The Truth about Gatsby

Photo by Cheri Block Sabraw 2009

Retreating to classical literature with its enduring Truths is my custom when what I see, read or hear unsettles my stomach and troubles my heart. Like sipping an old Port wine or watching a baby toddle, I find comfort in the simple truths that so many would like to debate.

Perhaps one of the greatest opening lines in any classic novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s start to one of the top five books of the 20th Century, The Great Gatsby.

They go like this:

“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all of the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

And so Fitzgerald creates his famous  reliable narrator, one who will dispassionately tell the story that we, the readers, will believe.

Nick Carraway’s father’s lines above alert us that this story will have characters that annoy, shock, and amaze us; still, we should suspend judgment, perhaps, until the last words of the book.

And then we can judge for ourselves.

There are those who would argue that Truth, and thus judgment, is a subjective term and yes, culturally, historically and religiously, we know that one’s truth may be another’s lie.

But in the big picture, say in the bones of The Great Gatsby, some of us know the following:

It was wrong for George to kill Gatsby and wrong for Gatsby to have an affair with Tom’s wife, Daisy. It was wrong for Daisy to have no relationship with her child, and wrong for Myrtle, George’s wife, to have an affair with Tom, Daisy’s husband. It was wrong for Gatsby to lie about his poor past and wrong for the Buchanan’s to flaunt their wealth.

It was wrong for Jordan, one of the minor characters, to lie about her golf game and wrong for Gatsby’s friend, Meyer Wolfsheim to rig the 1919 World Series.

It was wrong for Fitzgerald to stereotype Jews, blacks, and women.

The last lines of the story are these:

And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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10 Responses to The Truth about Gatsby

  1. Christopher says:

    “…….It was wrong for Fitzgerald to stereotype Jews, blacks, and women……..

    Yes, it was. But Fitzgerald was a man of his time, when “white” men openly spoke disparagingly of women, and of anyone generally not of Anglo-Saxon or northern European descent.

    The Tom Buchanan character’s view of history was widely held. I, myself, when growing up, heard this stuff from grown-ups, many, many times.

    Think of the Nixon tapes, by which we can listen to what Nixon said about blacks and Jews, and what he condescendingly said about women. These remarks sound awful through our contemporary sensibilities, but they reflect what so many – arguably the majority – of non- Jewish “white” people of Nixon’s generation thought.

    It’s really only within the last 50 years that attitudes began to change. It’s all so recent.

  2. Cheri says:

    Point well taken. Thanks for this thoughtful response.

  3. andreaskluth says:

    It really is one of the greatest opening lines ever. There is a wonderful noblesse-oblige, easy, tolerant and empathetic elitism about it. It’s a way of saying a whole lot about yourself (ie Nick Carraway) AND about the human condition to come.

    Opening lines are an art form. When you (the writer) agonize over them too much, they become contrived. But you do have to think about them more than about any other line in a book.

  4. Cheri says:

    Looking forward to reading the first line in your book.

  5. Christopher says:

    Will you see, or have you seen, the just-released Baz Luhrman version of “The Great Gatsby”? If you have seen it, how did you find it?

    I have to say, the more I watch the Redford-Farrow 1974 film of it (which I did again last night), the more it grows on me, not least because of the mood created through songs like “What’ll I Do?” and “When You and I Were Seventeen”.

    Will Bart Luhrman’s version do it for me, as the 1974 version did? From the trailer and reviews, I strongly doubt it will. On the other hand, though………..

    How about you?!!

    • Cheri says:

      Hi Christopher,
      Funny you would ask me about the new movie. Kurt, about whom I have blogged several times, most recently in a post entitled Oiling a Wheel, were just e-mailing each other about the very topic you bring up.

      I showed that Redford movie in my classroom every year after we read Gatsby. It was one of the only movies I would use because it seemed to me very close to the novel. Kurt believes it was too hazy, as if there was a fog on the lens of the film camera.

      Both Kurt and I will not be going to see the new movies based on reviews and as you have observed, the trailer.

      If you can find it online, the best review I have read is Joe Morgenstern’s in the Wall Street Journal. I love Morgensterns’ humor and language. His review cemented for me my concerns about this new adaptation.

      If you see it, please review it.

      Also, I’d like to be an email subscriber to your blog. Can you enable that widget?

      • Christopher says:

        I’ve just read what Morgenstern wrote, as you suggested. Apart from calling it a dreadful film, he said it was all spectacle and no soul. No more need be said.

        Nonetheless, I will go to see this new version, if only to get confirmation that, as is the case with almost any film set in yesteryear, it’ll say as much about today, and, derivatively, as much about our current mass artistic and aesthetic values, as it will about “The Great Gatsby” itself.

        I fully expect, though, that this new version will make huge amounts of money for all who made it. That’s the name of the game.

        As for the 1974 film being “……too hazy, as if there was a fog on the lens of the film camera……”, this would obviously have been to create mood, in this case a nostalgic mood. What better, then, than haziness in any film, as well as the right music (*like this*) to send us in search of a lost time.

        This last week I saw also a made-for-TV film of Gatsby, made in 2000, that I quite liked. It’s on YouTube, so check it out. The casting is good, and it follows the novel quite faithfully.

        I also recently saw on YouTube, the 1961 film of “Tender is the Night”, that I liked also. And it was the film’s music, somewhat kitschy admittedly, that wonderfully made me yearn for the Riviera in the ‘twenties. The film serves as an excellent introduction to the novel itself, for no film, regardless how good, about a novel can even begin to equal the novel, unless it’s a very bad novel.

        So, here’s a good reason for anyone who’s never read Gatsby to see Luhrman’s film, for it may send him (or her), as well as swathes of other viewers, into the bookshops afterwards to buy and read “The Great Gatsby”. If the film does indeed do this, it will have been worth its making.

  6. Cheri says:

    I appreciate all of your suggestions. I had not heard of the made for TV version of Gatsby. I look forward to your review of the current film out there! OK, I’ll read your piece on Nixon. Love the image of the gauzy drape of nostalgia!

  7. Christopher says:

    Well, I finally summoned up the courage to see this latest Gatsby. And, what do you know, I liked it.

    For what it’s worth I explain why, *here*.

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