The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is what I regard as the worst book I have ever had the displeasure of reading in it’s entirety. Normally, this would be a feat I would allow to go unremarked, except for one thing. The novel is commonly listed as one of the great classics. Many people regard it as one of the best books ever written and I have been met with incredulity when I say I was not fond of it. So, I feel compelled to more closely examine why I think the book does not work.
Most commonly, when I see people talking about what they liked about The Great Gatsby, they describe the compelling characters, the beautiful prose, and the thrilling plot. This strikes me as strange because what I got was boring characters, bland prose, and a plot that was almost non-existent. It’s such a different experience than what other readers got from the book, I wasn’t sure we were even talking about the same book the first time it came up.
A few times, I’ve seen people suggest that those who don’t like The Great Gatsby are simply not fans of reading or literature. This may be the case for some, but I doubt it applies to me. As the level of effort behind this essay might suggest, I have a great deal of interest in the written word. By the first time I read The Great Gatsby, had been an avid reader for years and was regularly getting in trouble for reading when I should be doing something else (such as math class). I would say an effort to describe me as someone who just hates reading in general is disingenuous at best.
More often, I have people suggest that I would have liked it better if I hadn’t been forced to read and analyze the book. It is true that being forced to read a book can take the fun out of it and there are many children who will say they hate books out of spite more than anything else. Again, however, I doubt this can be applied to me. Prior to being assigned The Great Gatsby, I had on separate occasions been assigned Night by Eli Wiesel and The Giver by Lois Lowry. In both cases, the intent was for me to read a chapter at a time and then discuss with my class. In both cases, I found myself unable to put the books down and finished them in a single sitting.
Other than that, I found myself enjoying The Odyssey by Homer, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, several different pieces by Jack London, almost everything we covered by William Shakespeare, and many other works. I didn’t find my enjoyment of these diminished by analyzing them and in a few cases I found my enjoyment being enhanced by the closer examination the class provided. Even for the works I didn’t like, I saw more merit in them than I saw in The Great Gatsby. No, there was something that set this novel apart.
I have also had some people say that the book was simply not aimed at teenagers. Several times, I’ve had people tell me that they didn’t like it as a kid but when they reread it as an adult they had a completely different experience. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and reread the book now that I’m in my thirties. While there was a few aspects I was able to pick up on that I missed as a kid, mostly what a reread gave me was a better ability to identify what exactly I didn’t like about the novel.
My biggest issue with the novel is the fact that everyone takes the assumption that because Gatsby is the titular character he is therefor the main character. I disagree. I consider Nick Carraway, the narrator, to be the main character. Upon voicing this complaint in the past, I have had people suggest that perhaps I just wasn’t ready to comprehend the idea of the narrator character and the main character being different. Again, this accusation does not apply.
I’m very familiar with the use of that method (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously use the technique). I’ve read many works that use this style and written a few myself. I’m even prepared to argue that if allow yourself to consider it, some novels use non-persons as the main character. For example, I consider the main characters of How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove to be the military industrial complexes of the Union and Confederacy. I don’t consider Carraway to be the main character because he is the narrator, I consider him to be the main character because Gatsby isn’t given enough attention to qualify.
For a large part of the book, he is functionally not even a character but instead a part of the setting. He is background scenery. If we were to describe the novel under the Three Act Structure, we would say that Gatsby doesn’t even appear until the Second Act. By that time, Carraway has been firmly established as the main character. The reader is simply provided too much detail about his life to consider him anything else. By the time Gatsby is even introduced as a concept, Carraway has been through a bit of character development and the reader finds themselves wishing to see more.
However, further character development never manifests. In fact, of the major characters introduced at the beginning of the book, only Daisy seems to have her own personal story really progress anywhere. Everyone else pretty much just ends up back where they started without having really done enough to call it gaining life experienced.
Gatsby himself is an intriguing character when taken in isolation. But, as I’ve already explained he never feels like the main character. Too much of the interesting parts of his character development happen away from the Narrator and the reader only learns of them later second hand through characters talking about it. It leaves his character too out of focus to be especially interesting, and certainly doesn’t provide enough characterization to carry the book.
