Above: the original cover of The Great Gatsby (credit: beautifulbookcovers)
When I first came to Exeter it was for the Offer-Holders Visiting Day at the university in which they were presenting students with all the basics of an open day – a campus tour, accommodation tour and information tables in the forum. As well as all of this, the Humanities department held a sample lecture, allowing students to get a feel for what studying English at Exeter was all about. I went along and the lecturer asked those who’d read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to raise their hands. Everyone apart from me did so. Maybe some people were lying, maybe everyone had read the novel. Either way, I went home, got hold of a copy of Jane Eyre, and forced myself to sit through it.
It’s not that I disliked the story, it was okay. However, as shameful as this seems as an English student: I’m not a massive fan of classic novels. Sometimes I question how on earth they became classics in the first place because it can be so difficult to connect with characters and a writing style of another era, despite the potential for historical fascination.
However, this week I tackled The Great Gatsby in the hopes that I’d enjoy it more than when I read it a couple of years ago. Apparently I wasn’t the only one to see the book as distinctly average on the first read – when F. Scott Fitzgerald first drafted The Great Gatsby, his editor was reportedly sceptical and it took years of work to bring it up to standard before publication. Even then, only 20,000 copies of the book sold in the first year. Although that may sound like a lot, it really isn’t and Fitzgerald died before his book rose to popularity in the Second World War.
The slightly older me definitely appreciated The Great Gatsby significantly more. The way that Gatsby’s reputation precedes any true knowledge or action from his character really illuminated the roaring ‘20s in America in terms of the priorities and lifestyle of the people in high social class. Gatsby is practically a character within a character as he often puts on an alternative persona and exhibits himself in a way to manipulate his peers. As a reader, we never truly get to know him. Yet, surprisingly, this didn’t stop me from sympathising with him at the end of the novel, which is what made me even more interested in him after I’d turned the final page. His personality conflicted with his moral intentions, which makes him a far more complex character than the stock “John Smiths” we are often fed in contemporary literature.
Most obviously, The Great Gatsby calls into question the American dream and the choice between wealth and happiness, as the two were no longer interwoven in the late 1920s. Therefore, F. Scott Fitzgerald accurately depicted a shift in social issues, earning him the status of a classic novel writer.
Maybe it comes with age, maybe it’s just about where you are in life. Either way, I don’t think it’s necessary to like classics to be a successful English student. After all, having an opinion, positive or negative, is what matters.