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What makes The Great Gatsby such an enduring work of literature? It was not, after all, a bestseller when it was published, yet it is still in print 90 years after its original publication. It has sold millions of copies, and is taught in high schools and universities as an American classic. The novel holds up well to re-reading, each time revealing more depth and richness than the time before. Fitzgerald’s plot is fairly simple, but the themes are universal and the novel captures the zeitgeist of the roaring twenties to perfection. It is difficult enough for an author to distill the cultural nuances of an age given the advantages of hindsight and history, but it takes a keen observer to pull it off while immersed in it as Fitzgerald was, especially when viewing it through the booze-induced haze that clouded his reality. Fitzgerald coined the phrase “the Jazz Age,” and The Great Gatsby, with its vivid descriptions of new money, wild parties, carelessness and excess has come to symbolize that expression.
Set in the summer of 1922 the book is wistfully narrated by Nick Carroway, a young man from the Midwest who during a few short summer months observes the dreams, disappointments, and disillusionments of both his distant cousin Daisy Buchanan and his next door neighbor Jay Gatsby, the mysterious man who has fashioned a life of wealth and extravagance in the hope of wooing his former lover Daisy back into his arms. The language, while beautifully capturing a specific time and place, also feels timeless. The book still resonates with love, lust, and obsession, and clearly delineates the differences between the haves and the have nots. Gatsby is at once enigmatic, powerful, and pitiable, as he fails to understand the rules of the game. His dreams are realized, and then shattered, as is the innocence of the watchful narrator.
In the first chapter Nick describes Gatsby as having “an extraordinary gift for hope.” Maybe that’s what makes the book so appealing, that naïve, desperate longing to cling to the comfort of the past while simultaneously harboring hope for the future, to reinvent yourself and to relive the past with a better outcome. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
(This article also appears in the Tulsa Book Review’s June issue.)
TCCL is celebrating Gatsby this summer with our One Book, One Tulsa program. A number of related programs are being offered throughout the city. Learn more about it and our Adult Summer Reading Program here.