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  • Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature

  • and this is The Great Gatsby.

  • This novel barely makes it to 200 pages even with rather large print

  • and yet it’s so magnificently complex and rich

  • that we can’t possibly do it justice in two videos,

  • so today were gonna focus on a specific question: Is Gatsby great?

  • Mr. Green, Mr. Green. No.

  • Oh it’s so cute when you think youre entitled to your opinions,

  • Me from the Past,

  • even when theyre entirely uninformed opinions.

  • As penance for being such a little Hemingway [language, Mr. Green!]

  • about this stuff,

  • you will one day have to host a show about the glorious ambiguity of literature.

  • [Best]

  • [intro music]

  • [intro music]

  • [intro music]

  • [intro music]

  • [intro music]

  • [EVER!]

  • So a while back we discussed the Aristotelian tragedy of Romeo and Juliet,

  • in which people of high-birth are brought low by weaknesses of character.

  • Shakespeare introduced some ambiguity into that story arc,

  • as youll remember: There was bad luck involved in their demise,

  • and their mistakes, such as they were,

  • weren’t so grievous as to render Romeo and Juliet unsympathetic.

  • Also, as in many tragedies, Shakespeare used heightened, poetic language

  • to help us care about Romeo and Juliet

  • and root for them instead of just holding them up as examples

  • of what terrible things befall you when youre naughty.

  • Now, obviously, Gatsby isn’t a work of poetry,

  • but Fitzgerald found himself with similar problems.

  • As many a high schooler has pointed out,

  • the characters in The Great Gatsby aren’t terribly likable,

  • and the story just isn’t moving or compelling if youre reading about

  • a bunch of people you hate,

  • some of whom get what’s coming to them and some of whom don’t.

  • Fitzgerald handles this problem by heightening the language

  • and giving it pace. [some handle it by imagining Robert Redford in his prime]

  • I mean, you can basically tap your foot to The Great Gatsby

  • from the very first sentence:

  • In my younger and more vulnerable years,

  • my father gave me some advice I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

  • It’s got a beat and I can dance to it. [current restraint is a great move]

  • And the descriptions are jarringly, magnificently beautiful, too:

  • Daisy voice sounds full of money;

  • the fading glow on Jordan Baker’s face is

  • like children leaving a pleasant street at dusk;”

  • at the end of the novel,

  • Nick imagines the first European explorers of New York, writing,

  • For a transitory, enchanted moment

  • man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent,

  • compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired,

  • face to face for the last time in history

  • with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

  • Putting aside the fact that Fitzgerald failed to foresee that humans would

  • one day walk on the moon, not to mention create fake fake flowers, the

  • descriptions here are lush and beautiful.

  • So the language of the novel elevates

  • Gatsby’s triumphs and tragedies to the stuff of real epics, which

  • gives Gatsby a kind of unironic greatness.

  • Stan! Can we just decide if these are

  • physical digital flowers or digital digital flowers?

  • [instead only try to realize the truth- that there is no flower]

  • Remember, you do not have to be good to be Great.

  • [kinda like The Matrix trilogy on the whole]

  • And as the critic Matthew J. Bruccoli notes, Gatsby

  • is truly great by virtue of his capacity to commit himself to his aspirations.”

  • [lovely, if a bit circumlocution-y]

  • I mean, we celebrate achievement born of hard work and clarity of purpose

  • because there’s a greatness in that success that you don’t get by,

  • like, lounging around and using your pool all the time.

  • Remember, there’s exactly one person at Gatsby’s parties who doesn’t get drunk:

  • [the teetotalling] Gatsby.

  • I mean,

  • he’s a bootlegger who doesn’t drink, a swimming pool owner who doesn’t swim,

  • a man of leisure who never engages in a single leisure activity.

  • But as Bruccoli further points out,

  • there’s plenty of irony in the titular description of Gatsby as Great.

  • The adjective indicates the tawdry and exaggerated aspects of his life:

  • Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up and see the Great Gatsby!”

  • I mean, he’s part magician, andin a world of wealth

  • he’s part carnival curiosity.

  • Bruccoli notes that Tom Buchanan describes Gatsby’s famous yellow car

  • as a “circus wagon.”

