The Book That Made Me Want Toxic Love: Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”

I went to the library often when I was younger, always trying to get lost in other people’s worlds to escape my own — usually by annoying the guy in the film section — but other times it was through the books. The library was one of my first real therapists, I’d flip through the pages of the books to try and connect the dots and find a solve for the trauma I was enduring and keeping to myself. Under the shitty yellow lighting of many a Detroit public library I taught myself how to heal. While the torn leathery bits of the chairs stuck to me and bit into my skin, I used my unfortunate resilience to assure myself that things weren’t my fault and that they wouldn’t last.

I think my love of the library and my endless want to explore other people’s imaginations was why I loved English class so much. Book reports were my favorite thing to do, and were some of my first forays into publicly critiquing pop culture. I’d blast through the books assigned and spend days crafting the perfect reports complete with my thoughts, callbacks to my favorite lines, and suggestions on how the writer could have done a better job at inviting me into this world they created. I was kind of an asshole with it if I’m being honest, a 12-year-old kid in front of my class breaking down these sometimes historic works and being like “I mean, they could have done better…” — and all wearing a puka shell necklace and purple cargo shorts.

When, like many American schools, we eventually got assigned The Great Gatsby, I was obsessed. I loved love stories, especially forbidden ones or those where young lovers found their way back to each other after being dramatically ripped apart. When I read the story of Daisy and Gatsby I wanted one just like it. This was far before I discovered that love could be simple. On my first few reads, I was so jealous of Daisy. Although I was a girl who at home anyway, was always being told how beautiful and special I was, it took years for it to sink in. I attached beauty to if people wanted me, and save for a few of my AIM buddies no one did. I went to dances alone and had no reciprocated crushes, but Daisy — Daisy had two people pining after her and pulling out big romantic gestures to prove what I perceived as love. I read this book with the mind of a young girl, one who saw hetero makeup to breakups on TV every week, and sat too close to the screen clutching a pillow and mistaking demands of love declarations for sweetness instead of the manipulation they really were. I watched those shows and movies — and read this book when I thought that love had to be tumultuous to be true.

As a tween, I picked up quite a few problematic hopes for my future relationships from those that I saw in pop culture. Daisy and Gatsby’s love story was no exception — hell, I even fawned over what Myrtle and Tom had. It was odd considering that the images of love I saw in real life were not problematic at all. My parents doted on each other, they laughed, kissed, and loved in front of us. Of course, they fought and disagreed like your average couple but I grew up seeing a healthy representation of love and relationships. But as a tween, your parents aren’t the couple you’re focused on, it’s not until you’re grown when you’re learning what you actually want in a relationship do you recall the healthy ones you saw growing up. When you’re a tween the ones that matter are those you see on the screen or read about in books, enter for me, Gatsby & Daisy. They were the perfect recipe for chaotic connection and I ate up every bit of it. My realization of my queerness somewhat coincided with my introduction to this book. I didn’t know too much about what a gay relationship would be like, but the few that I did see were full of pain and secrecy — two things heavily present in The Great Gatsby.

The hardship of Daisy and Gatsby bought me sort of an odd calm feeling about my future. Perhaps I didn’t put these exact words to it then, but it felt like, “Wow, straight people are just like us!” Before you’re too hard on a young Shelli, keep in mind that I was just doing what lots of teen girls were doing: looking at a body of written work and trying to connect her future love life to it —only instead of using the pages of Cosmopolitan (though I did that too) I was using historical literature as a guide. When Cosmos’ advice columns were teaching women to give their cheating boyfriends another chance because he probably didn’t mean it, Fitzgerald was teaching me that things like stalking and affairs were normal steps on the way to true love. I mean — Gatsby kept track of Daisy’s life, purposely moved to the city she lived in and bought a home directly across from her, found out who her crew was, and invited them to parties to ask what she was up to, all of this unbeknownst to her. This was happening in a decades-old book, but still, the current cishet pop culture I was constantly immersing myself in then was constantly affirming Fitzgeralds’ teachings that this was yet another version of true love.

After years of constant re-reading and doing my own dating, my jealousy of Daisy dissipated and turned into something that resembled sympathy. I say resembled because let’s be honest, she was white, rich, and beautiful so how bad could one feel but…still. When my first major relationship ended I thought of Daisy. That relationship was abusive, but I stayed so long because I hadn’t fully discerned that love didn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be so hard and painful. I made the choice to leave when I realized that the flowers didn’t make up for manipulation, the one week of watching what I wanted didn’t erase the hours she spent yelling at me, or that her demanding a key to my home wasn’t so that she could sweetly check in on me but so that she could have access to me on her terms. Daisy used to be the luckiest girl in the world to me, I had glamourized so much of her love life in my mind for years. She wanted to be foolish and free, to cavalierly make choices in life and in love but couldn’t. She was always choosing between the lesser of two evils, to stay with a man she knew she didn’t really love, or to go with one that — no matter how sweet his intentions — would only love her in his way. In that relationship, I was being “loved” in her way and it wasn’t until I left where I thought of my parents. I stopped thinking about all fictional relationships I saw and began to pull from the real-life one that was always there. I was grown up enough now to realize how lucky I was to have such an example to pull from to create my own needs and wants of love. My wants began to evolve and so did my views of those relationships I saw in pop culture. I was now able to look at them and still get that tween feeling while also using discernment to not mimic or glamourize those that would in reality, be disastrous.

I still have a deep love of The Great Gatsby. I read it nearly monthly and when the Luhrmann adaptation came out I saw it in theatres multiple times. It amazed me because the way that I saw the world in my mind when I first read it was nearly exactly what I saw on the screen, complete with a childhood crush in the role of the leading man. The difference now is that my appreciation comes with heavy separation.

I do recognize it as a beautiful piece of literature but it was also written by a Caucasian man who was undoubtedly racist, not nearly the creative novelist many think he was, and who would probably be part of the rich we shout to cancel and eat today. I also don’t read it the same way I did when I was a child, trying to insert myself in the story with hopes that it might be my own future. Maybe it’s because I’m older and have since learned the whole “art from artist” theory that’s sometimes hard to put into practice, but I think it’s more that I am no longer living in a world that I am constantly trying to escape. I don’t pine for Gatsby’s green light anymore or find sweet romance in Daisy’s tears. I’ve since learned what love is and what it isn’t, and most importantly — what it looks like to me.

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hishelli

Shelli Nicole is a Detroit-raised, Chicago-based writer. Her work has appeared in Bustle, HelloGiggles & Marie Claire. She is terrified of mermaids and teenagers equally.

Shelli has written 131 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Shelli, have you read Nghi Vo’s “The Chosen and the Beautiful”? It’s a retelling of The Great Gatsby from Jordan Baker’s perspective. It’s gorgeous and a little otherworldly. I think you’d really enjoy it.

  2. I was so happy to read this article. I have taught Gatsby for years and have disliked it because I do not care that deeply about the characters. Their problems seem so far-fetched and superficial. But year after year, my students pick this novel almost exclusively for the modernism unit, even when they are offered choices that are far more appealing, to me. So this year, I am going back to the full class read and calling it the Gatsby unit. I have been looking for voices that share my love for the literary qualities, the magic, and dazzle, with the contempt for the relationship that creates such chaos. This article will speak to many of my students – thank you

  3. Can’t remember how I came to this article but I’m going to share it with Maureen Corrigan, NPR book critic. I heard her speak on Gatsby, her all-time favorite book (she wrote So We Read On, about Gatsby). Thanks so much, what a fantastic essay!

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