In high school, everyone ends up reading certain books. The intent of course, is to make sure everyone has a “broad education”. One of the books we read in high school was HOW TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Harper Lee). That was in ninth grade. OF MICE AND MEN (Steinbeck) and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (Hemingway). ANIMAL FARM and 1984 (Orwell)…
There are dozens of others and I read them all. Most were assigned, some, like BRAVE NEW WORLD (Huxley) and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE (Vonnegut) were not.
I never had to read GATSBY in high school. That was a college assignment and I forgot about it until my daughter read it and my wife and I saw the movie.
A couple of things became apparent to me that none of the reviews and summaries I read really touch on.
The first – and the reason this Slice is here – is because it’s a fantasy. Of course, high-falutin’ critics think otherwise: “Sarah Churchwell sees The Great Gatsby as a ‘cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American dream.’” The rest of the comments on it, you can find in the themes section of the Wikipedia entry. Some appear determined to make us believe that this is a subtle novel of gay love (http://www.salon.com/2013/01/09/was_nick_carraway_gay/).
I don’t have any letters or a website behind my observation, but I think it’s a novel about two men who attempt to form a friendship in the midst of a manifestly shallow culture. I think Gatsby is incredibly lonely and while his romantic focus is his long-lost-love, Daisy; he has no true male friends. He sees the possibility of friendship in Nick Carraway – and that’s why he trusts him in everything. He asks Nick to arrange the meeting with his cousin; and some reviewers don’t notice that Nick’s decision to come to NY was his own; and how would Gatsby know he was Daisy’s cousin? That had to have happened later. Also, Nick isn’t involved in the underworld Gatsby is and is, even in the critic’s eyes, a sort of innocent.
The fantasy element comes with the Valley of Ashes and “…the eyes…reminiscent of those of fictional optometrist Dr. T. J. Eckleburg depicted on a faded commercial billboard near George Wilson's auto repair shop)…‘They look out of no face, but instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.’” (Wikipedia entry) “Wilson equates T.J.’s eyes to the eyes of God. He recounts to Michaelis what he says to Myrtle after discovering his affair, “‘and I said “God knows what you’ve been doing, everything you’ve been doing. You may fool me, but you can’t fool God!”””
The Valley is a mythical place – not that it didn’t exist, but that it’s some sort of hell that the people from East Egg and New York have to pass through. In fact, much of the evil in the novel takes place there – or is caused by what takes place there. The blame, perhaps is removed from the people and dropped squarely on the place. Mythical because many no longer believe in a literal hell. It’s a powerful symbol in this story.
So, we have hell and we have the search for true friendship that involves trust so great, secrets can be revealed.
A real, fantasy world, don’t you think?