The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
The Great Gatsby has become such a classic of American fiction that its literary merits easily obscure those qualities that also made it a favorite among readers. While critics have been quick to dismiss its thin plot and shallow characters as less important than Fitzgerald’s brilliant depiction of the Jazz Age and his indictment of its shabby values, most readers take a different view. They praise the book because its plot is thin and its characters are shallow. These readers believe that this is precisely Fitzgerald’s point, that the age itself could do no better than to produce shallow people living superficial lives. Academic critics speculated about the probable causes of this phenomenon, attributing it to the disillusionment brought on by World War I and the extreme measures taken to escape it. The aftermath of the war had brought, “a state of nervous stimulation…the generation which had been adolescent during the confusion of the War had now produced… a whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure…wherefore eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Readers saw a culture wallowing in hedonism, high on jazz and bathtub gin, and living life as if it were one long party and there was no tomorrow. More importantly, they saw the heroic and sympathetic figure of Nick Carraway, the outside observer, whose function it was to observe and report on the American Dream within Fitzgerald’s novel.
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In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway becomes the outside observer that readers come to identify with. Nick has the sort of blessed innocence and shining ambition associated with heroes. There is a freshness about him, a basic goodness that appeals to that part of human nature that envies or craves or is irresistibly attracted to innocence. Beyond that, however, is the fact that, in the tradition of the hero, Nick goes forth into the world to encounter corruption and disillusionment and has to come to terms with this in reality. It is through Nick that we see the American Dream, as epitomized by Jay Gatsby, come crumbling down under the amoral pursuit of wealth. We, also, get a glimpse of the roles of class in distinguishing between the wealthy East and West Egg socialites, as well as, the stark contrast between two wealthy but different men, Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. The following paragraphs will attempt to examine and analyze these issues more carefully as seen through the eyes of Nick Carraway.
It is Nick’s idealization of Jay Gatsby and his dreams that endear him to the minds of the readers. Gatsby on his own is not an easy character for readers to sympathize with without the special insight of the young and sympathetic Nick. If Nick can see the good in Gatsby, then the reader can dismiss the corrupt side as Gatsby’s victimization by the system and dwell on the charming side, that side made all the more intriguing by the mystery surrounding this handsome, rich, and devastatingly detached personality. As Nick says of Gatsby, “His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city.” Perhaps the best way to grasp the perspective of the American Dream in the twenties is to imagine Gatsby standing alone in the second-story bedroom of his gorgeous mansion in West Egg, looking out at the pool and the tent and the lavish party going on, at his expense, beneath his window; listening to the jazz band playing, seeing the shadows of the flappers against the sides of the tent, quietly watching–aloof, detached, amused, and powerful. This illumination of what the American Dream had become was seen by many as the new idealism that, “Prosperity in the twenties had come to mean a rate of advance rather than an actual state of affairs…more and more Americans were inclined to explain their society in terms of productivity, profits and stock quotes.” Not Gatsby, however. In recounting Gatsby’s dream, Nick remembers vividly coming home and seeing Gatsby standing in front of his mansion, looking intently at East Egg across the bay. His American Dream extended just across the bay and always seemingly beyond his reach, wrapped up in the beautiful idea of Daisy Buchanan.
Daisy Buchanan was Nick’s cousin, a lovely, exciting, but shallow young woman who once had an affair with Gatsby before the war. While Gatsby was away in the war, she married Tom Buchanan. He was a handsome, wealthy man, but cruel and insensitive. Gatsby wanted Daisy back and thought that his wealth, accumulated through shady transactions, would make Daisy admire him, but he overestimated her and underestimated himself. Unfortunately for Gatsby, the American Dream was only possible through materialism as the Roaring Twenties saw, “Americans easily assumed that spiritual satisfaction would automatically accompany material success.” Gatsby made the mistake of thinking this way, as well. He felt that by accumulating worldly possessions he could win Daisy back and give her the life she had dreamed of. At one point, Gatsby goes so far as to show her all his valuable belongings, throwing shirts into the air, “shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple green and lavender and faint orange.” Daisy, crying at this point to indicate the materialistic values that had consumed America, exclaims, “It makes me sad because I‘ve never seen-such beautiful shirts before.” This remarkable scene represents the whole embodiment of what the twenties era had become. It was characterized as an age of excess, overindulgence, consumerism, materialism, and individualism. It was Gatsby’s dream of Daisy Buchanan that would eventually lead him from poverty to riches and finally to his death as his amoral pursuit of wealth would give rise to the shattering of his American Dream.
In one sense Gatsby is the manifestation of a new prosperous society. His mysterious past and opportunistic illusions of a dream work to his favor in the new era of prosperity and abundance. Daisy is Gatsby’s one dream, and the reason he bought his house and gives his parties is to get her back. Gatsby becomes overly obsessed with Daisy as symbolic of his aspirations and dreams. This points to how unrealistic in his expectations he had become as he begins to live in a sort of fantasy world. Fitzgerald emphasizes this well when he states, “There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams- not through her own fault but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything.” He persuades Nick to bring him and Daisy together again, but he is unable to win her away from Tom. Nick can see this, but he is powerless to stop the chain of events that, for all their melodrama, seem necessary to act out the denouement of shallow lives lived recklessly, of shallow dreams shattered pointlessly. Nick tries to convince Gatsby that his dreams are unrealistic because the past cannot be repeated, but Gatsby’s reply of, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can,” serves to illustrate the illusion of a dream Gatsby is trying desperately to hold on to.
