Friday, September 27, 2013

Was Gatsby Really That Great?

Despite being only one hundred and forty (or so) pages long, it took me a very long time to come to terms with The Great Gatsby. Declared by many to be “The Great American Novel”, and a stalwart of most English teachers’ libraries, it felt like there was far too much critical weight for me to grapple with. It was no surprise that I had dreaded reading it for so long, and perhaps that is why it took me so long not only to get through it, but also to appreciate it fully.

I can’t tell you how long it took me to read it initially; because it feels so long ago that I actually can’t remember. I think it took about a fortnight, broken up into intermittent chunks. In my first reading, I tried to keep up with the story, hurrying my way through it in anticipation of seeing Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation before it left the cinemas. I managed to finish it in time, but I ended up feeling less than positive about the book.

Upon finishing it, I felt like I had just endured a return to high school English class: the themes that I had been told about all the way through the book seemed heavy-handed, with no nuance or interpretation; I hated most of the characters, save Gatsby (because he still seemed nice, and I was certain he had been hard done by from the events of the book), but I had a special disdain for Nick Carroway, who I felt had washed his hands of his own implication in the narrative, choosing instead to declare himself better than those he had freely chosen to associate with, and whose questionable actions he had not protested during the time they were happening. To me, Carroway was a coward, and a self-aggrandising one at that. He aggravated me immensely, and made reading the book more than a little grating. I thought the story was good, but I simply didn’t connect with any of the characters in a way that would give the book the life so many had insisted it had. It felt like, well, a bit of wank.

So yes, it’s easy to say that my first impressions of the book weren’t great. But they certainly weren’t mature either - I had judged it with about as much open-mindedness as a grumpy teenager.