The “Not So” Great Gatsby

gatsby-original-cover-artEither 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.

Nope.

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?

60 thoughts on “The “Not So” Great Gatsby

  1. You knocked every idea I ever had about this book square on the head. I’ve always been frustrated with the love the book has earned and the recognition as “one of the greatest novels of all time”. It’s a terrible piece of a trash with very unlikable characters, no development, and like you state, absolutely no plot. It was a bitch to get through in high school because rich spoiled adulteresses of the 1920’s was the last thing I’d give a damn about when I was 14. Fitzy was never a great writer, just a man full of himself and his own extravagant lifestyle. That being said, I liked the movie. But that took a piss-poor idea of source material and went crazy with it, injecting a much needed energy. But sadly, the newest cinematic adaptation is also severely lacking in plot.

    And Daisy’s a c**t. The end.

  2. There are a few reasons why I think it is the classic it is: (1) it is the true American story – poor boy rises to wealth and fame. Gatsby is a self-made man. He is the symbol of what the American dream stands for. It is a story that promotes the belief that if you work hard enough, you will succeed. (2) It captures the essence of the roaring 20s, down to the gambling, the sex, the bootlegging. I thought Gatsby and Daisy to be complicated characters, Daisy especially bound to the belief she was not good for anything more than to marry into big bucks. (3) This book captures the dark side to wealth. It shows the consequences of following the big dream. It shows how money corrupts, allowing the wealthy to run from the problems they create. There are no consequences for their actions, except there are, and Gatsby pays dearly for the one thing he desires. And Tom and Daisy are very careless people, smashing everything they can, and then they retreat back into the safety of the only thing they know…money.(4) There is something terribly romantic about Gatsby’s irrational love for Daisy. He won’t stop at anything to get what he wants. Sadly, it is his undoing. (5) F. Scott Fitzgerald writes beautifully. His prose is eloquent, perfectly placed. One of my favorite lines: “I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.”

    • And so reading Rich’s interpretation coupled with yours, I am left confused. Are you smart enough to see through Fitzgerald’s shortcomings for the story beneath or are we, as humans, always trying to create reason from chaos? I’m not smart enough to know.

      • I’m not saying I don’t see Fitzgerald’s short-comings. Every author has ‘issues’ that will not appeal to readers. I’m merely stating why I think it could be classified as a great classic. Many books from that era didn’t have ‘plots’, at least not the way we think of them now. They were stories, stories about people’s lives and how they made it through. The plot for Gatsby? a love story with an impossibility for a happy ending. Conflict? Everyone wants something they can’t have. Story of life, right? Complications? Jay may be wealthy but he doesn’t fit in no matter how hard he tries. He doesn’t come from money and his past conflicts with his ‘now’.

        I’d take this novel over 50 Shades of Gray any day. Talk about a poorly written book with no plot, just lots of sex. I know. I’m the odd ball out there. 🙂 I loved Great Expectations, too. What can I say. I’m weird. 🙂

      • no, you’re not the oddball at all. you might be weird, but who isn’t? but not an oddball. as for “50 Shades,” i’d just rather watch porn. same result but saves time.

    • i see most of what you’re saying. i see overindulgence, narcissism, dark sides, etc. but i don’t see a story. i don’t see anyone i care about. i know that some of what i’m looking for are elements of genre fiction, and i know there’s a chance that fitzgerald was writing “above” what i’m looking for, and that’s okay, but there isn’t enough there for me to understand the praise it has gotten – which it did not get until long after it was published.

  3. You and I could argue apple and oranges all the day long, and we’d still both agree “The Great Gatsby” is not the best novel in American literature; disagree it is a great novel in American literature.

    What separates TGG from other books of its ilk is absolutely nothing. What TGG has over other books is an instant recognizable quality — it is laden with tropes, and these conventions and archetypes are discussed throughout. We see and experience the dual between old money and new money, the rise and fall of an enigmatic white male over a damsel, and ever looming mystery that is the source of Gatsby’s wealth. Yes, there are few likable characters in the novel. That, for me, is the weakest point of the novel, which happens to be a sore topic for me — why such weak characters? Dammit, Fitzgerald.

