By Jesmyn Ward
I first read The Great Gatsby PDF as a teenager; I imagine this is when most Americans encounter F. I Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work. Our teachers, rightly so, hail the novel as a masterpiece, so we read it under their influence, when we are young.
We read it when we are bewildered and delighted at our changing bodies, flush with burgeoning sexuality, heady with the certainty of our ascendency, the prospect of our future greatness shining off in the distance like a great green star.
It is easy for young people to see themselves in Gatsby. His earnestness is familiar. His ambition, twinned with desperation, resonates with any teenager who wants to journey off to college or move states away for work, in a bid to escape the boundaries of their youthful life.
Poverty made Gatsby ravenously desperate for difference, for possibility. Some, perhaps from similar circumstances, will recognize that and see themselves. Others will empathize because they feel driven away by parents who don’t understand them, by peers who underestimate or limit them, by the larger culture that ostracizes them for one reason or another.
Their hearts will be, as Gatsby’s was, “in a constant, turbulent riot.” The “instinct toward … future glory” leads them out into the world. They burn to flee, to grow beyond their birth circumstances. In some ways, adolescence is one great flight.
Teen readers are especially understanding of Gatsby’s fixation on re-creating that moment in his life when it was most open to possibility, when he could become and do anything. When he believed that if he worked hard enough, he could remake himself. He could ascend to a different social class, a class where life seemed to be an enchanted necklace, each moment a pearl on an endless string.
It seems to be a universal sentiment of youth: the belief that one can become anything, given the luxury of time and focus. Young readers walk down tree-lined Louisville streets with Gatsby and Daisy as the leaves fall.
They see a ladder “mounted to a secret place above the trees… once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.” The young know that golden moment when anything can happen, and they understand its allure because they are living it.
By the end of the book, the reader’s empathy has burned to love. Young readers fall for Gatsby’s passion, his insistence that life should be relished, should be executed well. They have fallen in love with the persistence of his devotion to Daisy. I imagine they like to think they are capable of such a great love, one that smolders, lasting from year to year.
They adore him so much, they feel a quiet disdain for those who do not possess his virtues: perhaps most of all for Tom, who embodies the worst excesses of the moneyed elite, the misogynistic, the racist. They pity Nick, too, because they understand he has fallen in love with Gatsby; readers understand that Nick doesn’t deserve Gatsby.
Even though he insists he is not carelessly violent like Tom or Daisy, the young understand Nick is as much a product of his social class as Tom, that its backwardness and insularity marks him as much as it does Tom and Daisy.
But the experience I had while reading The Great Gatsby PDF as an adult was very different. I would argue my older reading was deeper, more emphatically felt. While most young people admire Gatsby’s youthful love for Daisy-for the possibility associated with her economic and social class, and for who he was with Daisy too-in that shining moment in time, there is much subtext that becomes clearer with age, subtext Fitzgerald must have been acutely aware of at the time he wrote The Great Gatsby PDF.
One of the first great lessons of my adulthood was this: I change. As I grow, my dreams change as do my ideas about who I can be and what I want during the short time I am alive. Gatsby has not learned this. It is a lesson he has closed himself .
From the moment he meets Daisy, his ideas about who he is and what he wants and what he can become are immutable. It’s ironic that he is so in love with the moment of greatest possibility in his youth, the moment he kissed Daisy, but his love for that moment has rendered all other avenues of possibility impossible, has fossilized him, sealed him in amber, turned him to stone.
Made it possible for him to see only one version of himself. After years of underhanded dealing and shady business, he is wealthy, popular, feared, respected. On West Egg, he hosts glittering parties where old money and new money engage in raucous revelry together. He owns the newest, most exquisite cars and he has mannerisms and a wardrobe to match his new social station.
When we meet Gatsby, he has worked furiously to make himself into the man, who, on the surface, high society would have deemed a good match for Daisy. And in the end, this immutability, this blindness to change, to the fact that Gatsby can only picture himself as one thing, limits him.
It is almost as if Gatsby’s inability to recognize opportunities for change in himself means he can’t acknowledge it in others, either. When he meets Daisy again, he only sees the girl he fell in love with. He cannot understand that she isn’t the same person she was because so much has occurred in her life; she has been married for a number of years, and she has borne a child. The accumulation of days spent shaping herself to her husband and caring in her careless way for her child have changed her from the girl she was.
Nick sees this in her, in the way she speaks. with “fluctuating, feverish warmth.” But Gatsby’s love for her girlhood means he can only hear the youth in her voice, and he is deaf to the age in her words.
Adults understand this, intrinsically, marked as the are by the venus, time wreathing them in lavers: an onion growing round and waxy in the earth. Likewise, I think this is why Gatsby underestimates the extent of Tom’s malice, and the perfidy of the social class he has fought to become a part of it.
And that, perhaps, was the idea most invisible to me as a young reader: that the very social class that embodied the dream Gatsby wanted for himself was predicated on exclusion. That Gatsby was doomed from the start. He’d been born on the outside; he would die on the outside.
Hungry as I was to escape my own little nowhere country town, my own poor beginnings, as a teen I could only see Gatsby’s yearning. I was too young to know his wanting is wasted from the moment he feels it. The seasoned heart aches for James Gatz, the perpetual child, the arrested romantic, bound by one perfect moment to failure.
This is a book that endures, generation after generation, because every time a reader returns to The Great Gatsby PDF,we discover new revelations, new insights, new burning bits of language. Read and bear witness to the story’s permanence, its robust heart. Read and bear witness to Jay Gatsby, who burned bright and bold and doomed as his creator.
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