I remember sitting in my American Literature class in college when we were about to start The Great Gatsby. The professor asked who had read it in high school and then promptly told us all to forget everything we’d learned about it. In high school The Great Gatsby is read like a magic decoder ring. West Egg and East Egg represent this, eye glasses on a billboard represent that, and the green light stands above all.
The reading of it in college wasn’t that much different. Instead of focusing on the Spark Notes readers guide to symbols and theology The Great Gatsby was read as a story of the myth of the American Dream, American exceptionalism, and the greatest of American sins, poverty. The following passage was treated as the crux of the narrative by my college professor;
“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.
“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can.”
He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.
“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said nodding determinedly, “She’ll see.”
He talked a lot about the past and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…
The idea of the futility of returning to the past is echoed in the novel’s famous lines about boats beat back and all that, and it should ring especially true in the age of Make America Great Again, but I now find it a rather naive reading of the manuscript.
Perhaps my thoughts on this is that as soon as I finished college I was fed up with reading literature. I spend a good year or more trying to read every Agatha Christie and Louis L’Amour novel. Two o the most famous pulp novelist that ever lived. My failing was that both are very much considered legendary authors in their own right or I would have had more trouble accessing their writings. In recent years I have struggled to find current print editions of Nathaniel West and H. Rider Haggard. Christie and L’Amour still being best selling and widely read novelists in the early 2000’s should have told me I wasn’t reading straight pulp fiction and was still wading in the waters of literature.
However, those writers are much more plot focused than any novel I had been taught in my college courses. Recently I have dove deep into the realm of crime fiction, and I would say it is these two points in my history as a reader that allowed me to finally read The Great Gatsby and focus mainly on the plot, and through this find what I now believe to be the greatest symbolism of the story.
Just look at the story. It is a common one found on the Hallmark and Lifetime channel. The only difference is Daisy doesn’t leave the big city to return to her small mid-west town. Her small mid-west town comes looking for her. Tom, Gatsby, Nick, and Daisy are all transplanted mid-westerners living on Long Island. Tom is the abusive, racist, abrasive, boorish husband found in nearly every modern romance and rom-com you can stream on Netflix. Gatsby is the exciting and adventurous ex-soldier/lover from the past living on the fringes of society. om and Gatsby certainly represent two different aspects of American life. Tom came to his wealth by inheriting a couple generations old fortune and Gatsby came to his status by being a young attractive man the mob set up as a patsy/lightning rod. Neither of them worked to earn anything they have and they are both, for the most part, detestable people.
Gatsby and Daisy carry on an affair through the summer while Tom and his mistress, Myrtle, have one of their own. Tom, being the great misogynist he is, is irate at Daisy for her affair and completely forgiving of himself. Then one day they all go to the city. Tom, Nick, and Jordan Baker, Nick’s summer fling, in one car and Gatsby and Daisy in another. Tom drives Gatsby’s car into the city and stops at the gas station owner by the husband of his mistress, who has discovered the affair but is ignorant of who with and has locked his wife in her room until he can get the money to move out west. Tom has promised him a car to sell and he asks about the yellow one he is driving and Tom tells him it isn’t his.
Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Nick, and Jordan all meet up for drinks at a hotel room and Tom and Daisy have it out. Gatsby pushes too far forcing Daisy to tell Tom she never loved him. Tom recounts some nice times they had together and Daisy storms out upset. They take Gatsby’s car back to the island, Myrtle breaks out of her room, and Daisy accidentally runs her over as she attempts to talk to the driver of the yellow car, who she believes is Tom. Myrtles husband is devastated by the death of his wife. Traipses over to Long Island seeking out the owner of the yellow car. Eventually going directly to Tom to ask him who it belongs to. Tom tells him. George, Myrtles husband, shoots Gatsby and himself while Tom and Daisy move back to the mid-west.
There it is. The plot of The Great Gatsby. An American crime story. A whodunit in reverse. And in that plot is plenty of symbolism to unpack. Daisy driving Gatsby’s car strikes and kills Tom’s mistress while she is trying to flee her husband to be with Tom. Tom, who is detached and cold towards everyone, points George in the direction of Gatsby and let’s him off the man that is sleeping with Tom’s wife while letting George believe he is getting revenge for his cuckolding and the murder of his wife. All while Tom stays married to the woman that cheated on him, because she is one more possession, and never learns that she is really the one that killed his mistress. There is definitely plenty of symbolism in all that, and reading the book not having to write a 5,000 word essay at the end of it about theme and context and it’s place in our cultural memory can’t have hurt in my focusing on that over running faster and stretching our arms further.