Millennials find it a bore
The Great Gatsby is no longer great. Maybe it never was. I first read it in high school in the 1970s and recently taught it to high school juniors. I understand why it was a smashing success when published; every era loves to read about itself.
But what exactly has given the novel legs since its publication 95 years ago? It didn’t much work with my juniors, because of their scant knowledge of how World War I launched the merrymaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age.
Secondly, Gatsby’s brazen wealth doesn’t shock today’s kids — not when they read that Jeff Bezos is worth $180 billion. Neither are students dazed by the outlandish behavior at Gatsby’s parties; it’s possible students have attended similar bashes.
Moreover, Fitzgerald is hardly a craftsman. Even confident juniors are hard pressed to grasp his looping sentences, like this from page 1: “Most of the confidences were unsought — frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon — for the intimate revelations of young men or at least the terms in which they express them are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions.” Whew.
Finally there is the book’s main weakness — which has existed since it came off the presses of Charles Scribner’s Sons: Who gives a damn about Daisy Buchanan? Beyond her beauty, what does she possess that gives rise to Gatsby’s pursuit of her — to the point where he buys a mansion near hers and
nightly moons over her absence from his life? Daisy shows us neither brains nor maternal love nor any talent whatsoever. The most three-dimensional quality she possesses is her willingness to settle for a husband who cheats on her. But that makes me care little about her and less about Gatsby for chasing her.
Jordan Baker, the brash amateur golfer, is far more interesting — but maybe not. Nick Carraway pursues her, but jettisons their relationship without much ado, and she fades from the story.
The book’s ending, a eulogy to Gatsby, proclaims, “Gatsby believed in the green [port] light, the orgiastic 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 one fine morning —
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Except as a historical relic, it’s time to leave Gatsby in the past.