The Greatest of the Great Gatsby

In honor of the new movie, I’m posting here my favorite quotes from this, my favorite of all American novels. If you have other nominations, post them in the comments.

I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials
for the ‘Yale News’—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the ‘well-rounded man.’

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The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run.

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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 been blown back in after a short flight around the house.

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It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a
bright passionate mouth—but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered ‘Listen,’ a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.

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About half way between West Egg and New York the motor-road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.

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The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath—already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with triumph glide on through the seachange of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light.

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He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on YOU with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

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She was incurably dishonest. She wasn’t able to endure being at a disadvantage, and given this unwillingness I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard jaunty body. It made no difference to me. Dishonesty in a woman is a thing you never blame deeply—I was casually sorry, andthen I forgot.

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Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.

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I’d seen it. Everybody had seen it. It was a rich cream color, bright with nickel, swollen here and there in its monstrous length with triumphant hatboxes and supper-boxes and tool-boxes, and terraced with a labyrinth of windshields that mirrored a dozen suns. Sitting down behind many layers of glass in a sort of green leather conservatory we started to town.

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Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

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He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock.

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Daisy put her arm through his abruptly but he seemed absorbed in what he had just said. Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.

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There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams—not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.

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One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder. His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

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She’s got an indiscreet voice,’ I remarked. ‘It’s full of——‘I hesitated.
‘Her voice is full of money,’ he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of
money—that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it…. High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl….

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The track curved and now it was going away from the sun which, as it sank lower, seemed to spread itself in benediction over the vanishing city where she had drawn her breath. He stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot that she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.

…he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.

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West Egg especially still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house—the wrong house. But no one knows the woman’s name, and no one cares.

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And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch outour arms farther…. And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

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42 thoughts on “The Greatest of the Great Gatsby

  1. I cannot wait for this. I love the book. I love Fitzgerald (I lobbied hard to have my son named after him!). I feel very alone, sometimes, in my love!

  2. The first several minutes of Moulin Rouge blew my little mind until it slowed down and became more ordinary. I am very much looking forward to this.

  3. Yeah, if I was basing my anticipation strictly on Moulin Rouge, I would be very leery of this movie. As it is, I am resigned to the fact that the novel is essentially unfilmable, and I am keeping my expectations accordingly low. But I have to say that I am excited by the trailers.

  4. I’m torn. The trailer makes the movie look visually enticing. However, I’ve read the book (meh) and seen the Redford version (double meh).

    I just don’t get the undercurrent to the story. What is it? The spiritual and moral emptiness of the great and spacious building?

  5. Wonderdog, the 1974 movie was not good. It suffered from an overly literal attept at rendering the book into a movie. That’s a fool’s errand, and not one that I think Luhrman is likely to repeat. But if you read the book and felt unmoved by the greatest American novel ever written, I have little hope for you.

  6. No just stating facts. You are free to disagree, of course, but be aware that Christ is with me on this. See, He’s not only my shepherd, he’s the leader of my book club.

  7. Oh, my! What ever shall I do? People int he great and spacious building are pointing their fingers at me and mocking me.

    But really. Don’t use the name of the Lord in jest.

  8. You seem obsessed with the great and spacious building Wonderdog, which is weird. It’s not an image that applies here. And really, no one was mocking you. I was perfectly serious. I don’t understand how you can read Gatsby and come away with “meh,” but, you know, different strokes and all that. If you don’t like Gatsby, though, it makes me wonder what book you actually like. What’s your nomination for greatest American novel?

  9. My idea of the Great American novel? (See how he changed the discussion to put me on the offensive?) I loved “My Antonia”.

    I disliked reading “Death Comes to the Archbishop” in HS. As an adult (post bishop era) I was wondering through the library looking for something to read and ran across it again. I thought I would give it another chance. I quite liked it and proceeded to read the reat of Willa Cather’s works. I though “My Antonia” best depicted the American zeitgeist of that age.

    I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give Gatsby the same treatment. I’ll re-read it and see how it strikes me with 35 additional years under my belt.

