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In which John discusses critical readings of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, including metaphors and symbols like the color yellow, the green light at the end of the dock, the eyes of Doctor TJ Eckleburg, the valley of ashes, and the American dream.

I also write books. They are not as good as The Great Gatsby. My new one, The Fault in Our Stars, is available for preorder now: All preorders will be autographed.


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A Bunny
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Good morning, Hank; it's Wednesday, September 7th.

Today, I'm going to introduce you to everything I find interesting about The Great Gatsby without massive spoilers. It's going to take a few minutes, but I'm going to go as quickly as I can because life is fleeting... is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby.

So, right at the beginning of the second chapter of Gatsby, we get two of the great metaphors in American literature. First: the Valley of Ashes. The narrator, Nick, writes about this huge valley of ashes outside of Manhattan. This was real, and in 1922 there was this, like, ever-growing depository of the burned waste of people who lived in and around New York. And in the novel, George Wilson, this gas-station owner, lives in the Valley of Ashes with his wife, Myrtle, with whom Tom Buchanan is having an affair.

Anyone who's even read five pages of the Great Gatsby will no doubt remember Tom Buchanan as one of the world's least likable people. Yeah, so right there in the Valley of Ashes there are also the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, whose irises are like one yard high. They're just these disembodied, unblinking eyes that see everything below them. Like, they don't have arms to catch you or legs to chase you down; they can't punish you or kill you, but Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's eyes see everything. But more of that in a minute.

So Tom and his mistress and her sister and Nick and this random other couple end up in an apartment in New York, just getting drunk and utilizing servants and creating more ashes for the valley and generally having, like, the worst time ever.

One of the crazy things about The Great Gatsby is there's always some debaucherous party going on, and no one is ever having any fun. Like, everybody in that room just wants more money and more class, and they wanna, like, find a way to get a better life, except for Tom Buchanan who has what they all want except that Tom Buchanan is, like, an unbearable ass-face. Tom Buchanan makes Paris Hilton look, like, charming and grounded.

And that's one of the criticisms you hear about The Great Gatsby: that no one in the book is likable. I don't think that's fair to Gatsby, or to Nick and to a certain extent I don't think it's fair to Daisy, but more importantly I don't know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likable characters with whom you can have some simple identification. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go all like ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaah. Sorry, I spend all my time with a baby.

Right, so shortly after that horrible party, we go to an awesome party at Gatsby's house. I mean, there's still a lot of stuff being created for the Valley of Ashes, but at least Gatsby's party has Gatsby, and even though Gatsby has this incredibly annoying habit of saying "old sport" all the time as a way of trying to sound upper-crusty, he's a pretty charming guy: he has a smile that makes you feel that he is "irresistibly prejudiced in your favor," to quote Nick.

But the one thing we know about Gatsby for much of the book is that no one knows anything about him. Like, there's talk that he might be a bootlegger or a killer or own a chain of drug stores; no one really seems to know even though everyone's at his parties, drinking his booze, running around his mansion.

I should mention that the first party at Gatsby's house also contains the greatest drunk driving scene in the history of American literature in which a drunk guy gets in an accident like three seconds after getting in his car, and even though the wheel has fallen off the car, he keeps trying to drive it. And I think, at least in the novel, that had become the American Dream by the 1920's. The dream was to, you know, have a leisurely and debaucherous life where you had enough money to buy fancy new cars and enough whiskey to crash them. But we learn pretty quickly that Gatsby isn't like the people who go to his parties. He hasn't acquired, like, wealth and social status so that he can enjoy them; he doesn't drink; and, as he repeatedly points out to Nick, he's never even used his own pool. He's worked to get this money and build this social status because he is in love with a woman who lives across the bay, whose dock has a green light at the end of it. And that woman is Daisy Buchanan, Tom Buchanan's wife.

Daisy and Gatsby had fallen in love years before, but then Gatsby went off to war and she got married and now she lives across the bay and the green light and he just wants to reach it. So, he asks Nick to manufacture a reunion. All right, and at that reunion everything is yellow. Like, Gatsby's car is yellow, and Gatsby's tie is yellow, and Daisy Buchanan's dress buttons are yellow. At one point Nick — who's third-wheeling it big-time at this reunion — describes the smell of flowers as "pale gold." It's not an accident.

In this very chapter Nick refers to the green light at the end of Daisy's dock that Gatsby's always looking out at and reaching for as an "enchanted object." And that seems to be a reasonably good definition of symbolism. Symbols are enchanted objects, and yellow or gold is an enchanted color in this novel. But not just in this novel, but also, like, in our lives, like "golden opportunities," or a "golden age," or "golden youth." God knows the characters in this novel aren't the first people to ever conflate wealth and beauty. But one of the interesting questions in The Great Gatsby is whether Gatsby really loves Daisy or if he loves her because she's golden, you know? Because, as he once famously says, her voice is "full of money." Gatsby hasn't come by his money honestly. He has no class or family background. Tom Buchanan calls him, "Mr. Nobody From Nowhere." And maybe Gatsby can never be Mr. Somebody From Somewhere, but Daisy Buchanan would certainly help with her family connections and her legitimate money.

We see this too when the book flashes back to the Midwest, when Gatsby and Daisy first fall in love. Is Gatsby falling in love with Daisy or with her family's mansion? But regardless, before Daisy and Gatsby can run off into the golden sunset, there is the small matter of her being married to Tom.

And the fascinating thing is that by the novel's climax, it's not enough to Gatsby that Daisy loves him. He needs Daisy to say, "I never loved Tom. I only ever loved you." Because for Gatsby, it's not enough to get Daisy back. He has to get the feeling he first had when they fell in love back, that feeling of purity and innocence. He has to reclaim his past.

And that dream- or more specifically the foul dust that trails in the wake of it- is more than about two characters in a novel; it is the American dream and the world's dream.

There will never be enough money and fame and love for us in this world because every time we get what we thought we wanted, we realize that we want more because what we really want is to go back in time to some place when we felt safe, some time before we discovered violence and corruption, when we were happy and pure and innocent.

We want to go to the Golden Age. But for Gatsby, the relentless pursuit of that dream leads to only more violence and corruption until there's this penultimate moment of violence that is witnessed by the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg. And then Gatsby finally gets to use his pool.

Hank, the last chapter of The Great Gatsby is, to me, one of the saddest passages in American literature. It shows how muddied innocence and guilt are, and it shows the vast and intractable unfairness of the society that was supposedly founded on equality.

At one point Nick recalls people who would go to those great parties and sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby's liquor. Let me submit to you that those of us who would sneer at Gatsby do so on the courage of his liquor because we all share his ambition.

We all believe in that green light that has long eluded us, that if we can only, "run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . .And then one fine morning--" And still the foul dust trails in the wake of those dreams.

Hank, I have two non-rhetorical questions for you today which we must discuss here in comments because Your Pants have been hacked: First, to what extent do you think Gatsby is a hero? I mean I know he's the titular character of the novel, but to what extent do you think that his quest is heroic? And secondly, is your quest heroic?

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.