Is The Great Gatsby Actually Profound?
This Week From the Lit Century Podcast
Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts Sandra Newman and Catherine Nichols choose one book for each year of the 20th century, and—along with special guests—will take a deep dive into a hundred years of literature.
In this episode, Catherine and Sandra talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby. Why is modernity (and the swimming pool) always deadly in 20th-century fiction? Where and how did Fitzgerald lose control of his material? Would it be a different book if Fitzgerald had chosen a different narrator? And most of all: why is this book so commonly seen as the great American novel?
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From the episode:
Sandra: Mostly I teach it because it is the perfect novel vis a vis structure. One of the ways that it’s interesting is how he turns the whole novel into a pattern with these repeating motifs, and everything is a symbol that meshes perfectly with everything else so that it’s like this little clockwork machine. And yet it’s also incredibly messy. There’s this emotional and thematic messiness to it where he’s not in control of his material as soon as you probe beyond that pattern.
Catherine: I’m so glad you said that. In my notes I have a section that says, is this actually profound? With a list of things where I couldn’t actually tell.
Sandra: Sometimes he’s trying to be profound and it’s just silly.
Catherine: Exactly! This is just the nature of reading when you’re older versus younger is that I could see it in the context of other works because I had just read more. I had been told about it as this quintessentially American novel, and then reading it this time I was thinking, it’s like a Jeeves and Wooster story. It’s like a Wodehouse story but not funny. The idea that there’s these two characters, one of them is watching the other one, and there’s a mystery and there’s love hijinks and there’s people trying to set up the perfect opportunity to give a flower to the girl and it’s ruined and doesn’t work out right, and misunderstandings and car crashes and fascists.
This is all stuff that would happen in a Jeeves and Wooster story, and it has that kind of flimsiness and silliness to it in a way, and lightness of consequence. And then he’s also saying, but none of those things are funny, all of these things are actually profound. And some of them are, I think. And then some of them just seemed not actually as serious as he’s setting them up to be, and there isn’t a tonal difference that suggests he knows that.
Sandra Newman is the author of the novels The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, Cake, and The Country of Ice Cream Star, longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post and NPR. She is the author of the memoir Changeling as well as several other nonfiction books. Her work has appeared in Harper’s and Granta, among other publications. She lives in New York City.
Catherine Nichols is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in many places, including Jezebel, Aeon, and Electric Literature. She lives in Brookyln.