    The G&S references are probably because I’ve started prep for next year’s Early Morning Seminary lessons on the Book of Mormon.

  10. Wait, what about Huck Finn? Can there be only one Great American Novel?

    “The Great American Novel Book Club coming soon to Kulturblog.”

  11. The greatest American Novel is “A Canticle for Leibowitz.”

    However, I really liked the Great Gatsby. Wonderdog’s “The spiritual and moral emptiness of the great and spacious building” statement actually gets at some of what the novel does, though it’s more than that.

    For me, the breakthrough was realizing that Gatsby was basically “Whatever happened to” the main character of any Horatio Alger novel. Rags to Riches, but what happens after the Riches?

    Here’s hoping the movie is great. From the trailers, I can’t tell. It’ll either be an amazing epic, or an amazing epic fail – either way, it will be worth watching.

    The Robert Redford movie was funny because there were a few scenes where you could almost hear the director say “and action!” because it was clear everyone was frozen in place, waiting to start their lines. Also the main actress was pregnant, so it’s a fun game to watch and figure out all the ways they hide her pregnancy.

  12. A sci-fi novel, Ivan? It’s just not possible, unfortunately.

    The problem with the great and spacious building idea is that that image is supposed to refer to “the world.” So if we’re going to say that the book is about the spiritual and moral emptiness of the world, then isn’t that what pretty much every novel is about?

    Yes, Gatsby is a rags to riches story I guess, but that’s just the background. The story of the novel is a love story. What would you do to reclaim the love of your life, the love of your lost youth? Some people say they would do absolutely anything to get back that one person who you believe you were meant to be with, but Gatsby is one of the few who really meant it.

    I think you’re probably right about the possible outcomes of the movie. Luhrman is clearly swinging for the fences, so he will hit it out or end up in the dirt. At least it won’t be lifeless like the Redford movie. That wasn’t Redford’s fault, however. I blame the director, who just had no feel for the novel.

  13. It’s possible, since the novel exists, and it is objectively the greatest American novel. I don’t care how much the “establishment” that supposedly determines these things ignores science fiction. No better novel has ever been written by an American (also, science fiction as a genre was invented in America, even if we can retcon some earlier British and French novels into it).

    As for Gatsby and rags to riches – that it is background was my point. Gatsby’s backstory comes straight from a Horatio Alger novel; it follows the Alger formula without variation – but the novel itself is basically what happens once the plucky young kid becomes rich. There’s more to it than that, but that’s what made the novel “click” for me: What happens when Ragged Dick (or Luke Larkin or Ben Bradford or whoever) finally makes it – what does he do with the rest of his life?

  14. I’m not just picking on sci fi, no novel that comes from any particular genre ever gets credit for being the greatest novel. You can try to buck that trend all you like but it is the reality, and in a way, there’s a certain fairness to it, because when you write in a genre you automatically get a head start on a fan base because there are fans of that genre who read almost anything that comes along.

    I think what sets Gatsby apart, for me, from any rags to riches story is that he probably would not have made it at all if he didn’t have the love story driving him forward. The love story is the reason behind the rags to riches story. It’s what makes him want to get rich as quickly as possible, it’s what makes him buy the house on long island, it’s what makes him throw those parties every weekend. It’s all to try to get Daisy, not just something he decided to do once he got rich. That’s a different kind of story.

  15. “So if we’re going to say that the book is about the spiritual and moral emptiness of the world, then isn’t that what pretty much every novel is about?”

    I do like the Horatio Alger novel type novels, in that they show people striving to become more than the natural man. His heros usually also wanted to be better people morally, to become gentlemen in every sense of the word. Overcoming the limbic, lizard brain (the acceptable scientific way of saying the natural man) is a laudable pursuit and can make for great reading.

    Gatsby as a study in a hero who pursues the wrong goal? Interesting.

  16. It’s not a study. It’s a love story. And who said he was pursuing the wrong goal? Isn’t it understandable and laudable to pusue the love of your life?