In the end, however, it all comes crumbling down as Daisy, driving Gatsby’s car, runs over and kills Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, unaware of her identity. Myrtle’s husband traces the car back to Gatsby and shoots him, who has remained silent in order to protect Daisy. Gatsby’s friends and associates have all deserted him becoming symbolic of the superficial lives of the times and the desertion of a dream, as only Gatsby’s father and one former guest attend the funeral with Nick to see an American Dream laid to rest. Everything that has happened seems surreal to Nick and almost pointless as he recalls, “everything that happened has a dim hazy cast over it.”
Fitzgerald points out through Nick that whether Gatsby had died or not his dreams still would have been murdered, nonetheless. Though Gatsby took the time to reinvent himself and acquire enough money (though illegally) to be considered wealthy, he would still never have been accepted into the inner circles of the East Eggers and the Buchanans. What Fitzgerald has done in his book is to add the idea of class to the idea of materialism and the American Dream. He divided these into distinct groups- old money, new money, and the poor. Paul Fussell, in his book on social classes reports that, “Economically there are only two classes, the rich and the poor, but socially there is a whole hierarchy of classes.” Fitzgerald edifies this by making basically the rich and poor classes, as well, with the only distinction being socially between the wealthy and how they accumulated their money. This distinction would set apart the “old money” of East Egg luxury and the “new money” of the West Eggers who had recently acquired their riches through the prosperity of the times.
The kind of class that Fitzgerald attributes to Nick Carraway and his family is neither of these. Fitzgerald suggests that Nick descends from the great American cultural component that had its origin in its ideal of a comfortable, cultivated, stable existence, drawing sustenance, generation after generation, from a family business, and living out its generations in the same spacious but unostentatious house. Midwestern idealism then is the hard solid moral core of America, and it produces a Nick Carraway, whose virtues are tolerance and honesty. These are precisely the two virtues that Fitzgerald needs in his hero: the tolerance to become involved with Tom, Daisy, and Gatsby, all of whom he mistrusts in varying degrees — but the honesty never to be deceived by them and, more importantly, never to be corrupted by them.
Opposed to this specific virtuous Middle West is a rather indefinite degenerate East, although it is particularized in the one small section in which most of the novel takes place: West Egg and East Egg, New York City, and the axis-the valley of ashes, Wilson’s garage, and the great staring signboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg — that connects them all. Both Eggs represent corruption, but it is a corruption of different orders, connected with inherited wealth on the one hand and with occupation on the other. East Egg is the home of inherited wealth, whose deeply tainted characters Fitzgerald manages to suggest in Tom and Daisy Buchanan. It is in this community that Tom, as if by instinct, settled, and when asked by Nick if he intends to stay in the East, he replies, in his best bit of self-analysis in the book, “I’d be a God damned fool to live anywhere else. West Egg is populated by nouveau riche, all of whom have acquired their gains in shady or marginal activities: politicians, moving picture people, fight promoters, gamblers, and bootleggers.” Farther reaches of Long Island, beyond the Eggs, are briefly suggested in the same manner. According to Nick, the Easterner inherits his money, while the Westerner works for his, but the West Eggers earn their money by gambling or bootlegging.
If the essence of Nick Carraway, the essence of the East is summed up in the respective characters of those two expatriates, Tom and Daisy, who between them — in his intolerance and her dishonesty. In Daisy further is embodied the beauty of the East, Tom the power, and in their union a vast irresponsibility that smashes the dream of Gatsby and finally murders the dreamer himself.
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Tom Buchanan then is power and intolerance, Daisy beauty and dishonesty. His financial power is mountainous, and his physique corresponds: you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his coat. It was a body capable of enormom leverage — a cruel body. But this power, financial and physical, does not extend to his mind, whose powerful limitations are compensated for by a thick-skulled inflexibility. For while a libertine in action, he is in opinion a prig, faintly nourished by the thinnest pap that twentieth-century knowledge has produced, popular “scientific explanations.
This powerful stupidity has as its soul mate the beauty and dishonesty of Daisy. Both these characteristics of the feminine side of the equation are repeated, reemphasized, and exaggerated
But money for Gatsby is a kind of metaphysical mystery as well, and certainly it is a synonym for beauty. It was the mysterious beauty of Daisy and her life that cast the original spell.
Jay Gatsby may be a bootlegger and a fraud, but he is only defrauding a system that is a bigger fraud, a system that advocates a farce like prohibition, that adores glittering surfaces, that cares only for the trappings of success and not for how the gains were got. But in the American tradition of trying to have your cake and eat it too, cult readers get to envy Gatsby while respecting Nick. Nick has his head on straight; Nick learns from what he sees; Nick acquires wisdom from his experiences and thus tells us a cautionary tale. Ah, but for one brief, shining moment, Gatsby illuminates the sky, and if his death is all a silly mistake, its sordidness is redeemed by his nobility. He dies, after all, for love, but it is a love that is unrequited. The success behind Jay Gatsby according him was
“Rise from bed. . . . Study electricity. . . . Work. . . . Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it. . . . Study needed inventions.”
West vs east
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Great Gatsby. Publisher: Scribner (1995)
- Jack Clayton directed movie, The Great Gatsby. (1974)
- John Braeman, Change and Continuity in Twentieth Century America: The 1920’S. Ohio State University Press (1968).
- Harold Bloom, Gatsby. Publisher: Chelsea House Publishers. Place of Publication: New York. (1991).
- Loren Baritz, The Good Life: The Meaning of Success for the American Middle Class. Perennial Library (1989).
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