I’m sure Fitzgerald meant for Gatsby to be the main character, but he failed to make that happen. Similar to how some people will argue that if a reader sees a meaning the author didn’t intend, that meaning is there whether the author likes it or not. I am arguing that in this case because the reader doesn’t see Gatsby as the main character, he isn’t whether that is what the author intended or not. I suspect many of the people who do see Gatsby as they main character only do so because he is the titular character, movies have portrayed him as the main character, and/or they have just been told he is the main character.
It took me a bit to figure out what exactly about the prose wasn’t sitting right with me. At first, I thought it might be the heavy use of metaphor. While metaphor is a good technique to use if an author wants to inject a bit of liveliness into a description, too much metaphor leaves those descriptions ungrounded. Fitzgerald certainly pushes past the golden mean and loses his grounding. It makes it difficult to stay immersed in his descriptions since they are all over the place. It gives the reader little to settle themselves in a scene.
However, the more of the prose I absorbed, the more I realized there was a different issue that ran deeper. Fitzgerald seems to have no concept of when he shouldn’t describe something. The narration bounces around picking up random and unconnected details that have no bearing on the story. I’m sure some people enjoy this aspect and see it as breathing life into the world by providing detail. But to me, it isn’t detailed, it’s unfocused.
The more unimportant details get spoon fed to the reader, the more important details can get lost in the mess. A prime example is that in Gatsby’s introduction scene, just as much time (if not more) is spent individually describing random unnamed guests at the same party. It makes Gatsby feel unimportant and the reader shares Carraway’s surprise when they learn who he has been talking to. This might work perfectly if the intent is for Carraway to be the main character and the import of the scene is his reaction to meeting Gatsby, but if Gatsby is supposed to be the main character the author has completely failed to put him in focus. The prose has failed it’s job, no matter how flowery it is.
As it might follow, because Gatsby isn’t the main character his personal story isn’t the main story of the book. I will agree that it is a great personal story and I have seen it favorably compared to Scarface. However, the main story of the book is the story of our main character Nick Carraway. He doesn’t have an interesting story. He lives a thoroughly boring life. Perhaps, it is a story that could work as a humble slice of life story showing the average unremarkable person in the 20’s.
There is one problem with that, because we have Gatsby having an actually interesting life off in the corner, it highlights just how boring Carraway is. Where we could be seeing the story of Gatsby’s rise and fall, instead we are seeing the normal life of his neighbor. If the most interesting part of the story is the main character going “my neighbor sure is interesting” then what we have on our hands is a stillborn plot.
When the hit and run happens, there is a bit of a burst of life and it seems like things might get interesting in the fallout. Especially since it is proceeded by the only important scene of Gatsby’s personal story that Carraway is personally present for. However, it fails to bring any life to the plot and it returns to just sitting there as all of the interesting things happen off screen. It’s as if Fitzgerald is teasing his reader with the idea of an exciting plot while failing to make anything materialize.
I’m sure for some people, the teasing idea of an interesting story is enough to call it an interesting story for them. I disagree. Ender’s Game is not the same story as Ender’s Shadow, Hamlet is not the same story as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Lion King is not the same story as The Lion King 1/2, and Scarface (no matter how much you stretch the theme of the story) is not the same story as The Great Gatsby. Even if the same basic chain of events are the same, the perspective you tell a story from fundamentally changes the story. In some cases, both perspectives can be interesting. That is not the case here.
What I am left with is a poorly written book that I would be quite happy to forget. Unfortunately, it is such a famous book that people keep making movies of it and holding it up as one of the greatest books of all time. If it wasn’t for being assigned to read it the first time and wanting to complete it the second time before writing this, I don’t think I would have finished it either time. You could say that being assigned it in school is the reason it’s the worst book I’ve ever finished because it’s why I finished it instead of abandoning the idea. However, it’s definitely not why I disliked the book. Instead, my dislike stems from the fact that it’s a fundamentally poorly written book with numerous glaring flaws. I suspect the only reason so many people say they liked it was because of its memetic status as a classic novel.