  17. Maybe morally, but it makes for more interesting a story than “boy meets love of his life and lives happily ever after”…

  18. ” when you write in a genre you automatically get a head start on a fan base because there are fans of that genre who read almost anything that comes along.”

    Said as though so-called literary fiction like Gatsby isn’t a genre, which it is.

  19. No, it’s the non-genre genre. That’s why it’s called a novel, not a sci fi novel or a fantasy novel or a mystery novel, etc.

  20. Wonderdog, if she wasn’t married to someone else, there would be no story. I understand the moral issues involved, and I’m not trying to minimize them, but if he really believes she’s the love of his life then there is surely something understandable and possibly even noble about his pursuit of her. Fitzgerald certainly makes the case for that anyway, and if you can’t buy into that premise due to moral objections, then you can’t really understand or appreciate the novel.

  21. BTW, Huckleberry Finn is certainly in contention for Greatest American Novel. Good nomination.

  22. Sorry MCQ – there’s no such thing as a “non-genre genre”. It’s the genre known as “literary fiction” or something along those lines (Capital “L” Literature or whatever – the claim it’s just a “novel” with no modifier is a clever bit of equivocation, but that’s about all it is). It’s a genre with a built in fanbase and with its own arcane formulas and rules. You may refuse to admit it, but that doesn’t change the truth of it.

  23. Well, yeah it’s called literary fiction which is by definition, not a genre. From wiki:

    Literary fiction vs. genre fiction

    Literary fiction is a term used to distinguish certain fictional works that possess commonly held qualities that constitute literary merit. Genre works are written with the intent of fitting into a specific literary genre in order to appeal to readers and fans already familiar with that genre. Literary fiction may fit within a classification of market fiction, but also possesses generally agreed upon qualities such as “elegantly written, lyrical, and … layered” that appeals to readers outside genre fiction. Literary fiction has been defined as any fiction that attempts to engage with one or more truths or questions, hence relevant to a broad scope of humanity as a form of expression. There are many sources that help readers find and define literary fiction and genre fiction.

  24. As I said, clever equivocation, but that’s about all. Wikipedia is not the ultimate arbiter of truth. If it has ” generally agreed upon qualities” that makes it a genre.

    However, if you want to insist on Wikipedia, here something from Wikipedia: “Some authors suggest that literary fiction is, in itself, just another genre or set of genres”

  25. The novel isn’t really about Gatsby. Its about Daisy who sees him as her great escape. The narrator uses him to explain how people of two different worlds are not really very different. She is unhappy in her own way and he is unhappy in his. Daisy doesn’t see it that way and the narrator tries to explain what she is blind to notice. If anything the book can be interpreted as a warning against unrealistic dreams and hubris. Be satisfied with what you have or can actually achieve or lose your soul chasing shadows.

  26. Jettboy, the book is absolutely about Gatsby. We are told his life story and his motivation for everything he does. The book begins and ends with Gatsby, it’s his story,that’s why it’s called the Greaty Gatsby. The book is about Daisy too, of course, she’s the object of his dreams and his lifelong fixation. But it’s silly to say the book is not about Gatsby and about Daisy instead. That’s just obviously not the case.

    I think your last two sentences come closer to the central idea, but I think you go too far by saying it’s a warning. It’s not a warning or morality tale, it just tells the story of a very idealistic, romantic dream that smashed to pieces when it collided with harsh reality. It certainly isn’t telling us to “be satisfied with what you have or can achieve.” Gatsby acheived more than anyone could have ever imagined he could, and he didn’t lose his soul. As Nick says in the first chapter:

    “No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and shortwinded elations of men.”

    So the book isn’t warning us to not be like Gatsby. Far from it. It’s warning us to not be like the “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams.” In other words, the people who fed off of him, came to his parties and benefitted from his hospitality and generosity and yet didn’t bother to even try to understand him. Most of all: Tom and Daisy, Tom because of his hypocricy and murderous complicity, and Daisy because of her cowardice. If anyone lost their souls, it’s those two, not Gatsby. He was true to his soul and to his dream to the bitter end.

