This December, Warner Bros. Pictures will release a film adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book "The Great Gatsby." Young readers looking for an addition to their summer reading lists may therefore wish to revisit this classic novel. Short, readable, and engaging, "The Great Gatsby" tells the story of the lavish yet tragic lifestyle of the mysterious Jay Gatsby.
The novel is narrated by Nick Carraway, a young Midwesterner who moves to the West Egg district of Long Island in 1922 to learn about the bond business. Nick’s next-door neighbor is Jay Gatsby, a man whose extravagant parties are always well attended and yet whom nobody truly knows.
When Nick drives to East Egg for dinner with his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband, Tom, the Buchanans introduce him to the beautiful yet cynical Jordan Baker. From Jordan, Nick learns that Tom has made no secret of his affair with Myrtle Wilson, a woman from New York City. Nick considers himself an outsider to the West Egg culture, but he begins a relationship with Jordan.
As the summer progresses, Nick receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s parties and begins his acquaintance with the man behind the mansion. Gatsby confides in Nick that he is in love with Daisy, whom he had known several years before, and that his gigantic mansion and opulent lifestyle are simply an attempt to impress her. He urges Nick to arrange a meeting between the two of them, and Nick agrees.
The unfolding events expose the hypocrisy and vapidity of New York society. Gatsby’s reckless pursuit of pleasure ends in tragedy, and Nick is left disenchanted with the glittering lifestyle of the morally decayed upper class.
"The Great Gatsby" has earned its reputation as a great American novel. The book captures the atmosphere of the postwar world, when Americans were disillusioned with traditional values and sought fulfillment in the pursuit of pleasure. Furthermore, Fitzgerald is an outstanding writer. One can feel the oppressive summer heat and sense the moral corruption oozing through Long Island society. With its rich but accessible language, the book is a delight to read.
Another strength of this novel is that, like all great art, it addresses the fall as well as hinting at the longing for redemption. "The Great Gatsby" vividly depicts the excesses of the Jazz Age. “Her voice is full of money!” Gatsby exclaims of Daisy. Fitzgerald vividly depicts human wickedness in an era of economic prosperity, including drinking during Prohibition, adultery, murder, and suicide. While parents may wish to exercise caution with regard to such themes, the novel refrains from describing this material in graphic detail. (It’s possible that this may not hold true for the upcoming film.) Furthermore, the novel does not glorify wickedness but rather depicts the hopelessness and despair of a lifestyle devoted to nothing but the pursuit of pleasure.
So perhaps the greatest strength of this novel is that it clearly depicts the futility of materialism. In spite of increased wealth and material prosperity, Americans in the 1920s were more cynical and lonelier than ever. The New York partygoers seek happiness in in the reckless pursuit of unrestrained pleasure, but they fail to find it. Gatsby in particular learns the hard way that money cannot buy what he desires most.
“Can’t repeat the past?” Gatsby cries incredulously. “Why of course you can!” Yet with all his opulence, Gatsby cannot buy back time nor purchase what he desires most. In this, the novel vividly illustrates what Christians have always taught: The path to happiness is not found in material pleasure.
"The Great Gatsby" is an excellent choice for young readers seeking an entertaining but thought-provoking book.
Image copyright Scribner. Review copy borrowed from a local library.
Marissa Krmpotich is a Latin teacher at a classical Christian school in Maryland.
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