Before we can say anything is overrated (or underrated for that matter), we should probably know how it’s rated.
The Great Gatsby’s success and acclaim are a mostly modern phenomenon. At the time of Fitzgerald’s death in 1940,* Gatsby* had only sold a middling 25,000 copies and was considered a whiff of Fitzgerald’s potential, but otherwise nothing terribly special.1
Fitzgerald never knew what a mark his book would make on legions of American schoolchildren (and adults alike).
By the 1950s, the literary critics rediscovered* Gatsby. They pointed at *Gatsby’s astute assessment of the nouveau riche and the smashup of idealism and materialism of the 1920s’ go-go era as a sign of Fitzgerald’s brilliance. The New York Times’ editorialist Arthur Mizener captured the shifting tide of literary critics’ opinion of Gatsby:
…the obvious values of the book have been reasonably established, and we are ready to consider the qualities which, though more difficult to deal with, are probably quite as important. One is the book’s realization of the fluidity of American lives, the perception being Tom Buchanan’s wistful drifting here and there, “wherever people played polo and were rich together,” in Wolfsheim’s sentimental longings for the old Metropole, in Nick Carroway’s wry feeling that Tom and Daisy were “two old friends I scarcely knew at all,” in Gatsby’s whole career. Another is the book’s voice, “more important,” as Lionel Trilling has said, “than [its] shape or its wit of metaphor.”
We can now afford to turn our attention to such things - because, whatever disagreements we may have over Fitzgerald’s work as a whole, there remain few doubts of the greatness of “Gatsby” or of its imaginative relevance to American experience.2
Ever since this watershed moment, the acclaim for Gatsby has only intensified. Big, fancy-pants and heavy phrases like “Great American Novel” and “the perfect novel” have been thrown about in close proximity to Gatsby.3 4 Everyone has noticed. Numerous film, theater and even opera adaptions have been made, heightening its fame (and presumably ratings). You would be hard-pressed to meet any American who hasn’t read Gatsby, since it’s required reading in nearly every high school.
In short, Gatsby is kind of a big deal.
Can such a wee book like Gatsby live up to such lofty labels such as “Great American Novel” and perfecto?
Before we dive in, I’ll give my personal definition:
…that the term “Great American Novel” captures the idea of American culture during a certain time period…In a funny way, the idea of the Great American Novel is so utterly American. Just as we think that the American dream is the panacea for all ills, we think that we can quantify and distill something as amorphous as the American soul.5 (emphasis added)
So, the question becomes: do we think that Gatsby represents America of the 1920s? The answer is a big fat of course, duh! Drilled deep by generations of English schoolteachers, we now imagine Gatsby’s gilded bathrooms and Daisy’s vacuous heartlessness when we think of the 1920s. Does Gatsby provide an exact rendition of the 1920s? Probably not. That’s not even the point. We think it does. This is one of the few situations where circular logic works.
Is it perfect? Nah, far from it. The car accident and the subsequent scenes are a bit convoluted.6 Some of Nick’s thoughts and references are left unexplained. Things drag a little at the beginning as Nick gets to know his profligate neighbors. The affair between Nick and Jordan was a bit odd and ended abruptly. Plus, Nick is kind of lame and slightly boring.
Is it a good book? Hell, yeah.
The writing’s tight. It has one of the best endings in the business. In 184 pages, Fitzgerald achieves more than most authors do with four or five times the page count. Despite being a profligate con man, Jay Gatsby stays a preeminently sympathetic and tragic character. Fitzgerald’s social criticism was prescient, taking aim at contemporary excesses before anyone around him realized what was happening.
I mean, look at this!
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter— to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And one fine morning------
Fitzgerald, F. Scott The Great Gatsby (p. 180).
Dem’s some fine writin’.
Gatsby isn’t a perfect novel, especially since I wouldn’t call it a lovable novel in the way that Oliver Twist and Pride and Prejudice are. You can’t help but leave disgusted with every character in the book. That being said, Gatsby is a pretty damn good book, but you don’t have to like it.