  27. Oh its about Gatsby for sure, but not in the direct way the book and title implies. In a way you said it yourself in the last paragraph. We are responding to him in the way that Daisy does, who is the personification of the those who, “came to his parties and benefitted from his hospitality and generosity and yet didn’t bother to even try to understand him.”

    The narrator tries to help us break through the glitz and glamour to the deep sorrow in his heart. Yes, the book explains his great acheivements and reaching his dreams. It also exposes his weakness in love that didn’t, “turn out all right at the end,” unless you believe the narrator over the story.

    I never said it warns us not to be like Gatsby. Rather, it warns us not to be like Daisy who becomes smitten with him and his life rather than her own. Tom becomes jeolous, but over Gatsby’s growing love for Daisy or his money that is dragging her away from him?

  28. No, I don’t think so.

    Gatsby doesn’t have deep sorrow in his heart. Where are you getting that? He has deep longing for Daisy and an iron discipline with which he has created himself, this image of himself that he has been using to pursue his dream of her for years.

    I don’t know if Daisy ever really became smitten with Gatsby. If she did, she chickened out and chose security over love (twice, once at her wedding and once in New York). We all want to believe in her love for Gatsby, because Gatsby so clearly believes, but the first thing she does after she starts her affair with Gatsby is insist on all Gatsby’s servants being dismissed, just so there’s no one to talk when she comes over in the afternoons. She’s self-centered, shallow and cowardly, unfortunately for the man who pinned all his hopes on her.

    Tom is in no way jealous of Gatsby, especially not Gatsby’s money. Tom has more money than he can possibly spend, and it’s old money, not the tainted new money that Gatsby has scurrilously (according to Tom) acquired. Tom looks down on Gatsby in every way, and has no qualms at all about sending Wilson to kill him. For Tom, Daisy’s affair with Gatsby is not a matter for jealousy, it’s simply a matter for alarm when he perceives his control slipping away over something he thought was irrevocably within his grip; one(or two, counting Myrtle) of his possessions.

  29. My friend, the English department chair of a local university, said that determining “THE Great American Novel” was the ultimate cage match.

  30. In this corner, with a withering smile, Jay Gatsby.
    And in this corner, dressed as a ham for the school play, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch.

  31. It’s a good article, wonderdog, and a well argued thesis. It’s certainly correct in many ways, especially in its general conclusions, but I don’t think it’s right about Gatsby, ultimately, because of this statement:

    “It was for himself. What Gatsby loves is a dream of a world, one where he is king, the chosen one, the best—and one that, incidentally and perhaps accidentally, includes Daisy.”

    It’s true that Gatsby dreamed up Jay Gatsby, the name and the idea of a wealthy man that was different from who he was as a child, before he ever met Daisy, but he was still poor and penniless when he met her. He was never able to do anything to make his dream real until she became part of it. The motivating force of it. Remember that this is his view of Daisy:

    “His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

    He was ready to give up everything for her. If he could be poor and get Daisy, he would be poor. But he believed he needed to be rich. Tom was rich and got Daisy, so Gatsby thought he needed to be more rich than Tom to get her back. Daisy wasn’t incidental to Gatsby’s dream, she was the dream. That’s why, when he lost her again, his dream collapsed:

    “he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”

    The article overstates its case in regard to Don Draper too. The reason that Don can’t be satisfied with his wives isn’t because they don’t know who he is. He told his wives everything. His first wife was revolted by his lies and divorced him but his second wife knew the truth before they got married, and still chose to love him and marry him.

    There is something connecting Don Draper and Jay Gatsby, and the article has a good point, but it’s applcability to these stories is flawed.

  32. I just saw the movie. It was a home run in my opinion. Well acted, great music, wonderfully filmed, visually stunning, and true to the spirit and words of the novel. I’m surprised that all the critics weren’t impressed, but it seems to me that all the smart ones got it. I want to see it again, and it’s definitely a movie I will be glad to own and watch repeatedly.

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