Critic’s Corner: What’s so great about ‘Gatsby’?

Sarah Kaderbek


Sarah KaderbekEvery other classic ever might be old and boring, but everyone loves “The Great Gatsby.” 

Except me. 

I admit that Fitzgerald’s writing style is incredible, vivid and yet easy to read. But “Gatsby” is supposedly the great American novel, and if it is, there must be greatness in its content as well its style. 

Can anyone tell me what’s so great about “Gatsby”? 

First, we need to address the greater movement of which it’s a part and the historical context in which it was written.

The Modernist authors were rebelling against the literary tradition of their predecessors. Romanticism they rejected for its divinization of Nature, for raising the sensual and beautiful to the position of something Divine. Victorians, however, were accused of stigmatizing those very things in service to a Puritanical God  of divinizing propriety. 

The Modernists were determined to exalt nothing.  

When these future authors went to the trench warfare of the first World War, they saw nature destroyed and humanity at its worst and came home with ideals more mangled than even their minds and bodies.  

Horrified, they abandoned their predecessors’ ideas of transcendence and propriety as symptoms of a false, empty idealism obviously at odds with reality. When they began to write, they wrote to give voice to “realism”  their experience of brokenness, despair and darkness utterly devoid of meaning. 

Modernism tore the transcendent down to the worldly level, taking nature, humanity and even God and covering them in the smut of earth. 

Fitzgerald writes on and in this condition, emphasizing broken ideals and people. Gatsby himself is a veteran of the World War who, despite his disillusionment, is driven by a fanatical ideal: Daisy. Yet when he achieves her, the ideal is shattered. According to the worldview above, no ideal can offer the healing he needs, so Gatsby dies  happy, no doubt, to be dead. 

At this point, it seems as though there is nothing great about “Gatsby” or Modernism. However, there is certainly something which attracts and compels so many people. 

“Gatsby” is the depiction of a soul  the soul of the Jazz Age  a broken, hurting, mangled mess cut off from the good and transcendent. This is so compelling because we all know the reality of pain. 

When we are hurt physically, we have an innate desire to show that wound. Have you ever gotten a really epic-looking bruise, say, on your arm? How many friends did you show it to? “Isn’t this awful-looking?” 

The literature of the 1920s achieves this goal. The authors  and we, the readers  are broken and hurting, and this literature cries, “Look! Look at my wound! Do you see my mangled heart?” There is a catharsis, a relief, in revealing our pain to others; literature of this type can help fill this need. 

But we are not meant to stop there. The point of revealing the wound is not to revel in it but to seek healing. When we are really injured, we don’t just show our friends  “Look! Isn’t it cool? I’m bleeding out!”  we also seek medical attention. 

But “Gatsby” as a work not only stops short of providing a solution to the brokenness of the human condition but even suggests that healing is impossible, that there is no good to combat the evil. 

This is a lie. 

For all its intended realism, “Gatsby”  and the realist movement  ignores half of reality. Reducing the world to pain, despair and broken ideals, it denies the greater reality of goodness, hope and the Divine. For all the realists’ scorn for romanticism and idealism, they only succeed in romanticizing and idolizing the darkness. 

Last print, I talked about the two goals of literature: to point to the Divine and illustrate the human. The realism movement rejects the existence of the transcendent and Divine and, by doing so, obscures even the goodness of humanity. 

Determined to paint an accurate picture of the world, F. Scott Fitzgerald stared into the soul of darkness and despair, but the problem with focusing on evil is that it becomes all you can see. Darkness makes everything look dark; it illuminates nothing. 

Thus, in “Gatsby,” there is no hope, no light for humanity because there is no God to give it to us. The manmade light across the water is all Gatsby has to reach for. It failed him, and he sees it no more. 

So, what’s so great about “Gatsby”? What can be great about a work which denies greatness? 

Ultimately, “The Great Gatsby” is a compelling and effective depiction of human brokenness and a window into the despairing soul, which is good so far as it goes. But evil is only to be understood in order to defeat it. We must move beyond the diagnosis and reach the cure. 

“The Good-ish Gatsby” doesn’t have quite the same ring, though.