Born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to the daughter of a self-made Irish immigrant and an unsuccessful furniture salesman, F. Scott Fitzgerald was indoctrinated early with a belief in the American Dream. Later he was to pursue it with a ferocity that would take a devastating toll upon his life.
Published in 1925, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was to become his definitive work. In 1922, Fitzgerald declared, “I want to write something new—something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” With the publication of The Great Gatsby he achieved just that. Set in America’s Jazz Age, Fitzgerald creates a world of money, power, corruption, and murder.
Critics often assert that The Great Gatsby is a uniquely American novel that depicts American characters and themes. Indeed, Gatsby is the archetypal American character: He is self-made, a man who literally invents or reinvents himself. He believes in the American Dream “in the green light, the orgiastic future.” He believes that, in America, one can become anything. Like a young Benjamin Franklin, he maps out his resolves for future success and never wavers from his teenage conception of self. A seventeen-year-old James Gatz invents Jay Gatsby, and it is to this vision that he remains true. Ultimately, it is this vision that betrays him.
Gatsby represents the world of the ostentatious newly rich; however, he remains a romantic idealist. Right from the beginning, the reader learns of Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope [and] a romantic readiness” that Nick has never before witnessed in another human being. He is a paradox: the innocent bootlegger.
Nick Carraway, the narrator, is an idealistic midwestern salesman of stocks and bonds, trying to make a go of it on Wall Street. The entire story is filtered through Nick and his vision of Gatsby. It is significant that Fitzgerald chooses to write The Great Gatsby in the past tense; indeed, the story is relayed entirely through memory, which is, of course, selective. The lines between truth and fiction are blurred, and, essentially, the reader must become a participant within the text; he or she must separate the lies from the truth in order to glean the true meaning. Illusion versus reality is a central theme throughout the novel.
Without a “past,” Gatsby himself becomes a “text” to be written, revised, and rewritten with each new “reader.” He reflects the fears, fantasies, and desires of his audience: “Somebody told me they thought he killed a man once.” Gatsby is a metaphor for the American experience; he is the product of a country without a past.
It is the past that Gatsby struggles to reinvent and reclaim. When Nick Carraway suggests that “you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby maintains, “Why of course you can!” He remains unchanged, an innocent within a corrupt, disillusioned world. He fails to realize that the past is gone. In the end, it is this romantic idealism that destroys Gatsby; he refuses to relinquish the illusion that has propelled his life.
On one level, The Great Gatsby is about money: old, established wealth versus new currency. Gatsby can never hope to obtain Daisy because he doesn’t have the “right” kind of money. The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s indictment of the American Dream. For Nick, Gatsby’s death represents the debasement of the dream. On another level, it employs American mythology based upon East and West. The East epitomizes the sophisticated realm of established wealth and privilege, while the West is the new frontier, the place of the pioneer without a past or identity. Nick becomes disillusioned with the East and returns to the Midwest, “the warm, center of the world.”
Fitzgerald clearly delineates class difference through his employment of setting. The valley of ashes is “nowhere,” a place to be driven through on the way to the “somewhere” by characters from both East and West Egg. It is here that Myrtle Wilson is “run down like a dog” by Daisy Buchanan.
Careless drivers become a metaphor for the demoralized world of wealth and privilege inhabited by people such as the Buchanans. Early on, Nick accuses Jordan Baker of being a “rotten driver,” two drunks get into an accident at one of Gatsby’s parties, and, finally, Daisy kills Myrtle with an automobile and leaves the scene of the crime.
Though The Great Gatsby is obviously a product of a post-World War I era, the novel still retains thematic significance. The Great Gatsby might be interpreted as a warning not only to Fitzgerald’s generation but to future generations as well. Beware of pursuing that “orgiastic future” with too much fervor; one might well be destroyed by it, just as Gatsby is.