English Literature Essays - The Great Gatsby

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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby has become such a classic of American fiction that its avowed literary merits easily obscure those qualities that also made it (and continue to make it) a cult favorite. In a way, the early history of the book is a counterpoint to the history of J. D. Salinger the Catcher in the Rye, with both books ending up as perennial favorites. The difference is that Catcher was a cult favorite first and then a critical success, whereas The Great Gatsby was praised by the critics long before it acquired a cult following.

Therefore, although Gatsby fits chronologically into an earlier time frame, one closer to Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe than to Salinger, it somehow caught the attention of a post-WW II audience and acquired a cult following that peaked in the early fifties but has by no means abated. In this respect it is like Hermann Hesse Steppenwolf, Demian, and Siddhartha, books that originally appeared a generation before they gained the cult status that has made their titles household words since the 1960s.

Although critical reception of the novel has been kind, most 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. Cult readers take a different view, praising the book precisely because its plot is thin and its characters are shallow. To them this is 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 the First World War and the extreme measures taken to escape it. Cult readers concentrated on the effects and saw a culture wallowing in hedonism, high on jazz and bathtub gin, living life as if it were one long party and there was no tomorrow. But more particularly, they concentrated on one person, the sympathetic figure of Nick Carraway, the outside observer, a character straight out of Joseph Conrad or Henry James whose function it is to observe and report.

However, whereas Conrad's Marlow ( Heart of Darkness) never becomes much more than a convenient narrative device, certainly not a character a reader can really identify with, Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway becomes very much a part of what he perceives, the sensitive young man that a host of sensitive young men have come to identify with. It is to him, then, that one must look to find the basic attraction of this novel as a cult book. To begin with, Nick has the sort of blessed innocence and shining ambition we associate with the mono mythical hero. Although he is more a Telemachus than a Ulysses, there is freshness about him, a basic goodness that appeals to that part of human nature that envies or craves or is irresistibly attracted to innocence. This is the quality one finds in well-mannered, unprepossessing heroes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther) to William Golding's Ralph (Lord of the Flies).

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 to come to terms with reality. He alone is able to see the essential worth of Jay Gatsby beneath the deceptive exterior.

It is Nick's idealization of Gatsby that ennobles him in the minds of cult readers. Gatsby on his own is not an easy character for cult 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, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Perhaps the best way to describe the cult reader's perspective is to imagine Gatsby standing alone in the second-story bedroom of his palatial 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, smoking a cigarette--aloof, detached, amused, powerful. And then imagine Nick Carraway, having received an invitation to one of Gatsby's parties, arriving on the scene and din fact, Nick remembers vividly coming home from the Buchanan’s after his first visit and seeing Gatsby standing in front of his mansion, looking intently at East Egg across the bay. Both scenes spell alienation and ego-reinforcement tied up together with the sweet suffering of loneliness and the feeling of being privy to a special version of reality created by the wizardry of the enigmatic Gatsby, within whose magic circle one might feel threatened and secure at the same time.

It does not take long for the cult reader to be drawn in, even taken in, by Nick's own fascination with Gatsby, and by then the plot, whether thick or thin, takes on a special allure, for the reader is as eager to know more about Gatsby as Nick is. Nick has rented a summer cottage near Gatsby's place, and across the bay, in more fashionable East Egg, are Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Daisy is Nick's cousin, a lovely, exciting, but shallow young woman who had once had an affair with Gatsby before the war. While Gatsby was away in the war, she married Tom Buchanan. Handsome, wealthy, but cruel and insensitive, Tom is currently having an affair with a married woman named Myrtle Wilson. Gatsby wants Daisy back and thinks that his wealth, accumulated through shady transactions, will make Daisy admire him, but he overestimates her and underestimates himself.

