, Salem, MA


June 13, 2013

Watson: The Great Gatsby is a character study

“The Great Gatsby,” written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, is often called one of the masterpieces of American literature. It is indeed in some ways distinctly American. Perhaps the lead character, Jay Gatsby, with his incredible optimism, his inexhaustible well of hope, his can-do brassiness, and his rags-to-riches story, does epitomize something true and unique in the best — and sometimes partly mythical — American character. Gatsby’s character fits one of our strongest national narratives — the one that describes an egalitarian, upwardly mobile, anything-is-possible-in-America, an exceptional country.

So sure, there is much that is American about this novel. But I think that the power and strength and enduring value and appeal of the book is in its portrayal of people — portrayals that illuminate and raise questions about the universal attributes, values, abilities, motivations and emotions that we all possess.

I just saw the movie, “The Great Gatsby,” which is quite faithful to the book, and which, therefore, does a great job of exploring some of the infinitely variable elements of human character.

The protagonist, Gatsby, is a man possessed. He has one ultimate goal, to which all of his other plans and activities are dedicated. Five years earlier (in 1917), he met Daisy Fay and was smitten. Over the course of a magical autumn, they fell in love. They committed to each other, or so Gatsby thought (the reader or moviegoer has to decide for himself).

Gatsby goes off to fight in World War I. When he returns, he delays in contacting Daisy. Fearing that his penniless state will cause her wealthy family to forbid their marriage, he works for nearly five years to amass a fortune worthy of Daisy’s upper-class standing. Ultimately, he buys a mansion on Long Island across the bay from her house.

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