Going to the Lighthouse with Gatsby


Gatsby_1925_jacket.gifThus far, my 1000inadecade blog has been concerned mostly with images of weight and size: how my size has changed, how I perceive myself, and how culture treats fuller figured women.  I will continue to write about these things.  Indeed, yesterday I was researching size 22 model Tess Holliday and reading the scathing comments about her in the comment section.   I was so angry after I read them that I had trouble sleeping, and almost hopped out of bed to write an essay before trying to sleep.  I didn’t – I read some William Faulkner and drifted off – but I will likely write about the situation sometime soon.

However, part of this blog was intended to chronicle my experience reading 1,000 works in a decade.  I wrote an essay about literature that I intend to share shortly, about a place literature has often taken in my life, a place that I felt it was losing.  Part of my reason for reading more is to re-ignite the connection I had with literature: a deep friendship and the comforting existence of another world, things that are always there when I need them.  To get myself excited, I set the goal of reading the top 100 works according to the Modern Library, and the top 100 works according to Radcliffe Publishing Company’s rival list (though there are many overlaps between the two lists), with the exception of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses, two works which may present me with more of a challenge than I care to undertake right now (and would require a companion text for the sake of decoding any tangible meaning from the original text).

Since I started this blog, then, and since I’ve made that decision, I have read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  The Great Gatsby is #1 on Radcliffe Publishing’s list of best novels and #2 on The Modern Library’s list (Joyce’s Ulysses is #1).  To the Lighthouse is #15 on the Modern library list and #34 on the Radcliffe rival list, but happens to be one of my favorite works of all time.  I procrastinated when it came time to write about these works.  First, I was so enmeshed in reading that my focus had been averted from writing.  Second, I can review many a horror-story, but how does one review a classic?  Lastly, since one can’t review a classic, what angle do I take on these pieces?  What does one say about To the Lighthouse and The Great Gatsby that hasn’t been said before?

Well, the truth is I have nothing to say, most likely, that someone at some point in time hasn’t said before, but I think both works are marvelous, and both connect to contemporary life.  First, let me emphasize just how delighted I was to be reading them.  I’ve read them both once or twice before, a long time ago, and loved them all over again.  Both are works of “Modernist” writing – a name for the literary period in America and Europe between 1900 and 1950 (give or take – different scholars may ascribe modernism with slightly different dates.)  Woolf, a brilliant, troubled writer who we now think had Bi-Polar disorder and killed herself, was British and died in 1941.  Fitzgerald, a brilliant, troubled writer who I believe was alcoholic and died of a heart attack, was American, and died in 1940.  Woolf is a stream-of-consciousness writer, who takes you down ambling planes of her characters’ inner thoughts at the expense of plot events and dialogue; at least, so it goes with To the Lighthouse.  Fitzgerald is best known for capturing the Jazz age, and tells the story of Jay Gatsby, “The Great Gatsby,” through the perspective of the likable and fair-minded Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

To the Lighthouse is beautiful for its characters’ contemplation.  Characters examine oneto the lighthouse another intricately and end up asking themselves What does it all mean while making observations about the wonder and pain of life.  Woolf’s deep, slightly melancholy, thoughtful voice beautifully pervades these inner monologues.  I’ve heard the book is partially a portrait for Woolf’s mother, off who Mrs. Ramsay, the leading lady, is based.  Mrs. Ramsey is quintessentially feminine – for the early 20th  century time period – in her dislike of artistic pursuits, her approval of marriage, and her desire to do for other people, but her warmth and companionship brings a house of strangers together in the Hebrides every summer.  Mr. Ramsey is hilarious – a bumbling, awkward philosopher who lives in his own world, constantly demands sympathy – especially from Mrs. Ramsay – and unexpectedly shouts spurious pieces of literature that run through his head, scaring those around him.  These characters are lovable – and Mr. Ramsay is both comical and brutish – but they also accurately depict Woolf’s views on some of the problems between male and female relationships, a critique she delivers very artistically. And, Woolf’s novel really examines the passage of time, intricately and sometimes tragically, which is a literary motif I love.

The Great Gatsby is beautiful for its tragedy, its depiction of human illusion, and its portrayal of the early 1920’s, in America, in New York, among the wealthy and lower-middle class alike.  Fitzgerald’s prose is breathtaking; the sentences he constructs makes me, as a writer, decidedly envious.  Perhaps it’s a character shortcoming of mine: I read a Fitzgerald sentence and think, Well I’ll never be able to do that.  But then, Fitzgerald is heralded for his sentences.  In any case, I love Nick Carraway as a narrator, I love Fitzgerald’s depictions of people – the crying woman at the piano, Klipspringer playing the piano – in The Great Gatsby, I love his symbolism, I love his depiction of New York in the 1920’s, and I’m infatuated by Gatsby’s infatuation with Daisy, enamored by Gatsby’s illusion.

Gatsby thinks he’s in love with Daisy, places her on a pedestal, and spends five years constructing a life of which he thinks she will approve.  She becomes more than a person to him; she becomes an essence, and being with her, something he imagines for five years, means entering another world in which every constituent takes on a different hue of meaning and perfection.  She lives by the “green light at the end of the dock,” a symbol of hope and desire, a troubling indicator that we all work for a better time period to come instead of relishing what we have, a suggestion that – whether through a romantic lens or some other – we all work for a next gradation of our lives that we believe will be infinitely more satisfying, more fulfilling than our current one.  Perhaps we’ve all been there.  I have.  I see the green light at the end of the dock as the dream, but the illusory dream, the dream we cannot ever really achieve.  Gatsby is less a story of tragic romance and more a story of remorseful, unbridled dissatisfaction.  He builds up an elaborate ensemble to please a being who, really, as he envisions her, does not exist, and he ends up alone and, in many ways, impoverished.  I thought To the Lighthouse, The Alchemist, and Their Eyes Were Watching God were my favorite novels.  After re-reading The Great Gatsby, I need to add it to the list.

Both of these texts deal with unsatisfactory human relationships.  In To the Lighthouse the characters often seem like they’re trying so hard to forge connections, but each person is stuck behind his or her own wall of glass, able to evaluate but unable – at least, often – to fully relate to another person.  In The Great Gatsby, most of the characters don’t even seem to crave genuine human relationships; it’s as if most of them have no notion of it, so they don’t know what they’re missing.  What is it about the early 20th century that provoked such feelings among people?  Are we similarly disconnected today?  How do different writers depict that isolation?  How do I, as a writer, depict it?  More importantly, as a society – as a world, even – how do we surmount it?

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