In one sense Gatsby is the apotheosis of his rootless society. His background is cosmopolitan, his past a mystery, his temperament that of an opportunist entirely oblivious to the claims of people or the world outside. His threadbare self-dramatization, unremitting selfishness, and attempts to make something out of nothing are the same in kind as those of the waste-land society, and different only in intensity. Yet this intensity springs from a quality which he alone has: and this we might call "faith." He really believes in himself and his illusions: and this quality of faith, however grotesque it must seem with such an object, sets him apart from the cynically armored midgets whom he epitomizes. It makes him bigger than they are, and more vulnerable. It is, also, a quality which commands respect from Carraway: since at the very least, "faith" protects Gatsby from the evasiveness, the conscious hypocrisy of the Toms and Daisies of the world, conferring something of the heroic on what he does; and at the best it might still turn out to be the way in to some kind of reality beyond the romantic facade, the romantic alchemy which, despite his cynicism, Carraway still half hopes one day to find. The novel is concerned with Gatsby's reasons for appearing out of the blue and becoming host to half the rich moths of New York. He is it turns out, in love with Daisy. The whole elaborate decor has been constructed for the sole purpose of staging a dramatic reunion with her: a reunion which will impress her with Gatsby's "greatness," and eradicate, at a stroke, the five years of married life which she has drifted through since seeing him last.

As we soon learn, his affair with Daisy had been a youthful romance, one among many, and nurtured in an atmosphere of cynicism, deceit, purposelessness. But it had, unlike Gatsby's other affairs, been complicated first by Daisy's casualness, and then by their unavoidable separation: and somehow, during the muddle, Gatsby had fallen in love, and the affair had become the greatest thing in his life. The romantic promise which in Daisy herself was the merest facade became, for him, an ideal, an absolute reality. He built around her the dreams and fervors of his youth: adolescent, self-centered, fantastic, yet also untroubled by doubt, and therefore strong; attracting to themselves the best as well as the worst of his qualities, and eventually becoming an obsession of the most intractable kind.

Gatsby is different from the others in that he means every word he says, really believes in the uniqueness of his destiny. His romantic clichés, unlike those of Tom or Daisy, are used with simple belief that they are his own discovery, his own prerogative, his own guarantee of Olympian apartness and election.

Daisy is Gatsby's one dream, and the reason he bought his house and gives his parties is to get her back. 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. Daisy, driving Gatsby's car, runs over and kills Tom's mistress, Myrtle, unaware of her identity. Myrtle's husband traces the car and shoots Gatsby, who has remained silent in order to protect Daisy. Gatsby's friends and associates have all deserted him, and only Gatsby's father and one former guest attend the funeral.

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, for no more than the time it took Werther to love and die, Meursault to murder and die, ( The Stranger) Sinclair to fall under the spell of Demian, 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, like Werther's, 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."

Gatsby's opposite number in the story is Daisy's husband, Tom Buchanan, and Gatsby's stature -- his touch of doomed but imperishable spiritual beauty, if I may call it so -- is defined by his contrast with Tom. In many ways they are analogous in their characteristics -- just sufficiently so to point up the differences. Tom's restlessness is an arrogant assertiveness seeking to evade in bluster the deep uneasiness of self-knowledge. His hypocrisy and lack of human feeling make him the most unpleasant character in the book, but he is also, when it comes to the point, one of the sanest. In the battle with Gatsby he has the nature of things on his side, so that his victory is as inevitable as it is unadmirable. The discovery that his sanity is even less worthwhile in human terms than Gatsby's self-centered fantasy is not the least of the novel's ironies. For example, their youth is an essential quality of them both. Nick talks about Tom

“It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced -- or seemed to face -- the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished -- and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd.”

In the description of Tom we are left physically face to face with a scion of those ruthless generations who raised up the great American fortunes, and who now live in uneasy arrogant leisure on their brutal acquisitions. But Gatsby's youth leaves an impression of interminability. Its climax is always in the future, and it gives rather than demands. Gatsby's youth is not simply a matter of three decades that will quickly multiply themselves into four or five. It is a quality of faith and hope that may be betrayed by history may be killed by society, but that no exposure to the cynical turns of time can reduce to the compromises of age. Again, Gatsby and Tom are alike in the possession of certain sentimentality, but Tom Buchanan's is based on depraved self-pity. He is never more typical than when coaxing himself to tears over a half finished box of dog biscuits that recalls a drunken and illicit day from his past, associated in memory with his dead mistress. His self-pity is functional. It is sufficient to condone his most criminal acts in his own eyes as long as the crimes are not imputable. But Gatsby's sentimentality exists in the difficulty of expressing, in the phrases and symbols provided by his decadent society, the reality that lies at the heart of his aspiration. Gatsby's sentimentality is as innocent as that. It has nothing of self-pity or indulgence in it -- it is all aspiration and goodness; and it must be remembered that Fitzgerald himself is outside Gatsby's vocabulary, using it with great mastery to convey the poignancy of the situation.

