This may shock some people, but I’ve never read the Great Gatsby. It’s just never come up. I’ve heard people mention it’s good, and the fact that it appears on a lot of “best classic book” lists, well, means I should have read it. But I never have. This probably won’t be the first such surprise on the list.
Summary Type Thing
Who is the Great Gatsby? That’s what this book is about. Sorta. Kinda. It varies, based on who you ask. I’d write up a summary of the book, but that doesn’t do it justice. That’s because the genius of *The Great Gatsby* isn’t in the plot or the setting. The characters are pretty intriguing, although they are written to be fairly horrible people. The writing, though, is the jewel in Gatsby’s crown. But that may not be apparent at first glance.
Authors do a lot of stuff as they write. There’s many ways you can be good at writing. Your prose can be a work of art, the scenery can leap out of the page, your characters can feel real and amazing. There’s a lot of people who are amazing at the craft out there. I thought I had a handle on what a writer could do, but Fitzgerald proved me wrong.
First, Gatsby really puts me in the character’s shoes. When Nick is dragged along against his will one Sunday, I feel that, and I feel trapped when he can’t leave. When Nick meets Jordan or Gatsby, they appear as a bright spot for a second, which vanishes when they leave the scene. As suspicious I am of Nick as a narrator, I can’t deny I match my emotional response.
Second, Fitzgerald has written a book, somehow, magically, where you can write a 3 page paper on how any object relates to the plot. Need to write about the meaning of the swimming pool? Sure, easy enough. Does your teacher want you to wax eloquent on the color yellow? Lots of people in yellow, plenty of material. Do you want to write about how Fitzgerald’s use of books stands as a metaphor for… something? Dealer’s choice, you can do it!
That’s what makes it such a good book for High school English classes. It is such fertile ground for meaningless comparisons and analogies. It’s also a great way to teach rudimentary analysis, because ANYTHING is a thread you can pull.
And to write a book like that, intentionally, is impressive. There are a few books out there that have a lot of space to analyze and theorize, but every single person I’ve talked to had a different thing they were pulling out of the book. The library copy I was reading had sections underlined in feint pencil, passages that a previous reader found important I guess. And I say guess, because the only thing that stood out to me about those paragraphs was that they were underlined. They had nothing to do with what was the true theme of the book. (Or what I think is the most important, anyway)
Personally, I find the fact that every character is a liar, including the narrator to be an interesting angle, and if I had to write a theme on Gatsby, that would be my focus.
But I don’t, so I get to write this instead.
Legacy Artificial Classic
What is a classic? That’s part of what the Culture Quest is about, figuring out what that definition is. A better question is “Does The Great Gatsby fit the criteria of an American Classic that has withstood the Test of Time?”
Let’s start with the Test of Time. I don’t have a great definition for it, but I think it may mean a book that isn’t painful to read because of how old it is. I understand that this may not be a perfect definition. My casual interactions with William Shakespeare, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Edgar Rice Burroughs shouldn’t be enough to disqualify them from this title, right?
Well, it is my site and my quest, so I’m sorry Billy, You better hope I’m more cultured by the time I get to you…
Anyway, Gatsby passes the Test of Time in my book, because while it wasn’t “Oops I tripped and fell into the end of the book” levels of an enjoyable and easy read, it was still good. I finished it, digested it for a second, then immediately started at the beginning to see what context could be cleaned with a new understanding. And while I wasn’t shirking important stuff to sneak a page of Gatsby, I also wasn’t pulling out my phone to scroll Reddit for a dopamine hit.
“Classic” is the next term. I don’t know if a single person can decide that, actually. I think Classic might mean “A bunch of people think it’s still good.” There’s probably an age restriction, but I don’t know the numbers on it. There’s also a quality aspect as well. This is one of those nebulous words that plagues computer programmers, because we want hard lines between things. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need things to be in binary. We don’t care how many categories there are, or even if it’s just a fuzzy number, but we need data in the hopper if you expect us to do anything with it.
Does Gatsby qualify as a Classic? Probably. It feels a little artificial, because when I see a statistic that says the book sells 500,000 copies a year, there’s no mention of how many of those go to schools, and other people forced to read it, instead of choosing to read it, which I recommend.
I’ve added it to my list of books to buy. I want to underline my own thoughts and important bits in one color, then lend the book to someone else for them to mark their best bits with a different color and see what the book is like after 10 readers.
The Great Gatsby enters public domain in January. I don’t know what that means, exactly. I mean, I understand what it means, but I don’t know what it means for the book. I think it might be interesting to have a version of the book that instead of being told linearly, it’s index linked. You click a word and are taken to another section of the book that has the same word. Possibly randomly. That way, you build a random image of the story instead of the thought castle Fitzgerald intended.
No real point to that, just something interesting. I might do some stuff with Gatsby when it enters public domain.
I just spent a stupid amount of time, trying to figure out if there is a convenient list of what’s public domain. And, apparently, trying to find out who owns the rights to The Great Gatsby is an exercise in futility, which bothers me a bit. That seems like it should be easy to find. Part of that is there is a lot of google flak in the form of articles of people complaining that Gatsby isn’t public domain yet, but none seem to mention who owns it.
I don’t really care who it is, but I think knowing which company is going to lose 500,000 sales a year is important. If that’s what the book going public domain means. That number is going to drop. I mean, probably. Who really knows, but I can imagine nervous CEOs biting fingernails as one of their reliable cash cows goes public.
Copyright is weird. 
What can we learn for RPGs?
First, for GMs, give the players a Gatsby. An eclectic rich hedonist who throws amazing parties. Spend a session at a party. That’s what Carousing is, right? Give the players some warning, tell them that this will just be a party, and you’ll award XP based on being in character and adding to the enjoyment. And LEAVE IT AT THAT. As tempting as it is, do not attack the party. Not with ninjas, not with pirates, not with dinosaurs, not with a combination of the three, you can’t build trust with the party and let them have fun scenes without giving them room to breathe. This should be a time for intrigue, making connections, and politics at the rubbing elbows level. You can have duels, which should just be a few rolls to determine dominance, but that’s it.
Later, after parties have become commonplace you can spruce them up with surprise, but you need the commonplace part first. They players will be suspicious. Nothing is as suspicious as nothing happening. But it could be a good change of pace.
Gatsby needs to be there, of course, and you need to have rumors abounding. He’s a member of the Zhentarim. He had people killed. He gave XXXXgp to an orphan charity last year. Make up a bunch of stuff, but each should have a grain of truth as well. And when they meet Gatsby, leave them wanting more is your friend.
Second, your players ARE Gatsby. Maybe not him exactly, but the type of parties Gatsby threw? The PCs are that rich, they’re that affluent, and they’re that famous/infamous. Play that up. Make the players FEEL that. They’re the heroes, after all. Let them be epic by doing epic things and throwing a party is one of those things.
Reading Gatsby has made me interested in reading other Fitzgerald books, which is a good indicator of quality. I think The Great Gatsby is a book worth reading, which is not a bad indicator of quality. Take it how you will.
Patreons did not get this early, because I had to re-write this a ton to get it to an acceptable level. They did get an email alert once I posted it, though, and that counts for something. Also, new thing, I have a place you can suggest books for me to add to my 4700 line super list. And when I see a Patreon’s name there, well, their books get a bit higher of a priority.