One of the enduring qualities of The Great Gatsby, just released in yet another filmed adaptation over the weekend, is that it’s a perfect book to read as a teenager, which is when most people first come to it. The idea of reinventing yourself as a suave, charming, deeply mysterious man of fabulous wealth for the sole purpose of recapturing your lost love is nothing if not a wonderful adolescent dream. Gatsby dreams up his “Platonic conception of himself” when he is 17 and already senses that the adult world is filled with crushing disappointments.
I’m not sure I really grasped that idea, or indeed any of the other reasons why Gatsby continues to resonate so deeply, when I first read the book at school in Britain more than 30 years ago. It was my first encounter with a substantial work of American literature, and my initial reaction was mostly surprise at the familiarity of Fitzgerald’s descriptions of class stratification, snobbery, and social pretense.
Back then, I knew my share of Nick Carraways and Tom Buchanans because my father, a first-generation immigrant who fled Nazi Germany and was now indulging his own dreams of success for his children, had sent me to a stern, old-fashioned boarding school full of them. For four years, I lived in a privileged bubble of upper-class Englishmen who largely disdained or ignored the outside world and pretended, while they still could, that the sun had not set on the empire or on the natural ruling order their ancestors had bequeathed to them many centuries ago.
I had no difficulty loathing Tom, “one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at 21 that everything afterward savors of anti-climax.” I was surrounded by people like him: brash, self-satisfied young men who weren’t smart enough to understand how blinkered and foolish they really were. I rooted for Daisy to leave him and fulfill Gatsby’s romantic fantasy, in part because I wanted the Tom Buchanans in my own life to be left groveling in the dust. When the book took a very different turn, I felt a tragic sense of disappointment and heaped blame on Tom—not Daisy or Gatsby—for messing everything up.
Obviously, I missed a few things.
Looking back, I’d say I wasn’t in a position to understand Fitzgerald’s social portraiture, in part because I didn’t yet know the United States. Certainly, in Britain we had no lack of stories chronicling the seductions of a certain upper-class magic and the impossibility of reaching for an irretrievable past. The same year I first read Gatsby, the country was transfixed by a television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited starring a young Jeremy Irons as a 1920s Oxford student who thinks he has found a surrogate family on a grand country estate, only to lose them one by one to alcoholism, eccentricity, and misguided notions of propriety.
We were more than acquainted, too, with charming impostors, or lovably decadent cads—in fiction and in real life. One of the most eye-popping scandals of my childhood involved a rakish aristocrat called Lord Lucan, who drove fast cars and racked up gambling debts only to vanish without trace one night after bludgeoning the family nanny to death. Much of the country had come to think of him as a real-life James Bond and couldn’t help admiring his flawless disappearing act, despite the horror of his crime. An unforgettable figure from my own time at Oxford was a silver-tongued, lavishly wealthy eccentric named Darius Guppy, who belonged to the Bullingdon Club (roughly the equivalent of Yale’s secret society Skull and Bones) and a private dining society of legendary debauchery named for King Edward II’s male lover Piers Gaveston. A few years after we graduated, Guppy made himself the victim of an ingeniously faked jewelry heist, part of a scheme to bilk the insurance industry out of millions of dollars. He was caught, eventually, and sent to prison, but his reputation as a fascinating oddity remained largely unscathed.
These stories were crucially different from Gatsby’s, however, in ways I didn’t fully appreciate until I moved to the States years later. In Britain, it is invariably the aristocrats, those of established wealth, who dream up schemes and pretend to be something they are not; they yearn for an inaccessible past because their world, and their wealth, is falling apart. Gatsby’s story, by contrast, is a meditation on the American preoccupation with self-invention as a means of achieving success and social status for the first time. The decadence in Fitzgerald’s book does not emanate from a society in decline but from the corruption that comes with the surface allure of so much money. The British stories, in other words, are about people on the way down. Gatsby is the tragedy of a man who swoops effortlessly toward the very pinnacle of material success but cannot buy the one thing he really wants, a chance to undo time.
Recently, I was inspired to pick up Gatsby again. (My 16-year-old son, who grew up over here, had just read it and clearly understood it better than I had at the same age.) It’s a complicated story that grows only more complicated on re-reading, which is one reason why a satisfying film version has proven so elusive.
I had two big new revelations. The first was that Gatsby’s love affair with Daisy is illusory, if it ever existed at all. I was shocked at how little description of Daisy Fitzgerald provides; she is an empty vessel into which others pour their fantasies and desires. As a teenager, I had fallen for her. But this time I listened to that voice of hers, the voice that supposedly promises so much fun at every turn, and heard only vacuousness and cries of existential boredom.
The second revelation was about Nick, who struck me as a slippery, unreliable narrator, making everything in the book subject to uncertainty and reinterpretation. Does he admire or abhor Gatsby? Does he treat Jordan Baker honorably or shabbily? Is the summer he spends on Long Island the time of his life, a great romantic idyll, or a nightmare he is relieved to escape?
I no longer see Gatsby as a romance at all—another reason it is ill-suited to the movies—but rather a book about artifice. Nick is central to that: His unreliable narration is its own artifice, allowing him to go back to the past and refashion it to suit his purposes, just as Gatsby wanted to but never could. He makes himself just colorless enough to get away with it—almost. As a teenager, I was fooled by Nick’s protestations of helpless honesty and his torrents of gorgeous prose. As an adult, though, I was on to him. And found the book all the richer for it.