So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
–The Great Gatsby
I don’t reread books very often, but when The Great Gatsby came out in May, I reread it before I watched the film. I hadn’t read the novel since high school, and rereading it was an amazing, surreal experience. On one hand, I felt like I was being “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” remembering all the discussions we had in class about the symbolism and the language; on the other hand, I felt as though I was reading it for the first time and appreciating things that I had somehow overlooked before. Since the DVD is coming out in 12 days, I thought I would take to opportunity to revisit The Great Gatsby again!
Here’s a true confession: in high school, I got hung up on things that were, in retrospect, stupid. For example, when Nick describes West Egg and East Egg, I was too distracted by the fact that they were living in egg-shaped places to focus on anything else. Because I didn’t have a ton of context about the book, I thought that the “pair of enormous eggs” which didn’t exist in real life connoted some kind of fantasy world, and I kept on waiting for magical things to happen.
I also had a conspiracy theory that Dr. T.J. Eckleburg (the optician whose eyes are on the billboard) was the same person as Owl Eyes. (Admittedly, this was a very thinly supported claim, mostly hinging on the detail that they were both described and defined entirely by their eyes. BUT STILL.) Things like these completely colored my experience with Gatsby the first time around.
When I read it a second time, I was obsessing over Aristotelian plot arcs and trying to figure out how to write better character descriptions. I paid close attention to when the different revelations occurred throughout the story and I underlined all the character descriptions. I noticed that the language and symbolism told a complete story on their own. I recognized all the layers of subtext in the outwardly-mundane dialogues the characters had.
Some parts seemed funnier to me, too. For instance, in high school, when I read the part where Gatsby gets Nick to invite him and Daisy over, then acts like a nervous 13-year-old, I was so stressed out! But when I read it this time, I was laughing out loud through that whole scene.
I also realized that the novel was set in a fantasy world– just not the one my 16-year-old brain had anticipated.
There are many stunning, beautiful character descriptions, but one of them that stood out to me was Fitzgerald’s description of Jordan Baker:
She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet. Her gray sun-strained eyes looked back at me with polite reciprocal curiosity out of a wan, charming, discontented face.
What I love about this description is that it describes Jordan by the way she moves. By focusing on movement– how she stands, how she looks at Nick– Fitzgerald effectively and economically defines Jordan’s personality and appearance in two sentences. I want to try writing these kinds of verb-based descriptions in my own work.
Ultimately, I am SO happy I reread Gatsby. It’s one of those books that gets better each time.