The Great Gatsby fell into obscurity almost as soon as it appeared.
Published in 1925 to poor reviews and even poorer sales, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic take on the Roaring Twenties – and the decadent hedonism that defined it – failed to resonate with contemporary readers. Perhaps the characters were too unlikable. Perhaps, as Fitzgerald himself suspected, everyone had missed the point, choosing instead to glide over the novel’s message and make irrelevant comparisons with his earlier work. It’s hard to believe that this novel, consistently hailed as one of the greatest ever written by modern critics, was discarded almost without hesitation by so many of those who first read it.
Fitzgerald died in 1940, a penniless alcoholic in his mid-forties who believed his career had amounted to nothing. And yet, in a case of bittersweet irony, it didn’t take long for his work to gain new admirers. Within a few years, Fitzgerald’s books were being distributed to American soldiers fighting overseas and Gatsby in particular developed something of a cult following. By the end of the war in 1945, Fitzgerald’s reputation as a gifted writer was largely cemented, both in academic circles and in the mind of the general public. The following seven decades have seen Gatsby added to school curriculums, numerous film adaptations that have brought the story to one generation after another, and an overwhelming consensus that the novel acts as both an entertaining work of fiction and a thinly veiled warning.
The story is told through the eyes of Nick Carraway, an optimistic young bond salesman who moves to the Long Island village of West Egg at the start of the novel. His next-door neighbour is the eponymous Jay Gatsby: an enigmatic millionaire, known almost as much for his mysterious background as he is for the extravagant parties he throws in his mansion. The parties are superficial, serving only one purpose: to attract the attention of Daisy, a former love interest and socialite who lives across from Gatsby on the other side of a bay. Nick first spots Gatsby outside his mansion, late one night after all the party guests have gone, his arms outstretched towards an ominous green light that illuminates Daisy’s side of the bay. Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy, and his ultimately fruitless attempt to win her back, is the frame around which the novel is constructed.
Gatsby’s naïvely optimistic objective – to be reunited with Daisy and live happily ever after –is prophetic. The novel was published at the height of the Roaring Twenties: a period of unrestrained hedonism, when those who could afford to have a good time would do everything within their grasp to make the party last a little longer. It was easy to believe in those moments that the euphoria, the money, and the booze would last forever. Gatsby learned, during those last few pages of a surprisingly short novel, that blind idealism is rarely grounded in reality.
I won’t give too much away in case you haven’t read the book, but Gatsby and Daisy don’t live happily ever after. Quite the opposite, in fact – almost every character suffers at some point because of Gatsby’s actions. Perhaps the book’s lukewarm reception upon its initial release can be attributed to a lack of hindsight; Fitzgerald’s harshest critics knew nothing of the Wall Street Crash that would soon send the world spiralling into a great depression. Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy mirrors the country’s pursuit of a never-ending party, and his untimely demise is strangely reminiscent of the years of hardship that were waiting around the corner.
Ironically, Fitzgerald became the most high-profile victim of the Jazz Age decadence he had warned about. Known almost as much today for his extraordinary drinking habits as he is for his writing, he was still putting away as many as forty beers a day in 1939, long after everyone else had abandoned their wild lifestyles. It’s not exactly surprising that he didn’t live to see his work experience the popular revival that made him a household name. Between its publication in 1925 and Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, The Great Gatsby sold fewer than 25,000 copies. It now sells around 500,000 copies a year, has been translated into 42 languages, and is one of the best-selling books of all time. A tale of naivety, optimism, and the destructive nature of narrow-minded obsessions, the novel can easily resonate with modern-day readers, even if Fitzgerald himself struggled to live by his own teachings.