Understanding Great Literature: Understanding The Great Gatsby, by Michael J. Wyly
This is an excellent book about an excellent book. I happen to like the Great Gatsby a lot , although I did not read it until I read it by choice during my college years. Again, like many great books, this is one that is often assigned to high school students to read. I have mixed feelings about that sort of approach to induced reading. On the one hand, most people would probably never be exposed to great books unless they were forced to read them. On the other hand, people can resent not only the books they are forced to read but other books like them simply because of their own experiences. For those readers who want to understand the depth of the Great Gatsby who are high school or undergraduate students, this is a good book that introduces the reader to basic textual criticism about the novel and hopefully encourages the reader to adopt some basic textual criticism approaches in their own reading. Learning how to read critically is a worthwhile skill, and this book is definitely good encouragement to readers in developing it.
In terms of the contents and structure of this book, this book appears to resemble the previous book in the series I have read so far, which means there is likely a fairly strict template that governs the contents of the books in this series, which generally makes for ease of reading. After a short foreword the author discusses the humanity of the Great Gatsby in the face of shallow materialism and widespread corruption. After this the author discusses the tragic life of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the historical context of the Jazz Age, gangsters, and the decline of the American dream. The last three chapters of the book cover wealth, love and tragedy, the characters, and the themes of the Great Gatsby respectively. Afterwards there are some notes and suggestions for further reading as well as some comments on textual criticism. As seems pretty common in this series, the textual criticism of this book is pretty worthwhile and an intriguing read, as it appears that few readers quickly understood the layered and nuanced nature of the work, and some viewed it as a fairly superficial account of superficial people not unlike Fitzgerald and his associates and peers at the time.
There is a tragic irony in all of this. Fitzgerald was all too aware of the autobiographical nature of much of what he wrote. He appears to have been self-aware of his struggles with alcoholism and with the tension between a love of beauty and a longing for money and status. The author himself lived in a place not unlike Gatsby’s, with “friends” and acquaintances not unlike those in the novel, and there was clearly a great deal of association with people of a dubious morality who had taken advantage of the corruption of the time. The novel strikes an ambivalent tone, expressing a desire for fun but also a realization of the fact that the apparent good times would not last very long, as indeed they did not. If all of this makes Fitzgerald sound like a prophet of doom, well, much more is visible in hindsight than at the time. At the time this was a novel with a certain amount of cynical charm and surface appeal, but it has enough depth and enough humanity to make it worth reading and studying as a great book for this present age at least. So long as there are people who deal with the tension between a longing for intimacy and beauty and a longing to rise, this book will be a cautionary tale that is worth heeding.
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