    This reliance on trope is, in my opinion, the best quality of TGG. It is also the most annoying — a rather superficial novel, at best. But one that characterizes an entire decade, and, at its best, the American Dream so explored in American literature.

    But, again, TGG is not the best novel. It is only great.

  4. Easily one of the worst books that I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading. Which is funny because I’ve loved every other F. Scott Fitzgerald book. His first book, This Side of Paradise is written with a sense of urgency, but Gatsby just feels lazy.

  5. I’ve never read it, but I was given a copy of it to read on my birthday last year. Haven’t yet got round to it, but now I want to, to see if I agree! You and both feel the same way about Stephen King books – great stories, failed endings, so I wonder if I’ll feel the same about this.

  6. A read it a couple of years ago to see what all the fuss is about and found it to be a complete yawn-fest, so I’m with Rich. This made me think I must be lacking something in the literary appreciation department but now I’m happy to see I’m not alone. In disliking TGG, that is. 🙂

  7. I hated this book when we had to read it in school so I’m glad you don’t care for it either. The other one I couldn’t stand was ‘The Giver’. I also hated that futuristic one where they meet the ‘outsiders’ and make babies in test tubes. Then everyone’s sleeping around with each constantly. I can’t think of the name though but we read it in school.

  8. Yep, this article pretty much sums up why I am not a fan of “The Great Gatsby” book. I do think it has greater value in terms of the way it depicts an American era, personified by one man who has become larger than life even though he himself doesn’t have much of a reason to live. Perhaps it’s the IDEA of Gatsby that is interesting enough to novelize. But it was one of those books that – the minute I opened it up -, told me, “You’ve been assigned to read and write papers on me, or see your grade fall to ruin. SUCKER!!!”

  9. I am not confused, but, rather, wondering. I am supposed to go to the movies with a friend within the week to watch “Gatsby”. Now, I have seen movies that were both better and worse than the book.
    I guess we shall see. I do know that I, often, like films that critics and sane people do not care for.
    Anyway, thanks for the heads up, Rich. And, by the way, I like Stephen King.
    Scott

    • to me, stephen king is a fabulous appetizer, entree, but then a crappy dessert. he can’t end a story with any real conclusion. his endings are often kind of random and spontaneous or too convenient. that’s because he doesn’t outline. he just gets an idea and starts writing, never knowing for sure where he’s going to end up, which is why his endings often don’t work for me. not that i could ever have even a percentage point of his success.

  10. The Great Gatsby’s been sitting in my bookcase for 40 years. Have I ever read it? Now I’m wondering. You see, I have this fantastic memory -Alzheimer’s not hit me yet, God forbid!- and can remember the name of all my classmates, teachers and professors from Kindergarten up – till I graduated from college in 1976. I clearly remember The Great Gatsby was one of the thousand books we had to read in British and American Literature during the second of four years in the Translation course. While the names you mention -Myrtle, Daisy…- do ring a bell, the book, the plot -or the lack of it- simply do not. Maybe I just studied the teacher’s “notes” most probably a 30-odd page in-depth analysis of every character, situation and the overall story. It was either this or I actually did read the book but I clean forgot about it the minute I got my marks after the final exam. I read all the other books we were required to read… all except for one. Sorry to hurt Joyce’s fans’ feelings but I have never found a book more annoying and boring than Ulysses. God knows I must have given it like 30 shots in my life but never made it past page 50. I found it to be an ideal companion when I travel to my hometown (220 miles away) by bus. It’s all I need to fall asleep before the bus hits the highway -just ten blocks from the bus terminal!

    • i read gatsby about seven years ago when my daughter was reading it for school. as for “terms” and “love story,” ick. they are what i call “death stories.” in which we get introduced to characters, learn about them, follow their life for a while, and then there’s nothing else to do – so the writer has to kill someone in order to end the story. i hate those stories. no thanks.

  11. I’ve never had any desire to read the book…or see the movie. But I needed to do some research from that era, and did watch it on Amazon a few months ago. If it followed the novel at all, I agree. I thought the storyline was incredibly dull…and the ending completely sucked. I’ve heard people say, “Well that’s two hours I’ll never get back.” That’s exactly how I felt when it was over. It makes me glad that I didn’t invest ten years in reading the book. Fortunately I did get some decent notes, but that’s about it.

