-over? Probably not. And as a result, I would be limited to the same banal readings that lead to terrible movies. Now, in keeping with expectations, I want to close with a word from Ernest Hemingway. Two decades after Fitzgerald’s death, Hemingway penned a short tribute to Scott saying,

His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think. He was flying again and I was lucky to meet him just after a good time in his writing if not a good one in his life.[12]

The pattern made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. Intricate, detailed, and almost imperceptible to those looking for a quick taste of something pretty. Such beauty requires multiple attempts at comprehension. And if anything, The Great Gatsby deserves at least that.

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Notes:

[1] Rosaria Butterfield, “Simulcast One–Thursday,” 2020 Repairing the Ruins Conference, June 18, 2020, 1:05:48.

[2] F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby: The Authorized Text. Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1992) 203.

[3] Arthur Mizener, “Gatsby, 35 Years Later.” The New York Times (New York: April 24 1960).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Most of the content in this section is derived directly from the editorial material found in the edition of Gatsby cited above. The standard in Fitzgerald biography is Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 2nd Rev. Edition, (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2002). It is a book I highly recommend for anyone interested in digging deeper into Fitzgerald’s life and work.

[6] Romans 5:20, NKJV.

[7] Fitzgerald, 85.

[8] Ibid., 189.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 9.

[11] Deirdre Donahue, “The Great Gatsby By the Numbers,” USA Today (New York: May 7, 2013).

[12] Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (New York: Scribner’s, 2009): 125.

The featured image is a photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald (c. 1921), appearing “The World’s Work” (June 1921 issue), and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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