The first time I encountered "The Great Gatsby" it was as an assignment in a high school English class. My recent re-read occurred after my son had read it in his high school English class. The reread brought back memories of a form of academic study from which I have been separated for many years.
"The Great Gatsby" is an excellent book in which to study the writer's art. In this short book the reader can detect a collection of symbolic details which make the story much more than the tale which appears on the surface: the ash heap, as a symbol of the waste of American society; the green light on Daisy's dock, which means so much to Gatsby as a symbol, until he again meets Daisy, when it again becomes, for Gatsby, as for everyone else, just a light.
The characters all play their roles in the development of the story. Shallow figures fill Gatsby's parties, but show their true level of concern for him when they all absent themselves from his funeral. The class distinctions between Daisy, a true upper class maiden, who can never lower herself to accept Gatsby, the aspirant to a class rank which wealth and parties cannot buy. Gatsby's source of wealth is hinted at by his association with Meyer Wolfsheim, the gambler who fixed the World Series. Like others, he will associate with Gatsby in life, but has no time for him in death.
The unnatural core of Gatsby's world is illustrated by his act of moving east, rather than the traditional westward migration, in order to achieve freedom and advancement.
Tom and Daisy Buchanan represent old money, which will not accept Gatsby and, in the end, destroys him.
Nick Carraway is the one character in the book who develops his own moral sense. His role as narrator permits us to see Gatsby's world through his eyes. It is he who sees, and is repelled by, the rotten cores of Gatsby and the worlds in which lives and into which he aspires. He sees the corruption deep inside Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Most of all, we see the innate goodness in Tom. Observing, but not entering Gatsby's world, he is able to understand and judge it. His final evaluation of Gatsby's world is seen when he abandons it all to return to his native Midwest.
As I re-read "The Great Gatsby" I remembered what I had not liked about it the first time I read it. The causal acceptance of infidelity seems at odds with what I have always viewed as the ideal as well as the reality. As one studies the commentaries of this book, with all of its symbolisms, I often wonder if the symbols were really in F. Scott Fitzgerald's mind as he wrote the book, or whether they are constructs of later commentators. Either way, they give the book a depth which so many others lack. When my son speaks of other books he reads in English class, he always says "It's no Great Gatsby." The more I think of it, few of novels are.