Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book review by Alison Ross

The Great American Gatsby
by Alison Ross

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a novel set in 1920s New York City that precisely captures the mood and tenor of what came to be known as the Jazz Age. The story focuses on the flashily affluent Jay Gatsby, who made his fortune through dubious means, his more modest neighbor Nick, Nick's captivating cousin Daisy Buchanan and her wealthy husband Tom. Gatsby hopes to use his material success to win the adoration of Daisy, who happens to be a love from his past before he went off to war. However, Gatsby ends up paying a heftier price - his life - for the girl he has passionately but secretly pursued through the years.

On the surface, The Great Gatsby seems like a book designed solely for leisure reading purposes. But dig beneath that surface, and the reader excavates some meaty philosophical themes. For example, since Daisy did not marry Gatsby at the time of their affair because he lacked wealth, when Gatsby returns from the war, he is intent upon making a fortune in order to lure her back to him. His efforts ultimately doom him, reflecting the dour consequences of material obsession. Additionally, Gatsby's fervent focus on Daisy after so many years have lapsed exposes the peril inherent in clinging too closely to far-fetched fancies.

But while Fitzgerald deftly works these themes, sometimes his commentary on the moral substance of his characters is ambiguous. He appears to revel in Jazz Age excesses, as portrayed in Gatsby's elaborate parties and in the characters' periodic jaunts to the city. Yet, through the sober-minded narration of Nick, Fitzgerald also seems to indict Gatsby for his ostentacious display of wealth. Furthermore, Fitzgerald draws Gatsby in a dualistic way - he simultaneously shows him as a man of principle and as a starry-eyed fool for persistently pursuing Daisy. But perhaps Fitzgerald simply wants us to make up our own minds about Gatsby rather than preach to us, or maybe he wants to show how human weaknesses can serve as strengths and vice versa, depending on the scenario.

The character of Nick is credibly drawn; he represents temperance, but also passivity, as he appears to float on the fringes of his friends' lives rather than actively indulge in them. Indeed, as narrator, Nick allows us to see the story through his eyes, and while we never lack insight into his feelings, we also never feel pressured to see things his way; Nick's tone is calmly questioning rather than priggishly pedantic.

Tom Buchanan as a vapidly wealthy and viciously philandering spouse is artfully conceived; whether he's flaunting his latest love at a party or speaking haughtily about the menaces of black economic progress, reader disdain for Tom is never far from the surface.

But it's Daisy Buchanan who steals the show in The Great Gatsby; a mishmash of contradictions, Daisy exudes a sultry charm that masks a profound restiveness with her current lifestyle. She wants desperately to break free from her stifling circumstances, and Gatsby provides the catalyst for her to do so. Yet, she is constrained by convention, and Fitzgerald permits us to feel the tragic dimensions of her fate throughout the story. This tragedy is never more apparent than when at a tense gathering that includes Gatsby, she reluctantly (and not altogether believably) concedes that she has always loved Tom, despite her earlier assertions to the contrary.

The Shakespearean conclusion of The Great Gatsby will seem heavy-handed to some, while other readers will embrace it as a logical culmination of a story infused with melodrama. But one thing is certain: The Great Gatsby will leave an indelible impression on readers with its instructive themes, intriguing plot, and realistically drawn characters.

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