Choose Your Own Advent, Day 18: The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott FitzgeraldChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald
Year: 1925

When it comes to my experience as a reader, there’s something I don’t believe I’ve talked about before. I’ve thought about doing so, but never had a reason. Now, here, with this book, it becomes a bit relevant.

When I read, I don’t picture characters.

I don’t know if that’s just me, if that’s just the way readers usually operate, if there’s a word for whatever imaginative blindness I have, or what, but as much as I might easily see a setting, or an event, or an object I’m reading about, I don’t see physical human characters in my mind’s eye.

An author can tell me that a character is, say, 5’6″ with red hair. And I’ll hold on to those details in case they become relevant. (As a lifelong reader I can say that they almost never do.) I might be able to picture the shirt that they’re wearing, or their shoes. I can picture the way they walk. I can hear, sometimes, the way they sound. It depends on the level of description how much or little about a character I’ll actually envision while I read about them…

…but I don’t see faces. I don’t see distinct shapes. Characters are just…I don’t know. To me, I suppose, they occupy my mental space more than my visual space. Novels often afford us glimpses inside of minds…we’re privvy to thought processes, to motivations, to the unspoken beauty and ugliness we don’t get to see in others in our actual, daily lives.

Maybe that’s why. In real life, I can see as many faces as I like. When I’m reading a book, however, I have a unique opportunity to see beyond the face…so my mind doesn’t even stop there for a moment.

I don’t know if others read that way. I’d be interested to know. But I suspect they don’t, because one of the common complaints when a novel is turned into a film is that the characters don’t look the way readers pictured them.

I’ve never had that problem.

I’ve never pictured them.

Well, almost never.

The Great Gatsby is an incredible novel, and one of my absolute favorites in the language. That makes it significant in one way. It’s also significant in another: it contains one of the only characters in literature of whom I do have a clear, inescapable mental picture.

That character isn’t Gatsby. It’s not the object of his desires. It’s not even our narrator.

It’s Tom Buchanan. One of literature’s truest and least redeemable bastards.

I don’t know why Tom stands out to me. The Great Gatsby resonates, but it doesn’t haunt. Tom, however, does. He imposes himself on my psyche. He forces himself to be seen. He doesn’t accept the fact that I just don’t envision characters that way on the whole. No; Tom barges in anyway, and he’ll leave when he’s damned well ready.

I see Tom. I am in his imposing and uncomfortable presence any time he’s within the scope of the narration. He’s there.

I know Tom, or people like him, obviously. That probably helps. Or hurts. He’s not an invention of Fitzgerald’s; he’s a very clear and recognizable figure that Fitzgerald simply translated perfectly to the page.

I wouldn’t even be surprised if Fitzgerald based him strongly on somebody he knew. Fitzgerald, for the purposes of the novel, would have to answer the question of who Daisy–the undimming light of Gatsby’s soul–would have to end up with. And as great an author as the man was, I don’t think he could have come up with a better answer than Tom Buchanan. The self-satisfied, smug, unsinkable jackass we all already know.

Tom always stuck out to me that way. He’s the character I think of first whenever this novel comes to mind. The first time I read it was in high school, when it was assigned reading. I didn’t enjoy it very much, but Tom made his impression. When I revisited it in college, his image came immediately back to me. That son of a bitch had just been waiting to make me uncomfortable all over again.

The Great Gatsby is a book that wasn’t enjoyed by first-time readers when it was published, either. It wasn’t until after Fitzgerald died that it saw any kind of significant critical reappraisal. That’s nice; I don’t feel so bad for having to come back to it much later, when I’d become less of an idiot.

What I noticed about it the second time–what actually made me come to appreciate it in ways I could not before–was that The Great Gatsby is a love story told by a man who hasn’t experienced love.

Nick Carraway has the responsibility of telling the story simply because he was there. Not because he understands it, because he’s qualified to speak about it, or even because he can explain it. He’s our de facto narrator simply because he was there…something that, itself, seems to be a bit of a theme in Nick’s life. He’s never the most important person in his own story. I’d be surprised if he ever breaks the top five.

And that makes The Great Gatsby a complex book as much as it is many other things–worrying, humbling, tragic, profound. Nick’s lack of qualification to speak at any length about the book’s actual subject matter is what frees it to become a great novel. Nick reflects on life in a way that allows him to raise questions and sometimes propose answers, but never necessarily get nearer to any actual truth. He’s a passenger, much like the readers themselves. He’s not a tour guide; he’s sitting next to you, looking out the window, unable to truly understand most of what’s passing him by.

But he’s great to listen to. He’s respectful. He’s sincere. And, bless his little heart, he really does wish he had more insight to share with you.

Nick is sweet to a fault. He’ll always be a good man, which is why he’ll never get anywhere. He’s too polite and too self-aware to make an impact, and the tide will always decide his direction for him.

It’s why the Gatsbys and the Daisys and the Jordans can flit through his life, take from him what they need, and move on–in some way, always move on–without him.

And it’s why I’ll never know his face, while I’ll always remember Tom’s.

One thought on “Choose Your Own Advent, Day 18: The Great Gatsby”

  1. I reread this recently. Same cover as the one depicted here! In my copy, Tom is described as having “a perpetual five o’clock shadow, the greasiest of armpits, and an undersized wife-beater ruined by the grease stains of life.” I think it’s the Revised Standard Edition or some such thing.

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