Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Thoughts on Gatsby

So, I've been reading The Great Gatsby for our Young Adult Book Club this month. I actually read the first half in the book and then listened to the second half as an audio book during my recent trip to Ohio for a wedding. One of the themes of the book is the difference in class and culture between the East Coast and the Midwest, so it was interesting to be listening to this story while making a bit of that journey myself.
It has been a while since I've read this book, and on this reading, I found myself reflecting on why this became such an icon of American literature. What is it about this little story (it's pretty short) that seems to say something about our national character? I'm not sure that I came up with an answer, but it did strike me that stories about shape-shifters, characters who mask their past identity in order to succeed, somehow resonate with our myth of the "American Dream." Gatsby is a man who reinvents himself from a common Midwesterner in order to set himself up in the aristocracy of New York society and gain the love of one of its women. He changes his name and invents a new story of his past (or rather lets others do it for him without actually denying it). There is an aspect to this story that is quintessentially American and reminds me of other players in our collective imagination: Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's, Bob Dylan, even Hillary Clinton to an extent. These stories reflect the American ideal that we can all be whoever we want to be. But, Fitzgerald's story of Gatsby is ultimately tragic, and so we must ponder the ugliness and the violence of this vision of success. This complexity and richness is, I suppose, what makes this book important. I look forward to discussing this book on Thursday at the book club and hearing what others think.

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