I first read Gatsby by accident, when I was twenty-four, late one night at the end of my second year in graduate school, the night before I left to spend the summer in New York. I had finished packing my tattered second-hand suitcase and the small string tied cardboard box of books I was taking with me. With nothing left to do, I picked up a slim paperback edition, a copy of Gatsby, and started to read. It was, if I remember, a little after midnight when I started and a little after four in the morning when I finally finished it and knew immediately that I would one day read it again. And I have, at least half a dozen times, the last time just a few days ago. The astonishing thing is that each time is like reading something you have never read before. You remember that you have read it, you remember the story, you remember whole lines, but it still, somehow, comes as a surprise, the way Fitzgerald makes you feel that you know these people as well, or better, than anyone you have ever actually met.
It is like listening to a story told by one of your uncles about relatives you never knew, the story he tells you each time you see him and always manages to change, until finally you decide that he is only telling you things that someone had once told him, but because it is mostly a story made up of the fragments of other people’s now forgotten lives, because it does not concern itself with a too careful attention to the literal biographical facts, tells you something more important about who these people really were, what they thought and what they felt, and what, sometimes without quite realizing what they were doing or the effect it would have, what they did. It is that way with Gatsby, the novel that will tell you more about what America was like in the bright, dizzy days between the Great War and the Great Depression when money became the only thing anyone wanted and the only thing needed to make you what you had always wanted to be, when everyone danced through the Jazz Age, the phrase Fitzgerald invented, when life for those rich enough to afford it was a party that lasted all summer and summer, banishing the seasons, lasted all year.
Driven by the dream of the girl with whom he fell in love, Gatsby, Jay Gatsby, did everything he could to become what he thinks he has to be to have any chance with her. He buys a huge estate across the Long Island Sound from where Daisy, the girl with whom he had been engaged before he went away to the war, lives with her husband, Tom Buchanan who, like his wife, has always been used to a life of wealth and privilege. Every night, Gatsby looks across the water at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, the green light that represents everything he hopes for, the justification for everything he has done. Hundreds of guests, invited and uninvited, come to the colossal parties given by Gatsby every weekend, and one of the rumors that circulate about their host, a rumor that tends to make him even more mysterious in the eyes of all those anonymous intruders, is that he once killed someone. It is a rumor that seems to discredit itself when they suddenly find themselves in the presence of his inimitable smile. “It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Gatsby, who had nothing when he met Daisy, when he was a young soldier about to go to war, lied about where he had come from; he lied about everything, including his name. After the war, he became rich selling liquor when selling liquor was a crime, and became richer still by his involvement with the man who had fixed the l9l9 World Series, the thing that more than anything else taught Americans that nothing was sacred, that everything could be had – even the loyalty of baseball players, even the integrity of the game that America loved – for a price. Whether or not he had ever killed anyone, Gatsby was a liar and a thief, and yet, more than any of those who had been born into the wealthy, established families whose palatial estates lined the waters of the sound, Gatsby had a purpose in his life and a sense of honor. All the others, Tom and Daisy and their spoiled friends, lived their careless lives and let others try to put back together all the things they had broken. Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, kills a woman who dashed into the street, the same woman who had been having an affair with Tom Buchanan. Gatsby, a passenger, lets everyone think he was driving. Daisy does not mind. The woman’s husband, deranged by grief, murders Gatsby in his pool. Tom Buchanan thinks he deserved it.
At the end, Daisy’s second cousin, Nick Carraway, who is telling the story, goes back to Gatsby’s enormous and abandoned house and wanders down to the shore.
“I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning –
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
But Gatsby stays with us forever.