The One and Only Gatsby with the One and Only Taste
THE DEFENDANT: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
THE VERDICT: The Great Gatsby is currently the #1 Most Banned and Challenged Classic according to the American Library Association. It is most often challenged as part of the standard English Literature curriculum in public schools, but it has also been challenged as part of college literature courses.
THE CHARGES: The most famous charges against The Great Gatsby are from the Baptist College in Charleston, South Carolina, where it was challenged in 1987 for “language and sexual references in the book.”
Dear readers, the first thing you need to know about this book is that Gatsby is manifestly not great. (It’s okay if you feel lied to. The title is a filthy, filthy lie). The more we learn about Jay Gatsby, the clearer it is that what he actually is is a man trying very, very hard to appear larger than life, and only succeeding because the people around him are willing to buy in to the fantasy.
Despite all the rumors that swirl around him throughout the book, the bare bones of Gatsby’s story are surprisingly simple. James Gatz ran away from home at age seventeen, was adopted as a mentee by a rich dude with a yacht, became Jay Gatsby, joined the army, fell in love, went to war, and when he came back from the war, joined the mob. He made a ton of money (hooray for lassaiz-faire and prohibition!) and used it to buy a house and throw parties for the sole purpose of stalking his old girlfriend, and in the summer of 1922, he had an affair with her, watched her kill someone, and was murdered. We find out his story in bits and pieces, mostly through other people, and the book takes place completely in that last fateful summer.
Basically, Gatsby as we first meet him is a pretty typical dude who started off poor, made money, and is now really happy that he has money but really sad he doesn’t have the girlfriend he thought money entitled him to. As the novel unfolds it becomes clear that he’s also pretty overwhelmingly self-centered; his life revolves completely around his creation of his image and his quest for his One True Love, Daisy, who just happens to be married to someone else. Gatsby’s tale, on the face of it, is a sad, small little story that we’re all very familiar with: he loves her, her feelings are complicated, her husband kills him. Without the Mythology of Gatsby, his death is sad simply because it’s stupid.
But Nick Carraway, our narrator, thinks Gatsby is fantastic. Nick thinks a lot of things that are charmingly (and, as the book goes on, increasingly less charmingly) deluded, but chief among them is his carefully constructed fantasy of Jay Gatsby as the romantic hero. Through his eyes and narration, we see Gatsby as the star of some of the strongest fantasies of the time period: the everlasting love, the American Dream’s self-made man, the Mysterious and Dangerous adventurer, the vulnerable and emotional New Man. Gatsby pines for Daisy across the water, face shadowed with his immense pain! Gatsby builds himself up from nothing to become successful (read: very good at throwing parties)! Gatsby may live a life of ridiculous excess but deep down he’s just like Nick, who is of course the Common Man! Gatsby’s emotions are so compelling that all Nick wants to do is stare at his face! Gatsby is owed Daisy’s love but is denied because he is a good-hearted common man cruelly manipulated by the immoral rich! Gatsby has been through Pain and has Struggled, gosh these gritty stories about adventure are exciting, pour me some more wine from the crystal tumbler please, darling? The progress of the book is basically watching Nick and various other characters cast this really rather typical man as the star in a series of epic movies, played out against a backdrop of the overwhelming wealth disparity of the Jazz Age.
Now thankfully as readers we don’t have to take Nick’s word for everything, which is a good thing because he’s amazingly disdainful of everyone around him. We’re introduced to people mostly by Nick informing us delicately of their faults: “This is Daisy and she’s passive and flighty but whatever she’s a lady that’s how they are I guess,” “This is Jordan and she’s arrogant and dishonest but I guess I’ll date her maybe,” “This is Tom and he’s an abusive racist asshole but I think it must be because he misses playing football.” Nick views any effort to protect oneself or to cover up vulnerability as deeply worthy of contempt, and Fitzgerald’s narration is wonderful at highlighting exactly how much of human interaction tends to be just that. Everyone is afraid, in this novel, and trying desperately to convince everyone else that they aren’t.
This combination of fear and obliviousness is the foundation of the novel’s critique of the American Dream. Gatsby’s nervously calculated efforts to project himself as upper class and the way they shatter in the face of Old Money dickishness, Daisy’s terror of losing her security and stability, Myrtle’s desperation for some form of freedom and agency…all of it comes together to inform the reader of how futile chasing that dream really is. No one in the book achieves safety, comfort, or acceptance except perhaps Tom, the undisputed villain who is born into all of the wealth and privilege that the others struggle to claim and are steadily denied. Meanwhile they all ride through ghost towns and economically devastated areas, the setting loudly pointing out exactly who is missing from this picture (i.e. the other 90% of the country). All of the desperation and terror encapsulated in this tiny affluent slice of New York is, in fact, built on the backs of people who have much bigger problems, and who for the characters simply do not exist. By showing us all of the barriers that exist within this massively upper-class context, the book tacitly points out the much more significant barriers that keep that context completely cut off from the rest of the country.
The plot culminates in two deaths: Myrtle’s graphically described traffic accident, and the iconic scene of Gatsby floating dead in the pool. Both deaths are fairly obvious messages; Myrtle is literally trampled by the sheer force of how self-absorbed and careless Daisy is, and Gatsby is punished ostensibly for two affairs (one he did commit and one he didn’t) but in reality for daring to try to take something that Tom felt entitled to.
For Nick, these events sound the bell that the self-made man is dead; for the readers, who see how much Nick is blind to, it drives home the point that the self-made man never existed in the first place.
Fitzgerald’s use of the unreliable narrator in this book is skilled and compelling, and his imagery is vivid if sometimes a little unsubtle (oh, is it called the Valley of Ashes? It sounds like a lovely place I’m sure it’s not a symbol of ruin and despair or anything). None of the characters can really be described as admirable, or as making good choices, but their actions and motivations feel true to life in a depressing way. The prose has a tendency towards internality rather than dialogue and reflection rather than action, since we see everything from inside of Nick’s head, but whether that works for a reader is I think mostly a matter of personal preference. Fitzgerald’s deep contempt for the entire culture he describes is certainly fun to pick up through the text.
All-in-all, The Great Gatsby is a fascinating read if you’re looking for a well-written book full of delusional characters, many of whom you’ll probably hate.
THE DEFENSE: Putting aside the fact that banning a book is never actually a viable solution to having problems with the content, what’s so strange about the charges against Gatsby is how random they seem. I might be tempted to side-eye the book for its repeated use of the epithet “old boy”, which really sounds more like what you’d call your dog, but the language in Gatsby is not strong. Mentions of sex are rare, and the only actual sex scene consists of exactly one euphemistic sentence (“he took her”). Nothing about the book is sexually explicit or sexually exploitative. I almost wonder if they got it mixed up with Catcher in the Rye by accident.
Instances of infidelity abound, of course, and that may be what sparked the objections, especially in the Baptist College since infidelity is explicitly prohibited in most modern Christian doctrine. However, Nick’s disgust at all of the cheating going on seems to suggest that readers wouldn’t exactly come away from the book with the message “infidelity and lying to intimate partners is okay” so much as the message “cheating is messy and leads to being dead in a pool.”