The Third-Person Sanctimonious

    With The Great Gatsby fever in full swing (to mix a metaphor), I've been thinking about the book a lot today. I tweeted yesterday that I had never really got what all the fuss was about.

    I find it hard to explain what I find problematic about it. I wouldn't say it's bad, just that it's not as good as nearly everyone says it is. I see it as largely being about rich people having parties, and a couple of tragic deaths. And while I don't think that you have to like -- or even identify with -- all the characters for fiction to work, in this case none of them has any redeeming feature, as far as I can tell.

    There’s a recent article in the Guardian by Sarah Churchwell about how wonderful it all is. It’s a well-written piece, but I find it just as hard to get to grips with, to understand the point of, as the novel itself.

    So I did a search for “Gatsby overrated”, and found this piece by Kathryn Schulz which absolutely nails it.

    One point she makes perhaps helps to explain why I find the characters so objectionable:

    Like many American moralists, Fitzgerald was more offended by pleasure than by vice, and he had a tendency to confound them. In The Great Gatsby, polo and golf are more morally suspect than murder.


    On the page, Fitzgerald’s moralizing instinct comes off as cold; the chill that settles around The Great Gatsby is an absence of empathy.

    My favourite part is her parenthetical assertion that:

    In a literary hostage exchange, I would trade a thousand Fitzgeralds for one Edward St. Aubyn, 10,000 for an Austen or Dickens.

    Though I had to look up Edward St. Aubyn.

    But her main argument concerns the shallowness of the characterisations, the emphasis on symbolism over emotion:

    Of the great, redemptive romance on which the entire story is supposed to turn, he admitted, “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy.”

    What was Fitzgerald doing instead of figuring out such things about his characters? Precision-engineering his plot, chiefly, and putting in overtime at the symbol factory.

    For me, though, as I think on it some more, the problem with it all (and in contradiction to the last quote above) is the thinness of the plot. The prose is famously poetic in places, and that’s fine; but the real weakness is that there’s almost no story there.

    And that famous last line1? Poetic though it is, when you parse it, it means absolutely nothing at all.

    1. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”, as I’m sure you know. ↩︎