Either late in high school or early in college, I was ordered to read The Great Gatsby. I regarded it as the most boring thing I had ever picked up. However, roughly 20 years later, I decided that it may have been me who was boring, so I decided – through the recommendation of others – that I should read it again because I, as an adult, would now be in a better frame of mind to appreciate the literary genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Why is it that so many writers, and especially so many writing teachers, are quick to proclaim The Great Gatsby as one of the greatest novels ever written? Shortly after its publication, H.L. Mencken – a rather significant writer and journalist – referred to The Great Gatsby as just a “glorified anecdote,” and I completely agree. It’s a worthless and boring piece of work that does nothing more than allow a handful of shallow-minded society folk to show off their ability to do nothing other than uselessly and wastefully spend money and pursue extra-marital affairs with people more dull than themselves. And without the convenience of coincidence, not even that could happen.
I must apologize however, because it is wrong to refer to this story as “fiction” since there is no driving plot and no likable characters. If Moby Dick could swallow the entire cast, the world would improve. Usually, good fiction can be summarized with the following statement: “Somebody wants something, but someone or something else is in the way.” So tell me, who in this story wants something? Or, to ask a better question, who in this story has a want or need that is so compelling that I actually want to read the book? Maybe Gatsby wants Daisy? Why should I care? Daisy seems to want Nick and kisses him several times, even though they’re cousins but while still proclaiming her love for both Gatsby and her husband Tom, who is having his own affair with Myrtle, the wife of George Wilson. Whew. Affairs can be interesting, especially when there is a great deal of tension between the cheating parties and their legitimate better-half is in the same room. However, it doesn’t take long for Gatsby to pop right up to say that Daisy never loved Tom at all. Tom’s reaction? Basically, “Yes she does.” Wow, that’s drama.
Or maybe what Gatsby wants is to be liked? People seem to enjoy his parties, but nobody really seems to like or respect him. They tell stories about him, but they don’t really care about him. Why should they? He never answers a question with a straight answer and basically bullies people while smiling and sending a butler to refill their drinks, possibly to keep them drunk so they can’t remember what a dullard he is.
The only time there was interesting tension or drama was when Tom realized that he was simultaneously losing both his wife Daisy and his lover Myrtle. However, I could not feel sympathy for Tom because he was a brut who broke Myrtle’s nose after she mentioned his wife’s name. That drama lasted about half a page, and before we could really get into a conflict between husbands, wives, and lovers, Fitzgerald did a very convenient thing: he killed Myrtle and made it seem Gatsby’s fault so that Myrtle’s husband would kill Gatsby. This was way too convenient and could only lead me to one conclusion: Fitzgerald was done. He had nothing else interesting he could say or do with those characters, so he killed them. And he started a pretty good trend. Did you see the film Love Story? How about Terms of Endearment? Those two highly regarded films are cleaned up the same way, and it shows only one thing of the writer. He or she had absolutely no ideas left, so they had to kill someone to end the story. It’s very hard to end a story in a way that makes sense and ties the whole plot together. Just ask Stephen King.
There are other ways that convenience rules here. Without the narrator, Nick Caraway, there is no story. However, there are times in the story where Nick tells of scenes that he cannot possibly know about. Yes, I need to back that up, but I’ll have to find it later. For the attempt of drama to begin, we had to know that Tom was messing around with Myrtle. We learn this because Tom needed to mention it to Nick, his wife’s cousin. Why would a man tell his wife’s cousin that he’s cheating? Because either he’s plain stupid – leading me to not care about him – or the writer is plain stupid if he or she expects me to accept that.
So, let’s review. There is no driving conflict. There is no clear protagonist for me to follow and wait to see if that character achieves success. There is no clear antagonist to hinder the unclear protagonist. There are no likeable characters. Nobody wants or needs anything that I care enough about to see what happens.
Someone please tell me why this book is often called one of the greatest works of American fiction?