The actual meeting of Gatsby and Daisy is the central episode of the novel. Everything leads up to it, and what follows is a working out of implications which are in the meeting itself. There is the tension as Gatsby waits, and the embarrassing absurdity of the first few minutes together -- the irony here highly comic, and very much at Gatsby's expense. Gatsby has ignored, and disbelieved in, such depressing commonplaces as Carraway's -- the depressing commonplaces which are at the heart of Daisy's cynicism, and of the grayness of the ash-gray men. In his own private world past and future can be held captive in the present. His faith allows almost boundless possibilities to be contemplated: and if the "universe" which has "spun itself out in his brain" does happen to be one of "ineffable gaudiness," this does not alter the fact that it is more remarkable, and colorful, than the realities against which it breaks. Like Tamburlaine, Gatsby has made a "Platonic conception of himself" out of the extravagant emotions and aspirations of an adolescent. Like Tamburlaine, too, he has made himself vulnerable by acknowledging the power of a Zenocrate. It is only poetic justice, perhaps, that his own Zenocrate should turn out to be Daisy. But whoever it had been, the result would have been the same.

The battle between Gatsby and Tom is at one level the battle between illusion and reality. Tom has the nature of things on his side, and it is part of the nature of things that he and Daisy belong together.

Tom Buchanan and Gatsby represent antagonistic but historically related aspects of America. They are related as the body and the soul when a mortal barrier has risen up between them. Tom Buchanan is virtually Gatsby's murderer in the end, but the crime that he commits by proxy is only a symbol of his deeper spiritual crime against Gatsby's inner vision. Gatsby's guilt, insofar as it exists, is radical failure -- a failure of the critical faculty that seems to be an inherent part of the American dream -- to understand that Daisy is as fully immersed in the destructive element of the American world as Tom himself. After Daisy, while driving Gatsby's white automobile, has killed Mrs. Wilson and, implicitly at least, left Gatsby to shoulder the blame, Nick Carraway gives us a crucial insight into the spiritual affinity of the Buchanan couple, drawing together in their callous selfishness in a moment of guilt and crisis.

There is little point in tracing out in detail the implications of the action any further, although it could be done with an exactness approaching allegory. That it is not allegory is owing to the fact that the pattern emerges from the fullness of Fitzgerald's living experience of his own society and time. In the end the most that can be said is that The Great Gatsby is a dramatic affirmation in fictional terms of the American spirit in the midst of an American world that denies the soul. Gatsby exists in, and for, that affirmation alone.

It was Gatsby's dream that conferred reality upon the world. The reality was in his faith in the goodness of creation, and in the possibilities of life. That these possibilities were intrinsically related to such romantic components limited and distorted his dream, and finally left it helpless in the face of the Buchanans, but it did not corrupt it. When the dream melted, it knocked the prop of reality from under the universe, and face to face with the physical substance at last, Gatsby realized that the illusion was there -- there where Tom and Daisy, and generations of small-minded, ruthless Americans had found it -- in the dreamless, visionless complacency of mere matter, substance without form. After this recognition, Gatsby's death is only a symbolic formality, for the world into which his mere body had been born rejected the gift he had been created to embody -- the traditional dream from which alone it could awaken into life. When his dream broke

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes -- a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; 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.”

Critics of Scott Fitzgerald tend to agree that The Great Gatsby is somehow a commentary on that elusive phrase, the American dream. The assumption seems to be that Fitzgerald approved. On the contrary, it can be shown that The Great Gatsby offers some of the severest and closest criticism of the American dream that our literature affords. Read in this way, Fitzgerald's masterpiece ceases to be a pastoral documentary of the Jazz Age and takes its distinguished place among those great national novels whose profound corrective insights into the nature of American experience are not separable from the artistic form of the novel itself. That is to say, Fitzgerald -- at least in this one book -- is in a line with the greatest masters of American prose. The Great Gatsby embodies a criticism of American experience -- not of manners, but of a basic historic attitude to life -- more radical than anything in James's own assessment of the deficiencies of his country. The theme of Gatsby is the withering of the American dream.

