Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Favorite Passages: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I often cringe when giving my answer. "The Great Gatsby," I say sheepishly. It seems like such a cliche answer, the kind of answer someone gives when they're trying to sound impressive. Dumb people everywhere have given this answer, including people who have never read it. I think some people say it's their favorite book simply because it's the only book they remember reading and somewhat enjoying in high school. But I really do love The Great Gatsby. I think it's the most perfect novel ever written, and every time I read it I feel like it was created just for me. It has everything you could ever want from a good book: a sound structure and form, interesting characters, fascinating and twisty plot, and absolutely gorgeous writing.

Occasionally, Fitzgerald's writing bothers me. It feels too flashy sometimes, like he's trying to use big words just to prove he's smart despite being thrown out of Princeton. But this never happens in Gatsby. Every word is perfectly placed and correct. The dialogue is true to sound and very modern, and Fitzgerald's descriptions are like poetry - succinct, beautifully worded, and packed with thematic meaning. The novel is an absolute literary feat, an accomplishment that deserves all the respect it gets.

Unfortunately, it's also an extremely over-exposed book. Somehow, I got all the way through my entire education without having to read it, which didn't matter because I read it on my own when I was fifteen and was a Fitzgerald fanatic by the time I graduated high school. Because it is used in English classes so often, Gatsby becomes associated with the misery of school and structured reading lists. I challenge everyone, first-time Fitzgerald readers and authorities alike, to reread the book at least once every couple years. You won't believe how it transforms for you between each interval. I've read the book five or six times, about once every year or two, and every time I read it, I see it in a completely new and exciting light. I love this book so much that it's almost painful for me to read it. It's become a part of me, and the older I get, the more i understand it and its characters. It also helps to be a Midwesterner, too, being that this book is more about the Midwest than it is about the Long Island shore where it takes place.

I chose this favorite passage because it's a lesser known part of the book: the official "break-up" between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway (see my List below to learn more about them). For me, this scene really captures the personal tragedy of the story. I am not necessarily sad about the break-up; it's actually quite inevitable. But Fitzgerald does such a great job of pinning all sorts of emotions below the surface of this scene that it really sparkles for me. I hope you enjoy it.

From The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.

There was one thing to be done before I left, an awkward, unpleasant thing that perhaps had better have been let alone. But I wanted to leave things in order and not just trust that obliging and indifferent sea to sweep my refuse away. I saw Jordan Baker and talked over and around what had happened to us together and what had happened afterward to me, and she lay perfectly still listening in a big chair.

She was dressed to play golf and I remember thinking she looked like a good illustration, her chin raised a little, jauntily, her hair the color of an autumn leaf, her face the same brown tint as the fingerless glove on her knee. When I had finished she told me without comment that she was engaged to another man. I doubted that though there were several she could have married at a nod of her head but I pretended to be surprised. For just a minute I wondered if I wasn't making a mistake, then I thought it all over again quickly and got up to say goodbye.

"Nevertheless, you did throw me over," said Jordan suddenly. "You threw me over on the telephone. I don't give a damn about you now but it was a new experience for me and I felt a little dizzy for a while."

We shook hands.

"Oh, and do you remember --" she added, "-- a conversation we had once about driving a car?"

"Why, -- not exactly."

"You said a bad driver was only safe until she met another bad driver? Well, I met another bad driver, didn't I? I mean it was careless of me to make such a wrong guess. I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride."

"I'm thirty," I said. "I'm five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor."

She didn't answer. Angry, and half in love with her, and tremendously sorry, I turned away.

Thanks, for reading! Tomorrow is the offical deal: Fitzgerald's actual birthday!

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