  • [sure makes for a looker of a chalkboard]

  • Okay, let’s go to the Thought Bubble.

  • One thing Gatsby has in common with

  • Romeo and Juliet is that theyre all obsessed with controlling time,

  • which of course continues passing anyway.

  • Like, Juliet tries to force night to come quickly and dawn to stay away,

  • because only under cover of darkness can her marriage thrive.

  • Similarly, Gatsby doesn’t just want to marry Daisy:

  • He needs her to say that she never loved Tom Buchanan at all,

  • as if he can erase the past five years. [definitely a red flag]

  • What theyll do about Daisy’s baby is a fascinating question

  • that Gatsby seems wholly uninterested in,

  • but anyway,

  • Gatsby’s dream is that he and Daisy willto quote Nick

  • go back to Louisville and be married from her house

  • just as if it were five years ago.”

  • Nick’s perfectly sensible response to this idea is,

  • You can’t repeat the past.”

  • [also, Very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present]

  • And then Gatsby utters his most famous line:

  • Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can.”

  • And then he says,

  • “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before.”

  • Romeo and Juliet want to extend the present into forever

  • because they know their future is bleak;

  • Gatsby believes the key to the beautiful future is

  • a perfect restoration of the beautiful past.”

  • Thanks, Thought Bubble.

  • Okay, a brief aside before we return to Gatsby’s questionable greatness:

  • The idea of restoring the past to create a beautiful future

  • is of course not unique to Gatsby,

  • which is why no candidate for President

  • can ever get through a speech without mentioning some previous President,

  • whose glorious leadership the current campaign intends to channel

  • so as to make it morning in America again.

  • It’s also why Americans fight so much

  • about what the Founding Fathers would think of us, when in fact,

  • what they would think is probably,

  • You guys are dressed funny. Also, how come this room is so bright

  • without any windows? Furthermore, why is this screen talking to me?”

  • Now, of course, this nostalgia isn’t unique to the United States,

  • but you also have to remember that Gatsby is the ultimate self-made man,

  • having both literally and figuratively made a name for himself.

  • And this combination of aspirational impulses and the urge to

  • restore life to some immaculate past does strike me as very American.

  • That’s what makes the tragedy of Gatsby so much more interesting and complicated

  • than the Aristotelian model of tragedy.

  • Instead of being a person of high birth, Gatsby is a person of low birth,

  • albeit one born into a world that claims not to care about

  • or even believe in such things.

  • And instead of experiencing a reversal of fortune due to a weakness of character,

  • Jay Gatsby

  • well, that’s where it gets complicated actually.

  • I mean,

  • Daisy Buchanan was driving the car, but Gatsby chose to take the fall for her.

  • But, he’s also doomed just because

  • he lives in a social order that’s happy to drink illegal alcohol,

  • but condemns a sober bootlegger.

  • Oh, it’s time for the Open Letter?

  • [slides over to jump into the glory that is that yellowy green mess of a chair]

  • An Open Letter to Prohibition.

  • But, first, let’s see what’s in the secret compartment today.

  • Be booze, be booze, be booze,

  • be--yes!

  • Touchdown. It’s mystery liquor.

  • [oh boy]

  • Alright, the game here is simple.

  • I drink the mystery liquor and try to guess what it is.

  • Southern Comfort?...No?

  • What is it?...Jack-

  • -that’s too easy, Meredith.

  • Jack Daniels. Anybody could get Jack Daniels.

  • Dear Prohibition, You were crazy.

  • I mean, for the rest of American history,

  • our Constitution is gonna be this weird document that is perfectly normal

  • until the 18th Amendment, which suddenly bans alcohol,

  • and then the 21st Amendment,

  • which is suddenly like, “No, no, no. Terrible idea!”

  • [not unlike the Hammer Pants phenomenon]

  • It’s almost like legislating morality doesn’t actually increase morality.

  • [see what he did there?]

  • But Prohibition, in you,

  • Fitzgerald found the perfect metaphor for American hypocrisy and debauchery.

  • We are not very good at tolerating naughtiness in America,

  • but we love being naughty. [for reals]

  • In short, Prohibition,