Happy Birthday Gatsby – thoughts on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enigma

happy birthday

90 years since The Great Gatsby entered the world and it’s still going strong. We owe you one Fitzgerald. But why do we all love Gatsby so much? Everyone seems to be having ‘Gatsby’ parties and it’s a firm favourite on the GCSE syllabus. Is it simply that we love the American jazz age era and wild party rebellion? Why is Gatsby Fitzgerald’s most famous text and creation when many of his other texts, Tender Is The Night or This Side Of Paradise, for example, are arguably as absorbing?

I was lucky enough to get tickets to the sold-out Northern Ballet’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ directed by David Nixon at Sadler’s Wells a few weeks ago. I know next to nothing about ballet but I can say with conviction that it was completely beautiful. The sets, the costumes, the music; the essence of The Great Gatsby was brought to life. The choreography and body language captured each character incredibly well. From the brutishly macho Tom to the effervescent Myrtle.

However, in my opinion there’s just no way to achieve and recreate the subtlety of language in Gatsby’s prose.

“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 as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself.”

And the stage offered limitations on Gatsby’s bombastic lifestyle that, for example, Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic production could portray. But despite these limitations, which are largely due to dance as a form, the production accurately enacted Gatsby’s longing for Daisy, perhaps even more so than the original book. Where Fitzgerald writes flashbacks charting Gatsby’s time as a young soldier wooing a young Daisy, Nixon’s production brings these flashbacks to life and has them interact with the present day Gatsby and Daisy. The result is eerie, ethereal and stunning; a visual representation of Gatsby’s yearning to capture the past and grasp it in his hands.

The production reaches its climax with a haunting ballad that offers one last moment of reflective happiness before the inevitable, brash violence of Gatsby’ end. From start to finish the production was edge-of-seat excitement mingled with fragile beauty and relentless tension. I cannot wait to see the Northern Ballet’s next offering.

I’ve seen the films, read the books, read the criticism and now seen the ballet. But I’m not getting any closer. Why do we all love Gatsby? He’s compelling, that’s obvious. And handsome, eloquent and devoted. Undoubtedly. Yet in Fitzgerald’s text it’s largely Nick that does the talking. He is the one who tells Gatsby. It’s Gatsby’s ‘uncapturable’ nature and enshrouded mystery that I love. I don’t think we can know Gatsby. All we can do is gradually piece together fragments that capture him. The Northern Ballet capture his longing, Lurhmann his lavish desperation, Fitzgerald’s text his neurotic devotion. Maybe Gatsby is the ultimate fictional mystery that can’t be solved. Or perhaps as Kate Beaton illustrates below, I’m reading way too much into it…

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One thought on “Happy Birthday Gatsby – thoughts on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enigma

  1. Great piece!.. I really enjoyed studying Gatsby, for me it is definitely the language but I think you’re right in that there is something ungraspable about the character.

    Liked by 1 person

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