Essentially, this phrase represents the romantic enlargement of the possibilities of life on a level at which the material and the spiritual have become inextricably confused. As such, it led inevitably toward the problem that has always confronted American artists dealing with American experience -- the problem of determining the hidden boundary in the American vision of life at which the reality ends and the illusion begins. Historically, the American dream is anti-Calvinistic, and believes in the goodness of nature and man.

TheGreat Gatsby is an exploration of the American dream as it exists in a corrupt period, and it is an attempt to determine that concealed boundary that divides the reality from the illusions. The illusions seem more real than the reality itself. Embodied in the subordinate characters in the novel, they threaten to invade the whole of the picture. On the other hand, the reality is embodied in Gatsby; and as opposed to the hard, tangible illusions, the reality is a thing of the spirit, a promise rather than the possession of a vision, a faith in the half-glimpsed, but hardly understood, possibilities of life. In Gatsby's America, the reality is undefined to itself.

This is not pretentious phrase-making performing a vague gesture towards some artificial significance. It is both an evocative and an exact description of that unholy cruel paradox by which the conditions of American history have condemned the grandeur of the aspiration and vision to expend itself in a waste of shame and silence. But the reality is not entirely lost. It ends by redeeming the human spirit, even though it lives in a wilderness of illusions, from the cheapness and vulgarity that encompass it. In this novel, the illusions are known and condemned at last simply by the rank complacency with which they are content to be themselves. On the other hand, the reality is in the energy of the spirit's resistance, which may not recognize itself as resistance at all, but which can neither stoop to the illusions nor abide with them when they are at last recognized. Perhaps it is really nothing more than ultimate immunity from the final contamination, but it encompasses the difference between life and death. Gatsby never succeeds in seeing through the sham of his world or his acquaintances very clearly. It is of the essence of his romantic American vision that it should lack the seasoned powers of discrimination. But it invests those illusions with its own faith, and thus it discovers its projected goodness in the frauds of its crippled world. The Great Gatsby becomes the acting out of the tragedy of the American vision. It is a vision totally untouched by the scales of values that order life in a society governed by traditional manners; and Fitzgerald knows that although it would be easy to condemn and place the illusions by invoking these outside values, to do so would be to kill the reality that lies beyond them, but which can sometimes only be reached through them.

For example, Fitzgerald perfectly understood the inadequacy of Gatsby's romantic view of wealth. But that is not the point. He presents it in Gatsby as a romantic baptism of desire for a reality that stubbornly remains out of his sight. It is as if a savage islander, suddenly touched with Grace, transcended in his prayers and aspirations the grotesque little fetish in which he imagined he discovered the object of his longing. The scene in which Gatsby shows his piles of beautiful imported shirts to Daisy and Nick has been mentioned as a failure of Gatsby's, and so of Fitzgerald's, critical control of values. Actually, the shirts are sacramental, and it is clear that Gatsby shows them, neither in vanity nor in pride, but with a reverential humility in the presence of some inner vision he cannot consciously grasp, but toward which he desperately struggles in the only way he knows.

Students of American literature are given to speculating about the American Dream--what it is, how ardently people pursue it, and how invariably they fail. The blame is usually laid rather vaguely at the feet of society, the convenient scapegoat for everybody's woes ever since the people seized control of the government from the privileged few. Cult readers enjoy indictments of society because such indictments reinforce their own sense of disaffection and protect them against taking blame for their own failures. However, there is more to it than that. Cult readers enjoy flirting with the demimonde, and if they can idealize a shady character, they will.

In this sense Gatsby is a "mythic" character, and no other word will define him. Not only is he an embodiment (as Fitzgerald makes clear at the outset) of that conflict between illusion and reality at the heart of American life; he is a heroic personification of the American romantic hero, the true heir of the American dream.


  • 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).