‘Who is he?’ I demanded. ‘Do you know?’
‘He’s just a man named Gatsby.’
The ‘elusive man of literature’ has always been a winning formula, providing a powerful protagonist and beguiling source of mystery in the form of a well-suited male. Whether Heathcliff, Rochester or Maxim De Winter – whose standoff, private and brooding presences define the exact idea of there being intrigue in aloofness or presence in absence – dominate the book, and every mind of every character who chance to be caught up in their world.
A man at a distance works. It lends enchantment, strength and wanting. Such is the power therefore of Jay Gatsby, perhaps the most enticing and captivating of all F Scott Fitzgerald’s male leads.
Despite embodying the title character, despite providing the sole focus of several conversations and idle chatter of surplus voices, and despite the reader being made increasingly aware of his upcoming introduction (the build-up is magical, if excruciating), Fitzgerald leaves Gatsby’s entrance until the third chapter. By the time he arrives, it feels like Gatsby is at the centre of the world; a man talked about, known about and omnipotent in every sense of the word. Yet his introduction is simple: mid-conversation, without his contemporaries aware of his identity, he declares ‘I’m Gatsby’.
Prior to this, our protagonist is seen in glimpses only, in chance twilight sightings.
“Fifty feet away a figure had emerged from the shadow of my neighbour’s mansion and was standing with his hands in his pockets regarding the silver pepper of the stars […] it was Mr Gatsby himself, come out to determine what share was his of our local heavens.”
This need to be among the stars, to be guided by an exterior force, hints at Gatsby’s imperfections, despite his apparent stringent composure. But humans always have weaknesses, and cracks in his surface widen ever-gradually.
Gatsby’s biggest weakness, though fain to admit it perhaps, is a girl. And just like his fellow male recluses, it is a woman who causes him heartache, confusion and longing. Less passionate than Heathcliff and Cathy perhaps, but with a relationship just as entangled and as full of history, unfinished conversations and with a yearning close to obsession, Gatsby and Daisy exemplify the destructive power of an incomplete love affair.
Such is Fitzgerald’s power of description, it is easy to recognise the cinematic potential of the author’s words as they are brought to life. The potential for the visual is achingly apparent at particular moments, notably first sighting of Daisy.
“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of the picture on the wall.”
Fitzgerald’s words speak volumes, bringing noise and life – ingeniously and easily – to a short passage of words on a previously flat page. Movement and energy seep through the text, creating imagery on the mind’s eye whether wanted or not.
Baz Luhrmann will, no doubt, have taken full advantage of this immense power and source of visualisation, and nowhere is this more evident than in the novel’s party scenes. Expect dazzled lights filtering through nighttime trees, the fizz of champagne bottles, the full and expectant titter of dazzling conversation amongst golden-dressed characters, the sharpest of suits, enticing looks across gardens of guests, the buzz of summertime breezes, money, love and jazz.
I can only hope Luhrmann does justice to the long-ago written words of Fitzgerald. The book is only very short (I engulfed the thing in half a day, satisfied by what had been, but hungry at the loss of finishing) and would advise a read before watching the film. If not, you’d truly miss out on the most gorgeous of descriptions, the fullest of characterisations, and that most excruciating of build-ups before meeting Gatsby, only achieved through reading the original words. F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Great Gatsby’ is an incredible work of fiction (with a firm emphasis on the ‘Great’).
Article by Hannah Astill