  12. Like you, I despised this book when I was forced to read it in school 40+ years ago. Unlike you, I will not read it again. I have found I had unusually discerning taste as a teenager. I also hated City of God and Confessions of St. Augustine, both of which I read again as an adult. On the other hand, I loved all the tales of Tolkien as a child which I first began reading at 11 years of age when my father bought them for me, I have read them all since as an adult with my sons twice.

    • i won’t argue that, if a book has such a great following like “gatsby,” there must be something there even if we don’t see it. however, i can’t see the rationale for pushing it on teenagers, as nick pointed out in his comment. let adults find it if something draws them to it, but don’t push it on high school kids. there are so many other things they could read and enjoy. right now my kid is trying to choke down “a midsummer night’s dream.” good luck to her. earlier this year they struggled through “animal farm.” i wish schools would learn that there have been thousands of other books written since then, and they don’t have to keep recycling the same stories over and over again.

  13. I loved this. While I’ve never read Gatsby, and probably never will, I find that most seemingly brilliant classics are boring, simplistic, and use way more words than are necessary regarding unimportant details.

  14. Reblogged this on Classy With a Twist and commented:
    He put into words exactly how I feel when I read most classic literature. Plus, the review of the famous novel is quite entertaining.
    Enjoy!

  15. Interestingly, I just read where FSF is Amazon’s top selling author … and I don’t say that to counter your points. So, will you see and review the movie? Compare it to the book?

    • the commercials disturb me. i won’t see it because it looks more like they were making a commercial instead of a movie. i have read enough reviews to know i won’t like it, especially with some of the changes they made.

      a couple of years ago the coen brothers remade “true grit” with the intention of being true to the book, and that was a good move. gatsby didn’t do that, but it should have. in the book, the narrator was telling the story after leaving gatsby and that whole lifestyle behind him and moving on. in the film, the narrator is in an asylum recovering from severe alcoholism. that wasn’t necessary.

      having said that, if i had a chance to see it without paying $10, then perhaps i would watch it.

      what about you?

  16. THANK YOU. I have actually read this book three times, at three different points in my life, hoping each time I pick it up that I will figure out what qualifies it as literary genius. And every time I end up throwing the damn book across the room, disgusted with the waste of my own time.

    You had it spot on: no driving plot and no likable characters. No conflict, and no conflict resolution. “Glorified anecdote” is the most precisely accurate descriptor I’ve heard.

  17. I watched movie few days ago and told to myself “This is the worst movie Ive ever seen in my life” I wanted to read the book but after reading this I wont read it… I only read 2 your posts and I have to say I love your work. keep with a good work

  18. I read this last week, scarfing the whole thing down to prep for seeing the movie (which I have yet to do) because I’m like that.

    I found it okay, I didn’t think it was bad. I can honestly see why it stays on the classics list: it’s so American it almost hurts, and it’s peppered with some good single sentences. The prose is its best contributing factor, and I think the book came out in an era where really good prose got accepted to the canon.

    Mostly, though, once something’s a classic, it’s almost impossible for it to lose that position, so maybe the literary sphere has evolved enough that Fitzgerald’s story doesn’t pack as much punch.

    Or maybe I’m just ambivalent. Nonetheless, I agree with a lot of your criticisms (and enjoy your other posts, which I’ve only just discovered).

    • you’re right. impossible for anything to change the “classic” label now. i think at that time, as you suggested, there wasn’t a lot of good american literature, so it was the best of a not-so-good pile of stuff. not positive about that, but it make sense.

      i won’t see the film unless it’s on cable free. thanks for reading and browsing and discovering. very nice of you to stop by.

  19. I was forced to read this for a lit theory class I took last semester and I disliked every moment of it. Worse, the textbook we had for the class referred to this novel every single chapter. I completely agree in all of the novel’s shortcomings. I could not get into it for the life of me and for the record I never finished it. There was nothing to draw me in (no contract – I’ve been browsing) or keep me there.

    • i am both happy but sorry that you agree with me. happy because you’re clearly an astute reader and know what you’re talking about. sorry because you had to suffer through it. my condolences, but that’s for coming and sharing your thoughts.

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