Mimsy Review: The Great Gatsby
“Your face is familiar,” he said, politely. “Weren’t you in the Third Division during the war?”
“Why, yes. I was in the ninth machine-gun battalion.”
“I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I’d seen you somewhere before.”
We talked for a moment about some wet, gray little villages in France.
A Lost Generation novel set in the twenties in posh New York, peopled by several Lost Generation characters, the Great Gatsby tells a story of trust, class, and desire on Long Island.
At the risk of being crass, I’m going to recommend this book because it’s short. I’ve had it on my list of books to read for quite some time, but I was always under the impression that it was one of those huge, classic tomes that I would need to spend a long time reading. My “to be read” shelf is already filled with such books and it’ll be years before I get through them. I finally started reading Gatsby now because I mentioned to a friend that--having not read any of either authors--I always got Lost Generation authors F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway confused.
So the next day I was loaned, and over two evenings read, The Great Gatsby.
Despite its small size, the Great Gatsby is a meandering tale, narrated by Nick Carraway in bits and pieces. Jay Gatsby is a mysterious character throughout the novel, and the mystery is never entirely lifted. This is the kind of story that more first-person stories should be. The Great Gatsby is told as “first person limited”, which means that not only is there a concrete narrator, but the narrator does not relay any “omniscient” information that they couldn’t really know. Further, his narration is not always reliable. He has his biases, and he can be deceived. That’s part of the story.
Also part of this story is Carraway listening to all of the speculation about Gatsby’s origins and connections, speculation which is never fully resolved. Some of the speculation emphasizes youthful silliness, as when two young women say of Gatsby at one of his parties:
“You look at him sometimes when he thinks nobody’s looking at him. I’ll bet he killed a man.”
Well, he probably had. So had, probably, Carraway and everyone else not from the East Egg upperclass in the novel: they were in “the war”. Carraway never talks about his own experiences in the war, beyond the reference to “some wet, gray little villages in France” and his response to a questioner that he was “in the ninth machine-gun battalion.” He not only killed a man, he killed a lot of men. He saw men advance towards him in waves and in waves he and his battalion shot them down.
That’s only speculation based on the fact that he was in a machine-gun battalion, though. He never talks about it, and after talking about wet villages in France they go on to discuss boating on Long Island Sound.
This is also a story of the Lost Generation. They weren’t called that at the time, but the Lost Generation was heavily influenced by World War I. These were people who had seen the world: in blood, mud, death, and fire. And who had then returned home. This was a generation that produced writers not only as varied as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, but as varied as Tolkien, Eliot, and Nabakov.
Some of the best works of this generation deal with the general unfairness--or appearance of unfairness--in the world. War can be a leveler, and in this case it appears at first to have done so: born poor, Jay Gatsby builds up an immense fortune, becoming, financially, a peer to his neighbors across the bay. But class does not shift so easily as commerce, and his neighbors’ disdain is another part of this story. Gatsby’s desires are not the same as his neighbors. The Great War should have been a leveling influence, but it was not. The upper class remains another impenetrable world.
For example, The Great Gatsby was written and published during the Prohibition years, and yet there is practically no evidence whatsoever of this. A reader who doesn’t realize this might be confused at one or two parts in the story, but probably not. They would lose, however, one of the important themes in the tale: that there is an entire class of people who simply live above the normal world, including the law. Alcohol, even beer, is so readily available to the characters in this novel that its availability is barely commented on. There is no fear of the police, no hesitancy about using it in front of near-strangers.
That attitude passes unobtrusively to us, but it is the core of this book. And it isn't just the East Egg upperclass who are arrogant. The narrator goes out of his way to assure that there are bad people above him, and bad people below him, but he is a good man. He can be trusted to fulfill his obligations.
Trust is a small issue in The Great Gatsby. It winds in and out of everyone’s stories, but it doesn’t seem to mean much to most of the characters. There’s hypocrisy in the young East Eggers, in their attitude towards killing; and in the adult East Eggers, in their attitudes towards partying with their inferiors. There is a wall of, not so much distrust, but not caring about distrust, between most of the characters. More specifically, it goes again to class: there is no reason to trust or distrust someone who is inferior to you. Such people exist and may be useful tools but there is no point to worrying or caring about them.
It is also about, not necessarily greed, but conspicuous consumption, for various reasons. Gatsby has his reason; presumably Tom and Daisy have theirs. Even Nick is living conspicuously for his means. He explains how this came about at the beginning of the novel out of apparent embarrassment that we might wonder how he came to live on the bay.
As I said at the start, this is an easy read. Fitzgerald’s choice of narrator also makes it a great story. This is a story that, in its telling, resembles real life. We don’t see the justification that the other characters use for their actions. We only see their actions, and Carraway’s interpretation of their actions. That makes it the kind of story that stays with you long after the last page turns.
If you enjoyed The Great Gatsby…
If you enjoy prohibition, you might also be interested in Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do, Another victim of prohibition, Bad laws cause crime, Bush: We should live by our principles, Cannabis Britannica, Cops Say Legalize Drugs: Ask Me Why, Drug cops on tape, Drug war undermining Afghan, Iraqi peace, Fuck everything except marijuana, Georgia drug war unfairly targets Indian immigrants, Has welfare failed us?, Medical marijuana returns to Congress, Misplaced compassion: more deaths, less dignity, Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide, Prisoner of the war on drugs, Project Safe Neighborhoods, Put safety first: end prohibition, Raising Peter McWilliams, Silencing opposition in the war on drugs, Support the Dope, Supreme Court rules against patients and states, The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, The Price of Prohibition, Throwing Gas on the Fire, Tianamen Square and the Drug War, U.S. homicide rate compared to gun control measures, We’re all drug lords now, and Will prohibition destroy the Iraq turnaround?.